6 strategies for retaining school food service employees

Employees want to feel like they’re part of a team of professionals filling a vital role.
Katy Hoyng
Katy Hoynghttps://www.linq.com/
Katy Hoyng, a registered dietitian and school nutrition specialist, is the nutrition training manager at LINQ, a school nutrition-focused software company. She was previously director of school nutrition in a Texas school district.

Public school systems have struggled to hire and retain cafeteria workers and other support staff since the return to in-person instruction. In a recent survey, 53% of respondents described the staffing shortages in their district as at least a “major” problem—and 14% called it a “crisis.”

Creating a positive culture where school nutrition employees feel appreciated and enjoy coming to work has always been a priority. In the current labor market, it’s more critical than ever. In addition to fair pay, employees want to feel like they’re part of a team of professionals filling a vital role.

Work with your human resources department to ensure you are offering competitive wages, and then focus on making the school nutrition department an encouraging environment. Here are six ways K-12 school nutrition leaders can create a welcoming environment where school nutrition employees want to work.

1. Empower food service staff

Everyone wants to feel like their opinion matters. In Daniel Pink’s best-selling book Drive, he draws on decades of research to identify three key factors that motivate us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Employees are more engaged and motivated when they have some sense of independence or control over the task they’re performing. Effective supervisors understand this and find ways to empower their staff.

Let your kitchen team know that you value their input. Ask for ideas and listen to what they have to say. Whether it’s a new recipe or a more efficient way to serve students, make sure they feel supported and encouraged to suggest new things. The next great recipe or process idea may be a survey or focus group away.

2. Provide meaningful feedback and support

Employees want to succeed at their craft. This is the “mastery” that Pink writes about. It’s a good feeling to know that you are meeting expectations in your job.

Supervisory food service staff can help employees excel in their position by taking the time to communicate frequently about performance, both good and bad. If you see a team member doing something good, let them know. If there is something they could be doing better, have an honest conversation about it. By fostering open communication, keeping the conversation positive, and offering specific ideas on how they can improve, your relationship with your food service team will continue to grow and improve.

3. Offer development opportunities

USDA requires compliance with professional standards for school nutrition professionals, and employees are likely to stay with an organization that invests in their growth and development. In addition to the training required by your state and school district, offer professional development opportunities on the systems and processes they use daily.

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Personal skills such as communication or mental health are also worthwhile professional development areas. Ask your team what professional development they’d be interested in and offer paid time for them to pursue it if you can.

In this industry, it’s common for open positions to be filled from within. Empower your staff to move up through your operation by offering training programs to learn the food service management skills they will need. It’s an investment that will pay off in the long run.

4. Recognize their importance

Food service employees fill an essential role. They make sure students are well nourished and prepared to learn. For some students, the meals served by school nutrition staff are the only meals they get. Make sure your staff members know how meaningful they are through public recognition and personal appreciation. Doing so will help team members feel the sense of purpose that Daniel Pink says is essential for motivation.

Encourage others to recognize the importance of school nutrition staff, too. This recognition is appreciated year-round, and “School Lunch Hero Day” is an excellent opportunity to make it an official event in your community.

5. Make their job easier with the help of technology

Giving your employees the tools to do their job more efficiently and effectively is another way to demonstrate appreciation and set your team up for success. If your team is still updating spreadsheets to manage the kitchen, it’s time to consider upgrading your technology. Comprehensive nutrition management solutions help food service teams with counting, claiming, menu planning, inventory, monthly reports, and other responsibilities.

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With such a platform in place, schools can streamline and simplify routine tasks and ensure site employees have ample time to focus on preparing meals for students and that central office employees have real-time access to critical data.

6. Encourage the use of available job perks

Work with your human resources department to learn about available fringe benefits. Remind your staff of these perks, and encourage taking advantage to maximize job satisfaction. Many school districts provide a complete benefits package to employees working less than 40 hours per week, which is common in school nutrition. School employees also have access to multiple pre-tax retirement accounts.

USDA allows the school nutrition budget to include breakfast and lunch for kitchen staff. Emphasize the number of school holidays since the nature of the school day and serving times don’t allow flexible schedules for kitchen staff.

Make schedule flexibilities available for your central office staff to the extent possible. Can team members adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal events or other life situations—as long as their work gets done on time? What about flex time? Giving your team members the flexibility to manage their schedule allows for further autonomy and facilitates a happier work environment and a sense of loyalty.

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