Eric Enciso couldn’t believe his ears when a young student approached him and asked: “Are you rich?”
Enciso, director of nutrition services at Colton Unified School District in California, responded that he was “rich in love and family.” He was wearing a tie and a tucked-in shirt that day, and, after asking the student, realized that his clothes made him think he was wealthy.
Immediately his mind went to his childhood. Growing up in a blue collar family, his uncles, his parents all wore work uniforms. He realized the importance of being a successful role model for his students in the mostly Hispanic community he serves, but he also saw himself in that kid and in his innocent question.
Enciso’s parents migrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, escaping poverty and hunger. They worked hard everyday for better opportunities for their children.
“You hear that phrase so often that it almost becomes cliche, that they came here with nothing, but truly they did,” shared Enciso.
He remembers his parents cooking rice and beans as a staple in the household to make ends meet. He remembers his mom leaving for work early and leaving a cooked meal on the stove top and then coming back in the evening to cook another meal before leaving for an English class.
This background has helped him build a leadership based on empathy.
“I don't ask them to do something that I wouldn't ask my mom to do,” he said about his “lunch ladies and food dudes,” explaining how their happiness was one of the most important metrics.
This happiness keeps his staff going through the constant and ever-changing challenges of serving school meals today when kids need them more than anything.
During the pandemic, he witnessed first-hand many families in his community experiencing homelessness and living in motels. Many of these families are working hard - like his own parents - doing their best to make it for their children. The nutrition staff is always there to help in difficult times with a smile.
“You never know when that one smile is gonna mean the most to that kid,” Enciso shared.
And it’s so much more than just meals. Lunch at school, breakfast and summer meals on blankets in the park are some of the best memories Enciso had growing up. He wants kids to have those joyful moments too. He wants them to never have to worry about a meal but for them to always be readily available.
“I want them to look at a meal, no other way that they would look at a book or a pencil,” he explained. “It's just something that's gonna help me fuel my body to get to the next level.”
With No Kid Hungry funding, Enciso was able to create marketing materials and decorate the van delivering meals during the summer. This made it easier for families to recognize the van and learn about the free meals. He also purchased electric grab-n-go meal carts because he wouldn’t ask his mom to push heavy meal carts and they can make a difference between a kid getting the meals that are free for all students in the district.
Enciso is proud to be Mexican American, of his parents migration story, their work ethic and the delicious food. He is grateful for the opportunities that America has given and proud to give back to his community.
This Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate leaders like Eric Encisco who are feeding children in communities across America. As a person who they can relate to, he is in a unique position to inspire his students and show them that they can continue being “rich in family and love.”