By Penny McLaren 2017-06-15 09:51:45
Student employees or volunteers can help solve today’s labor problems, gaining a valuable introduction that may position them to be tomorrow’s trailblazers. TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT THE STUDENTS IN YOUR CAFETERIA. It’s quite possible that you could be looking into the face of a future school nutrition manager. You might see someone like Kyrstie Neumann. Neumann is inventory control facilitator for the Nutrition & Food Services department of Sacramento City (Calif.) Unified School District (SCUSD). It’s a job she accepted in March. But hers is a school nutrition journey that began in high school. She’s a prime example of how today’s school nutrition leaders can and should engage the next generation in considering school nutrition as a possible career. Neumann took elective culinary classes as a junior and senior at Sacramento’s Rosemont High School. The classes, taught by a faculty member, shared a kitchen with the school meals operation. For Neumann, it was quite an eye-opening experience. “We were exposed to their full commercial kitchen,” she explains, “and we got to use all their equipment. We saw them working, as they were prepping the food that we were eating in the cafeteria. It’s a huge program, and they were doing 700 meals a day.” Neumann, who says she has always liked food and cooking, was inspired. When she graduated high school in 2010, she signed on to be a substitute in the Nutrition Services department. Eventually, she rose to the position of supervisor at one of SCUSD’s elementary schools, where she stayed for three years. Now, working in the central office, Neumann says she enjoys her new job assisting with menu planning and being more involved with the administrative aspects of the foodservice operation. At the same time, she is a full-time college student working toward a bachelor’s degree with a major in nutrition and a minor in business. “Working in the cafeteria made me think of it as more of a restaurant than a school cafeteria,” comments Neumann. “That new perspective led to a newfound respect for the National School Lunch Program and the employees who execute it. Now, I am so proud to be an employee for SCUSD Nutrition Services.” It certainly sounds like she is in school nutrition to stay. STANDING AMIDST THE FUTURE You are surrounded by students. Have you considered that within this tide of enthusiasm and energy there may be an untapped source of school nutrition employees with genuine potential to supervise your program one day? Why not? The leadership journeys of many of today’s (and yesterday’s) school nutrition directors are ending where they began—at the same district that they attended in their youth. Many imaginative school nutrition directors are taking advantage of different avenues that will expose students to a possible career in this profession. Culinary arts curricula. Volunteer opportunities. Student worker programs. All have the potential for sparking interest. Could these lead to creative ways to engage students beyond their own lunches? It’s an admittedly uphill climb to convince most youngsters to walk right into school nutrition careers. But if you are encouraging, it very well may be something they remember and return to after spreading their wings a bit beyond the school district. This type of recruitment tends to happen one student at a time. CONVINCING CULINARY ARTS KIDS Many school districts offer vocational training programs for high school students interested in developing technical skills in different trades, including the culinary arts. Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School, near Boston, is considered a Massachusetts school district unto itself, serving students from several “member” towns. It offers a comprehensive culinary arts program that includes a component in the school foodservice department. Participating students complete rotations in three different kitchens: the school meals facility, a bakery and a student-run restaurant. The three different experiences offer students a broad perspective on the foodservice profession. “There is a niche for everyone,” says Joe Pitta, a former culinary arts instructor who is now in charge of helping students find jobs. “In their senior year, students can gravitate to the area they want to pursue.” This may include school nutrition. Although 60% of the program’s graduates go on to post-secondary education, typically seeking the “high glamour restaurants they see on television,” says Pitta, “schools have their attractive points.” He points out that “some students are drawn to the decent hours, where they don’t have to work weekends or late nights like they do in most other jobs in the industry. They see the school curriculum as more conducive to raising a family.” Those with an interest in the K-12 school segment often go on to study at the John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition at nearby Framingham State University, which has a strong reputation in the profession (see page 76). But it is a small minority. At Minuteman, culinary arts students take the NRA food handler course, and by the time they graduate, they have earned their ServSafe Food Service Managers certification. So, an enterprising area school nutrition director might consider an assertive outreach to these students in order to tap a labor pool that could fill key vacancies right away. MEMOS FROM THE HELP DESK Despite a parent’s lament, kids actually like to help out in the kitchen—their school’s kitchen, at least. Gitta Grether-Sweeney, MS, RDN, senior director, nutrition services, Portland (Ore.) Public Schools (PPS), has discovered that many kids love helping out. “The kids are clamoring to do it,” she reports. And Grether-Sweeney loves having their assistance. After all, it can be difficult to find job candidates who are willing to work for only two hours a day and only during the school year. Her job has become a little easier with the assistance of many students who are eager to step up and fill that void. The PPS student helper program has been going strong for more than 15 years. Most grade levels at most of the district’s 85 elementary, middle and high schools have some opportunity to participate (with parental permission). Grether-Sweeney says her team is very careful not to refer to any tasks performed by the students as “work,” but rather as “help.” But don’t think the students are giving so freely of their time with no thought of reward. For many of the participants, the hours they spend helping in the school meals operation count toward community service requirements. At the elementary level, students from third grade on up are selected by their teachers to help out each day for a week at a time, with each class serving in rotation. This means each crew of students assist just one or two weeks out of the entire school year. They can help in serving lunch or aid the staff with other duties in the kitchen. At the end of their week, they each get a nonfood treat, such as a pencil. Teachers are responsible for monitoring the students and coordinating their daily assignments. Students in PPS middle schools have a similar schedule and can assist with serving before going on to join their classes for their own lunch meal. Participants at this grade level also get an appropriate non-food treat at week’s end. At the high school level, students who help out in the cafeteria do not get formal wages, but they do receive some monetary compensation—a flat amount—as an incentive. Maybe “incentive” isn’t the appropriate word, because students truly enjoy cafeteria assignments. The helper program is not allowed to be used as detention, Grether-Sweeney emphasizes. “To the students, it is a treat to help. They like to cashier and they also like to serve.” But the monetary incentive certainly doesn’t hurt, she concedes. Many high school students take part in the helper program all four years. Grether-Sweeney gives preference to experienced and reliable assistants. “If they were part of the program the previous year, they must have a good track record to continue to take part,” she explains. “We need to count on them, so they have to be dependable.” When they are, they are likely to get a reference from site managers when applying for genuine employment opportunities in the community. The staff members love the program, grateful for the extra sets of hands, Grether-Sweeney says. “For us, there is no way to do meal service without them.” PPS helper students are also customers of the operation, so they have experienced school meals from both sides of the tray, so to speak. This creates some easy peer-to-peer, word-of-mouth recruitment, reports Grether-Sweeney. In addition, helper openings may be publicized through announcements or signage. But, frankly, “We have never had an issue of not getting enough helpers,” she reports. “There are times when we have more kids than we can use. Sometimes they will come to us and ask that we let them know if space opens up.” In the much-smaller, four-school Lake Chelan (Wash.) School District, the school nutrition operation also relies upon an effective volunteer program involving elementary, middle and high school students, says Holly Mogan, RD, foodservices director. It is a somewhat informal program that’s been in place for more than 10 years. Four elementary-age student volunteers assist for about an hour each school day. One works on the serving line with other staff; one or two will aid students with condiments; a fourth helps collect empty trays. A student from each class in a particular grade is selected to help out each week. They are rewarded with a nominal food treat. At the middle school two or three students help out on the serving line for about 15 minutes of the lunch period. The high school—which offers a culinary arts program—provides student volunteers with perspective to compare restaurant operations with high-volume school meal production, says Mogan. After graduation, there have been a few new recruits to her team, she reports. “Some from the program have been on our staff over the years,” she notes, adding that one recent graduate just applied to work as a substitute. FROM STUDENT EMPLOYEE TO FUTURE STAFF? In Sacramento City, the school meals operation not only can be supported by the culinary arts program attended by Kyrstie Neumann (which was considered an unpaid internship opportunity), but it also has a student worker program, put into place five years ago in the district’s five high schools. “It started so that we could have more hands, not for prep work, but just for the short time during the lunch period to get kids served,” explains Diana Flores, acting director of nutrition. It was especially critical once the program implemented such menu innovations as “build-your-own” rice bowls, taco grills and barbecues. “Those take more labor,” she notes. But with meal service only taking a short period of time each day, she struggles to hire adult workers to fill the gap. At SCUSD, students work the short shift into their school schedule, occasionally leaving class a bit early. There are 10 workers at each high school site. Some work a half-hour at breakfast, others a half-hour at lunch; some do both, according to the needs of each site. They get paid minimum wage and receive a monthly paycheck, but they are not eligible for union membership. There’s more demand for shifts than Flores has available. “They like the extra income,” she notes, adding that some have gone on to be hired as three-hour employees. “There aren’t a lot, but it does happen.” In Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools, Loretta Zullo, RD, SNS, director of food and nutrition, employs some 200 to 225 student workers—and they’ve been doing so for more than 25 years. “It is the norm for us,” she notes. “We couldn’t do the work we do without them.” Mesa students must be at least 14 years old to work in the school meal operation. Most are employed in the district’s six high schools, although some can work in their junior high locations, if they turn 14 by the second semester of the school year. Zullo estimates there are 5 to 10 student employees at each junior high school and 20 to 30 at each high school. They earn minimum wage, as well as a meal on the days they work. Managers at each school schedule the students for work, just as they do with their adult team members. Some of the teens come in the mornings to help prep and serve breakfast. There are two lunch periods at every school, and student employees are organized in two groups, one for each lunch period. They do all the same jobs as the adult staff, with the exception of operating kitchen equipment. Students are trained to earn their food handler certificate. They frequently work as cashiers, so must have decent math skills. “They do a lot,” affirms Zullo. They must have good attendance and get along well with others. Many students start out working at the junior high level and continue to work all four years of high school. “They learn valuable work skills and earn money while at school. It’s a job with a lot of pluses to it,” Zullo notes. Some go on to join the district’s school nutrition team. In fact, one of her supervisors got started this way! UNFORGETTABLE, THAT’S WHAT YOU ARE Labor is one thing—but what about the next generation of school nutrition leaders? Is it reasonable to hope that exposure as a student employee will one day be a career a-ha moment? There’s not likely to be a tidal wave of interest, but every “conversion” to the wonderful world of school nutrition is one less vacancy. For her part, Kyrstie Neumann regularly promotes school nutrition to her peers—and many of them have served as substitutes. Point of disclosure: Neumann’s mother runs the kitchen at Burbank High School and her father, who has retired, works as a floating substitute, so she has ready role models to follow. Still, it was Neumann’s direct experiences that impressed her, and she has advice for directors and other advocates on the hunt for the next generation of managers and supervisors. “First, expose them to that fact that they work in a professional, fully operational kitchen,” Neumann says. “Second, tell them about other opportunities in school foodservice. Once they know they don’t have to stay in an elementary school forever, but can move up and around a district, they will be able to see the opportunities this profession affords.” No one is pretending that this is an easy sell, especially when other foodservice segments seem more attractive. But you have an advantage to make a valuable first impression. They’re in front of you every day. Invite them behind the serving line and maybe one day, they’ll stay. BONUS WEB CONTENT Finding Your Next Leaders at Lunchtime Interested in starting a student helper program? Check out samples of volunteer agreements, available as exclusive online extras. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Penny McLaren is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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