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Baltimore celebrates public school cafeteria workers with a new exhibit

For 27 years, Bruce Martin started his day by cleaning the kitchen, preparing meals, and greeting students as they entered the cafeteria.

Martin began working in Baltimore City Public School cafeterias in the 90s and retired as a regional cafeteria manager in 2021.

Martin said his favorite part of the job was interacting with students.

“It was really good to see the smile on their faces when they came to receive those meals because, for a lot of kids, that's the only meal they get for the day,” Martin said.

Food for Thought, an exhibit highlighting Baltimore City Schools food service workers opened on Thursday at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. In September, a preview of the installation opened in the lobby of the district’s headquarters on North Avenue.

Beth Maloney, director of interpretation said the goal of the museum is to highlight a variety of working people in Baltimore.

“ It was such an honor to be able to partner with this team [Food & Nutrition Services], and to shine a spotlight on the work that they're doing in our city.”

Across the district, food and nutrition services employees prepare and distribute close to 88,000 meals to students each day.

Since 2015, Baltimore has been able to offer free breakfast and lunch to all Baltimore students regardless of family income through community eligibility provision funding from the U.S Department of Agriculture.

Liz Marchetta, director of the school system’s food and nutrition services said Baltimore school cafeterias are the largest food chain in our country.

“We have 160 cafeterias in Baltimore City and our staff is serving anywhere between 50 and 100,000 meals a day. We see that a lot of students are getting most of their calories at school.”

Nearly 80% of children in Baltimore City are considered food insecure according to the Baltimore Hunger Project.

When schools closed as a result of the pandemic, many families relied on meals from school cafeterias. During the pandemic, food insecurity increased in the city from 18% to 21.7% according to a May 2022press release from the mayor’s office.

During the pandemic, Janet Bailey was on the frontline providing meals to families at Sinclair Lane Elementary School.

“We fed over 1,500 people every day. Breakfast, lunch, snack, and supper.”

Bailey, who is currently the cafeteria manager at Cecil Elementary, said one of the most challenging parts of the job is that she can’t give students more than one meal, even though, “I hear their stomach growling myself.”

Marchetta said it's important to protect and increase funding for nutrition programs, across the state and country so every child has access to nutritious meals in school.

“Some kids only come to school to get a meal, so it’s very important to us to make sure our kids receive nutritious meals and are fed with a smile and love,” Bailey said.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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