PAULA TAPIA, COOK MANAGER, Westmore Oaks Elementary School, Washington Unified School District, West Sacramento, CA Origin: Colorado Talking with Paula and watching her smiling and laughing as she serves her students, it is hard to believe that she dropped out of school at 14 and lied about her age so she could get a job to feed her 5 younger siblings. “We grew up poor, and if it hadn’t have been for school lunch, we would have starved,” Paula told us. The job was at a Chinese restaurant, and I’d never even eaten Chinese food, let alone cooked it. ” She told us how her employers at the restaurant showed her how to make egg rolls with carrots, sprouts, cabbage, bamboo shoots, garlic onions, and hot sauce, all cooked up together and then rolled up and fried in oil until golden brown.. “ When my son comes back from Colorado, he asks me to please make egg rolls,” she said, laughing as she recounts the story, adding that she wishes she could make those eggs rolls as school. So do we.
Paula has been in the restaurant business ever since that first job, back in 1972. She’s done waitressing, cooking, on-site catering, including a stint cooking at the Sacramento area private club, Ducks Unlimited, where she cooked wild game. Was her destiny foreshadowed by her maiden name, Cook? It might have been, because Paula loves to cook, whether at home for her family or for what she refers to as her community, the students and adults at West Sacramento’s Westmore Oaks Elementary School.
“I have a gorgeous salad bar. I put everything on it that I can get my hands on, with even more options for the older kids. You have to train these kids. They don’t know what a lot of these fruits and vegetables are. They don’t get them at home. Their favorites are the strawberries and the grapes.” We raved about her salad bar, one of the most colorful and appetizing we’ve seen. Paula beamed proudly. “The salad bar is my favorite – I like it colorful and it has to look good. Presentation is 50 % of attracting the kids to eat it. ”
What else does she cook in her kitchen (pictured left)? She prepares all kinds of different soups, Mexican tacos, and Portuguese chili that she doctors up with sausage, mushrooms, spices, garlic and cumin. “We have awesome pizzas. We get cheese, and then add our own toppings.” Her philosophy is simple and one that we heartily agree with. “If you’re not going to eat it, don’t serve it.” And, there’s nothing we saw in Paula’s kitchen that we wouldn’t be happy to eat – if only she had those egg rolls, too.
Food education, which is part of Paula’s mission, is, we believe, one of the key educational opportunities to be found in the school lunch room. Pictured left is a tray of jicama wedges with fresh lime on her salad bar. When we asked her how she does food education, she replied that she talked to the kids about what she was serving, what they were eating, and takes every chance presented to teach the students about food. “I have posters that I get online. They tell you all about the nutrition and why it’s good for you. I keep working with the kids on eating healthy. It’s a long process, and you’re working against the odds with some of these poor little babies. But it does make a difference.” Paula is clearly a dedicated woman, making a difference, every day.
In her district, under the direction of Kari Pina, Director, Food Services, almost every kitchen is a cooking kitchen, with capable people such as Paula cooking, ordering, and welcoming the students for a colorful, flavorful meal in a cheery, clean, well lit lunch room.
Favorite tool: Sharp knife, but she loves all her equipment from mixers to stoves.