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Like many other employers, Salt Lake City school lunchrooms struggle to find staff

An employee prepares serving trays in the kitchen at West High School in Salt Lake City, April 1, 2022.
Jon Reed
An employee prepares serving trays in the kitchen at West High School in Salt Lake City, April 1, 2022.

The kitchen at West High School is down to a skeleton crew.

For kitchen manager Tonya Slaughter, that presents a daily struggle not just at her school, but across the Salt Lake City School District. Depending on the menu and which schools need the most help, she said staff are pulled from one location to another.

The number of meals they have to make remains the same — about 1,300 a day — but they’ve cut back where they could, 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 in which students can wait up to 20 minutes to get food.

“We're not serving as many kids because the lines are too long,” she said. ”So they try and 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, child nutrition director for the district, had a hard time finding people. But it’s become exponentially difficult ever since, as many of the retirees who used to work part-time in school kitchens for some extra money left and never came back. Other employees found jobs in restaurants or other industries that are offering more pay and benefits like working from home.

For a while, the buildings and maintenance crew was helping out, Orton said, but then they got backed up on their own work. Teachers and administrators have also filled in.

“We're working together as best we can,” he said. “But the fact is if you have a problem with child nutrition and getting our children fed, that ripples down to everybody helping out.”

Most of the food service department’s funding comes from the federal government, Orton said, which recently voted to discontinue some additional funding it provided during the pandemic. Given the rising cost of food and labor, he said that will likely force districts to make some tough choices next year.

As a last resort, the Salt Lake City School District recently put out a call for volunteers in its kitchens, in addition to raising the minimum wage for food service employees to $15/hour. The state also recently launched Adopt-A-School, a program designed to bring in additional resources for schools from local businesses.

Orton said he’s hoping both efforts will bring in some more support. Because if not, he’s at a loss for what to do.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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