How a school FSD in a small town approaches staffing

FoodService Director recently spoke with directors across the country to learn how they’re contending with today’s tough labor market. One was Sally Spero, child nutrition director of Lakeside Union School in Lakeside, Calif. Read on for her thoughts on recruiting and retention.

food service labor staff

FSD: How are your staffing issues unique compared to what those from a large city might experience?

Spero: One thing is that the population is very stable, with not a lot of people coming or going, so the workforce reflects that stability. Staff members have a shared history—be it school, community or church. Many people who work for us, therefore, seem to have concurrent relationships. It’s a different dynamic about how you manage things. People in our dining employ all share similar values and are like-minded over a lot of issues. This helps build a level of camaraderie as they go about their work.

You have several family members on staff. What are some things to keep in mind when family members work the same line or same section of a cafeteria?

This can be difficult to manage. People get overinvolved and overprotective of each other, so we separate them as much as possible. If you have two siblings together making salad, we would be inclined to shift one to a bread-making function while the other continues to make salad just to make sure they’re on task without familial distractions. When we have a parent and child working on the same line, for instance, we ask that the child (typically an adult) call the parent by their first name.

How do you keep long-term employees engaged in their assignments?

We have several, both female and male employees, who are just happy to work one or two shifts a day (around six hours) and have other things going on in their lives. I try to establish ongoing training for those who are not looking at their job as a stepping stone. The reason is that the training keeps them up to speed on the evolving nature of school dining. The dilemma you face is that people who are here for 15 years might think they know everything, but they really don’t. Training helps resolve that.

How do you integrate new hires?

For starters, it’s important to integrate new workers with long-tenured ones not only so the new worker can learn from the experienced one about work responsibilities, but it allows for new relationships to be formed. A new worker who might be a transplant from another city can learn about the essence of their new community—it makes for a smoother integration.

How are dining staff perceived by students compared to teachers, coaches and administrative workers?

One thing I’ve seen is kids might establish a friendly, mentor-type rapport with a custodian or cafeteria worker just as easily as they would a teacher. So it’s incumbent for us to make our staff cognizant about any type of “red flags” they might see with students: signs of suicide or trouble at home, like abuse. Some kids come into the dining hall before they go to class, so that’s where a cafe worker can detect those signs before teachers do. The right training to identify these things is essential.

How important is it to acknowledge the service of longtime workers, and how do you approach it?

It’s important to honor workers with sustained service. We might present a certificate or plaque to a worker at different intervals or milestones of service—and how we do it is all commensurate with time served. The more time a worker has spent on the job might mean presenting them with a more elaborate certificate. We also like to reward longer-tenured workers with assignments that offer more job responsibility. 

What has been your greatest staffing success story?

It’s always gratifying to see an employee that has been with us a while achieve full benefits, which is 30 hours per week. I had three single mothers working for me who had to sacrifice a lot because of their medical benefits dilemma. One hadn’t been to the dentist in years but made an appointment once receiving benefits; another didn’t let her children play sports because they were afraid to risk injury and potentially prohibitive medical bills. So seeing this is very gratifying.

What is the single biggest challenge to staffing at your operation?

The good news is that I have not been faced with many challenges. I have 40 people on staff. We don’t experience much turnover, with the only example being two workers who recently retired. We’ll see the occasional “problem worker” with a chronic record of missed days, but other than that it’s been very positive.

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