At O’Malley Elementary on Monday, students received chicken jerky, Cheez-Its, raisins, juice and shelf-stable milk in lieu of a standard hot lunch.
That’s because the school is among eight elementary schools in the Anchorage School District that lack a cafeteria manager, so they can’t serve their usual hot lunch and breakfast fare.
Eric Mead, a fourth grader at O’Malley, was eating the school-provided cold lunch on Monday. He said the food was “filled with yummy stuff” and filling, but he still missed the hot lunches.
Without a dedicated and trained cafeteria manager, the district can’t provide hot lunches, according to Marci McGill, senior director of student nutrition for the district.
In the meantime, as a stopgap measure, the district is offering free, shelf-stable meals that include items like nacho cheese, jerky, crackers, hummus, juice and shelf-stable milk. Breakfast is dry cereal and shelf-stable milk. The meals lack a vegetable, McGill said.
“The quality is appropriate,” she said. “However, the variety is lacking.”
Staff shortages have upended industries and organizations nationwide. This school year, the Anchorage School District also dealt with the acute impacts of a bus driver shortage that left students without transportation to school for weeks.
“I don’t believe we’re alone in this shortage, COVID threw a wrench in it, and so I think this is a part of the recovery process,” McGill said.
An elementary school kitchen manager’s starting wage is $14.21, a few dollars above Alaska’s $10.85 minimum wage. Across the student nutrition department, there are 39 total vacant positions. Much like during the bus driver shortage, the district has offered a $2,500 bonus, which is paid out over time and based on hours worked a day.
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The food service workers in the district are part of the General Teamsters Union Local 959, Anchorage Food Service, and are in contract negotiations with the district. A Teamsters representative said the group couldn’t comment Monday.
Anchorage’s Alpenglow, Aurora, Bayshore, Chugach Optional, Kincaid, O’Malley, Polaris and Ursa Minor elementary schools all have cafeteria manager vacancies. Additionally, College Gate, Northwood, Taku and Whaley elementary schools also lack a permanent manager but are using a mobile kitchen manager to provide hot lunches under the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that provides free meals to students at schools with a high number of low-income families.
At O’Malley elementary on Monday, students chattered while they scarfed down their meals at long tables in the school’s lunchroom. The nearby cafeteria kitchen was empty, while a stainless steel table offered that day’s school lunch option: Cartons of shelf-stable milk and plastic-covered packages filled with items like nacho cheese, wheat crackers, salsa and nuts.
“There’s no fruit component and no grain component,” said the school’s principal, Cherry Galloway. “We used to do a roll or a piece of fresh fruit, but because we don’t have a cafe manager, there’s no one to manage that.”
If the school did have someone to manage the kitchen, that employee would arrive around 9 a.m., and prep the hot lunches.
“But you have to be certified and have a food handler’s permit to do that,” Galloway said.
The position has been open all year, and no one has applied, she said. Their previous cafeteria manager now works in the school’s front office.
Last year, popular lunch items included a corn dog, a hamburger with sweet potato fries, and taco meat with chips. The most popular was a breakfast-themed option, complete with pancakes, sausage and potatoes, Galloway said.
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She noted the school is moving toward a refrigerated lunch, which she said looks more appetizing.
“It will be nice to offer some variety to the kiddos,” Galloway said.
Marlee Dalton, a fifth grader, brought her lunch from home and was sitting with a table of students also eating mostly lunches brought from home. She said she missed last year’s hot lunch, especially the macaroni — and wasn’t a fan of the cold lunches.
“They’re not really good, the food in them, it’s not good,” Dalton said.
Thomas Clancey, in sixth grade, said he liked lunch last year better. There was pizza, with cheese and sauce, instead of crackers.
“It was like full-on, actual food,” Clancey said.