The state of K-12 foodservice: Tackling labor pains

Operators have been thinking outside the box to address a myriad of pandemic-related staffing concerns.
Illustration: FSD staff

Over half of FSD survey respondents (52%) say that staff shortages and employee illness have been challenges during the pandemic, and 17% say they have needed to implement furloughs. As such, some school nutrition teams are looking outside of their own departments to ensure they have enough hands on decks to operate.

Administrative staff at Plymouth School District in Plymouth, Wis., have jumped in to help serve meals, and Kelloggsville Public Schools has tapped bus drivers from neighboring districts to assist during their downtime. “Finding enough subs is a constant struggle,” says Janet Dusendang, assistant food service director for the Wyoming, Mich., district.  

“Our school district is in this together, and we are pulling people from everywhere to fill in where they're needed,” says Miriam Durnell, food service director at Weaubleau R-III in Weaubleau, Mo. “We have three student aides that assist in bagging silverware and other items on our grab-and-go salad bar. We also hired an extra person to help in the afternoon with the super snack meal that is provided at the end of the school day.” 

Safety concerns

Keeping staff safe during the pandemic has been a top priority for nutrition teams.

“Everyone is aware of where everyone else is during production and all other tasks in the kitchens,” says Terri Rood, nutrition services lead coordinator at Sisters School District in Sisters, Ore. “We are not shy and will offer assistance to each other to maintain the 6 ft. and keep the PPE in place. There’s lots of sanitizing in between every different action.” 

66% of school operators have implemented temperature checks for staff, while 15% have had employees work in staggered shifts to reduce overlap.

Alongside social distancing and PPE, Manhattan Beach Unified School District in Manhattan Beach, Calif., has staff assess their own symptoms, something 83% of operators also say they are doing. 

“Our district has a daily health screening check-in and an end of day Google form survey for contact tracing,” says Director of Food and Nutrition Lena Agee.

Staying motivated

As essential workers, school nutrition professionals have faced continuous strain as the pandemic stretches on. Here are some ways directors are keeping staff—and themselves—motivated during this stressful time. 

I’m visiting each school as often as I can, letting [staff] know how important they are and bringing them a surprise treat when they feel overwhelmed, such as their favorite coffee or a sweet treat.”

Dana Boldt 
Director of Food Services
Honeoye Falls-Lima CSD
Honeoye Falls, N.Y.

“Sometimes, we listen to motivating music while working. We boost each other by sharing uplifting news. I like to give them small reminders each week about how the students enjoy seeing them so they know that the school, staff, parents and students appreciate all they do.”

Roseann Jones
Cafeteria Manager
St. John School
Ashtabula, Ohio

“Keeping [staff] involved in menu planning, asking their opinions about adjustments we need to make to feed the children safely.”

Sherri Kobs
School Nutrition Coordinator
Necedah Area School District
Necedah, Wis.

“Sending a weekly ‘positive thought for the week,’ encouraging them to exercise, eat right and take care of themselves through self-care information.”

Sally Nicholson
Food Service Director
Lexington County SD One
Lexington, S.C.

“Stressing the importance of feeding students, during a pandemic or during so-called normal times. We are being given the opportunity to make a difference. We are the custodians of most adults' most precious item in their lives, their children. What an honor to be so trusted!”

Donna Frazier
Food Service Director
Cameron R-1 Schools
Cameron, Mo.

“We have a department wellness committee, a recognition committee, safety committee and menu committee—all provide a variety of ways for our team members to share ideas and give input on our decisions. I have held small virtual gatherings with a few team members and myself, regular weekly communication out to the entire team with updates. … We also provided them with department hats, shirts, ponchos and stress reduction packets in the spring.”

Whitney Ellersick
Senior Director of Nutrition
Portland Public Schools
Portland, Ore.

“We choose to have upbeat music on in the kitchen, and I hand out star of the week to my staff for silly reasons, anything to make them laugh.”

Betsy Statler
Food Service Director
St. Anne High School District 302/St. Anne Grade School District 256
St. Anne, Ill.

“Sharing thank-you messages from the parents and community, giving staff little tokens of thanks, [such as] apples from the local orchard, popcorn, a Halloween basket with goodies and masks.”

Beth Yaksich
Food Service Director
Perkiomen Valley
Collegeville, Pa.

“We just purchased winter coats with the school logo on them for curbside service.”

Kim Hinrichs
Food Service Director
Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools, 877
Buffalo, Minn. 

See the full results of FSD's second annual survey on the state of K-12 foodservice.



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