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August 15, 2023

Taco Tuesdays in School Cafeterias: Exploring culturally relevant foods in elementary schools

By: Mando Rayo

Grab a lunch tray and join us at the cafeteria as we explore Mexican food served in elementary schools. We talk to Austin Independent School District’s Executive Chef Diane Grodek about the food served in schools, cafeteria worker Ofelia Diaz and get honest feedback from kids eating tacos and tamales over lunch at McBee Elementary School in Austin.

The full transcript of this episode of Tacos of Texas is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Intro My name is Andres Sanchez and I am the co-founder of ENTRE Film Center and Regional Archive, an artist run cooperative based out of the Rio Grande Valley. To me, tacos sound like the biggest, wettest burp you’ve ever heard a little bit of onion in there, a little bit of cilantro, maybe some trompo, maybe some, I don’t know, fajita. Maybe a little bit of beer, the kind of burp where your pants fit better afterward. [burp sound effect] This is Andres Sanchez, and you’re listening to Tacos of Texas on KUT.

Mando Rayo What’s up, Taco World? I’m taco journalist Mando Rayo, and welcome to the Tacos of Texas podcast season tres, tres, tres, produced by Identity Productions in partnership with KUT and KUTX Studios. And we’re back exploring taco culture in Texas through the eyes of the people in the Lone Star State. So grab yourself a spork and a cheese stick and get ready for some muy tasty taco conversations. [music] In today’s episode, we’re headed to the cafeteria. And guess what? You can sit with us. On Tuesdays, we eat tacos. Actually, Austin Independent School District has taco options on more than just Tuesdays, which is good to know our kids can access Vitamina T every day. We’ll talk to AISD Food Service Executive Chef Diane Grodek. We’ll go into the school kitchen to see how the food staff mixes it up. And then we’ll have a roundtable food tasting with elementary school kids. So finish up your class assignment because it’s almost lunchtime. [school bell rings] Miss, miss. Can I get an extra taco? Ah, sí mijo, just come back. Come back after the line ends. Let me tell you about little Mandito on Taco Tuesdays as he was growing up. Yes, that’s me. This Mando, right here. So I know we would be ready. The bell would ring. We crashed through the cafeteria doors, and then we’d all run-walk. Run-walk fast, fast. But so fast and so slow that you wouldn’t get called out by the assistant principal. Don’t run. “No running Mando. No running boys and girls.” And then we get to the lunch line. Boom! Ready with my tray. Oh, man, I’m so hungry. I tell you, I didn’t even eat breakfast. So I get my tray and I’m like, “Miss, miss. What are we having today?”” No pues today mijo we are having sloopy joes” “a pos mejor no me puede dar poquito ma”s “no mijo you can’t have any extra” “I skipped breakfast today, I didn’t have any food at home you know?”, it would help me through out the day.  So see, that’s all you have to do. You have to butter them up and you get that extra portion. And that is how little Mando got through his school days. Well, enough about me and my days negotiating with a lunch lady. Let’s dig into some of the history of food policies in schools. Time magazine published an abbreviated history of school lunch in America, which started in the early 1900s when the majority of kids under 14 were being required to go to school. Many were concerned that if children, specifically those from poor homes, were having to go to schools, that they needed to make sure that their physical needs were taken care of. So schools started providing meals. A PBS article adds that parent teacher associations became involved in the school lunch movement, donating needed cookware and stoves, and they were responsible for expanding school lunch programs throughout the 1920s. The Time article tells us that the federal government became involved in school food programs during the Great Depression as a way to solve a trifecta of problems where farmers were going broke, children were going hungry, and people needed work. During FDR’s presidency, thousands of women were hired to cook and serve hungry students. A decade later, all 50 states were serving lunches at schools. In the eighties, the Reagan administration cut the school lunch budget, reduced lunch portions, and the number of kids eligible for free and reduced lunches. The Times article adds that in 1981, this same administration declared that ketchup was a vegetable in order to meet nutrition standards. Now, salsa is a vegetable in my book but ketchup? Come on now. It also describes the eighties and nineties as a time with less federal support that led to increasingly privatized school lunches, where nutrition standards often took a backseat to the bottom line. Childhood obesity rates in the United States rose quite a bit at this time. The 2010s saw efforts to bring back the integrity of nutrition in school lunch programs through Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was criticized for as Time worded it, “unpalatable foods that led to food waste, smaller earnings for school lunch programs, and even kids going without lunch.” Some argued that half a decade into the program, data showed that it actually was providing kids with healthier options without greatly changing how many students were having the meals. A New York Times article talks about how many schools phased out processed food in favor of more scratch-made meals prepared in full on-site kitchens to avoid student food waste. But this was costly for less funded schools. That’s where the community eligibility provision program steps in, which is how the Austin Independent School District provides free breakfast and lunch for some students at schools. My school lunch experience definitely falls more into those very processed eighties days where they applied Reaganomics policies into our school foods, which is why I’m excited to see how the lunch trays have changed, especially with tacos. [music] [crunch sound effect] Oh, it’s taco time. And now here’s a word from our sponsors. From me. Vamos at Chuco Town con Visit El Paso. It’s the hometown of this taco journalist. On every corner of El Paso, you will find a variety of delicious cuisines that will suit any budget from authentic Mexican restaurants established several decades ago to up and coming award winning restaurants, reinventing traditional dishes with a modern twist. El Paso’s food scene is recognized for its range of flavors. Just take a Elemi Restaurant: originally opened in 2019, Elemi is a downtown El Paso restaurant known for being a modern Mexican eatery built on ancestral culinary traditions. Elemi’s chef and owner Emiliano Marentes, an El Paso native, was named as a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Award in the Outstanding Chef category in 2022 and in 2023, Best Chef Texas Finalist. Signature plates include tacos campesino made of cremini mushrooms, grilled eggplant, Oaxacan black beans, grilled avocado, and caramel quesillo. And coliflor almendrado tacos made of roasted cauliflower, almond mole and almond cotija with cashew crema, que rico. And one of my go to spots is the L&J Cafe. As one of the oldest family owned establishments on this list, it’s only fitting that L&J Cafe also serves some of the most well-respected food and drinks in town with enchiladas that are to die for. And it’s widely agreed that L&J is a cornerstone for quality Tex-Mex meals in El Paso, including lovingly crafted classic margaritas. Muchas gracias to our friends at Visit El Paso for sponsoring this podcast episode. Follow Visit El Paso on Instagram and Facebook at Visit El Paso or on their website at Visit El Paso dot com. No fees equals more tacos at Amplify Credit Union with fee free banking at Amplify, you’ll never pay another account fee, overdraft fee, or transfer fee ever again, and no fees means own un poquito mas de sabor. It’s not a bank, it’s a credit union. And their goal is to remove the obstacles that stand between their members and financial success. So they turned off all their bank fees. Because it’s not just about giving back. Sometimes it’s about not taking in the first place. And you know what? Amplify is the first financial institution in Texas to put an end to bank fees. Amplify charges $0 in overdraft fees. That’s right. Zero. Amplify offers fee free banking to both personal and business members. To learn more, go to go amplify dot com slash tacos. Our first guess is Diane Grodek. Diane is the executive chef for the Austin Independent School District with a passion for cooking, reducing waste and community involvement. Working for a progressive, inclusive school district is her dream job. Diane has worked to bring sustainability, the support of local vendors, global flavors and staff education to the forefront of the food service program. Diane, welcome to the show.

Diane Grodek Yeah, thanks for having me.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Well, you know, I just dropped off my kid and we skipped the lunch line today because we had to come and talk to you about it.

Diane Grodek Got it.

Mando Rayo So tell me a little bit about what you do at the Austin Independent School District and your role with the food program.

Diane Grodek Yeah. So I’m the executive chef for the food department, and the bulk of my job is just creating menus, creating recipes, and also doing things like this to get the word out about school lunches. And there’s a lot of people who are getting it wrong, and we want to put out all the good things that we’re doing.

Mando Rayo Oh, to be honest, I have gone and eaten at my kids school, but when I was growing up, it was a lot of Sloppy Joe. [laughter]

Diane Grodek We moved past Sloppy Joe.

Mando Rayo Okay, good, good, good, good. This episode is really looking into culturally relevant foods and Mexican foods, in school settings. How does that play out when you’re making decisions, creating menus and figuring out what kind of foods you want to put out for for the kids?

Diane Grodek Yeah. So I think historically our menus have always been pretty heavy on Tex-Mex Mexican food because obviously that’s a good chunk of the portion of the students that we’re feeding. But Austinites really become like a melting pot. So we used to look at it as kind of like two sides of town, two types of people. But at this point, we’ve got over 100 languages represented in our schools. So there was a time where we were kind of leaning into Mexican food and Tex-Mex food, and now we’re kind of realizing actually we need to expand beyond that. So we’re really going global. We’ve got things to kind of make all of our kids feel comfortable with dipping our toes into Indian food, Asian cuisine. We’ve got a Cuban Bowl, we’ve got all the tacos and the enchiladas that we’ve always had, but now we’re realizing, like we’ve got to broaden even that.

Mando Rayo Right, Right.

Diane Grodek Into global flavors.

Mando Rayo So speaking of the foods in regards to the nutritional value, what kind of policy decisions go into creating some of those those menu items?

Diane Grodek Yeah. So, I mean, nutrition is at the forefront, obviously. Like that’s what we are. We’re a nutrition program for children. So before we are thinking about flavor profiles or global flavors, we’re thinking about nutrition. So we follow a lot of guidelines. Most of them are from USDA, and then we’re part of the National School Lunch Program. And then there’s kind of some smaller policy things under that, but it’s pretty regulated. There’s not a whole lot of freedom. Sodium is the biggest one we watch and we serve whole grains. There’s regulations around that. There’s a certain percentage each week has to be whole grains, and it comes down to even the colors of vegetables that we serve weekly. So we’ve got a hit, a green leaf, we’ve got to hit a red orange. Legumes are once a week. So we have all of that to kind of work around. But then we take it a step further because we really want everyone to feel welcome. So beyond the nutritional standards, we’re offering a vegetarian option every single day. We’ve got got a vegan option a couple of times a week, and we also really are adaptable to people’s food allergies and religious issues also. So we’re always marking what has pork. We have gluten free bread, we have dairy free accommodations we can make. We bring in certain milk. So we’ve got all the federal level stuff and then we kind of get even deeper.

Mando Rayo So in regards to some of those dishes, I say Tex-Mex or Mexican food. Well, what kind of dishes are you? Well, you know, obviously Taco Tuesday. Yeah, right. Enchilada Friday? Is there a theme here.

Diane Grodek So we always do Taco Tuesdays in high schools. And then I think we do them mostly in the middle schools. But we did pull some numbers for this, for this chat. Okay. And last year we served 300,000 tacos.

Mando Rayo Wow.

Diane Grodek So that’s like pork tacos, chicken tacos, beef tacos, egg tacos, bean tacos, all the tacos. So that’s obviously like a driver for us. And then beyond that, you know, we’ve got we have enchiladas on our menu. We’ve got some kind of mixing, mixing things. We’ve got something called Tex-Mex pizza, which is like a little blasphemous, but we use a pita to get the whole grain. Okay, get put the toppings on it. And that’s actually a winner for our vegetarian option. But we have also a fiesta line on our high school menus, and that’s a hit because that’s like a self-serve kind of thing. It’s making a bowl and that one’s amazing because it hits everybody’s dietary stuff, especially once they’re in high school and there’s a lot more kids leaning towards plant based and vegetarian. We’ve kind of got some something for everyone there.

Mando Rayo Nice, Nice. Well, I mean, gosh, that kind of beats my eating habits. 300,000. That’s amazing. How does Austin ISD differ compared to other districts in regards to kind of, you know, the types of food that you’re providing for the kids?

Diane Grodek We really do take a lot of pride in our work. We’re really leaning into quick scratch is what we call it. So we want to bring in one really good quality item, one SKU, and do a lot of different things with it. And so we’re taking something like our pork, for example, and we’re turning that into a lot of dishes and we’re really trying to get the global flavors in. In comparison to districts, I mean, you can find a potato that’s emoji shaped and you can serve that technically follows the regulation. But we try to stay away from the branding and the gimmicks. Yeah, we want kids to just eat real food, recognize real food.

Mando Rayo Yeah, that’s great. Now that’s really great. Speaking of kind of all these different menu items and what goes into recipes, where do you source your food?

Diane Grodek So we do a really, really intense procurement process that’s called the Good Food Purchasing program. So there’s layers to that where we would choose our vendors based on do they treat their animals right, do they treat their employees right? Are they local? All these different criteria. So we go from there and then of course, we use commodities from the government. Maybe that’s frozen strawberries, frozen blueberries, but we use over 80 different vendors to service all the different needs. So we might buy one item from one company because we want that one item. So one example is our tamales. They’re made here in Texas. That’s Padrino is the brand and we’re buying their three tamales and that’s it. We’re not buying those from Sysco.

Mando Rayo Okay, okay.

Diane Grodek If we need a gluten free bread, we’re buying it from our baker who makes it here in Austin. We also just started working with a local company called Mmmmpanadas and we had them create a empanada that works for our standards, for our regulations. It’s whole grain, how much meat is in it. And that was important to us just to keep it local and you know.

Mando Rayo Nice. Well, it seems very, very Austin of you. [laughs]

Diane Grodek Yeah. The most fun part for me of of the GFP is finding the local ones.

Mando Rayo Okay I see. So you’re sourcing all these local and very specific vendors. Who does a taste testing like how do you know the kids are going to like it?

Diane Grodek Well, we do taste testing. One example is are we serve pizza, right? We’re always going to serve pizza in the cafeteria. So we brought in six different kinds of pizza. We sampled it at high school level, an elementary school level. It’s actually like a lot of fun. It’s stressful, but it’s a lot of fun.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah.

Diane Grodek A lot of opinions. Kids love it. They feel special. We try to make them feel special and we give them a chart. They circle what they like, what they didn’t like. They can write comments. So we really do take their feedback for that taste test.

Mando Rayo Nice. Thinking about school districts and Title I schools versus maybe here in Austin, you know, you have Eastside Schools versus West Austin schools. Yeah. And when you go to an East Austin school, a Title I school, the building looks a lot different when you go to West Austin. Yeah, you know what I mean? And so how does the food differ there?

Diane Grodek So that’s something that we feel really strongly about, and I think that’s like a district level thing at this point. Austin ISD has a lot of history it needs to make right at this point. And so equity has become kind of like a really big overarching issue for all of us, and that trickles down to food service, too. So we serve one menu across the board. What they’re eating in a West Side school is what they’re eating south, northeast, everywhere that goes for the high schools, middle schools, all levels. And it’s it’s a challenge because like we said, there’s different tastebuds everywhere. So that can range from one kid grows up going to Whole Foods and knows what a parfait is. Sure. And they see a parfait on the line and they say, oh, all parfait, strawberries, granola, another side of town has no idea what it is. Flip that – tamales. The first time we’ve served tamales, we had to tell kids like, no, no, no, you don’t eat the husk, You open it up, take it out. Like this is a tamale. It completely foreign to them. So the diversity in this town and the needs are just wild. So our idea is to just expose everybody to everything.

Mando Rayo Yeah, I love that.

Diane Grodek Across the board. So if we’re serving Korean drumstick and rice, everybody’s getting a Korean drumstick.

Mando Rayo So a lot of what’s built in now, you know, with this equity framework. Was there a time where it wasn’t in one part of town? It was kind of unequal, if you will. And why do you think brought about those changes?

Diane Grodek Yeah. So we were actually talking about this in the office other day. I was asking some people who had been there for a while if that ever existed, and on paper it didn’t, primarily because the volume that we do it would be way too hard actually to say, okay, these schools get this, the school gets this right, we can’t manage it. However, there was a time when managers were sort of saying, I know what my kids like, I know what they don’t like, and making choices on their own not following menu. Now we’re really stirring about menu written menu served.

Mando Rayo Well, let’s go back to this idea around serving culturally relevant food. Can you talk a little bit about who actually is cooking some of these food items?

Diane Grodek Yeah. So I mean, the majority of our kitchens are staffed with women. First of all, most of them are Hispanic women. And so they are experts at what they do. You know, they’re a lot of times they’re making food that they’ve been making for years. But what’s interesting is we do have that diversity that I was talking about. So we’ve got a woman in one of our kitchens and she’s Thai and she makes amazing Thai food. So we were like, this is a cool opportunity. We can actually probably plan something where she comes in and cooks for everyone. Yeah, just, you know, flavors and ingredients we haven’t seen before. Right. And it’s the same thing for, you know, we’ve got people who were refugees that work for us now and everyone is welcome. But yeah, primarily we’ve got a great team of Hispanic women producing 70,000 meals a day.

Mando Rayo Oh, my God. And what kind of creative control do they have? Like do They’re like, you know, I’m going to put a little bit more sazon on this and chile.

Diane Grodek Well, it’s a sticky it’s a sticky point for us because we really do need to follow those regulations.

Mando Rayo Sure.

Diane Grodek And we need it to be pretty consistent. But, you know, salsa is salsa. And like, you can, you know, if you want to add a little cilantro. I think it needs a little more. A little not so much the salt, but.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah. Totally. What current shifts are you seeing how kids are eating in schools and how does that affect the menus as you kind of look, you know, to the look forward to the future?

Diane Grodek I think to be really frank, there’s a disconnect with the adults in the room and the adults in the conversation around food, lunch and what kids are actually asking for and what they want to eat.

Mando Rayo Like, what is that disconnect?

Diane Grodek So the struggle is that, you know, for whatever the reasons that families are busy, convenience, pandemic, whatever we want to blame it on, I don’t think kids are getting scratch made food hardly ever.

Mando Rayo Okay.

Diane Grodek So in our heads we want to say, oh, they want enchiladas, they want all these kind of things. When we ask them, they want pancake on a stick. They want a corn dog. They want it in the frozen food aisle at H-E-B. So when we’re planning our menus, we’ve got to be like, What are these kids to actually eat? Our goal is to get food in their bodies and get them nutrition and sustenance. We’ve got to find the right pathway to do that that meets our want as adults to feed them nutritious, scratch, you know, quick scratch items and what their taste buds are actually accustomed to.

Mando Rayo Right, right.

Diane Grodek So it’s a struggle.

Mando Rayo Are there any misconceptions around school lunches or the food program that you want to dispel?

Diane Grodek Oh, so many. Where, where to begin?

Mando Rayo Top three.

Diane Grodek I think the first thing is that there’s no shame in school lunch. Like it doesn’t need to be a have and have nots. And I think that one is the toughest one. But school lunch has come a long way. And so what we see is that parents are packing a lunch because they think that like, I don’t need to, you know, get a free meal. The reality of that is what those kids are eating is not nutritionally solid. It’s a series of snacks. We did a whole project that was just what kids are bringing from home. The second one is just that a Sysco truck doesn’t pull up and we throw everything in a fryer and that’s lunch, right? There’s a lot of thought, a lot of planning that goes into it. It’s not what you think it is a heat and serve thing. And then third would just be that it is nutritionally sound. Don’t argue with me that it’s not that it’s not nutritional and it’s not clean. And we are checking labels. We do not have food dyes. It’s not what it was in the past.

Mando Rayo Yeah, no, that’s great. That’s great to hear. And now I’m excited to go to go to the the next Taco Tuesday my kids school. Well, Diane, thank you so much. It’s been so informative and actually making me hungry.

Diane Grodek Well, come. Come join us. It’s also an adult meal at our schools is the cheapest heartiest meal in town. [laughter] We welcome parents.

Mando Rayo Okay, awesome. Thank you.

Diane Grodek Thanks.

Mando Rayo Bye-bye.

Diane Grodek Bye.

Mando Rayo [music and crunch sound effect] Oh, it’s taco time. And now here’s a word from our sponsors from me. Visit Waterloo Park in downtown Austin, located just east of the capital. The park is perfect for family outings, picnics with amigos, outdoor hangs, [vocalizes] meditation, exercise, taco outings, you name it. The green oasis is in the middle of downtown, features hike and bike trails along gardens, bursting with native plantas and wildflowers. Las floricitas mas bonitas. Enjoy epic views of the city. A nature inspired playground in los niños can play in, colossal shade trees, peaceful gathering spaces y mas. The community is invited to take part in free outdoor activities at Waterloo Park, including exercise classes, movies on the big screen, educational activities and cultural festivals such as the Dia de los Muertos and Creek Show. Muy gracias to our friends at Waterloo Greenway for sponsoring this podcast episode. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook at Waterloo Greenway or on their website at Waterloo, Greenway dot o-r-g. [music] We’re at McBee Elementary School in North Austin. We’re going to meet up with chef Diane Grodek and do a taste testing with kids because, you know, they’re the real experts because they eat this every day and walking into the halls, [inhales and exhales] Oh, man, it smells like school cafeteria. Don’t you want to feel what it taste like? Join me. [school bell rings] Hello.

Children Hi.

Mando Rayo Well, thank you. Thank you for inviting me to your lunch.

Children You’re welcome.

Mando Rayo Did you know that you invited me to your lunch?

Children No.

I’m like, you know, the tio that just shows up. How about that? So why don’t you all tell me your name and what grade you’re going into?

Children My name is Karina, and I’m going to sixth grade. My name is Naomi, and I’m going to fifth grade. My name is Leo, and I’m going to fourth. My name is Iker, and I’m going to fifth grade.

Mando Rayo All right. Well, is everybody enjoying their summer?

Children Yeah.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Okay, so we’re here to talk about some some food, right?

Children I love tacos!

Mando Rayo Tacos! Who loves tacos?

Children Me!

Mando Rayo Everybody’s raising the hands. Yeah. You don’t know? Are you more of, like, a torta guy or what’s going on?

Children I have tried a taco like one time maybe.

Mando Rayo Okay. Karina, what was the last time you ate a taco?

Children Yesterday. Un taco de carne asada.

Mando Rayo Un taco de carne asada. Oh, sounds good. What about Naomi? What about you?

Children Yesterday, I had a taco de queso.

Mando Rayo Taco de queso?

Children Melted cheese.

Mando Rayo Melted cheese? Could it be quesadilla?

Children Yes.

Mando Rayo Yeah? [laughs] What about Leo and Iker? When was the last time you had a taco?

Children Yesterday.

Mando Rayo Yesterday, too. What? Do you eat tacos every day? That’s, that’s like me.

Children I ate a taco with chorizo with huevo.

Mando Rayo That’s one of my favorites, chorizo con huevo. Can’t go wrong with that. What about you Iker?

Children It might be like, months ago or like, a year ago.

Mando Rayo Oh, a year ago. Wow. So what’s on the menu?

Diane Grodek So we’re going to have the sausage, egg and cheese taco. We’re going to have the crispy beef taco, and then we’re going to have tamales, a bean and cheese tamale.

Children Oooh. That sounds good.

Diane Grodek So should we start with…? What do you guys want to start with? Lighter? Start with breakfast.

Children Breakfast.

Diane Grodek Breakfast? Okay. [guitar strums]

Children This is kind of making me hungry.

Mando Rayo Oh, just talking about it. It’s making me hungry too. Everybody getting served. Okay, so we have. We have salsa right here. Who, who likes salsa?

Children I love chile! Like Takis. I eat Takis, I eat takis. My favorite chiles are the chile en vinagre.

Mando Rayo Your favorite chiles are chile de vinagre? Let’s start eating. [foil unwrapping]

Children I see cheese.

Mando Rayo Una tortilla, I see cheese, egg and sausage.

Children [opening wrappers]

Mando Rayo Warm, right? A little warm.

Children Mama mia, me quemo.

Mando Rayo All right. First bite.

Children I got you. Three, two, one.

Mando Rayo What do you all think? What do you like about it?

Children Everything.

Mando Rayo Everything?

Children The taste because, because when you taste it, it tastes so good and it tastes so good that I want to eat it again.

Diane Grodek Can you guys tell the difference when you have this kind of tortilla versus the tortillas that you have at your house? How does it taste different?

Children I just eat tortillas. The ones I usually eat are corn.

Diane Grodek Yeah.

Children Corn tortillas.

Diane Grodek And all all the ones in our schools are whole grains. So they’re different color, kind of a different bite.

Children This one is like, more softer.

Mando Rayo It’s softer?

Children Mm hmm. I want to eat it again.

Mando Rayo Wow.

Children In my opinion, this will be in a restaurant.

Mando Rayo It should be in a restaurant? Really? All right, well, let’s give a round of applause for the kitchen staff. [applause] abre su propio restaurante [laughter] Okay. What’s next?

Diane Grodek You guys ready for tamales?

Children Yes.

Diane Grodek Yes. Okay. All right.

Children I love tamales.

Diane Grodek So next up, this is our bean and cheese tamale.

Mando Rayo All right. I mean, I mean, looks like pretty legit. You got the corn husk, right?

Children Why does it look like if it was just, like frijoles?

Diane Grodek It is frijoles.

Mando Rayo It’s frijoles. Does everybody know how to eat a tamal?

Children First, you have to take up the husk.

Mando Rayo The husk.

Children And then you just eat it.

Mando Rayo And then you just eat it. Okay. [laughs] Hey, straight to the point. Ooh, It’s. It’s hot. What texture does the tamal have for you?

Children It’s hot.

Mando Rayo It’s hot. It has a hot texture. Iker, what is the texture feel like to you?

Children Hmm, the texture feels like, the [indistinguishable] but all together in a smaller way.

Mando Rayo Oh, okay. Wow. Oh man.

Children It’s really good.

Mando Rayo I mean, this is like, you know, pretty, pretty, pretty legit tamal for for being at a school cafeteria. Okay. On the scale of 1 to 10, can you rate this tamal? Ten being the best one being not your favorite. Okay, I see a ten. Leo says ten. She says ten. Okay, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Karina, what did you say? Nine. Nine. Okay. And that ten. Pretty good.

Children Because it reminds me of my mom’s pupusas.

Mando Rayo It reminds you of your mom’s cooking. And that’s– compliments for the chef.

Mando Rayo Well, I didn’t make it, but we procure the right thing. All right, You guys ready for your final taco?

Children Yes.

Diane Grodek Okay.

Children I love that one. I love that one!

Diane Grodek So this is one that’s usually an elementary school favorite. This is the beef, beef taco. I don’t even know if you guys know this, but it’s actually beef and lentils. Did you ever even notice that there’s lentils in there?

Children No.

Diane Grodek So we cut the beef eighty twenty with lentils just for sustainability, and we’ll get more and more plants in our life and food costs, things like that.

Mando Rayo Yeah. I love it.

Diane Grodek Okay, so these are the toppings. These are kind of the standard toppings that we always put out with our tacos, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and sometimes cheddar cheese, sometimes pepper jack cheese.

Mando Rayo So this is the epitome of Taco Tuesday. A crispy taco.

Children Yes, because today’s Tuesday.

Mando Rayo It’s Taco Tuesday, and we’re eating tacos. We’re lucky.

Children Yeah.

Mando Rayo All right, let’s top it up. Here we go. It’s lunch time. I hear everybody coming. Running. Run walking through the halls. “No running!” Right?

Diane Grodek So this is like a popular elementary school technique.

Mando Rayo Well, why don’t you describe what you’re doing?

Children They put the beef out, and then I just rip it apart and then go like that.

Mando Rayo Oh, so it’s like a dip?

Children So are you? Then I dip it like nachos?

Mando Rayo Nice. All right, I’m going to take my first bite right here. Tell me about the flavors. What does it taste like? And maybe what could make it better. How about that? Karina, let’s start with you.

Children They could add a little bit more salt.

Mando Rayo You could add a little bit more salt, okay. All right. Hey, did you see that? He tilted the head, not the taco and that that is a pro, pro way to eat tacos.

Children That’s how I eat it.

Mando Rayo That’s how you tilt the head. Porque if you tile the taco, everything falls out. What would you like to see on the menu?

Children Baked potato. Extra cheese. Taco con chorizo. A cheese tortilla.

Mando Rayo A cheese tortilla.

Children Melted cheese.

Mando Rayo Double cheese?

Children Melted cheese.

Mando Rayo Melted cheese. I believe you’re a fan of cheese. Well, thank you so much for sharing. And are you only going to eat tacos on a Tuesday or. Or every day?

Children Every day. Every day.

Mando Rayo Yes. And every day? Both. Why can’t we have both? Right. Yeah. [music plays] Man, what a fun Taco Tuesday talking to these young eaters. I think I see a bright future for them, future taco journalists in the making. Now we’re going to go talk to cafeteria worker Ophelia Diaz to see what her day to day looks like.

Ofelia Diaz Hola, mi nombre es Ofelia Diaz. Tengo trabajando con food service doce años. Normalmente, mi trabajo es de manager de la escuela Anderson High School.

Mando Rayo Y me puede ser su dia tipico aqui en la cocina?

Ofelia Diaz Un día típico para la cocina aquí en food servic es llegar, preparar el desayuno para todos los niños, servirlo, preparamos el lonche he igual lo servimos, nos encargamos de preparar todo para el día siguiente, dejar todo el equipo limpio y en orden listo para ternelo listo para el dia siguiente.

Mando Rayo Y que tipo de platos hacen para los estudiantes?

Ofelia Diaz Que tipos de platos? Pues tenemos una gran variedad de platos, tenemos una gran variedad de recetas, tenemos desde platos americanos, platos latinos, una gran comida, tenemos el taco Tuesday.

Mando Rayo Ah el mas popular verdad?

Ofelia Diaz Los martes los tacos. Todos los martes vamos a tener tacos.

Mando Rayo Y como se siente cocinar comida mexicana o latina aquí para los estudiantes?

Ofelia Diaz Es increible ver como la comida latina a traspado fronteras y podemos ahora ofrezerlas aquí y pues traspasar culturas y servirlo aquí en estas cocinas es super emocionante es super emocionante.

Mando Rayo Sí  verdad? Sí , y sí  usted pudiera decir la mas popular comida que sirven aquí pa’ los ninos?

Ofelia Diaz La comida mas popular referente a los niños viene siendo la pizza, ellos aman los tacos.

Mando Rayo Pizza. (laughs) con mis hijos tambien.

Ofelia Diaz Tambien los tacos, por eso pusieron un día en especial a la semana para los tacos pero tenemos muchisima mas variedad, por ejemplo para mí me encanta los bowls cubanos con pico de gallo que tiene pinay flat bread pizza, esa tambien esta riquisima puede ser vegetariana o con carne, si tenemos una gran variedad

Mando Rayo Y que te emociona mas de poder cocinar aquí por el distrito?

Ofelia Diaz Puedes ver la carita felices de los niños cuando les ofreces la comida completa porque tiene todos los nutrientes que ellos necesitan y poder proporcionar una comida saludables para los niños.

Mando Rayo Pues muchas gracias y por su grand trabajo de porque nos recordamos de las que trabajan en la cocina de la escuela, verdad?   But muchas gracias. Gracias por su su gran trabajo de que porque todo no recordamos de que las trabajan en la cocina y de la escuela.

Ofelia Diaz Muchas gracias.

Mando Rayo [music plays] Well, y’all, it’s been fun to be back here in these little mesitas at a school cafeteria. It brings back so many memories when I was a little mocosito in El Paso. I’m glad we got to learn about how AISD is feeding our little ones, the things they need to consider, and the mindfulness going into sourcing these foods. I had so much fun hanging with the little ones that ate tacos with me today. Now I got to go home and do my homework. Special thanks to our guest, Diane Grodek of AISD’s school food program, all our friends in the lunchroom today: Iker,  Naomi, Leo and Karina and our cafeteria super estrella, Ophelia Diaz and shout out to all the lunch ladies out there in the world, especially the ones that hooked me up with that little bit extra on my lunch tray when I was a kid. This has been the Tacos of Texas podcast developed and produced by Identity Productions. If you enjoyed today’s episode and are craving more taco content, go to our website at w-w-w dot Identity dot Productions or follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube at Identity Productions and United Tacos of America. This is your host, Mando “Quiero Mas” Rayo. Vamos a los tcos. On the next proximo episode of Tacos of Texas. Na na na na na na na na na na na na. Bean and cheese battle royale. I love me some bean and cheese tacos, Especially from San Antonio. We head to the Alamo City to have the final four bean and cheese bracket finalists that you voted for to battle it out. Listen in to hear who takes home that 2023 Bean and Cheese Battle Royale championship.

Outro The Tacos of Texas podcast is presented by Identity Productions in partnership with KUT and KUTX Studios. Our host and producer is Mando Rayo. Our audio is mixed by Nicholas Worthen and Ever Calderon. Our story producer is me, Sharon Arteaga, and our creative producer is Dennis Burnett. Music was created by Peligrosa in Austin, Texas, and King Benny Productions, located in the Quinto Barrio of Houston. [music fades out]

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.


December 19, 2023

Bonus Episode: The intersectionalities of Black Mexicans with Chef Adrian Lipscombe. 

Chef Adrian Lipscombe grew up in San Antonio and we’ll discuss Texas foodways from her Black heritage to growing up in the gateway to South Texas, San Antonio. Chef Lipscombe is the founder of the 40 Acres Project, a city planner and Culinary Diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.


December 12, 2023

Bonus Episode: Regional Taco Flavors of Texas

From border to border, El Paso to Brownsville and a little in between, we’re gonna talk tacos regionales and just like the musica itself, there’s many elements and things that go into them. Our guests include Miguel Cobos from Vaquero Taquero and Paola Gabriela from Visit El Paso.


November 7, 2023

Taco Pop Culture: A Taco Talk on All Things Tacos on the Interwebs

Stephanie Guerra, of Puro Pinche, hangs with us in the studio to talk taco pop culture.


October 31, 2023

Black Mexicans, Part 2: Tracing the foodways of Black Seminoles and Mexicans in Texas and Mexico

There is so much untold and uncovered history of the African diaspora, especially that within the lineages of slavery. Food can signal a variety of possibilities within history, and in this episode, we examine the melding and the migration of Black Seminoles across Texas and into Mexico. We join Windy Goodloe and Corina Torralba Harrington, […]


October 24, 2023

Black Mexicans, Part 1: Tracing the foodways of Black Seminoles and Mexicans in Texas and Mexico

There is so much untold and uncovered history of the African diaspora, especially that within the lineages of slavery. Food can signal a variety of possibilities within history, and in this episode, we examine the melding and the migration of Black Seminoles across Texas and into Mexico. We join Windy Goodloe and Corina Torralba Harrington, […]


October 17, 2023

Archiving Our Food History: What Goes Into Researching and Saving Oral Recipes and Histories.

In this episode, we talk to Dr. Meredith E. Abarca about putting together her online archive El Paso Food Voices. Author and blogger Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack shares how she has used her cookbooks as a way to archive her family’s recipes.


October 10, 2023

Inside Houston’s Encuentro: The Native American Roots of Texas Mexican Food

The complex cuisine of Texas goes back before the land was known as either Texas or Mexico. In this episode, we visit Houston’s two-day, anthropologic culinary event Encuentro. We learn about the Native American roots of Texas Mexican food from both scholars and chefs present at the event.


October 3, 2023

Salsa Magic

This episode includes a breakdown of the salsas that complete our favorite tacos, from taqueria style, to hot sauces. It includes the science of peppers to a local hot sauce brand’s origins. Then we’ll go into my home kitchen to make one of my favorite salsas and how to pair them up with your favorite tacos.