Better Lunches Land in Alameda Schools
Eliodoro Garcia, the new district cook, brings culinary talents and wholesome ingredients to lunch trays.
As lead cook, Eliodoro Garcia is bringing healthier choices to school cafeterias.
Photo by Lori Eanes
With a gentle, deliberate pace; dressed all in black, and smiling broadly behind his glasses and under his thick salt-and-pepper hair, 62-year-old Eliodoro Garcia moves through the Alameda Unified School District’s central kitchen with ease.
In this decidedly unglamorous institutional facility, housed in Wood Middle School, the district’s lead cook indicates his favorite tool of the trade: the bank of new Vulcan ovens. They heat evenly, he says, and allow him to cook 50 pizzas at once. As he tours the kitchen, he offers fresh, whole-grain chocolate chip cookies to a guest (“See, it is evenly browned!”), praises the staff people he works with every day, and talks about how much he enjoys his job making lunches for school children across Alameda.
“I like knowing that they are eating good food,” he said with a supremely warm smile. “I like knowing that I am doing my best to give them the best food possible.”
District Spokeswoman Susan Davis said the district is working very hard to provide fresh, wholesome meals with as many locally sourced and organic items as feasible. Meals are prepared onsite—not purchased prepacked. Garcia roasts his own chickens, turkeys, and pork (for carnitas), and makes his own pasta and pizza sauces. The district gets as much produce as possible from regional farmers in places like Sacramento, Napa, and Salinas. All meats are “natural,” meaning grass-fed and hormone-free.
The daily responsibility of Garcia and his crew is no cakewalk. The team’s mandate is to create healthful, appealing lunches for the more than 3,000 Alameda children who eat hot lunch at school each weekday. They also make nearly 300 breakfasts and about 750 dinners for after-school programs.
Cooking for the students in the public schools is no seat-of-the-pants matter. Federal and state rules govern what meals can be provided, from calorie count to salt content. Because of First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on health, all of the grains in Garcia’s kitchen are whole wheat, whether in pizza crust or pasta. The district introduced salad bars a few years back.
One of Garcia’s young fans is Edison Elementary School kindergartner Henry Hamlin, who describes the school lunches he eats nearly every school day as “delicious!” At the start of the year, his mother, Sarah Henry, packed him a lunch, but then one day, a few weeks into the school year, his teacher asked who wanted a hot dog for lunch, and young Henry raised his hand. At the end of the day, he brought home his uneaten packed lunch and an IOU for the school lunch. Since then, mother and son look at the menu together each week, and Henry opts to buy school lunches most of the time. He has enjoyed sampling fresh fruits from the salad bar—plums and apples are his favorite.
Garcia came to the United States from El Salvador in 1973. He had gone to school for business, but in San Francisco, he worked in kitchens, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up. Along the way, he did some coursework at a California culinary institute and also at San Francisco City College. “I learned little by little,” he said. “Always working.”
As his skills developed, he began working in institutions, jails in San Francisco, San Bruno, and Dublin. Cooking in volume is no joke. “When you start, it is difficult,” Garcia said. “But when you have a little more experience, it is natural.”
Garcia came to Alameda Unified at the start of last school year, when Pam Jamelo, who had served as district cook for eight years, retired. He works closely with central kitchen manager Denise Langowski and a team of six kitchen workers and two van drivers, who transport the food to the school sites each day.
Langowski said the old-timers were a little nervous when Garcia joined the team. She has been with the district more than 20 years, and most of the kitchen staff has been there for 15. “But from day one, he’s been a joy to work with,” Langowski said. “He looks out for us, and he is a calming force in the kitchen. His famous words are ‘everything is under control,’ and he can calm everyone down.”
Garcia’s happiness comes from knowing he is supplying the students he cooks for with healthy, nutritious meals. “I don’t have a favorite meal,” he said, the line of a hairnet stretching across his forehead. “I try to make everything good. I like the kids to enjoy eating my food.”
But when his workday ends in the mid-afternoon for a day that starts well before dawn, he doesn’t cook at home—other family members do.
“By then I’m done,” he said.