Since 2009, the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) has worked to bring more scratch cooking to schools through a variety of programs and resources. As they worked with districts throughout the country over the years, however, the nonprofit noticed that a lack of skilled labor in school kitchens was holding many teams back.
“A lot of school food teams have been underemployed for a long time,” says CAF Chief Executive Officer Mara Fleishman. “So we're currently in a national labor crisis, which has only exacerbated that issue, but traditionally, school food really has lacked the labor capacity to support the kind of excellence that I think we want to see as a country as far as healthy school meals go.”
The team started brainstorming ways they could help build the labor force, especially when it came to entry-level roles. They got in touch with the California Community College (CCC) system to see if they could work together to form a career pathway from the classroom to the school kitchen.
Shortly after, CAF also got in contact with the California Department of Labor, which helped them and CCC create formal, registered pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. CAF also created a fellowship program that is offered nationwide.
Known collectively as the Healthy School Food Pathway, CAF’s pre-apprentice, apprenticeship and fellowship programs are designed to help school foodservice professionals receive more hands-on experience and bring more scratch-made meals to students in return.
Learning opportunities at every stage of growth
The Healthy School Food Pathway is designed to offer school nutrition employees with varying degrees of experience, community college students and displaced or transitional workers in related industries the opportunity to grow their careers in school foodservice.
The entry-level, 7-week pre-apprenticeship program includes around 12 hours of on-site work per week at a host district along with about 40 hours of academic work through the School Food Institute. The program is intended for those with little to no experience in school nutrition and aims to give participants enough exposure to school foodservice to help them decide if a career in school food would be something they’re interested in pursuing.
Fleishman estimates that about a third of the pre-apprentices will decide to continue on to complete their apprenticeship. The 9-month apprenticeship program includes around 1,100 hours of on-site work at a host district during the school year and about 150 hours of academic work through the School Food Institute and The Institute for Child Nutrition.
While the pre-apprentice and apprentice programs only operate in California, CAF’s 12-month fellowship program is offered nationwide. It’s intended for mid-level school nutrition operators who are further along in their career and are interested in running their own school foodservice program that focuses on scratch-made meals. Fellows work directly with the school nutrition team at a host district, which offers them a variety of on-the-job development opportunities throughout the year.
“They kind of use their district as a kind of the lab for the fellowship,” says Fleishman. “So, these advisors work with them on live scenarios of what's happening in their district to help guide them on choices.”
Fellows also partake in a multi-day culinary training at the Institute for Child Nutrition and attend a conference called Scratch Works, which brings together school food professionals who do scratch cooking. They also complete a capstone project where they’re given funds to execute an initiative at their host district and later report on the results.
Building for the future
The CAF team is currently in the early planning stages to bring their pre-apprentice and apprentice programs to Colorado and Virginia.
As they work to expand to other states, they are conscientious of not simply replicating the same format used in California. Instead, they’re working with coalitions in each state that include different state departments and other stakeholders to find out what works for their state individually.
“These coalitions are built with agency representation from the Departments of Agriculture, the Departments of Education, the Departments of Labor, the community college system and a number of school food folks, so that everyone is kind of coming together to talk about the nuances in their state, and what kind of foundational elements can be implemented,” says Fleishman, who is hopeful that more states will be interested in the programs now that many of them are considering or already implementing universal free meals.
“We're in a labor crisis,” she says. “So automatically, I think now, states are thinking, ‘Okay, yes, we can pass universal or healthy school meals for all, but it's not going to fix the labor issues that our districts are having.’ So, they need to understand what is the labor strategy, and that is, I think, why people are connecting with us.”