Why We Need Professionals in Cafeterias, Not Just Classrooms

Here's how we can keep the Salt Lake City school food debacle from happening again.

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When we send our children off to school, we expect – rightfully so – that they will be taught by professionals trained in childhood development, instructional methods, and, most importantly, the subject matter they are teaching. Can you imagine a kindergarten teacher who can’t recognize early childhood milestones, a geometry teacher who can’t explain how a proof works or a music teacher who is not trained to read music? We wouldn’t stand for it.

Yet across the nation, lunchroom staff people who lack culinary skills or basic understanding of childhood nutrition are feeding our kids. We trust our children’s minds only to trained professionals. Shouldn’t the same standards apply to our children’s bodies and health?

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated, “If we’re going to close the achievement gap in our country, we need to close the nutrition gap.” Healthy school food is just as important as academics for children’s success at school. Hungry kids can’t think, and malnourished kids can’t learn. Real food prepared by trained staff is a big part of the solution.

[Read: Hungry Vs. Healthy: The School Lunch Controversy.]

There’s a movement across the country to bring culinary skills back into school cafeterias. I say bring “back,” because school food wasn’t always prepared by underpaid, part-time workers asked to open cans, unwrap frozen entrees and reheat food. Up until the late-‘70s, school cafeterias were staffed by full-time cooks who spent all day preparing meals from real ingredients. To bring that back, school districts must invest in fresh food and new equipment. (The United States Department of Agriculture’s recent announcement of $11 million in grant funding for new school food equipment is a great start, but we need $110 million to really make a dent and $1.1 billion to effect change across the nation.) And just as importantly, they need to invest in their people.

Organizations such as LiveWell Colorado and the Orfalea Foundation in California have made great strides in bringing culinary skills back to school kitchens. Their training programs have re-introduced kitchen staff to large-scale batch cooking, what real food should actually taste like and taking recipes to scale. But the problem is systemic, and so is the solution. We aren’t going to change the culture of school food until we establish professional training and standards at the national level.

The USDA took that step in January when they introduced their new professional standards for school food personnel as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Their proposed rule introduces minimum education and experience requirements for food service directors and outlines training requirements for directors, managers and staff.

[Read: The Case for Sticking With the New School Lunch Program.]

While the requirements for directors and managers are significant, what excites me the most is the required annual eight hours of training for the line staff that works 20 hours or more per week (and recommended training for staff that works less). This is where we’ll see the biggest payoff for the investment. The employees who prepare and serve our children food are the ones directly interacting with kids, and the more they understand about nutrition, food safety and health standards, the bigger a difference in students’ lives. We need to educate everyone – not just the directors.

I applaud the USDA for these long-needed standards, and my big hope is that culinary skills become a part of the certification program they are developing. This will go a long way in transitioning school kitchens back to scratch-cook models.

My other big hope is that these standards mark a new era that values school food and results in greater financial investment. The need to professionalize school food staff is part of a bigger, systemic problem: the view that the purpose of school food is profit. As a result, lunchroom staff are among the poorest paid employees in any school district, often earning lower wages than custodians. Feeding children healthy food is as important as maintaining a clean, safe environment. Additionally, school food budgets are now so tight that directors and staff are often forced to make decisions that benefit no one and are purely about the bottom line.

[Read: Is the Fox Guarding the Hen House? Big Business in School Food.]

Last week, the Internet was ablaze with indignant comments about the Salt Lake City elementary school that took lunches away from almost 40 students and threw them away, because they didn’t have enough money in their accounts to pay for them. And while the full story behind the decision isn’t out, I suspect the district’s school staff was in the same position as thousands of others throughout the country: pressured to make a profit or at least break even – while trying to create nutritious meals for approximately 90 cents to $1.25 in food costs for each.

They simply cannot maintain a balanced budget and keep serving food to children whose parents can’t (or won’t) pay. A recent survey conducted by the Herald Journal in Utah showed that more than 90 percent of the respondents disagreed with the school’s decision, as any sane person would. I would follow up with a more difficult question: Where should the money come from to cover the cost of those unpaid lunches? We must value school food enough to invest in it fully, ensuring that no staff person is ever forced to decide between a budget and empty bellies.

If we professionalize school food, if we learn to value school food service staff and the work they do to nourish children, if we invest in school food the same way we invest in academics –  without expectation of profits other than our children’s wellness and growth – then we will see real change. And what happened in Utah won’t happen again, because school food professionals will be operating from a position of pride, knowledge and accomplishment, rather than a position of pressure and fear.

[Read: Time, Not Calories, May Leave High School Students Feeling Hungry.]