Denair food service worker makes an impact; will represent Stanislaus County in state competition

Want to put on a barbecue for a few hundred Denair students? Candida Baldwin can handle it.

Need to come up with an emergency plan to feed students in a nearby school district? Ask Baldwin.

Want an employee who represents the best qualities of so many on the Denair food services staff? Baldwin is the one.

In fact, in her 12-plus years preparing literally tens of thousands of meals in the Denair Middle School kitchen, Baldwin has proven she can deftly rise to any challenge at any time, always with a smile on her face.

A couple of her favorite sayings are, “I love happy tummies,” and, “Not all superheroes wear capes. Some of us wear aprons.” Both can be heard in this video about Denair’s food program.

Baldwin’s contagious enthusiasm combined with her loyalty to her co-workers and dedication to nutrition needs of Denair’s students earned her the district’s nomination for the Every Employee Making a Difference competition. Not only was Baldwin recognized at an awards ceremony hosted by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, she was chosen to represent the county in the state competition in the Food and Nutrition Services category later this spring in Sacramento.

Baldwin’s supervisor – Food Services Manager Kim Fuentez – can’t sing her praises enough.

“Every day she arrives at work, she brings her knowledge of cooking and happy spirit to the kitchen,” Fuentez said. “Her tasks are daunting, as she must ensure the coordination of the lunch meals for

Denair Middle School, Denair Elementary Charter Academy, and Reyn Franca School. 

“She takes her job seriously and makes sure everything in the central kitchen is flowing smoothly. When preparing meals for our middle school, she adds her special touch to make every meal inviting, tasty and nutritious.”

Baldwin takes special pride in making meals from scratch, which is one of department’s goals. Whether it’s beef fajitas, tri-tip sandwiches, baked drumsticks, minestrone soup, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches or Portuguese beans, Baldwin’s goal is to please students.

“I love to cook. I really do,” she said. “I like coming in here and cooking from raw, like fresh, home-made food. I like showing the kids new things they don’t normally taste or making something and they say, ‘It tastes just like my abuela’s.’ ”

Baldwin, like the rest of the food services staff, played a big role during the COVID lockdown, preparing and then distributing much-needed meals from the parking lot. Many of Denair’s 1,200 students rely on the district to provide breakfast, lunch and even an after-school snack. That was amplified during the pandemic.

“We weren’t just feeding our kids, we were feeding families from Turlock and Modesto,” she said. “I wish we could have done more, but we did the best we could.”

A couple of years ago, Baldwin’s big heart was again on display when the nearby Hickman School District needed help. Its food vendor gave it a two-day notice that it couldn’t provide any food for a few weeks. When Fuentez found out, she and Baldwin sprang into action to save the day.

“Honestly, Dida and I went into their kitchen and did what we normally do, figuring out a way to feed kids,” Fuentez said. “It was nothing out of the ordinary, except our concept about feeding kids was expanded to include kids from another district.”

Recalled Baldwin: “There was no way we were going to let an entire district not have food. What else were the kids going to do? We had to help.”

That response was much appreciated by Hickman Superintendent Trish Anderson, who thanked Fuentez and Baldwin in a letter to Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger.

“During our collaboration with your team,” Anderson wrote, “it was never once about adults, and how much work it was going to be to add us to Denair’s schedule.  Their conversation was strictly about kids and the nutritional needs of students.”

Baldwin never imagined such selfless acts would be recognized with the Every Employee Making a Difference award.

“I was speechless, to be honest,” she said about finding out she had been nominated. “I’m a very shy person. Going to the county, I was very nervous. I told Kim, I just like to hide in my kitchen and feed my kids.”

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