Education food service workers serve elementary school students at a salad bar.

It’s Time to Ace the Education Labor Test

The upcoming school year presents many employee and menu challenges.

The labor shortage doesn’t discriminate. Students will return to K-12 cafeterias and college and university dining halls in the fall, and education foodservice directors are getting strategies in place now.

The pandemic school year brought plenty of challenges. There were staff cuts and safety measures that went far beyond wearing masks and social distancing among workers. It included things like eliminating self-service food bars, preparing trays for in-classroom consumption, and even creating curbside options for remote-learning students.

As the 2021-22 academic year approaches, all levels of student dining are bracing for possibilities that range from full dining room service to a hybrid approach. Looking ahead, two things appear certain—students will be back and labor management will be critical.

“All of the dining directors I talk to are worried about staffing,” says Steve Mangan, University of Michigan Senior Director of Dining. “We still have to maintain all of our attention to food safety, physical safety and make sure we’re running a business the way our customers expect.”

Calling on fan favorites

For K-12 school foodservice, there’s some relief when it comes to self-funding. The USDA’s National School Lunch Program has extended universal free meals in non-congregate settings for the upcoming year. This will help with reimbursement dollars for grab-and-go food and pickup options.

When students pour back into the cafeteria, expect foodservice directors to call on popular choices, like pizza, chicken or tacos. 

“Up until the pandemic, there were a lot of interesting menu items to drive higher participation,” says Alex Culin, Vice President of Non-Commercial Sales for Affinity Group, a food broker. “I foresee a lot of districts going back to core basics to get more students in line.”

Cycle menus built around fewer options will help ease the labor burden, according to Quentin Layne, K-12 Account Manager for Basic American Foods. Layne and his team help schools develop strategies around regulations and foods in the marketplace.

“By serving student favorites, your staff will have familiarity,” Layne notes. “They know all the tricks—how they’re going to steam those noodles or cook that beef—the ins and outs of the kitchen.”

Steady participation and staff efficiency also help manage the supply chain. “When you know what you’ll be offering on the menu, you improve the probability that food will actually arrive at your back door,” Layne says.

Reduce your stress

Good communication between schools, food distributors and suppliers ultimately benefits labor. It drives consistency that gives a break to tired staff, and it allows schools to streamline and stagger production.

“Remember, your staff is not only smaller, they haven’t had any time off,” Layne reminds foodservice directors. “They came back to work the Monday after things shut down to prepare food, they dealt with extra safety measures and the stress of summer feeding programs—they’re tired.”

Not only have they been making food, but they’ve had to plate it, package it and maybe even transport it. The sooner some of the labor can be transferred back to students, the better. Check with the local health department to find out when self-service can resume, Layne advises.

“Even if it’s just letting students pick up their own milk carton or container of ranch dressing for the pre-portioned salad, you eliminate tasks your staff has to do thousands of times a week,” he says.

Time to regain momentum

Labor trauma also struck college and university foodservice, and campus dining is focused on rebuilding staff to handle the volume of students, faculty and visitors expected in the fall.

The University of Michigan (U-M) Ann Arbor campus expects to open all nine of its dining halls in the fall, as well as most of its retail operations. Mangan, the campus dining director, also expects catering to pick back up.

That will be a challenge because last year brought staff cuts, a hiring freeze and largely eliminated the 1,000-strong student support staff. Finding student workers this year means competing with other restaurants and businesses seeking labor. And that’s only part of the challenge.

“Normally we’d have 200 to 300 students come back to work year over year, with knowledge and skills,” Mangan says. “We’ve lost a lot of momentum.”

Filling full-time jobs is another hurdle. There are a dozen professional positions and about 60 hourly staff openings. Current employees will post for some of the openings, creating a staffing shuffle. Meanwhile, new staffers will be found at culinary schools, area restaurants and typical hiring channels. After the dust settles, the onboarding and training begins.

“We’ll have a significant number of folks who will be unfamiliar with our culture, our compliance issues around food safety and the way we interact with each other,” Mangan says. “We’re probably going to be bringing people back a little earlier than normal because the onboarding will be so intense and the number of new hires will be so much larger than usual.”

Making the menu work

What does it mean for fall menus? It could result in less variety, some closed stations, retail locations darkened—perhaps on a rotating basis.

“I expect we would be looking at some more speed-scratch approaches,” Mangan says. “But I don’t think we’ll fall back to a lot of convenience products because we’re concerned about ingredients and clean labels.”

Takeout also will be a factor. Before COVID-19, takeout was minimal. Now, it’s an expectation—one that creates a need to blend takeout and other in-house foods. Those are decisions that will take place during the summer and require staffing to handle.

When at full staff, U-M typically has 1,000 to 1,500 student workers, 350 hourly employees, 120 on the management team and 100 temporary employees. Filling those roles is a task Mangan is getting in front of early. 

“We’re in the food business—we make it work,” Mangan says. “Whether we have enough people or not, we still have to open in the morning.”