Rosa Mariotti approaches the sleek stainless steel counter and peels off the huge blanket of crackly aluminum foil. As she lifted it, steam escaped and under the warming light bulb ten inches above it, laid dozens of hand-rolled enchiladas sitting snuggly next to each other as melted cheese oozed down the sides and into a zesty red sauce.
Mariotti does not wear a stiff white chef’s hat. Instead, a black and red floral bandana holds back her thick black hair.
She next took some masking tape and a sharpie and drew sketches of a chicken and a pig on two small strips and wrote “beans and cheese” on another. She places the labels in front of their respected tray, puts on latex gloves and waits.
Soon, a bell has rung and hungry students come rushing into the cafeteria they have named “Crossroads Café.” Mariotti’s face instantly brightens up and greets every student with an. She knows many by name. “Do you like the pictures I drew?” she asks the students.
To the people who are not familiar with cafeteria jargon, she is the lunch lady. But the occupation on her nametag says food service technician. This means that she cooks the food not only for Churchill High School, where she works, but she also prepares food for the entire 4J school district in Eugene, Ore. But she is no ordinary, under-appreciated lunch lady. No, she is a woman who strives to make a difference in children’s lives through her passion in cooking. “I could be making three times the money I make now somewhere else in a fancy restaurant,” Mariotti, 46, says. “But I choose to be here.”
Mariotti makes every meal from scratch. In every recipe, Mariotti makes sure that each lunch is a balanced diet. This choice comes from wanting the kids to lead healthier lives.
Mariotti believes kids are making poor choices and that they are what they eat. “Kids of this generation don’t go outside and play anymore like they used to,” Mariotti said. “I learned that kids born after the 2000’s have a lower life expectancy and that is sad. I like to believe I can make a difference with my food.”
She believes that if she combines healthy meals with a friendly face, they will come and eat the food more often. Connor Reardon, a freshman, is one of many that go to the cafeteria for lunch. Even as a freshman, Reardon has quickly noticed the impact Mariotti is making. “She is always having a smile on her face,” Reardon says. “And every time I see her, she is enthusiastic.”
I like to believe I can make a difference with my food. -Rosa Mariotti
Mariotti arrives at the Churchill kitchen at 5:30 every morning to begin her day. After checking things in inventory, she begins to prepare meals for the upcoming week. Although the kitchen receives commodity foods, Mariotti makes a point to improve the taste.
Mariotti cuts open bag after bag of ground turkey into a gigantic stove pot. After browning 200 pounds of ground turkey meat, she opens a box of local Oregon spices and an avalanche of taco seasoning flows into the heated steel bowl.
This is about her tenth year working as a food service technician. She grew up in central Italy and moved to Eugene for schooling. After taking English as a second language for two years, she began taking hospitality management classes at Lane Community College and six years later, had earned a degree in culinary arts. She now helps teach culinary courses at Lane as well. She still takes night classes three times a week. “I believe that in order to get better, you need to learn as much as you can,” Mariotti said.
Mariotti is studying to be a pastry chef and is graduating this coming June.
One of the ways she enjoys learning is to travel to different countries to try different types of food. She has already traveled to several exotic places such as Sri Lanka, Africa, and South America. Her next trip will be to Greece and Turkey. “I believe that the more you get to know other people, the more you appreciate your own culture and where you come from,” Mariotti said.
Her co-workers notice the impact she is making. Mary Hicks, a production coordinator, describes Mariotti as irreplaceable and a valuable asset. “She cares enough to take the time to not only meet guidelines, but to make the recipes taste better as well,” Hicks says. “It’s amazing what this woman knows.”
Sandee Blythe, a food service assistant, has known Mariotti for many years and describes her as inventive and a multi-tasker. She sees Mariotti as very involved in sharing her knowledge and passion for cooking with others. Mariotti helps supervise the Teen Cuisine club at Churchill. “She can make the kids smile and puts love and care in everything,” Blythe says. “And she can make a mean Tomato and Basil Soup.”
It is the last several minutes of the lunch period. A couple late students trickle down the lunch line. One of the service volunteers enters the kitchen to help clean up. “Hey Rosa, how’s it going?” she says.
“Oh, just living the dream,” Mariotti replies.