Past the lunch line 

A glance into the lives of the cafeteria workers


Kayla Combs

left to right: Fatima Moutaoukil, Asia Mustafa, and Shamson Nahar.

The school’s cafeteria workers work from around 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. everyday; almost eight  hours of preparation, cooking, serving, and cleaning. Many of these workers have been in the food industry for several years, such as Ms. Asia Mustafa, who has been working as a cafeteria substitute in Arlington’s school cafeterias for almost three  years now. 

After moving to the U.S. from Romania, Mustafa got her job while taking her kids to school.

 “I went to drop off my kids at Campbell [Elementary] School and asked the [manager],” Mustafa said.  “She said: ‘if you want, you can work here.’” 

Mustafa worked between schools as a substitute cafeteria worker, learning all the ins and outs of the kitchen. After one year working in different Arlington Public Schools (APS) cafeterias she found a home here at Washington-Liberty, and has been working here since.

“I’m a substitute so I can help everywhere,” Mustafa said. “Whatever they ask me, I can do.”

Some of the cafeteria workers have been in the food industry for years before coming to the school. 

 “I think my first job was as a housekeeper,” Ms. Jacqueline Nampha, the food service manager at the school, said. “My aunt was working in a hotel kitchen and then she asked me if I wanted to work there. From there I just loved to work in the kitchen. I wanted to wait on tables, so I was a waitress for two years, and then I ended up being here. So I’ve always been in the food business and I really like it.” 

Some of the most popular meals are spaghetti, chicken nuggets and the taco rice bowl.

“I enjoy preparing those meals because i know how much the students love it,” said Nampha.

“We have a production record that says how many chicken sandwiches did we make, how many of this did we make,” Ms. Sandra O’Connor, Food Specialist and Cafeteria Supervisor, said. “If the count is going up over time, it’s getting more popular, or if it’s declining, then it’s less popular. We have numbers every day of how many meals [are taken] so that gives us an idea of the popularity of [the meal] that day.” 

The most popular meal is spaghetti, which has mixed feelings within the staff. 

“Spaghetti is one of our hardest meals to serve,” O’Connor said. 

Although extra work goes into preparing spaghetti, some say it’s their favorite meal to prepare. 

“Even though they’re hard to prepare, I like the meals that kids like the most,” Nampha said. 

Nampha often puts a twist on the meals served by putting a few of her own spices in. 

“When we make the rice taco bowl, sometimes it comes already prepared over here, and sometimes not. I love it when it’s not prepared because I like to put my own taste in,” Nampha said. “I add my seasoning and I think it tastes good.” 

After hours of cooking in the kitchen, many cafeteria workers go home and cook for their families as well.

 “I have four kids. One graduated in 2020 from Washington Liberty,” Mustafa said. “One is in tenth grade here and one is in Kenmore Middle School in seventh  grade.” 

One of Mustafa’s favorite meals to cook for her family is biryani, a rice and chicken dish popular in Asia and the Middle East. 

“I’m Salvadoran, so I love pupusas, I like rice and beans, tacos and all that stuff,” Nampha said.

Currently, there is a shortage of staff in the school cafeterias across the country after many people left due to a lack of interaction with the students during COVID-19. 

“One of the reasons why we’re here is to see your faces every day and have interaction with students,” O’Connor said. “During COVID, we were making food and passing out bags but we didn’t have any of that interaction, and that really is not very fulfilling, so I think other people found other things to do.”

Before switching to hybrid during the 2020-2021 school year, the school was completely empty except the custodians and cafeteria workers. 

“The school was just so quiet and so lonely,” Nampha said. “We really missed our students, the students are the life of the school. So we’ve been working hard but we don’t mind. We really enjoy just seeing all the students.” 

The relationship with the students has remained a priority, even with the new changes this year. 

“We would love to see you, we love to serve you,” Nampha said. ”We want you to come in and enjoy the lunch, we really do. I really look forward to seeing you. I really do even though there’s a lot to do, I’m always looking forward to coming.”

The lunch ladies come in everyday to serve the students regardless of weather and working conditions because they truly love making meals for the students and seeing their faces in the line. 

“Kitchens are loud and hot, and in the wintertime they can be cold,” O’Connor said. “Kids can be rude, but the people that come here every day really want to serve the kids and want the kids to enjoy their meals. So, if you give them a smile or a wink, they really will appreciate that.”


If you have questions, comments, compliments, or suggestions for meals in the future, feel free to fill out this survey. Please note that taking a fruit or vegetable is made mandatory by the FDA, not the cafeteria workers. The results of the survey will be sent to the cafeteria workers to view, so please be respectful. 

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