Pablita Lazo packs a sandwich at Amesti Elementary.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Unsung Santa Cruz: Cafeteria assistants Pablita and Maria bring a feeling of familia to Amesti Elementary

At Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville, the calming and energetic presence of Pablita Lazo and Maria Rodriguez has served everyone well, especially during the pandemic.

Pablita Lazo and Maria Rodriguez are a team. And they’re best friends.

At Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville, for the past three years or so, they’ve made sure hundreds of students get the nutrition they need every day, packaged thousands of meals for students during a year of remote learning, and transitioned to back-to-school meals during the pandemic, all while having fun and bringing smiles to all the students and staff they come into contact with.

“We had a connection right away. She’s the best — she always brings me food,” said Rodriguez, laughing.

Lazo laughed and agreed that they’ve been best friends since they met. She said it makes her happy to bring food to Rodriguez.

Staff from the school and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District said Lazo and Rodriguez have an infectious, positive energy that they put into their work and their relationships throughout the school.

Jeanie Aitken, PVUSD’s food nutrition services operations supervisor, said they’re very modest and giving.

Amesti Principal Carlos Moran said the pair have a calming and energetic presence, and it has served everyone well, especially during the pandemic.

Each morning, one of them packs up lunches at the district headquarters, food which is then brought to each of the schools, while the other cleans the cafeteria and serves breakfast to about 300 students.

Maria Rodriguez (left) and Pablita Lazo spend their day hustling around the Amesti cafeteria.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After they clean up from serving breakfast, they begin setting out food for lunch and heating up meals. They’ll be serving about 450 students lunch throughout the day.

On a day in early December, around 11:45 a.m., the first group of students, first graders, begins to file in on one side of the cafeteria, where Lazo is sitting at a computer. She checks them in before they choose from a variety of fruits, vegetables and snacks at a table.

Their last stop in the cafeteria is picking up their entrée from Rodriguez; their options are a burrito or a PB&J sandwich. As most students are Spanish-speaking, Rodriguez asks many, “Quieres burrito?

Most choose the burrito and head outside to eat under shade structures. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, schools adapted to having students eat outdoors unless it’s raining.

Sometimes, when the kids are unsure about eating something, Rodriguez and Lazo encourage them to be adventurous.

Fresh fruit awaits Amesti students.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We try to tell them, ‘OK, if you don’t try it, you will not know that you liked it,’” said Rodriguez.

Most of the time, Rodriguez said, the kids will say, “Oh my gosh, it was good!”

Or, as Lazo recalled, they say, “Oh! Can I have it again?!”

But the kids’ favorite meal, without a doubt, is chicken nuggets.

Rodriguez and Lazo say they are happy to be back after a year of remote learning. For all of last year, they prepared bags for students that included breakfast, lunch and dinner, which parents and guardians would pick up each morning Monday through Friday. Fourteen of the district’s school sites provided that service, according to Aitken, the nutrition services supervisor.

“[Rodriguez and Lazo] came up with a good system for that,” she said.

Pablita Lazo (left) and Maria Rodriguez.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Moran also remarked how the duo’s efforts helped distribute even more food prior to holidays, such as at Thanksgiving last year. It was the first time the school tried to distribute several days’ worth of food at one time to families.

“The line of cars started backing up [at the school],” he said. “And Maria and Pablita just took charge.”

Moran said they helped come up with a way to manage the enormous queue. They put a certain number of people on packing boxes, others passing out the meals, still others directing cars.

“That worked out great,” he said. “And then we realized from that point forward, whenever we’re doing the massive distributions, we had to create a system like that.”

Now that they’re back at school, Rodriguez and Lazo realize how much they missed seeing the kids come in for their meals. And after getting through those difficult times, they’re thankful to be able to work with each other.

“If you like the work, it’s not tiring,” said Lazo. “It’s easy.”

“I feel like it’s a family here,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t feel like I’m coming to work.”