Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Cathy Giannini has been working in the cafeteria in Soquel, California for 21 years. In the world of child nutrition, that’s not unusually long (I’ve spoken with directors who have been working for over 40 years). Still, the changes she has seen throughout her career are striking.
When Giannini started out, she arrived in the kitchen at 4 am every day to start cooking. She made her own refried beans, her own hamburger meat for tacos and sloppy joes, even her own ranch dressing. She cooked 20 turkeys at a time in an enormous kettle and served the meat with homemade mashed potatoes. A baker in the district made all the breads from scratch as well.
Giannini grew up on a farm in Georgia, where food and home cooking were celebrated. Her father was a cook in the Army, and her two grandmothers were always preparing something in her kitchen. Giannini learned to cook by watching them as they added a pinch of this and a pinch of that to the pot. When she was raising her own children, Giannini always cooked from scratch. She loved it, and she is a firm believer that homemade food is healthier. “That way you can control what’s in it — the amount of sodium and the amount of oil,” she said.
Today, Giannini’s lunch program is the antithesis of her experience growing up. On a visit a few months ago, students came out for brunch and picked up doughnuts and sausage-studded breakfast pizzas — both in a package, both recently out of the freezer. For lunch, they get packaged “el eXtremo” burritos, corndogs, mini cheeseburgers (on their buns in a plastic package) and Round Table Pizza. Giannini used to spend her days flipping through recipe books. Now she goes to food shows and seeks out the newest processed products.