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Q&A: Nutritional Services Staff

Committed to the community | Nutritional staff members collectively make around 500 Grab N' Go meals for Walnut families daily. “We take great pride in our bagged meals — a lot of people have lost their jobs, and we’re helping them get by. [The staff] knows they're doing something bigger than they were doing before and it really shows in their work,” supervisor Julie Del Rio said.

Committed to the community | Nutritional staff members collectively make around 500 Grab N’ Go meals for Walnut families daily. “We take great pride in our bagged meals — a lot of people have lost their jobs, and we’re helping them get by. [The staff] knows they’re doing something bigger than they were doing before and it really shows in their work,” supervisor Julie Del Rio said.

At the start of the school shutdown, nutritional staff members took the initiative to feed the community with Grab N’ Go meals. The Hoofprint interviewed six members about their roles in not just the team, but the community also.

Julie Del Rio, Supervisor

Q: How long have you been working as part of the nutritional staff?
A: I’ve been working for the Nutritional Service Department since 2013. I started at Walnut High School, and then I started working at an elementary. And then, [I worked at a] middle school [before] I went back to high school. I was promoted each time, so I went full circle to become a supervisor at the high school.

Q: Can you describe what a day of your work is like as a supervisor?
A: I am responsible for the entire operation at the high school. With the global crisis right now, we’re doing the Grab N’ Go Meals — that changed everything. I am in charge of the menu, ordering the food, making sure the staff is prepping it and the distribution of the food. I have 20 employees and I’m under the direction of my director, Emmalyn Coles, who works at the district for the Nutritional Services Department.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you and the nutritional staff?
A: We’ve never left campus. That’s why I’m so proud of my staff. We’ve been here this whole entire time since March. We only had July off. The first day we were serving, we had no idea how many we were going to serve so we only had like 200 meals. And I think that first day, we hit over 800 so our people were continuously making meals. We were called Team A. There were two teams, Team A and Team B, and Team A was the team that volunteered to work. They didn’t know if they were going to get paid or not because they had to make a decision quickly. Everybody just left the campus, so that felt really weird, and in the end, we were so proud of ourselves as a team, so much so that we called ourselves the “A-Team.” The reason I was just so proud of my staff is because they were listening to the news and hearing all stuff on the news, and hardly any of them ever pulled out. They did not want to miss work. They wanted to come in and be a part of this because we knew we were feeding the community. It meant a lot to them. The bond of the A team, the Walnut High School kitchen, was really strengthened during this crisis. I definitely consider them my second family. Everyone just gets along really well and works really well together. We all have the same goal.

Q: How do you think you are affecting students’ and your employees’ lives?
A: I’m not sure how many high school kids actually take advantage of the Grab N’ Go meals, and it can be anybody in the community coming into our lines. But I hope we impact them in some way. We try to get them to eat, especially when we see them picking up their books, or we see them walking. We would definitely ask them if they want to take a bag home. As for my employees, I work really hard, I’ll do anything. I don’t know if it’s just the Walnut High School kitchen, but we all uplift each other. And again, this school closure crisis has brought us closer. I asked one of the gentlemen, George Hernandez, “How do you like being in a central kitchen?” He says, “I love it. I love how we’re supporting the elementary and middle schools.” I couldn’t be more proud of all the employees in the kitchen.

JoAnn Johnson, Staff worker

Q: How long have you been working as part of the nutritional staff?
A: Almost five years now.

Q: Can you describe what a day of your work is like? How does food processing work?
A: I find it rewarding and very enjoyable. I have learned a lot here. I have met a lot of nice people to work with, and they are very helpful in the kitchen. I notice that we’re like a team. If someone needs something, we pull together, overlapping each other to make sure the job is done. Before on normal days when kids were here, We started early in the morning, there is a team that gets here at 6:30 [a.m.] and the food processed at that time is usually hot. We try to give hot food at all times. We make sure we are focused on the temperature, how we prepared as far as healthiness and cleanliness. We also use the proper equipment in the kitchen. We’re just keeping the food safe and secure for the kids we serve here. Since COVID-19 though, we’ve been having to distribute the food after preparing it in little containers as a Grab-and-Go meal. They are usually coming to you cold, and we instruct the parents how to warm up the food. At this time we can’t serve anything.

Q: How would you describe the experience when first beginning routine with the Covid-19 Pandemic?
A: “Since I didn’t get a chance to participate as much in the summer, it was a little eerie for me coming back in after four months, or maybe longer. I was just hoping and praying that things could be prepared and processed the way it should be for safety reasons. Also being placed in a safe environment to work, I was very scared because it affects a lot of things as far as your personal health, age and the type of things you may have, like asthma. We had to take all of that into consideration and prior to coming back they gave us a questionnaire asking about our concerns and we listed our concerns out. When I got here I found that I could put myself at ease. The fear that I had built up inside kind of subsided a little bit and I just started moving along. I noticed everyone was still six feet apart, we were all wearing our masks, and wearing gloves. We’re also provided shields so I feel secure knowing that I’m safe now. I feel that if we can all participate in the safety of each other, it would be a safe environment to work in.”

Q: Why did you decide to go into this profession?
A: I have always been involved with the school. Being a grandma, I decided, “ I’m retired, I have nothing to do, so it’s time for me to participate in high school.” Knowing that my granddaughter’s mom works, this is basically to show support for her because I know there are a lot of times she couldn’t do it. So just getting involved in school, as my mom has, I thought I would also participate. And having a granddaughter, I fell right into it. I enjoy working with kids.

Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: Kids. For me, that’s the biggest reward because I get a chance to talk to the kids, and I personally get to inspire and motivate the kids. Some of the kids would come up to me in the line and say, “Oh, I got this test’ and I would be like ‘Why are you so stressed about it? You are going to beat this test! You got this, you got this test ok don’t you worry about it.’ And then some of them would come back and tell me ‘I passed! I did it!’ and I would say, “I already knew that, you didn’t have to tell me.” I like working with the kids because they’re talking to me so motivated and just being in their presence. I learn a lot from you guys too. Just looking at how you interact with each other, I like that. It’s just so much fun. When someone comes in, you never know how they’re feeling, and just one kind word can really make a person’s day, and that’s what all of us should do.

Q: How do you think you are impacting the students and community with your job and with the Grab-and-Go lunches right now?
A: I think we really are because you don’t know what the situation is at home. There are so many people out of jobs and when I came here I was surprised to hear that. You don’t always know the kids here, but there are some homeless kids. That really bothers me. We provide a meal, Grab-and-Go, and it’s fulfilling to someone, fulfilling in more ways than just the stomach, emotion. You’re fulfilling their needs because you don’t know if that’s the only food they will get that day. If they could just drive by and get meals, it is great for them. I think we’re impacting the neighborhood because people are in need.

Richard Garcia, Staff worker

Q: How long have you been working as part of the nutritional staff?
A: Five years. I just retired five years ago so I got a job at the school. The last 14 years I’ve been a manager for Applebees. [I have had] 30 years of experience from Olive Garden [and] Applebees.

Q: Can you describe what a day of your work is like? How does food processing work?
A: Right now at the kitchen, we have been off because of COVID-19. It’s a little bit more departmentalized. Before I was on the hamburger team, there were five of us. I’d either cook or I’d be distributing the hamburgers and the juice. Right now, we’re making a lot of food for the separate schools.We’re basically called a central kitchen. For example, today I was doing english muffins, sausage and cheese. We’re doing probably around 500 of those. They make an order from the school, it could be CJ Morris, it could be Westhoff, it could be Vejar, Walnut Elementary. We’re sending them food and they’re already prepared for them. We try to give them a balanced lunch. Being a central kitchen, it’s a lot of responsibility because we have to all show up on time. In the morning we have a drive-by for all the people who need food. We’re doing a lot of prep to make little containers with quiche, alfredo sauce and broccoli, and say we make 800 of those.

Q: What part do the students play in your life?
A: I like it during the regular school year when the kids are here. They’re pretty loud but we get to see them laughing and having fun, teasing each other. We miss it so much right now. I have two grandchildren, and they’re very young right now — 5 and 10. When they come to this school here, I want them to be just like the kids here at Walnut. When I was going to college, I used to work part-time as a noon-aide. I would just be standing there and “Woosh!” An apple flies by, then an orange. They were throwing stuff at me. I know my grandchildren would never do something like that. I like it because the kids are so nice here and are very respectful. I’ve been working at the hamburger shaft for over two years, and you have to be courteous of students. I enjoy it, it’s been a good part of my life.

Q: What do you think is the most important factor of your job?
A: Teamwork. Teamwork is so important. I’ve been in the business for a long time and I’ve had to work with a lot of different personalities, but we have to remember we have one goal here, is to serve properly, do our jobs and get along with different people.

Q: How would you describe the experience when first beginning routine with COVID-19?
A: I was here in March and was sent home. Up until March 30, they gave me an opportunity to come in the summer. I chose not to because my wife also subs; she subs in the offices at the schools, so what we did [was] we just stayed home. We did projects around the house, but it was a really sad time because we couldn’t get together with our friends. We’re very, very isolated and right now I wish the kids would get back to school.

Q: How do you think you are affecting students’ and your employees’ lives?
A: We have free meals, breakfast and lunch. It doesn’t matter whether they’re from another school. We want to make sure the kids are getting fed. They want to make sure those kids were eating properly, even though it was summer. That’s how we impacted them, they were able to get food and even some parents would walk over with their kids. The kids are the most important thing.
Lauri Gruenwald, Assistant Supervisor

Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: Seeing kids get their food and being excited about what they eat and interacting with the kids. Sometimes it’s the only meal they are getting.

Q: How do you feel doing the Grab N’ Go program?
A: It’s a good feeling knowing some of the families are eating the meals and how appreciating they are.

Q: How do you feel seeing these kids?
A: It’s neat to see them as high schoolers and how they mature. Some recognize me.

Q: How do you feel about your staff?
A: Everyone works really well and takes pride in what they’re doing.

Q: As a mom, how do you feel about preparing this food for other kids?
A: We are preparing food as if it was their own kids. We try to eat what we’re serving so we can see if it tastes good or bad.

Eva Generalao, Staff worker

Q: How long have you been working as part of the nutrition staff?
A: I’ve been working as part of the nutrition services since 2017. I started in Diamond Bar High School, and then there were more hours here, so I transferred here. I’ve been working at Walnut now for two years. I usually work at a barbecue. I am the barbecue lady.

Q: How do you feel knowing you’re making a really big difference to a lot of students right now?
A: I feel very proud, especially because we serve a lot of Walnut students. I barbecue out here every day. I have so many seniors in my line every day since they were sophomores. I am a mom of the class of 2020 as well, so it was really hard. Even though my daughter doesn’t come to Walnut, they go to South Hills, I still felt their anxiety, their anger, their confusion, their disappointment, because as a mom, South Hills didn’t do anything for their students, so I felt very like a comradery with the class of 2020 students. There are still [people who] come to my line, because we serve meals for 18 and under, so we have a lot of kids that still come who aren’t 18 yet. They come and I see they’re doing good at California Polytechnic State University and California State University, Fullerton, and I’m very proud of them and I’m very proud that we are able to be out there and offer this program for our community. A lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of people were laid off. A lot of those are people’s parents.They’re out of work and you have to feed the kids [at] home. This helps relieve some of that financial stress. Especially if you have more kids, I only have my two and that’s still a lot, there [are] people who have like four kids and having to [make] meals for them, it’s a lot. I’m glad that we are able to offer this program in the morning and at the elementary schools in the afternoon just so that we can make sure our kids are fed. There’s a big correlation between education and nutrition. Since birth, since kids are born and provided the proper nutrition their brain functions better, they’re better learners when they’re in school, they’re just better all around. If they [can] have all the nutrition they can get I’m happy. That’s what I tell people. We’re here for the kids. Our job is to feed the children.That’s our district motto, “Kids first, every day” and we try to live up to that the best we can.

Q: Have you had any memories in which you have connected with a student?
A: Yes, there’s a couple of seniors last year. our director, her son, was a senior also last year. I connected with him because it affected our director’s child and other students that come to the lines, a lot of seniors. they see me because when Walnut goes to play South Hills they see me with my Walnut stuff cheering for a South Hills student. So we have that connection like, “Oh you that’s your daughter?” and we build that little relationship. So they used to come through the line at the beginning of the pandemic they would come to the line, a little bit less now, we had that bond. There were especially good memories that were taken away. It’s hard. But I’m glad that everyone keeps moving forward, keeps pushing forward, and keeps moving on and hopefully we can get out of this pandemic soon.

Q: Especially with COVID-19, what were certain obstacles you have faced?
A: In the beginning [when] people weren’t wearing masks. Even now we have some parents who have come through the lines and we have posted signs and they don’t want to wear masks because it’s a personal belief. The struggle of being a public facility and people’s personal beliefs and also putting ourselves out there, it’s like at first we didn’t see ourselves as essential workers until we started seeing that people were really not trying to comply in the beginning. The two months in the beginning of the pandemic we did not ask the parents to wear masks. I think it wasn’t until the second lockdown where they were gonna lift it but the government said no then they were like this is getting serious.That was a big issue because like, we’re all parents. We all have our own kids and we have to go back home to our own kids. It came to the point where we come to work and as soon as we leave here we go home, shower with super hot water, dump our clothes in the garage, change into a second outfit just not to infect our families. It’s better now, there’s more signage and we have admin on our side enforc[ing] that parents [and] people coming through our campus have to wear a mask and protect themselves, and protect others. It’s out of respect. But even though you believe that, the rules are real. We should all have to comply just out of respect for one another and for humanity whether you believe it or not.

Q: How do you feel while you are doing your job?
A: I’m helping people. I’m helping students, kids, parents, I’m just a little part of it. In this kitchen alone with all the ladies and gentlemen that work here — they all make it happen, each day.

Q: Since nutrition is such a big part of every kid’s life, how do you feel knowing that you’re contributing to this?
A: For me personally, if I can help one person that means a lot. When the students come in here with regular school, we never deny them, we’ll take care of them no worries. You never want a kid to come in here feeling hungry, knowing that they don’t have any money.

Q: What is the most rewarding experience that comes with your job?
A: The most gratifying experience is [knowing that] kids are getting fed on a daily basis. All the employees, if it wasn’t for them, nothing would be happening. If you see what they do on the other side [and] how they operate, everybody has a part in it.

Compiled by Remy Wong, Staff writer
Rikka Tagayuna, Staff writer
Photo by Sherlene Su