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The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

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Feeding the future

Each day, ETHS cafeteria staff prepares over 4,000 meals, and in doing so, provides students with the nutritents needed for class, clubs, sports, and everything in between
Feeding the future
Nadira Bumi

Deep in the corners of the vacant arts wing is a room full of ETHS kitchen staff working in aprons and hair nets. Early in the morning, they are already hard at work, pushing around carts, laying out food or filling the industrial ovens with trays of freshly-prepared food. The 24 department members work in a vast room, fully furnished with large metal freezers, ovens, food carts, and sinks. In this very room the nutrition team spends most of their day, tirelessly preparing daily lunches for students and teachers. Every day, the nutrition team prepares 300 breakfasts and 2000 lunches for ETHS alone, and 1,800 lunches for District 65 elementary schools. It’s demanding work that often goes unnoticed, but their impact is profound. 

The nutrition services team is supervised by Milka Marijanovic, who has been a member of the staff for over 17 years.  Marijanovic cooks meals for staff, leads the hot food area and manages the entire kitchen; it’s work that requires attention at all times. The nutrition team’s work for the day begins early, before students and teachers arrive, and the staff spends this time preparing breakfast options such as pastries, hash browns, cereal and yogurt in the South Cafeteria.

In addition, Marijanovic’s team is responsible for coming up with and cooking a healthy meal selection for students. It’s a common understanding shared among American teenagers that their school lunches are pre-packaged and unhealthy, but at ETHS, the reality is that most lunches are made from scratch with healthy ingredients and fresh produce. 

“Every day, there’s something different on our menu. Most of the [food we make] is from scratch, but we have some already pre-made, like the fries. But the daily specials we do from scratch,” Marijanovic explains. 

Freshman Sukaena Baig believes that ETHS lunches are quite up to standard and especially enjoys the chicken tenders and tater tots. Although she admits that the lunch menu could use more variety, she believes that it’s appealing, more so than what she’s seen from other schools. And like many other students, she’s unsure of where exactly the ingredients come from.

“I’ve heard that most fruits and veggies are locally grown, and some of the food is freshly made, but I’m not really sure,” Baig admits.

The kitchen is a very hard place [to work in]. You have to focus from the one minute you start to the one minute you end. We definitely have hard times, and we always have to be focusing 300 percent. Not 100 percent.”

— Nutrition services supervisor Milka Marijanovic’s

She’s correct; in fact, much of the fruits and vegetables in students’ lunches are produced in the Edible Acres and the Greenhouse. Seedlings are first grown inside the Greenhouse during the summer, then planted in the two Edible Acre gardens, which total 5,900 square feet. During the growing season, from April to November, the garden supplies the cafeteria with 2,200 to 3,000 pounds of produce. About 30 varieties of fruits or vegetables are grown during the course of this time, including herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, root herbs and even edible flowers.  Any unused produce is sold to school faculty and board members.  Through the dedicated efforts of students in Urban Agriculture, Community Service Club, ETHS Transition House or the ETHS Gardening Program, the produce is harvested, enriching the nutritional value of school meals. The Edible Acre is more than a supplier for school lunch; it fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation for where students’ food comes from. Additionally, by supplying the cafeterias with locally grown produce, the school garden supports environmental sustainability, reduces the school’s carbon footprint and serves as a model for community engagement and responsibility towards our planet.

Organic ingredients and healthy eating is what the nutrition staff aims to emphasize; one of its goals as a team is to encourage healthier eating habits. As a team led by nutritionists, they are highly motivated to improve the eating habits of every student. For example, anyone who regularly purchases lunches from the school knows from experience that the lunch staff members usually urge students to grab a fruit or vegetable.

“We try to push a little bit [about grabbing a fruit or vegetable], but, of course, sometimes the student won’t like it. That’s why we have so many options to choose [from],” Marijanovic says.

After the fruits and vegetables are harvested and organized, Marijanovic’s team splits into different departments to prepare meals. For example, the produce department will assemble the salads and yogurt; each department prepares their food for the day in their respective cafeterias and terrace. 

A job that feeds faculty and a school of almost 4,000 hungry teenagers every day is not without  its challenges. Marijanovic reflects on her career’s ups and downs throughout the past 17 years; operating in the fast-paced environment of school cafeterias, where her team is responsible for feeding thousands of students, requires an immense amount of attention.

“The kitchen is a very hard place [to work in]. You have to focus from the one minute you start to the one minute you end,” she admits. “We definitely have hard times, and we always have to be focusing 300 percent. Not 100 percent. We must focus and make sure that everything goes [well] and is properly done, because it’s food for people to eat. If things go wrong, then we’d feel terrible. And we do have some days like that,” she adds.

Despite working in a high-pressure environment, the job has its fun days. On Fridays, Marijanovic’s team is especially more upbeat and playful. 

We love to have music, [because] it makes us happier when we work. But like every other job, sometimes it’s a bad day, sometimes it’s a perfect day, sometimes it depends, but we’re a good team. We work together for our [benefit] and for your [benefit].”

— Marijanovic

“We always have fun, especially on Fridays, because we know this is the end of the week. We’re definitely happier, and we make jokes. We love to have music, [because] it makes us happier when we work. But like every other job, sometimes it’s a bad day, sometimes it’s a perfect day, sometimes it depends, but we’re a good team. We work together for our [benefit] and for your [benefit].”

The cafeteria staff, bound together by shared experiences and working hard together, have harbored very close friendships. In Marijanovic’s words, the nutrition staff team is like her family. This close-knit work atmosphere is touching, and not only enhances their work life, but reflects in the quality of their interactions with students. Sukaena Baig recalls her interactions with lunch staff and appreciates their professionalism and kindness.

“They’re kind, and even with all the hard work they do for us, they’re respectful, which I’m grateful for,” Baig says.

Customer service is, in fact, a number one priority for Marijanovic’s team. She believes that a respectful team of staff will foster happier students, leading to an overall more positive dining experience. 

“Our focus is definitely customer service; [we prioritize] welcoming you in the cafeteria [so you can] then enjoy the food. We believe in [maintaining] this attitude, and we want a happier cafeteria.” says Marijanovic.

Above all, her personal priority is to approach their roles with a sense of compassion and kindness. In her eyes, the service she provides does not only affect students’ physical health, but mental health as well; her ultimate priority lies in ensuring students are happier and more fulfilled. 

“My favorite part is when the students are happy,” Marijanovic adds. “That’s our goal.”

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About the Contributor
Nadira Bumi, Staff Writer
Hi! My name is Nadira Bumi, and I’m a writer for the News section. I’m a junior, and although this is my first year in The Evanstonian, I am excited to contribute as a writer!  Outside of school, I play piano and the electric guitar. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with friends, cooking, reading, and crocheting.
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