When a little thing like a pandemic closes school for the year, it’s good to have a warrior like Sonia Medina in your corner.
Medina, the Hobbs Municipal Schools Nutritional Services district manager, doesn’t like Netflix, detests sitting still and is a master strategist, according to her boss.
She’s also calm in the face of a crisis.
“I’ve been in the kitchen so long, that I know if we burn something or something goes wrong, you just deal with it,” Medina said Tuesday morning while on a short break at central kitchen. “You do what you have to do to fix things. I’m really good at working under stress.”
Yet even Medina was taken aback when school suddenly closed in mid-March as COVID-19 began to spread across the country. “We were shocked. But we knew we had to keep feeding our kids,” said Medina, a “cafeteria lady” for the past 15 years.
Hobbs Schools Supt. TJ Parks tasked nutritional services with getting all students fed on a daily basis beginning the following Monday.
“We had to be creative and come up with ways to use all the food we had on hand while also making sure students had meals,“ said Nutritional Services Coordinator Sonya Moore. “When the order to shutdown came, we were sitting on fresh fruit and salad bars for all of our campuses.”
Thus Moore and Medina — both of whom abhor wasting food — in the early weeks created a menu that included mini cupped salads and chopped fruit along with staples that could be easily transported to each elementary school.
Acting on a premonition, Moore had pre-ordered “to-go” plates prior to the shutdown and already had a contingency plan that entailed dividing her staff into two teams of 60 each that alternated weeks of work. “If we had one team that came down with the virus, we had a backup and it also limited exposure,” Moore explained.
In the meantime, Medina emphasized that sterile conditions in the kitchen — already stringent in the past — would go into overdrive as cafeteria crews resolutely showed up for work while non-essential workers stayed at home.
“I felt proud because everybody stepped up,” Medina said. “I hardly heard any complaints in the beginning — other than being worried about being exposed to the public. And really, we are not exposed here.”
The start of student meal distribution was rocky, especially for Medina, who is charged with planning the amount of food to be cooked each day. The first-day it began, HMS handed out 900 lunches. By Friday of that week, the number had grown to 4,000.
“That first week, it kicked our butts,” Moore admitted. “Everything kept changing and we had to plan differently each day. We all had to learn different things and everybody was doing different jobs than what they were used to. But now we’ve settled into a routine.”
Five weeks into the food distribution program, that routine for Medina is clocking in every morning at 6:30 a.m. Like all HMS workers, she first uses a thermometer to take and record her temperature (anyone with a reading higher than 99 degrees goes home), then continues a process of food prep which began the afternoon before.
On Tuesday, for instance Medina was overseeing the packing of chicken drumsticks, corn and grapes into almost 6,000 to-go containers Although the 54-year-old Hobbs woman has a small office that overlooks the kitchen, “I can’t sit at my desk,” she said. Alternating between answering phone calls from other elementary sites on a bluetooth head set, Medina pitched into help with cooking tasks while doing an occasional taste test. Her goal is for the food to be nutritious, non-repetitive and appetizing.
“She is a perfectionist and if it’s not perfect, then it’s not good enough,” Moore said.
At mid-morning, maintenance department workers arrived to help transfer boxes of food to buses bound for schools and rural routes. Meanwhile, Medina and her team began food prep for the following day’s menu and waited for that day’s serving numbers at each destination. Using the data, she would tweak the number of meals scheduled for transport today.
Medina and her team — who sing together and laugh while packing or preparing meals — take pride in the fact that students are eating well-balanced meals — even as non-students also have picked up meals and reportedly sold them. “I just think it’s a good thing to keep our kids fed,” she said. “That’s who we are working for and if somebody is taking advantage, it’s on them.”
When her shift ends each day, Medina, who is bilingual, said she spends her time at home writing instructions for her team for the following day and reworking menus based on remaining supplies.
And no, she doesn’t turn on Netflix or the news. Medina doesn’t like watching either one, preferring instead to work in her garden or walk her three dogs.
“If I sit down, I’d fall asleep,” the warrior laughed.