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Utah school canteens struggle to find staff

West High School’s kitchen is reduced to a reduced team.

For kitchen supervisor Tonya Slaughter, this presents a daily struggle not just at her school, but throughout the Salt Lake City school district. Depending on the menu and the schools that need the most help, she said staff were moved from place to place.

The number of meals they have to prepare remains the same – around 1,300 a day – but they’ve reduced where they can, eliminating menu items that take too long to prepare.

Slaughter said the situation has also forced them to reduce the number of lunch lines, creating a bottleneck where students can wait up to 20 minutes for food.

“We don’t serve as many children because the queues are too long,” she said. “So they try to go get something else, even though lunch is free.”

She said students will often end up eating a candy bar or skipping lunch altogether.

Even before the pandemic, Kelly Orton, director of child nutrition for the district, had trouble finding people. But it has become exponentially difficult since, as many retirees who worked part-time in school kitchens for a little extra cash have left and never returned. Other employees have found jobs in restaurants or other industries that offer higher pay and benefits, such as working from home.

For a while the buildings and maintenance crew helped out, Orton said, but then they were supported in their own work. Teachers and administrators also filled in.

“We work together as best we can,” he said. “But the thing is, if you have a problem with child nutrition and feeding our children, it affects everyone who helps.”

Most funding for the Food Services Department comes from the federal government, said Orton, who recently voted to shut down some additional funding he provided during the pandemic. Given the rising cost of food and labor, he said it will likely force districts to make tough choices next year.

As a last resort, the Salt Lake City School District recently released a call for volunteers in its kitchens, in addition to raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers to $15/hour. The state also recently launched Adopt a schoola program designed to bring additional resources to schools from local businesses.

Orton said he hopes the two efforts will bring more support. Otherwise, he doesn’t know what to do.

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion