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After 37 years in school kitchens, LBUSD’s top chef retiring

Los Banos Elementary students dig in during lunch. New federal rules require they each get a piece of fresh fruit and a vegetable each day.
Los Banos Elementary students dig in during lunch. New federal rules require they each get a piece of fresh fruit and a vegetable each day. Los Banos Enterprise

If I had spent the last 37 years in a kitchen, starting each day at 6 a.m., I would have been counting the days – probably the minutes – until retirement. But I’m not Beth Johnson.

Beth retired last month as Food Service Supervisor from the Los Banos Unified School District, but not because she lost interest in her job. She just thought it was time to retire while she was still healthy.

Beth has enjoyed preparing food since she was a Dietetics and Food Science major at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she immediately took a job at a school in Cottonwood (near Redding) as a food service supervisor. Two years later, she applied for the same position in Los Banos – from which she had graduated – when Helen Stepherson retired. Beth was hired by Mark Bodley and she has been the district’s food service supervisor since.

As a student at Los Banos High, Beth hadn’t planned on food service as a career. But she wanted to go to San Luis Obispo for college. Her dad had gone there and she knew the school and town well. Beth realized the best chance to be admitted to this selective school was to apply as a home economics major. Once at Cal Poly she heard about dietetics and food science, a new major, and selected that as her major – a wise move, since it has been the basis for a career she has loved.

Her job was challenging. She had to get up at 5 a.m. each morning to get the kitchen rolling.

“I like the idea of nutrition,” Beth said, “and the challenge of creating meals that are both tasty and healthy.”

Her job includes overseeing preparation of food at all sites – two high schools, two junior highs and the two central elementary school kitchens – Miano and Los Banos elementary schools, which ship out prepared meals to the other elementries in town.

A large part of the challenge is keeping up with all the regulations, especially after 2010 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised requirements as a result of the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids policy. “We have to make sure each lunch has a fruit and a vegetable, and we need to restrict the amount of sodium,” she said. “That’s challenging, because kids are used to having a certain amount of salt in their food. Low-sodium meals taste bland to them.”

Beth has noticed in recent years, however, that schoolchildren are eating more and wasting less. “We are gradually seeing fewer vegetables being thrown in the trash,” she said. “This is a good sign for the health of the students.”

While the food she serves is healthy, it’s not quite the same as it was when she started in 1980, when Los Banos was a town of about 10,000 people. “Back then,” she said, “we used to make much of our food from scratch, including bread baked fresh in our ovens each day.”

Now that the city has grown to 40,000, and school enrollments have increased proportionately, there just aren’t the facilities, time or staff to do that. Items like bread arrive already baked.

Beth would like to see the district’s kitchen facilities expanded, especially for elementary students. “It would be nice to have one large facility specially designed to serve all elementary schools, which now include serving pre-school children and cooking breakfast as well as lunch, rather than two small kitchens at Miano and LBE.”

In retirement, Beth will miss the children, having enjoyed seeing kids as they enjoy their meals: “I wish I knew each child personally. That was the case when I started and Los Banos was a small town. Now there are so many kids I hardly know any of them.”

She will also miss working with her staff. “I’ve been lucky to work with dedicated, hard-working people over the years,” Beth said, nothing Mark Bodley and Dean Bubar. “They’re a great group, and we enjoyed working together.”

Beth’s retirement encouraged her father, Bill Sloan, to retire. “My dad’s been a farmer all his life and recently turned 90. When he heard I was retiring he said, ‘Well, I might as well retire, too.’”

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.