Isabel Hernandez

Isabel Hernandez loves numbers.

“When I was in Mexico, I did payroll for 450 people and I was 16 years old,” said Hernandez, who now uses her number sense to manage the cafeteria at Trout Primary. Hernandez orders the food, plans the menus and gets a feel for what the kids like to eat the most.

“They like the chicken drumsticks and nachos,” she said. “We fix chicken tenders with waffles, and today we had banana splits.

“I like to talk to the kiddos. I’m from Mexico, from a town like Lufkin — very humid. We had lots of fruit. The kids will say they don’t like fruit. The fruit we buy in the store isn’t like eating fruit straight from the tree. I will wait until the fruit is ripe to give to them. Then it’s juicy and sweet, and I’ll let them try it … and they like it.”

Hernandez said she was 19 when she came to the United States.

“I decided when I was little, I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I loved to learn,” she said. “I’ve had students ask me, ‘What do you teach?’ and I’ll tell them I’m not a teacher but I still teach the kiddos. In a way, I do teach. I encourage them to eat. I may be the only face or smile they see. I treat them the way I want my own kids to be treated.”

Hernandez became a U.S. citizen last year. She said she was excited when she learned she had passed the test. Her co-workers helped her prepare for the test.

“I love to study,” she said. “During my breaks, the ladies I work with would study with me and ask me questions. I also had to pass a test to be certified as a cafeteria manager. I made a 93! I will have to test every five years. …

“Here at Trout we work well together. I like to play music in the cafeteria. We sing. I like for my ladies to be happy.”

Hernandez said she loves her job, but being a manager can bring challenges.

“Numbers I can do. People can be challenging,” she said. “How do you make someone understand ethics and that you need to love what you do? It’s the same in life: If the person doesn’t care, what can you do for them?

“We’re a team. If someone makes a mistake, it’s my mistake. Maybe I needed to train them better. We got audited by the state the first year I was here. I was new; we had a new team. The auditor asked how long we had been working together because she said it looked like we had been working together for many years.”

Even though she’s in the cafeteria every day beginning at 6 a.m., Hernandez said she does not like to cook. She said she does enjoy reading a good mystery by author Mary Higgins Clark. She has a full life with three daughters, six grandchildren, her husband, Edward, and a cat.

Cafeteria work isn’t all about the food.

“We dress up,” she said. “We dressed up for Dr. Seuss’s birthday. We didn’t just celebrate his birthday but the fact that the children can read. We will have green eggs and ham this year. They get excited, especially the little ones.”