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Resources for Food Service Professionals

"Food Services ESP affect public school children in many ways. They not only provide the food and ensure proper nutrition, but they serve as role models for teaching kids how and what to eat at school."

- Iona Holloway, Former NEA Executive Committee Member, Louisiana

One of the many economic realities of American life right now is the fact that families often struggle to put food on the table.  Students come to school not having had adequate meals and studies consistently show that an under-nourished child will struggle to learn.  Enter our food service professionals.  They provide our students with a nutritious breakfast and lunch, meals which they might not otherwise get.  Their work helps our students stay nourished, focused, and learning.

Who Are We?

Everyone knows students must eat to learn. So when it comes to providing the most basic component for student success, it's the Food Services ESP members who do that.

Rosemarie Wood, Head Cook at Sedgwick Elementary in Maine, says food has become a vital part of education "because a lot of kids don't get what they need at home."

"Sometimes the kids just don't want to eat when the bus comes early in the morning," she adds. "But by the time they get to school, they are usually hungry."

Only in recent years has it been acknowledged that without proper nutrition, students can't learn and thrive in school. Studies have demonstrated that students who come to school undernourished are often uninterested in learning and unable to concentrate -- factors that significantly impact the ability to learn. Hungry children also miss more school, losing even more ground academically.

"Food Services ESP affect public school children in many ways," says Iona Holloway, a veteran paraeducator in Louisiana and the only ESP member to sit on NEA's Executive Committee. "They not only provide the food and ensure proper nutrition, but they serve as role models for teaching kids how and what to eat at school."

 Who Are Food Service Professionals?

  • We comprise 9 percent of NEA ESP members -- more than 29,000 people
  • 69 percent of us work full time
  • 94 percent of us do not have an advanced degree, but 6 percent of us plan to earn one within the next four years
  • 67 percent of us have attended professional development training in the past two years
  • 1 percent of us are currently attending school or college
  • 21 percent of us work with special education students
  • 69 percent of us are paid on an hourly basis, with an average wage of $10.70 per hour
  • Our average annual salary is $18,146
        *Source: 2002 Status of NEA K-12 ESP Membership Stud

3 Myths About Food Service Professionals

Myth #1: "Food Service employees don't impact student achievement."

Lynn Lenker and other food service employees know that their nutritious meals and love for kids directly impact student achievement. Lenker is one of 10 food service staffers at Middletown High School in Delaware. She says she is quite proud of the quality of their baked goods, chicken cheese steaks, and subs -- not to mention the fully balanced menus and range of options they offer each day to MHS's 1,200 students.

The meals they serve, these NEA members say, meet recommended dietary guidelines and help develop healthy, lifelong eating habits.

"We're proud that we've reduced total fat consumption to 30 percent of calories in all of our meals," Lenker says. "We provide a wholesome breakfast and lunch."

Hungry children, she adds, are lethargic, irritable and have shorter attention spans. "Studies show that children who eat a nutritious breakfast improve their reading skills and test scores."

To make meals fun and educational, Maine's Rosemarie Wood plans several theme lunches each year. These include "author's day," when lunch relates to a story all the students know.

Wood also helps arrange special lunches on Thanksgiving and Halloween and days when military veterans are invited to dine and share stories with students. Her favorite theme was "Indian day," when she researched and created a meal of Native American food for students.

The kids are the most important part of my job," says Wood, who was honored in 2000 as Maine Education Association's Support Professional of the Year. "I just try to focus on them and interact with what's going on in their classrooms."

Myth #2: "All these employees have to do is put the food on the trays."

Today, the school Food Services Department is modern, extensive, technologically complicated and very busy. Child nutrition programs have expanded as school administrators have become aware that poorly nourished children do not learn.

Unlike the days of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Food Services employees today must focus on more complicated and important aspects of their jobs than ever before, including proper food handling, proper use and handling of chemicals, adapting recipes for certain children, nutrition education and practice, and 21st century student disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and obesity.

Lenker believes there are many misconceptions about her job -- including how "easy" it appears to be.

"You're constantly moving on this job," she says. "We're always cooking, even during the last lunch, to keep food fresh. After that, we clean trays and utensils, sterilize the serving line, and sweep and mop."

"Even three hours on the job can feel like 10," she adds.

And because many of today's families have two wage earners, they have little time for chores like food shopping, meal planning and cooking. In many places, school meals have become the major source of nutrition for many children, and the interaction between Food Services employees and students and their families has increased dramatically.

Myth #3: "Privatized companies can offer better food service."

This team approach to child nutrition and delivery of food services has created the need for much greater training and cooperation among Food Services employees. Unfortunately, good training and professional development for Food Services workers is rare.

And because there are generally no employment standards, regulations, certifications, licenses, or ongoing training and professional development for the men and women who work in Food Services, the threat of privatization strikes this group of professionals more often and more completely than almost any other category of public school employees.

In Chicago, for example, city officials privatized the food services department at the nation's third largest school district to "improve the quality and wholesomeness of student food." But in 2002, they admitted that privatization had become much more costly than the school-run program, an increase of 50 percent in just five years.

A City Department of Public Health report also found that "rodents and bugs infest Chicago school kitchens and cafeterias. Chips of paint float into cooking pans... frozen entrees wrapped in cellophane are warmed then left to sit for hours in plastic containers that do not hold a safe temperature. And children's illness outbreaks are mishandled and brushed aside."

Louisiana's Iona Holloway says when Food Services is owned and operated by school employees, mishaps like this rarely happen. "People come to work for the schools because they love and care about children," she says. "As support professionals, we take accountability and pride in our work."

Still, the effects of privatization on Food Services employees continue to be dramatic and long-range, including loss of income, health insurance, and pension benefits. If ESP are retained by the privateer in some capacity, they work for lower wages, often with no benefits, no promotional opportunities and no job security.

Helen Loop, Head Cook at LeRoy Elementary School in Michigan, knows this first-hand. In the late 1990s, she led a nearly two-year battle to take back the Food Services Division from a private consultant. "The firm, Canteen/Chartwell promised not to change much, but then it did. The company changed our hours, cut portions, and made us feel like there was always someone waiting for us to mess up," Loop says.

But with the help of teachers and parents, Loop and the Pine River ESP Association won back the right to run the division. "We're now allowed to serve kids healthy, home-style meals in decent portions and in a friendly environment."

Inspiring Kids With Food

As a graduate from the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America in New York, Michael Gaul knows what it takes to be a good cook. And as Food Service Director for the Colorado River Union High School District in Arizona, he used his experience to implement a first-class food service training program for kids.

In the late 1990s, Gaul started a culinary arts class teaching special education students how to work the machinery in the cafeteria. By 2000, the program had expanded to include courses on food preparation with a wide variety of students participating, especially those who wanted to become chefs.

His program quickly grew so popular, with food so good, that Michael and his students frequently cater community events with dishes such as Chicken Florentine and Apple Upside Down cake. He also opened "Le Bistro," a student-run restaurant open to the public at various times throughout the year.

To get the restaurant off the ground, his students did the cooking, a shop class built the woodwork, a creative writing class wrote the menu, while French students translated it. A business class tackled Le Bistro's books.

"My philosophy," he says, "is that because there is so much in the kitchen that needs to be done -- chopping, baking, even paperwork -- there is a job for everyone."

Because he worked as an executive chef in some of Laughlin, Nevada's best hotels before joining the district, he also uses those relationships to help students after they graduate.

"If students can take my class and get a job, or get the experience they need to go to that next level, then I've done what I set out to do when I came to work for the schools."

Looking for Training Topics?

Training in the area of food services has largely emphasized the needs of supervisors and managers.

As more team approaches within schools have developed, there has been a greater appreciation of the training needs for all those who work in the food services area. Some of the topics that should be addressed include:

  • Proper food handling
  • Awareness of hazardous bodily fluids
  • Proper use of chemicals
  • Being able to adapt recipes
  • Safety and sanitation
  • Kitchen math
  • Preparation ad merchandising
  • Equipment
  • Nutrition education