South Philadelphia: Lone Lunch Lady Facilitates Feeding Frenzy

The only chef for Nebinger School, Ceniza arrives at 6:30 a.m. every weekday to unload truck deliveries and begin to prepare breakfast.

Cora Ceniza devours Filipino fish dishes. Her students grin at the sight of meatballs and hot dogs.

Working for a catering company for 11 years became too exhausting for the 48-year-old Filipino immigrant.

Needless to say, Ceniza’s tastes are a little different than the first through eighth graders at George W. Nebinger School, where Ceniza serves as the lone lunch lady.

Ceniza arrives at Nebinger every morning at 6:30 to meet the delivery truck, unload the food and begin preparing breakfast. Since the kitchen is on a separate floor than the cafeteria – which doubles as a gym – Ceniza carts the food to the stairs and carries everything up and down the flights.

After serving breakfast at 8:45 a.m., Ceniza returns to her kitchen to begin work on the day’s three lunch periods.

“People say, ‘Cora, why don’t you go to a different school with a kitchen closer to the lunch room,’ but I like it here,” Ceniza said.

Ceniza said hot dogs and meatballs are one of Nebinger students' favorite meals.

“The nicer kitchens in the Northeast are so far,” Ceniza, who lives at 16th and McKean streets, added. “Here, I don’t have to wake up early. I can wake up and be on the bus and here in 10 minutes.”

Despite the extra legwork required working in an older school, Ceniza said she enjoys working with the kids. Before moving to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993, she taught for 10 years.

She worked for a catering company for 11 years before coming to Nebinger, but the work began to take its toll on Ceniza, now 48. In her fifth year, she said she still likes what she does even though it can get just as stressful.

“It’s like World War II down there,” she said jokingly while packing up Monday’s lunch for the second eating period.