The doughy smell of pig in a blanket hangs heavy in the air. Grapes that either rolled out of their cold white fruit cups or were thrown during a food fight are squashed by a parade of feet. Puddles of milk gather in the corners of yellow lunch trays.
Above the chatter and the laughter, a teenage boy in the lunch line tells the nice lady with the hair net that he would like the hamburger and shoestring fries--but that he doesn't have any money. Without hesitation, Juanita Herrera pulls a dollar bill and three quarters from her wallet and puts them in the register. The boy nods his head in thanks. "It's no big deal," Herrera says. "I just want to help the kids."
Herrera is a food-service worker at West High School, where during the year, she says, she routinely sees students who have not turned in their applications for a free or reduced-price lunch denied a meal by food-service managers. "Many times I pay for five or six lunches a day for kids whose lunches are taken away from them," she says.
There are other things Herrera doesn't like about her cafeteria, including the practice of serving soup that's three days old and the lack of space for the hundreds of students who have to eat in stairwells and hallways because there aren't enough tables and chairs.
And Herrera claims that when she recently expressed her concerns to the school board, her manager gave her a bad evaluation in retribution. She can't turn to the Denver Schools Food Service Association--the employee organization that is supposed to represent school cafeteria workers--because the DSFSA represents her manager, too.
Herrera and other cafeteria workers have been trying to form a union for five years, but in the past it was always too hard to organize employees because many of them feared losing their jobs if they spoke out against the association. In March, they finally sought help from Communications Workers of America, which represents full-time school custodians and unarmed security guards, among others.
Kevin Hilton, organizing coordinator for the CWA Local 7777, says DPS told workers that there was a window of time in which they had to petition to choose representation other than the DSFSA. But when they turned in that petition last October and asked to form their own union, free of food-service supervisors, Hilton says, school officials said they had already granted recognition to the DSFSA. The workers were told that they couldn't petition again until 2001.
DPS employs 110 food-service managers, 290 hourly food-service employees and 150 substitutes. Of those 550 people, 243 are DSFSA members--up from 143 last year; 159 are hourly workers and 84 are managers. "We are a very pro-union school district: We have nine bargaining units," says DPS spokesman Mark Stevens, adding that he believes the employees' current association "can and does represent them."
But Hilton points to the school board's recent decision to install more vending machines in several schools this fall as an example of why the cafeteria workers need new representation.
"Kids will get sandwiches out of vending machines rather than fresh meals made by people," Hilton says. He suspects that the machines will begin to take the place of people as more food-service workers retire or quit for better-paying jobs.
"If you pay your taxes, do you want your kid eating lunch out of a vending machine? Chips and snacks are not nutritious food for kids," adds Angie Gallegos, a food-service employee who will begin working at Kennedy High School in the fall after six years at Lake Middle School.
Stevens refutes that, saying the machines will not reduce the number of jobs available. "[Machines] will be put in some schools as a way to supplement food services. It's intended to increase choice," he says.
Although food-service workers are also making the usual demands for higher wages and better benefits--pay ranges from $7.05 to $9.20 an hour for the average six-hour shift and there are no retirement or health benefits--they say their biggest concern is the welfare of the students.
"I'm only there because I enjoy working around the kids," says Gallegos. "You'd be surprised how many kids like to talk to us on their lunch hour. People talk about healthy education--well, it takes healthy nutrition to build healthy minds, and that's our role."
Gallegos says her job is convenient because it allows her to get home by the time her own four kids are done with school. In her fifteen years with DPS, Gallegos has seen many children go without a meal because their names weren't on the free-lunch list, but she says the current food-service manager at Lake makes an extra effort to call parents and remind them to fill out the required forms. When that fails, the manager serves students peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Ernestine Christman has worked for DPS for 25 years--the last four at Valdez Elementary--and she's concerned about the quality of the food she serves. Just before school ended this year, cafeteria workers at Valdez were told to serve day-old sausages wrapped in dough, "leftovers I wouldn't give a dog," Christman says. "I got in trouble because I refused to serve them old, hard food. We serve leftover toast every day. Unopened milk cartons that kids have left out at room temperature during their lunch hour is served again the next day. Taxpayers pay for the food, and kids deserve a fresh meal every day. There's no excuse for it."
Stevens admits that "occasionally, we do serve leftovers." But, he says, "they're popular, they're economical and it makes sense not to throw them away." As for denying lunch to kids who haven't turned in their free-lunch applications, he says, "We follow federal guidelines. There are very clear procedures for how we qualify people. We're audited each year. There is a grace period, but after that, our hands are tied."
Although more than 260 food-service workers signed a petition to form a union, some are afraid to join because of "propaganda" Christman says the school district is distributing. School officials have sent fliers to food-service staff, informing them that they are ineligible to file for unemployment during the summer months, when they're not earning money. "They're being intimidated and they're worried about losing their jobs. Food-service managers are telling them that it will cost a lot of money to join a union, and that the district will bring in the Marriott [Business Food Service] to cater school lunches if they're not happy with the food service after we unionize," Christman says.
Food-service employees in Aurora, Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Littleton Public Schools do not belong to unions. Jefferson County, Adams 12 and Boulder Valley are the only metro-area districts with unions representing food-service workers. The Englewood School District has a contract with Marriott Business Food Service to provide kids with lunch; as food-service workers quit or retire, they are replaced with Marriott employees. Stevens says DPS hasn't discussed that option yet.
DSFSA president Sandy Grady, formerly a food-service manager at Rishel Middle School and soon-to-be-manager at North High School, says the association did secure a small pay raise for food-service workers who take training classes. And this past school year, the DSFSA successfully negotiated for food-service workers to get seven paid holidays a year.
She admits that the association hasn't made much progress in getting health insurance for food-service workers, but this year, the DSFSA found an insurance company outside the school district's plan to offer low monthly premiums to employees willing to pay for a minimal level of health insurance. "DSFSA has their best interests in mind at all times," Grady says of the hourly workers. "They come first with the DSFSA."
Grady was proud of a dispute between a worker and a manager that the association recently helped resolve. "The DSFSA does an adequate job as long as people come to the meetings. There are a lot of problems out there that we're not aware of, but the people who have come have been helped."
But it's not enough, Gallegos says. On June 24, hourly employees and labor-rights activists marched from 14th Avenue and Broadway to the district's administration building on Ninth Avenue and Grant Street, where they dropped off a list of things they want to see changed. The employees hope that the school-board members will read their complaints carefully. "They need to give us a chance," Gallegos says. "They need to hear them from us, not from people who pretend to represent us."
But it's unlikely that the food-service workers will make much headway in the near future since DPS has already made its decision. Stevens says the food-service workers are welcome to petition again in two years.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.