Behind the Counter: Meet the Food Services staff


Claire McCole

The lunch bell rings and hundreds of students pour out of the buildings, excited for the precious thirty minutes of free time with friends and food. Many students rush to the cafeteria, attempting to claim their own tray of freshly prepared food before a massive line forms. Once inside, students are greeted by the staff members of the Food Services Department.

Every morning during the school week, Food Services arrive early to prepare for the day’s brunch and lunch. Claire McCole, the Food Services Manager, prepares not only Gunn’s lunches but also those of other schools across the district. “Typically I’m here 7, 7:30 in the morning,” McCole said. “I do two elementary school brunches by 9 o’clock. I do Escondido and Barron Park brunch and Briones lunch and then I start on the lunch and work on lunch here with everybody else. It’s kind of crazy and fast-paced depending on the schedule because our lunches change; Tuesdays and Thursdays are more hectic because lunch is early.”

Elena Herrera, a food server, explained how the starting hours can shift depending on what is served for lunch on a particular day. “In the morning, I start working at 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., but sometimes I start around 7:30 or 7:45 a.m. when I have to prepare extra things for burrito bowls because some days are busier,” she said.

McCole and Herrera are just two of the ladies on staff; Food Service Assistant Maryam Didari and food server Liu Ding also help to dish out lunches to over 300 students. Didari organizes all the food. “I set up the salad bar and the deli bar,” Didari said. “I set up the fruit and cut everything and organize it. I like it because it’s all organized.”

Ding, who came to Gunn last October, is in charge of creating a variety of sauces each day. “I do the brunch and prepare food for lunch and make the sauce,” Ding said. “Asian sweet, classic barbeque sauce, and we have many [other] kinds
of sauces needed depending on what kind of food [is served].”

For many of the ladies, the students are the best part of the job. “I really think my favorite part is interacting with the students,” McCole said. “I have a couple students that know my name. They ask, ‘Claire, how’s your day going?’ and they’re pretty upbeat.”

Herrera’s desire to help and interact with students was initially cultivated by her volunteer work. “To attend the students, I really, really enjoy this,” Herrera said. “I don’t know if this is because several years ago, I used to live in LA, and I volunteered with young people at church. I learned so many things from the young group. My passion is to do the best for the students.”

As much as they enjoy the work they do, some students’ reluctance to make healthy food choices can be difficult for members of Food Services. “It’s hard sometimes to get the kids to take their fruit and veggies,” McCole said. “It’s a state-mandated thing, so they have to pass me with a fruit or veggie. And some of the kids are like, ‘No, I’m okay; I don’t want one,’ so that’s the hard part. But for the most [part] I enjoy my job.”

Time is another obstacle that must be tackled on a daily basis. “Sometimes we do a lot of different things, and we need time because we have to make the food and get with it as quick as possible,” Ding said. “That’s a hard thing to do, but we are working hard for that and to make everything perfect and let the students feel comfortable.”

Outside of their jobs, the ladies enjoy a variety of activities. For example, McCole uses bowling as a way to relax. “I’m a bowler. I bowl once a week on a league,” McCole said. “My mother was a bowler, and I’ve been bowling since I was six. So that’s my fun thing that I like to do.”

Attending church has always been one of Herrera’s favorite activities, and she has recently delved into studying theology as well. “Right now my hobby is study- ing the Bible,” Herrera said. “I’m studying theology at Archdiocese of San Francisco. It’s my passion because I want to [learn] more about Jesus [and] God. It’s very nice because you can understand people, especially when sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to understand. When you know about Jesus, you can understand your life.”

Didari enjoys reading history books and using her hands to knit and sew clothing such as hats and scarves. Ding strives to be physically active whenever she can. “I like walking,” Ding said. “Doing the housework is for the exercise. Use your body and get busy, and you can do this and do that. And I do that everyday.”

Colloquially and endearingly called the “lunch ladies,” these staff members make it possible for hundreds of students to enjoy a balanced meal every day of the school year.