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Meet Your Neighbors: Cooking up three decades of school lunch

Gowana Keys

If you listen to KALW regularly, you might have noticed that every day, we announce the school lunches in the San Francisco Unified School District. What you might not know is that KALW studios are actually located inside a San Francisco High School. In this story from our archives, KALW’s Audrey Dilling followed the former head lunch lady here in the school cafeteria and brought back Gowana Keys’ reflections on nearly three decades of serving school lunch.

GOWANA KEYS: I have always loved to cook because of my father. My father got me into cooking because he said I would never make it as a cook. And after so many years of doing other jobs, this lady was a member of our church, and I was home for a whole year, I became a housewife. And she told me about the school district and I just applied, and the same day I got hired.

We used to do spaghetti, chili, turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, lasagna, chicken adobo, chili mac. We did our cookies from scratch. We did the cake from scratch. We used to make our own mayonnaise. And that has changed over the years.

We don't cook any more. Everything is Preferred Food. It comes in already pre-packed and everything so all we have to do is to, you know, heat it up now. And they said it's supposed to be more nutrition for the kids. It's not, it has a lot of fat in it, you know, preservatives and stuff like that. It's a big difference. We don't serve as many kids as we used to for breakfast or for lunch because they will look on and see what it is and say, "Oh I don't want this," "Oh, why you guys not cookin' anymore?" And it becomes, "Oh mama I remember when you used to fix the butter cookies," or "You used to make the spaghetti,” or something like that. "Why don't you do that anymore?" I'm goin’, “Budget.” So it's a great change.

I don't like to turn a kid away. I wouldn't want anyone to do my child like that. If my child was hungry, I hope someone – if he goes into the cafeteria and he's hungry and he doesn't have the money or not enough money – that somebody will be you know compassionate to him. I look at the kids here like they're my own.

A teacher came to me because I had kids working in the kitchen helping out during lunch time because they couldn't afford the lunch. If they worked with me and helped I would give them, you know, free lunch or free breakfast. A teacher came to me during lunch period and said, "You got so and so in your kitchen? They are the worst kid in the school. How do you do it?" And I said, "I show 'em love and respect." And I said, "If you act like them, they're not gonna respect you." I said, "You have to draw kids." And I said, "The only way that you draw kids is that you first you got to show love and concern, compassion." And then you win ‘em over. You know, their trust. That's what they lookin' for.

It can get pretty hard sometime, but if you have a determination and a drive to succeed no matter what in life – if it's not the food service, anything that you wanna do – don't let nobody destroy your dream. The only one that can take that away from you is yourself. The other person can take that from you if you let ‘em. But other than that, you are somebody. Always believe in your dreams, ‘cause some dreams do come true.

This story originally aired on October 14, 2010.