The 2020-21 school year looks different from anything we could’ve ever imagined, but several people are working behind the scenes to ensure the wellbeing of students. In Dallas ISD, chef Juanita Mejia has the role of bringing nutritious food to them.
As a food specialist in the district, Mejia’s duties include training each school’s culinary staff, helping the menu team develop recipes, helping present menu items at community fairs and talking to parents when they have questions about the schools’ food menus.
Mejia is a second-generation American whose grandparents are from Durango, Mexico. She was born in Butte, Montana, and grew up in Chicago.
“My mom was a single parent,” Mejia says. “I found myself being the cook at home because I had three brothers and I was the only girl. In a typical Hispanic family, the girls do all the cooking and cleaning, so I found myself, a lot of times, trying to figure dinner out for me and my brothers.”
She traces her culinary background to 1998 when she worked as an executive housekeeper at a hotel in Chicago. Sometimes, Mejia found herself assisting in the kitchen when other staff members couldn’t make it to work. The hotel was later sold to Marriott, and Mejia was laid off. She was offered severance pay and used the money to go back to school.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do what I want to do, which is cooking,’” Mejia says. “Because a lot of the times at the hotel, when somebody didn’t show up in the kitchen, I found myself helping out.”
Mejia later received her associate's degree from The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. Afterward, she was asked to be a teaching assistant at Le Cordon Bleu in the city.
She moved to Dallas in 2011, when Le Cordon Bleu opened its campus here and she was asked to train the staff. Mejia also did food specialist work for Castleberry ISD (near Fort Worth), Texas Woman’s University and the University of Texas at Tyler. In 2017, she assumed the culinary trainer specialist position at Dallas ISD.
In her role, Mejia aims to create a pleasant breakfast and lunchtime experience for students throughout the district.
“If you really think about it, in life, everything revolves around food,” Mejia says. “Sometimes just the smells will bring you back to a certain memory of some sort. And I thought that this would be perfect to help, like, the school districts figure out how to make their foods taste better and look better. Because I think about when I was in school and when I was working at these schools, I would think, ‘Oh my God, that looks so horrible. If they would just take five seconds more, instead of just scooping out a ball of something and putting it onto a plate.'”
Mejia believes many DISD families live in food deserts, so she intentionally works with area farmers to ensure the schools’ meals are being prepared with quality ingredients. She and her team also create fruit- and vegetable-based recipes to send home to parents, which is something that's even more necessary during the pandemic.
While some parents have opted to let their students return to classrooms, many are still sticking with a virtual format. For the foreseeable future, DISD schools are offering three meals a day on weekdays, and parents can pick them up from their student’s school.
“It’s still fresh. It’s still good food,” Mejia says. “We're still trying to make sure they're getting all their nutrients for the week, because our menus are based on the nutritional value that they're supposed to get weekly.”