CivilEats: For Healthier School Meals, California Bets On More Cooks in the Kitchen

By Anne Marshall-Chalmer

Sept. 28, 2022

When beef brisket is on the menu, Erin Primer relies on an assistant superintendent to tie on an apron, grab a knife, and help slice meat. “Any additional bodies that come in and offer some type of relief, whether it’s wrapping a burger, plating a salad, any of those additional hands are helpful,” she says.

Primer, the food and nutrition services director at San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo, California, is down 13 people on a team that typically totals 40. About 200 miles north, in the Santa Clara Unified School District, bus drivers pitch in to help serve food, as do some older students. The pandemic has left school kitchens across the country in dire need of workers. Last fall, 95 percent of school districts reported labor shortages in a School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey.

When Primer learned of a program that would recruit school kitchen trainees and pay them to learn the tools of the trade, she immediately volunteered to host and train a few of the inaugural participants. The program is known as the Healthy School Food Pathway program (HSFP), and was created by the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing healthy scratch-cooked meals in schools.

Mara Fleishman, CEO of the Chef Ann Foundation, says the program officially launched last year as a three-year pilot program in California. Fleishman says HSFP aims to address a problem the organization has repeatedly run into during its 13 years supporting schools trying to boost scratch cooking. “We were going in, helping districts change for two or three years and then the food services director would get a job at another district, and they wouldn’t be able to fill that position with someone who had scratch cook program experience,” she says. “There wasn’t someone below them to move up.”

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