clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Improving School Cafeteria Lunches Starts With Who’s in the Kitchen

California’s $45 million program to train more cafeteria aims for better, healthier meals — but labor shortages remain a significant challenge

Student carrying two dishes containing rice and vegetables on a cafeteria tray. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

When beef brisket is on the menu, Erin Primer relies on an assistant superintendent to tie on an apron, grab a knife, and help slice meat. “Any additional bodies that come in and offer some type of relief, whether it’s wrapping a burger, plating a salad, any of those additional hands are helpful,” she says.

Primer, the food and nutrition services director at San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo, California, is down 13 people on a team that typically totals 40. About 200 miles north, in the Santa Clara Unified School District, bus drivers pitch in to help serve food, as do some older students. The pandemic has left school kitchens across the country in dire need of workers. Last fall, 95 percent of school districts reported labor shortages in a School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey.

When Primer learned of a program that would recruit school kitchen trainees and pay them to learn the tools of the trade, she immediately volunteered to host and train a few of the inaugural participants. The program is known as the Healthy School Food Pathway program (HSFP), and was created by the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing healthy scratch-cooked meals in schools.

Mara Fleishman, CEO of the Chef Ann Foundation, says the program officially launched last year as a three-year pilot program in California. Fleishman says HSFP aims to address a problem the organization has repeatedly run into during its 13 years supporting schools trying to boost scratch cooking. “We were going in, helping districts change for two or three years and then the food services director would get a job at another district, and they wouldn’t be able to fill that position with someone who had scratch cook program experience,” she says. “There wasn’t someone below them to move up.”

Primer, who strives to prepare at least half of the district’s meals from scratch, had worked with the Chef Ann Foundation before and saw HSFP as offering two advantages at once: it added to the number of available on-deck hands and it helped cut a path toward a more skilled workforce overall.

“If we really want to talk about moving the needle of school food, elevating our programs, we definitely need that skilled labor,” says Primer.

While HSFP teaches the basics of school food — portion size, nutritional guidelines, procurement — its main mission is to create a pipeline of cooks ready to tackle the daunting transition of moving hundreds, maybe thousands, of meals a day from mostly pre-packaged food to scratch cooking using as many fresh ingredients as possible.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration has prioritized improving school food, and in the 2022–2023 budget, the state committed $45 million for the HSFP program. Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the SNA, says this program helps address a long, stubborn labor shortage. “Bringing new people into the profession has always been a challenge,” says Pratt-Heavner. “But it has become more urgent since the pandemic.”

School cafeterias tend to attract older workers, she says, and many opted to retire early when schools shut down in the spring of 2020. But other forces are also leading to understaffed kitchens. Though California and several other states have adopted free meals for all kids (or are on the way to doing so), the universal school meal program introduced during the pandemic has ended in many other parts of the country. Districts anticipate a dip in meal participation this year, meaning a drop in federal meal reimbursements. And if revenue decreases, it may be harder to staff vacant positions.

On top of that, Karen Luna, director of nutrition services at Santa Clara Unified, believes the unflattering reputation of the school lunch line has long kept many potential workers away. “The mystery meat or the chef special, it’s hard to overcome that,” she says. “But we’re serving food that’s healthy for kids.”

Building the Pipeline

On a recent Friday, Gabby Flores zipped around a snug school kitchen about the size of a freight elevator. With about 30 minutes until lunch, she scooped mac and cheese into 8-ounce paper cups and transferred refrigerated bins of lettuce, corn, and cherry tomatoes to a salad bar in a multi-purpose room that echoed with the tinny squeaks of kids playing trumpets.

Flores oversees the kitchen at Scott Lane Elementary in Santa Clara, California, and is also an apprentice with HSFP. She had helped in the district’s kitchens before, and last year applied to the program with the goal of one day planning and cooking school meals. “I like to cook from scratch. I make my own ketchup, my own bread,” she says. “I like to cook for kids.”

She was one of nine people chosen to participate in what HSFP calls a “pre-apprenticeship,” basically a seven-week, 100-hour commitment of instruction and on-the-job training. Pre-apprentices are paid minimum wage. During the pre-apprenticeship, Flores trained at one of the district’s middle schools. She learned how to cut open cauliflower and other fruits and vegetables to inspect for insects or rot, how to safely handle a meat slicer, and use a combination oven — a coveted school kitchen appliance that can steam broccoli in two minutes, perfectly brown a grill cheese in three minutes, and slowly roast meat overnight.

Fleishman of the Chef Ann Foundation says this brief introduction to school kitchens allows participants to get a glimpse into school food production to gauge whether or not they want to pursue a full-time career. “We know that it won’t be for everyone,” she says.

Of last year’s nine trainees, three, including Flores, opted to proceed to the formal apprenticeship, which consists of 1,200 hours of work and classes over nine months, with a small pay raise of $1 above the minimum wage offered in their county.

While three out of nine may seem like a low number, Fleishman says HSFP was designed to cast a wide net. She expects only about 30 percent of pre-apprentices to move forward to the full apprenticeship. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t saddling school food programs with apprentices that have no idea what school food is about,” she says. “We feel the folks that move onto the apprenticeship will be the ones who want to take school food seriously as a career choice.”

It is, after all, a demanding job — and one that Karen Luna of Santa Clara Unified says can become overwhelming for new hires. “They’re cooking 10 different things at one time. They need to be good at multitasking and work well with people,” she says.

HSFP is the first federally registered apprenticeship program for scratch cooking school food operators, and the California pilot will last three years. Colorado and Virginia are exploring adopting the program as well.

In California, most of the $45 million is funneled through community colleges that will offer the academic side of the program. Those campuses are also where HSFP hopes to lure students away from culinary and dietetic programs and into school food.

Fleishman says by the third year of the pilot, the goal is to have trained 1,300 pre-apprentices, with around 350 moving on to apprenticeships and, possibly, full-time careers in kitchens. To accommodate this pipeline, Fleishman says, HSFP will need to encourage school food service directors to increase their scratch-cook operations and become host sites for the trainees.

“Currently we don’t have enough districts actually doing scratch cooking to facilitate the amount of pre-apprentices that we need to get into the system,” she says. To address that, part of the $45 million will go toward supporting districts that want to cook healthier, fresher meals with the training to do so.

This year, eight districts are participating in HSFP, up from four last year. (California has more than 1,000 school districts.) At Santa Clara Unified, Flores says she wants to stay in school kitchens after her apprenticeship is complete, but she would rather work at one of the middle or high schools where more scratch cooking takes place in large 30-gallon kettles and those do-it-all combination ovens.

There’s no guarantee apprentices will stick with the district where they were trained. Primer’s two pre-apprentices moved on from San Luis Coastal after their 100 hours were complete. Pratt-Heavner says as more districts move toward scratch cooking, HSFP will likely help build a more skilled workforce. But if kitchens remain understaffed, meal quality could still suffer. “If you don’t have a full staff, even having people with scratch-cooking skills may not help,” she says.

Selling School Food

Karen Luna walks through the kitchen at Buchser Middle School and peeks at some freshly made marinara sauce bubbling in a kettle. The tomatoes were grown in the district’s 11-acre school garden lined with 300 fruit trees and multiple vegetable patches. Whenever potential workers tour the kitchen and are treated to leftovers like coffee cake baked from scratch, she finds herself myth-busting. “A lot of people are surprised we make food from scratch,” she says. (California’s HSFP investment includes a marketing campaign to rebrand school kitchens and the people who work in them.)

Santa Clara Unified, like so many school districts in California, is serving a lot more food than in years past. With universal school meals, Luna’s meal participation rate increased from a pre-pandemic 48 percent to more than 60 percent. Primer says her meal participation rate has climbed by 52 percent. “That’s unheard of,” she says.

Her staff hasn’t kept pace. With 13 positions empty, Primer has had to make adjustments: Rather than make a popular in-house hummus, she now buys it from a local vendor, for instance. And although her two pre-apprentices ended up leaving, she’s ready to bring on the next set of HSFP trainees later this fall. She believes the program will elevate school meals, and she appreciates the much-needed help. Still, she knows it’s not a cure-all, and she worries the competition for an already small pool of skilled kitchen workers may soon get even tougher. California recently passed a law that created better protections for fast food workers and could lead to a boost in the minimum wage in that industry up to $22 an hour — much more than Primer can offer.

“If I’m at $16 to $19 an hour for my most basic position and the fast-food place across the street is at $22, how am I going to compete with that?” she asks. “I think both things need to happen. We need to have really incredible programs we can stand behind — and really good wages that we can offer to our people.”

For Healthier School Meals, California Bets On More Cooks in the Kitchen [Civil Eats]