The nutrition team at Dallas ISD starts each day clear about its mission - no kid goes hungry.
The pandemic and a mix of virtual and face-to-face learning has upped that challenge - and leading the way is a chef committed to fighting hunger.
Chef Juanita Mejia brings more than 20 years of experience to her job as a food service specialist in Dallas ISD’s Food and Child Nutrition Services. She was a culinary instructor when some volunteer work gave her a taste for the school lunchroom.
“A couple of times, I helped out at the schools, and I was like, man, this would be really nice to do and make a change at the schools and bring in my expertise to not only have nutritious foods but also make them look good and taste good,” Mejia said.
Now three years into her job as a food service specialist, Mejia uses those ideas as she trains staff members who work in every school cafeteria in the district. She prides herself on partnerships with local farmers who bring in fresh fruits and vegetables and recipes created for parents to try at home.
She also knows the meals she and her team serves may be the only one kids get a day.
“A lot of the kids in the schools that might be their only meal that day they're having,” she said. “Even though we're here in the U.S. and often times think we have everything, not necessarily. We still have communities that are on the poor side especially right now during the pandemic. We have all the issues going on and that's one less thing parents and kids need to worry about and that's being hungry.”
The district shared some numbers about the herculean effort of feeding its students:
- 10,334,835 meals have been served to date since the beginning of the pandemic.
- More than 3 million units of milk (individual cartons) distributed from March to August.
- From March to August, more than 335,000 gallons of milk distributed.
Mejia is well aware that what her teams serve in lunchrooms or in curbside meals impacts a child’s ability to learn.
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“Someone who's hungry all the time, all you're thinking is, “Where's my next meal coming from?’ and you can't concentrate 'cuz your tummy's hurting,” she said. “I try to keep that in mind and make sure we're doing our best to make sure no kid goes hungry.”
And that pledge extends beyond students in the Dallas ISD. Curbside meals for students learning at home are also available for any in the area who need a meal. Anyone who lives near a school can get meals at no cost for the asking.
“They don't have to have someone in the school as long as they have a school in their area, they can go to that school, tell 'em they're in need and we will provide the food,” Mejia said.
Mejia may be the one in charge of the district’s kitchens but she is quick to acknowledge everyone who takes part in an operation that stays fired up pretty much year-round.
“It’s not just me. It’s a big department from the drivers to the preparers in the back to the menu team that prepares the menu and writes the recipes to the people that order the food. It’s a big group. and we just want to let everybody know, we're here to serve them and feed them and make sure they're not thinking about where they're next meal is coming from,” Mejia said.
Mejia has been cooking since growing up in a single-parent home. Feeding others is in her DNA.
“God has blessed me with skills and experience that I can use to help other people,” Mejia said in a news release. “At Dallas ISD, we are one big community helping each other and making each other better.”