How Have the Labor Shortage and Supply Chain Disruption Affected the West High Cafeteria?

Anika Rao

From inconsistent cafeteria supply to a critical substitute shortage, the pandemic-induced labor shortage and supply chain disruptions have upended schools across the United States. At West, the cafeteria has been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis. I interviewed Tonya Slaughter, the kitchen manager, about how exactly the cafeteria has been affected and how she thinks those issues can be resolved.

“Everybody knows we’re short-staffed,” Tonya says. To smoothly run a normal lunch with all of the lines open, she says, they need fourteen people. Right now, they have six. And, as of February 1st, there are 30 hourly positions in cafeterias across the district that are yet to be filled. Some grounds workers and custodians have been willing to supplement the missing workers, but this is by no means a reliable solution.

The current labor shortage is both a product of the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, such as stagnant wages.

When the pandemic first hit, Tonya says, many cafeteria workers felt uncomfortable continuing to be in close quarters with others. Additionally, students were not in school, and only fifteen schools were serving drive-through grab and go meals, decreasing the need for workers. At the beginning of this year, when schools completely reopened, the district was unable to rehire previous workers or hire new ones. In the past, many employees were hired through temp agencies, which means that they were hired on short-term contracts. When the district tried to hire other people to fill the open positions, Tonya says, “all the people that would normally work for us had found other jobs. Some decided to go a different route, like going back to school, and others did not feel comfortable working in-person.”

A second explanation for the labor shortage is that, until just the beginning of February, the Salt Lake City School District’s hourly wage was well below the market average for school districts across the valley, according to Logan Hall, the district’s executive director of Human Resources. Fortunately, the school board approved an increase in the minimum wage for these positions, which Tonya hopes will attract more potential employees.

To add to the chaos that the labor shortage has created, the pandemic has also disrupted international and national supply chains by delaying the movement of goods. A shortage of truckers and warehouse workers, as well as cybersecurity threats and labor resignations, has further delayed the supply of essential goods to cafeterias across the country.

In October and November, Tonya says, there was no Asian line because “the supplier couldn’t produce chicken fast enough.” This is a consequence the pandemic has had on the meatpacking industry. In the early stages of the pandemic, high COVID transmission rates and unsanitary working conditions brought national attention to the meatpacking industry. Two years later, the industry has yet to recover from these setbacks and is struggling to account for the added costs of physical distancing and protective equipment, driving up the cost of meat by, in some cases, over 20%.

And it is not just food that has been affected by the supply chain disruption. According to Tanya, the cafeteria has to “substitute a shortage of silverware and plates with whatever the supplier can send us.”

To students, the lack of one lunch option or different silverware may not make a difference, but the lack of consistency can be stressful for cafeteria workers who have to find substitutes. “Every week is something different. We never know whether we are going to have everything we need,” Tonya says.

In the 2020-21 school year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that school lunch would be free for all students, regardless of income status, in an effort to alleviate the stress applied on many families during the pandemic. In April of last year, they extended this program for the 2021-22 school year. In many schools, this meant that the demand for school lunch increased while supply remained inconsistent.

Tonya says that at West, “we are serving about the same amount of people as before,” but “at Highland and some other schools in the District, the demand has increased a lot from previous years.” The increased demand coupled with a supply shortage has been problematic for many schools. Regardless, she hopes this program will be extended in the future: “I think it should stay, especially because of all the financial strain on families during this pandemic.” And when we interviewed Kelly Orton, the director of Support Services at the District office last year, he said that programs like this one help schools “make a difference in the lives of students and their families.”

Additionally, in some districts, suppliers have ended or weakened contracts with schools, which are generally their least profitable customers. Tonya says that she does not know whether this is the case in our district, but that she “wouldn’t be surprised,” because “we get a lot of products at a lower price” than market value.

There are some schools that have been less affected by the supply chain disruption – in particular, schools that rely on local procurement of supplies. By diversifying their food supply, these schools have a safety net that protects them from the worst-case scenario of supply chain disruptions. The problem with this solution, Tonya says, is the complicated process that is involved in altering the school lunch menus. Any change has to be approved by the district’s dietician and director of Support Services. Additionally, all local suppliers have to be inspected and certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which could be a lengthy process. “I would love to serve something local in the future,” Tonya says, “but for now, that’s out of my jurisdiction.”

There are a few solutions we can adopt to alleviate some of the stress that has been applied to the cafeteria.

At the district, state, and federal level, Tonya says that increasing the minimum wage is one way to attract new employees. In Utah, the minimum wage is still only $7.25 per hour, which translates to only about $15,000 annually. “Even teenagers can’t live off that,” she says, so “how can they expect people to sustain their families with such low wages?” At a recent school board meeting, the board voted to increase the minimum wage for certain district employees, including cafeteria workers, to $11.50 hourly. Now that our district’s wages are more competitive with those of the other districts in the Salt Lake Valley, Tonya hopes West will attract more workers.

Tonya also says that students can work for the cafeteria. This opportunity has not been widely publicized, but is a great way to help out the cafeteria while earning money. Students who are at least fifteen years old can work for the first twenty minutes of the lunch period and then eat their own lunch, but get paid the hourly wage, $11.50. You can also serve breakfast before school — that translates to almost $25 a day.  If you are interested in this opportunity, you can email Tonya at [email protected].

Finally, we can help the cafeteria staff by simply following the rules. It is important for students to understand that the rules in the cafeteria are set by the government because school lunch is a program run by the USDA, a department in the executive branch of the federal government. “We’re not just being the mean lunch ladies making you take a veggie,” Tonya says, “we’ve become a broken record and I hate saying it.” By following the rules and taking a fruit or a vegetable, we as students can alleviate some of the stress that cafeteria staff experience while they attempt to enforce the federally mandated rules.

The next time you pick up school lunch, make sure to thank the cafeteria workers — it may mean a lot more to them than you would think.