A new audio-visual exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry is shining a light on the work of Baltimore City schools’ food service workers.
The “Food for Thought” exhibit is a collaborative effort between The Office of Food & Nutrition Services for Baltimore City Public Schools and The Baltimore Museum of Industry, who teamed up with WYPR producer Aaron Henkin and award-winning photographer J.M. Giordano.
At an opening reception last week, folks munch on free samples of actual cafeteria food like chicken teriyaki, mini PB&J sandwiches and cookies – all welcome departures from the Cold War frozen patties of yesteryear that many remember from their childhood lunches.
The night featured a series of speakers including Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises. She exalted the efforts of the food service workers who stood by Baltimore City in its darkest hour when food options were becoming more limited as things shut down at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As the CEO of City Schools, I am very aware of the fact that I cannot drive every bus, I cannot teach every first grader to read, and I certainly cannot make sure that every city school student eats in the middle of what is a once in a generation pandemic,” Santelises said. “The beauty of tonight is that we all get to be here together to celebrate the people that actually do – and did – make sure Baltimore City’s children eat, and that they eat well.”
Back at the table with chicken teriyaki, two workers give me the inside scoop.
One of the women, Velma Dyson, is a cafeteria manager from Digital Harbor High School who has put in more than 27 years in the Baltimore City Public School system. She assures me that I was tasting precisely what the kids are tasting.
“This is the real deal. I did all this today,” Dyson says, warmly smiling through a pair of trendy maroon glasses while serving hungry guests.
I ask what she does when she gets a fickle eater, which kids can often be.
“You know most of the kids at my school don’t have what you call a real favorite,” she says. “They like everything! Then there’s some kids who just look at the food and say ‘Eww’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ I say ‘Don’t say that. You gotta taste it. You can’t taste it with your eyes!’”
The exhibit features a series of larger-than-life portraits photographed by J.M. Giordano, showcasing the people who put food on the table every day for the thousands of children and staff who depend on their efforts.
Portraits light up one at a time as speakers above the viewer’s head play a short quote from the person in the photo, which is cut from hours of intimate one-on-one interviews conducted by Aaron Henkin. A panel to the right of each portrait shares the same qoute being broadcast.
A delightfully spirited woman in a chic black blazer and jeans poses in front of one of the portraits for a friend holding up a phone to capture the moment. The woman – posing in front of her own portrait as it turns out – is Jami Washington, a kitchen manager who’s been feeding Baltimore’s youth for the better part of two decades.
I ask what brought her into cafeteria work in the first place. Washington smiles while thinking back.
“Being young and not knowing exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I just filled out a job application and fell in love with the job.”
Like so many food service workers, Washington was on the front lines during the height of COVID-19. She served food at Pimlico Elementary School which was an emergency feeding site.
The most rewarding part of the work? For Washington, it’s simple: the joy she brings to young people.
“The best feeling for me is being able to put a smile on someone else’s face,” she said. “When the children come in, they’re expecting that enthusiastic ‘GOOD MORNING.’ When you get to work, you gotta put that hat on.”
Giordano tells me that he and Henkin worked around each worker’s schedule, in some cases arriving in the wee hours of the morning before a shift to conduct interviews and take photos.
“This is an appreciation of their work,” Giordano says. “This is about them, and it’s a complete collaboration between the workers, myself, and Aaron Henkin. This is a representation of them on the wall. It’s not my representation of them. It’s their representation of themselves.”
I ask what sparked his interest in the project.
“One of the reasons I jumped on this project was I think that these workers are unsung heroes who fuel the schools,” he says. “They provide the food for these kids to function all day. I teach at Baltimore School For The Arts and I can tell you from experience that these school lunches are super super important.”
When asked for a moment which stuck out for him over the course of all the photo sessions, Giordano sparks right up with a grin.
“I had one of the women who looked super badass in the first photo say she looked too badass and wanted to tone it down a little bit, and so we reshot that and it was no problem!”
Giordano laughs as he shares his own personal connection to food service.
“I bussed, and worked in kitchens,” he says. “I worked at Chili’s. I peeled potatoes in the military and did all the back kitchen stuff.”
Henkin, who maneuvered the audio side of the exhibit, recording hours of material just to get the right stuff, is no stranger himself to the world of food service.
“My first job was working behind the pizza counter at a Sbaros in the food court at the Tel-Twelve Mall in Michigan,” he says. “I spent many years waiting tables at a pizza joint in Chicago when I was in college. I’ve worked coffee jobs. I’ve done plenty of food service jobs but none as demanding as working in the Baltimore City schools .”
Henkin unpacks his approach to capturing the stories which, along with the emotionally evocative photos, add so much heart to the exhibit.
“I drafted up a series of about a dozen different prompts that got them to tell stories about how they came into the fold of this job, what their first day was like, what the most rewarding thing is about the job, what the least rewarding thing is about the job, and what keeps them getting up and doing it every day.”
The interviews brought out a lot of emotions – both for the workers and for Henkin.
“I was really surprised at how emotional a lot of these folks got when they were talking about their job, which really comes with a deeply embedded sense of purpose,” he says. “When they talk about the kids they serve, there were plenty of tears welling up in their eyes. This is not just a job for them. They see these kids every day. They see them at their best, they see them at their worst, and they see them frankly when they’re hungry and not being fed enough.”
“There’s not much more of a surrogate parent role that you could fill in someone’s life than to be the person that feeds them everyday,” Henkin adds. “So they have a very special relationship with those kids”.
Elizabeth Marchetta, Executive Director of Food & Nutrition Services for Baltimore City Public Schools, says hundreds of workers play a role in feeding Baltimore’s children.
“On a typical school day in Baltimore City, our 500+ person team is serving between 50,000-100,000 meals,” she said. “Our staff has a lot of power in providing nourishment to our students.”
And those workers have plenty of stories to share, Marchetta says.
“I have worked with Food & Nutrition for over 10 years and one of my favorite parts of the job is hearing stories from those who have been here much longer,” she says. “We have one driver named Harvey Hill who has worked for the department since 1969! I have always kept these stories in my mind, and as a leader I am constantly looking for ways to honor our staff and inform the public about the importance of the Child Nutrition Programs. The COVID pandemic and school shutdowns really shone a light on food insecurity in our communities and the role school meals played in ensuring students had access to healthy meals.”
Next week, Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis will propose legislation to pass universal expansion of primary and secondary education breakfast and lunch programs. Under the legislation, schools would offer free breakfast and lunch to every child in Maryland with no questions asked.
The “Food for Thought” exhibit will remain open through the year at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Visit the museum’s website to learn more.