School cafeterias are rarely associated with beauty. For many, they are more likely to evoke memories of crowded, noisy tables, bullies stealing your lunch money, and sometimes unidentifiable substances steaming from puddles of orange grease on a plastic tray.

But a new collection of drawings by artist Kai Klaassen challenges those stereotypes, depicting school cafeteria workers in portraits filled with pride and humble splendor.

“A lot of people don’t consider cafeteria work important,” said Suzy Blandon, a cafeteria worker at June Jordan High School. “We work hard and we get very little recognition. This is kind of like an affirmation of the work we do.”

The exposition, entitled Lunchtime!, hangs at Mission Pie on 25th and Mission streets. It features 11 works composed in chalk, charcoal and pencil, based on photographs Klaassen took of lunch ladies and their male counterparts at school cafeterias around San Francisco.

Artist Kai Klaassen at the show's opening.
Artist Kai Klaassen at the show’s opening.

While Klaassen found inspiration in the selfless dedication of the workers to the kids they serve, she was also disturbed by the way food under the National School Lunch Program has become prepackaged and highly processed.

They’ve taken the smells and the tastes and the beauty out of food,” she said, as friends and colleagues streamed into Mission Pie’s small dining room. “The cooks don’t have anything to say about it, because it’s a national program. So everybody that’s involved with it is looking down and scratching their heads and saying, ‘What is a bagel dog? What is a taco pocket?”

But Klaassen was also inspired by the dignity and compassion she saw in the cafeteria workers as they served hundreds of hungry kids each day.

“These people were all trained chefs, or at least loved food and loved to cook, and they don’t get to chop vegetables or squeeze melons. They don’t get to do any of that stuff,” she said with palpable anguish. “For me to notice them and talk to them, and notice their work and take pictures of their work, gives them sort of a sense of self. It gives them sort of a perspective on what they’re really doing.”

One of Klaassen's portraits depicts Faye Bell of Burton High School.
One of Klaassen’s portraits depicts Faye Bell of Burton High School.

Mavis Harven, a cook manager at Marina Middle School who has worked with the school district for 17 years, glowed with pride as she gazed at her portrait staring back at her.

But Harven said it isn’t hope of recognition that keeps her showing up to school at 6 a.m. five days a week to prepare breakfast for some of San Francisco’s poorest kids.

“Some kids think it’s beneath them to come to the cafeteria, but once they get there and see what’s offered, then everyday you see that person, and that makes my day,” she said. “You’ve got to remember, some of these kids might not even get a meal at home. It’s all about the children.”

Lunchtime! Through Oct. 30. Mission Pie, 2901 Mission St.

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Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bryan has a background in investigative reporting for newspapers and the radio. He is working the health beat for Mission Loc@l.

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