By Kelsey Casselbury 2015-10-05 21:46:43
How can managers and directors effectively handle language barriers in a school nutrition setting? Start by understanding the perceptions and realities of your multilingual kitchen. Quick, tell us, what’s the Spanish word for “Spoodle?” What about “tablespoon” or “teaspoon?” Or even simply “scoop?” In Spanish, all of these common cooking terms translate to just one word: cuchara, which means “spoon.” Imagine, then, how difficult it is for a native Spanish speaker to understand basic recipe directions, such as “Add a tablespoon of baking powder and a teaspoon of salt,” or “Use a No. 8 spoodle to portion out 25 servings.” Some might say that foodservice employees have a responsibility to learn the basic English words and phrases that affect their position in the kitchen. When it comes to safety (both food and personal) and adhering to K-12 nutrition standards and other regulatory requirements, that just might be true. But it’s rarely that easy—nor is it the reality that many school nutrition managers and directors face when dealing with day-to-day operations in the cafeteria. At SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) in July 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah, three school nutrition veterans—Gabriela Pacheco, RDN, of Gabriela Pacheco Nutrition Consulting, Sandra Kemp, SNS, executive director, Albuquerque (N.M.) Public Schools, and Dora Rivas, RD, SNS, then-executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services, Dallas (Texas) Independent School District and an SNA past president—hosted a pre-conference session titled, “English, Spanish or Spanglish?” It examined the multilingual school nutrition environment and the management challenges that can come with working with non-English speakers. Although the session focused primarily on Spanish speakers, as they are by far the most prevalent in the United States, it became quickly apparent that school kitchens are as much of a melting pot as the entire country. In fact, Kemp states that she has one school site in which eight different languages are spoken in the cafeteria! A Tower of Babble? In some communities, between students, parents and staff, several dozen languages are spoken throughout the district. While SN ’s research wasn’t able to identify specific percentage breakdowns of non-English speakers in K-12 foodservice operations, we can take a more general look at some of the most prevalent languages spoken throughout the United States. As you might expect, Spanish is the most common of the non-English languages, with more than 37 million speakers as of 2013. In 1980, there were just 11 million Spanish speakers, meaning the percentage of native Spanish speakers exploded by 233% in 23 years. Additionally, Latinos—defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race”—make up 16% of the full-time employee population and 15% of the part-time employee population. This number is expected to grow 2.5% annually through 2022. However, to assume that Spanish is the only non-English language you’ll encounter in a K-12 school nutrition operation would be short-sighted. More than 2.8 million people in this country speak some dialect of Chinese, according to the 2011 Census Bureau; another nearly 1.6 million speak Tagalog, a language from the Philippines; and more than 1.4 million speak Vietnamese. You also might hear French, German, Korean, Russian and Italian, among others. And don’t think that it’s just the big cities or border communities with significant populations of non-native English speakers. Beyond the multitude of languages, each also has dialect subsets, which poses an even greater challenge in foodservice settings. “[The employees] can’t necessarily communicate among themselves either,” notes Kemp in Albuquerque. “You can be bilingual, but not come up with the same word for the same item.” In that vein, even translators or a helpful bilingual employee trying to interpret for others can’t be relied upon to resolve the difficulties that can ensue. Straight Talk About Language Barriers And what are those difficulties? To start, language barriers can lead to morale problems and undervalued employees. “Sometimes, when someone can’t speak English, there’s a perception that they’re not smart,” Rivas said during the ANC presentation. “If someone is language-limited, you might have the perception that they can’t help you problem-solve.” In reality, instructions are simply coming too fast for someone who isn’t a native English speaker. Solution: Slow down! Because those same non-English speakers can’t come up with words fast enough to express their ideas or questions, they also might feel like their ideas and skills aren’t valued as part of the overall team. Pacheco, who has managed consulting and translation work for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as the Institute of Child Nutrition (formerly the National Food Service Management Institute), warns that school nutrition operations are competing with other segments in foodservice, including restaurants, for these valuable employees. “To keep them, we need to make them feel comfortable,” she advises. Additionally, Kemp has found, a multi-language workplace can cause interpersonal conflicts. “We allow [the staff] to speak their language of choice, as long as they understand the English that is spoken to them by the manager.” But she recounts instances of insecure employees who think their colleagues are speaking negatively or gossiping about them in another language. “We need to encourage teamwork during the break times,” advised Rivas at ANC, “Because people start to clique, and it affects the work relationship—and [the breaks are] a great time to learn language from each other.” While these are all legitimate concerns when it comes to employee morale and teamwork, there are even greater concerns: food safety, personal safety in the kitchen and compliance with nutrition standards, portion sizes, standardized recipes and the many other complex requirements of a school nutrition operation. Let’s start by looking at the implication of language barriers on food and kitchen safety. At the ANC session, one participant offered up an anecdote: When teaching a ServSafe class, the acronym “FAT TOM” was used as a memoric service (memory aide). Most English-speaking foodservice employees could use this acronym to identify the conditions that can lead to foodborne pathogens: food, acidity, time, temperature, oxygen and moisture. For non-English speakers, though, such a reminder wouldn’t make any sense. It wouldn’t help get across the key factors, nor would it help employees to retain these in memory. When it comes to steps related to food safety, food allergies, cleaning and sanitation and basic kitchen safety—four areas with literal life-or-death implications—a school nutrition supervisor must ensure that all employees of all language abilities understand written and verbal procedures. This means employees must be able to comprehend the label instructions on a cleaning product, the ingredients list on a food item to identify allergens, any cautionary warnings about proper equipment use and the details of food handling directions, particularly regarding Critical Control Point specifics. And then there’s the matter of the steps to prepare and serve reimbursable meals, ensuring compliance with continually changing regulations. There’s little to no room for flexibility in recipe preparation and meal assembly. Portions must be exact. Staff must understand the specific components that students are required to take. It can be very confusing, even for native English speakers! Say It With Graphics The key to these, and so many other language—and literacy—challenges in K-12 school nutrition programs, is surprisingly simple: Use pictures. Pacheco credits Cynthia Burton, foodservice director, Northside (Texas) Independent School District, a Texas dietitian who has developed pictorial guides for her staff of the menu items that do and don’t constitute a reimbursable meal. This approach applies in other areas, too. For example, many cleaning products today feature simple illustrations on labels to help convey key instructions. Do a web search and you are sure to find an array of posters demonstrating proper handwashing techniques and many other kitchen safety steps. In fact, most school districts and state agencies are more than willing to share materials and resources that they’ve created with colleagues across county and state lines. Make some time to use the Internet to research what may be available to you for free. Start by visiting state agency sites; simply type “[State] Department of Child Nutrition” or some variation of those words into your search engine. There are some materials you can and should develop on your own. For example, when developing a standardized recipe, consider taking photographs of each preparation step and make these a part of the recipe file. (Indeed, Kemp wishes that manufacturers would include similar graphics and illustrations with their product packaging—or at least post such reference materials online for customers to download.) As for helping to keep students with food allergies safe, one of Kemp’s former managers devised a brilliant solution to identifying at-risk children to her staff members, but not the kids’ classmates. She collected a school picture of each child with allergies and added a photo of the forbidden food items. Posting these behind the serving line meant the students couldn’t see the information, but all staff members could—and could understand. Talk It Out Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but this approach isn’t effective for all daily communications in a busy school nutrition kitchen. There are some instances, when it makes sense to require all employees to know key English terms and phrases. For example, to ensure customer service and the handling of complex issues, Pacheco notes that, at the very least, an employee needs to be able to say “Let me get my manager” in English. Thus, new employee training should include some basic translations—and managers must enforce the use of these key phrases among all staff. Of course in school nutrition settings, training continues long after a new employee becomes a seasoned vet—especially with the advent of the new federal Professional Standards rule. You need to be sure all staff, including your non-English speakers, are absorbing important updates. “It’s hard to make sure they’re getting the information or just going through the motions,” Kemp wonders. And it’s a waste of time to provide classes or training materials that they don’t understand, Pacheco adds. What’s the solution? Continual translation and interpretation services? That’s probably impractical, not to mention cost-prohibitive. Even Albuquerque, which has a district translation department, finds its three-person staff is typically focused on meeting the needs of parents. Therefore, Kemp and her team struggle to get assistance in translating training materials or creating easy-to-understand education sessions. What about just using Google Translate or another free online service? Our experts suggest you avoid the temptation! Why? First, the translation provided might not be quite right; Kemp recounts an occasion when she inadvertently told a Spanish-speaking employee “I need you”—but it wasn’t conveyed in the way she had intended, if you catch our drift. “We can all laugh at ourselves later,” she chuckles. Also, some online translation services are too formal or academic, rather than the common dialects and colloquialisms that are being used by your team members. In Dallas, Riva says, staff, students and parents often use a combination of Tex-Mex or “Spanglish,” so a formal translation wouldn’t be completely understood. There’s no easy solution to this challenge, other than to do the best you can. “Keep it simple,” Pacheco advises. Be patient—and encourage patience from your team members. “The point is that they understand the point that is being conveyed,” Pacheco says. “At the end of the day, you want to reach everyone.” It’s also important to be persistent and avoid growing lax about this challenge. If everything seems to be fine in the kitchen, you may start slacking off on the need to address language barriers. Not only do you not want to risk an emergency situation because someone didn’t really understand the procedures, you also want to maintain a cooperative and friendly environment among all staff. Pacheco offers a parting training tip to ensure that communication is always flowing in both directions: Implement a quick “Word of the Day” training—in both English and Spanish, as well as any other predominant language spoken in the kitchen. “Let’s teach each other,” she suggests. “It works both ways.” Can You Compel an English-Only Workplace? To avoid employee conflict, address safety concerns and overcome other potential language problems, it seems logical to simply require that all employees speak English only, right? Be careful—you could quickly run afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by implementing such a standard. According to the EEOC’s Guidelines on Discrimination Because of National Origin (available for review online at www.eeoc.gov), a rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, employers can enforce an English-only rule for certain occasions and conditions, specifically if “the employer can show that the rule is justified by business necessity.” If your department or school district can make that case (and be sure to have legal counsel review the specifics), you must notify employees in advance of all occasions when English is required and the consequences for violating that requirement. Without providing this warning, an employer who corrects or penalizes an employee for failing to speak English could be found to be practicing discrimination. Kelsey Casselbury is the managing editor of School Nutrition. Photography by www.istockimages.com and jiunlimited.com.
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