Behind the cafeteria counter

Nutrition staff address food waste and line cutting


Penelope Kladopoulos, Conrad Weese

For students, lunch starts at 12:44 a.m., but for kitchen staff, it starts much earlier. By 7 a.m., the staff are already hard at work preparing and cooking lunch: cutting and marinating meats, chopping vegetables, cooking grains and preparing fruit to be served. Unfortunately, many of those care-filled meals fill the school’s trash cans.

Oak Park High School cafeteria manager, Araceli Prieto, expressed her dismay with the food waste situation. 

“The kids throw away a lot of food,” Prieto said, “and that is so upsetting to us. It’s so sad because we work so hard, and when I walk outside and see the trash cans, food is completely thrown away.”

Though there are composting locations and a new share table available for students to dispose of their lunches in a more sustainable way, it’s been a struggle for these resources to be enforced.

Another problem that both students and staff alike have had to deal with is line cutting. Students, in a rush to get lunch, form huddles near the front of the lines, squeezing their way to the scanners. 

“Sometimes I have 20 people around me with the card in my face,” Prieto said, “and oh my goodness it’s crazy. It is not fair for the kids who respect the line for another kid to just come in front and cut.”

Line cutting not only creates hectic scanning scenes but slows the line down all together.

“One day when one of the campus supervisors helped me with the kids, and told them to have their card ready, the line went fast,” she said, ”without yelling, or telling kids to go to the back of the line. When they [students] follow the rules and stay in line, the line goes very quickly.”

When it actually comes to planning and cooking lunches, many factors are taken into consideration.

“Having the food on time, good quality, and good taste,” said Prieto, “and the biggest responsibility is having food for all the kids.” 

The cafeteria cooks upwards of 600 meals a day and in addition to their own standards for quality food, they must follow the USDA guidelines for component portions. 

“We have to have a certain amount of grain, protein, vegetable, fruit, and milk that we have to serve,” Director of Student Nutrition and Wellness Katherine Adams said. 

These standards must be met for the lunches to be reimbursed, which provides the cafeteria the funds to provide students free lunch. But a problem of variety arises when lunches are free and time is limited. 

“We have such high numbers right now because lunches are free, that we don’t have time to offer a bunch of choices,” said Adams.

Though the USDA guidelines and time restrictions lower the variety of food that can be offered, Adams is still working towards diversifying the menu.

“Our district is trying, what we call, globally inspired dishes. We are trying to introduce new flavors, have more variety, and more food from different cultures so that students can be exposed to different cuisines,” she said. 

From planning, prepping and cooking, to scanning, serving and cleaning, the process behind your lunch is one of punctuality, diligent work and care.

Following line rules and cleaning up benefits everybody. Last month, a new menu website was launched filled with upcoming meals and nutritional information. The nutrition department is always looking for feedback to improve. If you’d like to provide feedback, complete this survey that was sent out by the OPHS nutrition department earlier this month.