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Staff shortages plague Bay Area school kitchens as demand for meals goes up

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On a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Miller Middle School in San Jose, kids were rushing in and out of the cafeteria giddy with excitement. The lunch menu was popular on this day. There was a chipotle chicken salad, fresh strawberries, and best of all, hot slices of pizza.

Seven-hundred students stopped by to pick up lunch, now free to every one under a two-year-old state law. That was more than 60% of the student body — a busy day for the school’s food staff as student after student wound through the line.

At least that day, no one from the kitchen crew had called in sick or had to stay home with an ill child. No one was injured or had jury duty.

When that happens, it’s all hands on deck.

“When a person is out, a lot of times we don’t have a sub because there’s so little,” said Tamra Rodriguez, the kitchen supervisor at Miller Middle School, which is part of the Cupertino Unified district. “A lot of times that means everybody else has to soak up a little bit more work, and it’s hard. It’s a long day.”

Cupertino Unified, San Francisco Unified, Fremont Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified and several other Bay Area school districts are struggling to recruit and retain food workers at their on-campus kitchens.

During the 2022–23 school year, a statewide survey of 190 school nutrition departments found 12% of food staff positions in California schools were vacant, a rate three times greater than open teaching positions across the country.

This type of work is more in demand than ever before in California. In 2022, the state became the first in the nation to provide free breakfast and lunch to all school children regardless of income. In the two years since, school meal participation has increased on average by more than 3%. That number is even higher in schools where fewer students were previously eligible for free meals.

At Cupertino Unified, the staffing shortage at the beginning of the school year was dire. The district had seven open positions out of a staff of 61 people, and had already seen a 45% boost in the number of lunches served per day after the introduction of universal meals.

Nicole Meschi, the district’s senior director of nutrition services, was filling in at school sites up to four times a week and frequently calling on employees to pull longer shifts.

“It’s a physically demanding job…asking them to work extra every single day for days and weeks on end is tiresome,” she said. “You risk burnout and not being able to even have them come in and cover their own shift.”

The annual turnover rate for school kitchen employees in the Bay Area sits at 12%, and is even higher for part-time positions. Low wages and inadequate hours are the greatest contributors to staff shortages, according to the study conducted by the California School Nutrition Association and Chef Ann Foundation in partnership with Food Insight Group.

Entry level wages for local school food workers range from $18 to $26, generally with some benefits if they work 6 hours or more per day. But the lower end of that wage spectrum may soon not be enough to keep employees. Beginning in April, California’s minimum wage for fast-food workers will increase to $20 per hour.

“To make these jobs competitive…the profession has to change that perception of what it means to be a school food professional, and also tie that wage to it by increasing the monetary value of the time of those individuals doing the job,” said Emily Gallivan, the senior director of California workforce programs at the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit striving to promote scratch-cooking in schools instead of using prepared foods.

Staff shortages in school kitchens lead to more last-minute menu revisions, longer lines and pre-packaged meals for kids.

At San Ramon Valley Unified, kitchen crews aspire to provide more meals made from scratch, such as turkey chili with cornbread, spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese. But this summer, the district had 50 open kitchen positions to fill. They’re now down to 19 vacancies, but the challenge of hiring and keeping employees continues. And the quality of the food can take a hit.

“You have to adjust the menu. With less staff, you have to serve more of what are called heat-and-serve items that require less labor,” said Zetta Reicker, the district’s director of child nutrition.

To ease staffing issues, San Ramon Valley has started hosting all-day hiring events to find food workers. In one Saturday afternoon, a potential employee can come to the main office, fill out an application, get fingerprinted for a background check, and interview on the spot — effectively bypassing a lengthy hiring and onboarding process that can take weeks.

And they’re not the only district trying inventive techniques to find and retain workers. Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County provides affordable housing for food staff who work at least 17.5 hours a week. Dublin Unified offers kitchen employees some health benefits if they work four or more hours a day.

Mount Diablo Unified in Contra Costa County has started putting a QR code on top of its breakfast and lunch menus to attract more substitute food staff applicants.

Since the introduction of universal meals, California has allocated more funds to cover the additional costs and labor behind free breakfast and lunch for all students. Schools across the state have used the money to add more kitchen staff positions, but districts have had limited success filling those roles.

At Cupertino Unified, Nicole Meschi said the free meals have been a resounding success in the district. Fewer kids are going hungry and children no longer face the stigma of needing to receive food at school. But she still needs more employees to get these meals into the hands of students. She’s still trying to fill two positions that have been open since the start of the school year.

“It really takes manpower and people,” she said, “and it’s really hard to maintain consistency and quality when you have a fluctuation in how many people are either permanently working for you or how many people are able to show up every day.”



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