When Zena Reta (pronounced “Zay-nah Reh-dah”) was looking for a career change, she knew she wanted to make a difference. She had been working as a glazier — someone who works with glass and windows — on construction sites after her tours in the middle east as a mechanic with the Army National Guard. Construction was interesting work, but she didn’t feel like she had the same impact on her team or her projects as she does at Hiawatha.

As cafeteria manager at Hiawatha Collegiate High School, Zena orders the food and supplies; checks the food delivery to make sure scholars will have everything they need for a healthy, complete meal; prepares the cucumbers, radishes and other vegetables for the salad bar; and cleans up before and after meals. “Food service is very important for our scholars,” she said. “In order to come to school ready to learn and able to focus, they need proper nutrition. It feels good to know we are providing them that opportunity.”

School lunch looks a lot different now than when Zena was in high school. Her favorite meal was pizza and french fries, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. “I don’t think I could get white bread near a school if I wanted to!” she laughed. Now scholars enjoy whole grains, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and diverse food selections from Latin American or Asian cuisines.

Zena loves her job because she is able to use her analytical thinking skills to make sure everything runs smoothly. She also enjoys getting to know the scholars better, and says she sees them mature more and more with each passing week. “More scholars have been saying ‘thank you’ to me when they take their trays and saying ‘hello’ to me when they see me in the hallways,” she said. “Those small gestures mean a lot.”

In her free time, Zena enjoys cooking on her stone pizza oven in her backyard in North Minneapolis, traveling (including to Ethiopia, where she has family), and reading fiction novels.