March 2, 2023

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across America, school food service workers brought their mission to the forefront of America’s attention, reminding the nation of the importance of the child nutrition programs. With school buildings closed, before masks or social distancing, months before a vaccine was available, school nutrition professionals came out of their kitchens to serve their community. Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), in collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Industry, has recognized that heroic effort and the work cafeteria professionals do daily in their current exhibition “Food For Thought: Spotlighting Food Service Workers at Baltimore City Public Schools”.

In spring 2020, when BCPS paused in-person instruction, the city sprang into action, consulting with the Maryland State Department of Education, local partners, such as Maryland Hunger Solutions, and other districts to employ innovative techniques that ensured food would be available to the thousands of city students who depended on school meals each day. Within the first month, BCPS served more than 530,000 youth meals, initially enlisting help from the National Guard and eventually moving to a grab-and-go model.

“Everything got turned upside down. The way we used to do things, we could no longer do [that],” said Bruce Martin, a recently retired regional cafeteria worker with 26 years of service. “The kids could no longer come to the cafeteria line, per se, and get their meals. We had to be innovative. We were still able to feed those kids who were not in school by means of serving them from the outside. They would walk up to our entrance at the school, and the cafeteria worker would give them two days’ worth of food. They would get two breakfasts, two lunches, and two suppers.”The pandemic did not initiate  the schools’ food service in Baltimore, though, it only altered operations. As the exhibit reveals, by 1970, every city school was serving lunch. Throughout the decades that followed, the district would add school breakfast, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, afterschool nutrition programs, and summer meals. In 2015, BCPS adopted the Community Eligibility Provision, offering healthy school meals to all students regardless of household income. Lunch participation boomed, reaching an additional 10,000 students each day. [1]

The Food and Nutrition Department grew their programs further by expanding farm-to-school efforts and connecting the school cafeteria’s role to academic achievement. As Shelia Alston, retired Food and Nutrition operations manager stated, “We are part of the learning process with the kids, because a child cannot learn if they’re hungry.” Currently, BCPS staff prepare and serve more than 88,000 meals every school day.

“We are excited for this opportunity to highlight the dedication and depth of experience among our food service team, who provide essential services to students year-round,” said Elizabeth Marchetta, executive director of Food and Nutrition Services Department.

The “Food for Thought” exhibit, which integrates the child nutrition programs’ history with staff testimony and student artwork, runs through June 2023. The museum also hosted a virtual discussion, A History of School Meals, available on their YouTube Channel, and is promoting a day of service at Great Kids Farm, BCPS’ own working agricultural center, on April 20.

To learn more about hunger in  Baltimore City and across Maryland, visit


[1] Baltimore City’s average daily participation (ADP) for lunch was 49,309 in School Year 2014-2015. The lunch ADP increased to 59,665 in School Year 2015-2016.