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Anger Boils Over Inside Lunchroom Kitchens As DOE Turns Up Heat

Anger Boils Over Inside Lunchroom Kitchens As DOE Turns Up Heat

October 23, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

From tossing out french fries, to installing salad bars, the New York City Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood and Nutritional Services has done many things to comply with changing federal guidelines and provide school kids with healthier meal options. But what the bureaucracy has not done, according to increasingly frustrated food preparers throughout the system, is give them enough time or personnel to implement more complex menus – and instead, reassigned lunchroom support staff and saddled cooks with non-culinary related duties.

“Today they gave me a second cookbook that I have to start doing in addition to the one that I already have,” Acorn Community High School cook Donald Nesbit told LaborPress. “I was also sweeping, I was mopping, I was washing dishes – all of this on top of my own paper work.”

Since the start of the new school year in September, MS 142 cook Lisa Soto said work conditions at her school have been similarly “terrible.”

“It’s really horrible,” Soto said. “It’s totally unfair. We don’t even have sufficient time to prepare for the next day.”

Food preparers like Nesbit and Soto comprise one of the largest segments of DC37 Local 372’s membership. The greater union represents over 26,000 workers in a variety of fields citywide.

“The Office of SchoolFood and Nutritional Services is increasing our members’ workload without increasing their work hours,’ DC37 Local 372 President Santos Crespo said. “If they want five or six hours work, within four hours, they’re going to wind up killing folks.”

While workers wholeheartedly support higher nutritional standards for students, they say that the top-down dictates that the new menus demand are poorly conceived and wasteful.

“These recipes are out of control,” Soto said. “It’s ridiculous. Now, when we open a can of beens we have to drain them of the sodium content, and then put other seasoning into it later. We have to add other condiments to substitute the kind that were already inside – what’s the sense of us washing these beans if we’re going to add other condiments?”

The portion sizes of things like fruit have also been doubled this year in an attempt to get kids to consume healthier foods. But according to Nesbit, that tactic isn’t working either.

“It used to be a four-ounce cup of fruit,” Nesbit said. “Now it’s eight-ounces. But kids don’t want that. They take it and throw out whatever portion they don’t want. We’re actually preparing more just for the kids to throw in the garbage.”

Despite serving hundreds of breakfast and lunch meals daily, kitchen staff at many schools around the city are tiny. Nesbit and Soto each belong to a crew of just three food preparers at their respective schools who now must also perform additional lunchroom duties thanks to the loss of supportive school aides.

“We now have a situation where they’ve taken out school aides from their proper [support] positions and replaced them with someone from the kitchen,” Soto said. “I have a man doing dishes, but now he’s cupping fruit. He’s cupping fruit for the entire day instead of washing dishes.”

Nesbit recently found himself ringing up a cash register after losing two of his aides just last week.

“We also have accountability to do where we have to physically see the kids swiping their lunch cards each day,” Nesbit said. “And if the kid is supposed to pay for lunch, we have to collect the cash. So, now they want me to run a cash register on top of the second cookbook, and monitor the kids. They had school aides doing that, but citywide, SchoolFood has decided to relieve the school aides from doing that.”

When confronted with the complaints, DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg said, “This is the first we heard about it. We have not received any complaints about any improvements we have made to the menus.”

But food preparers have been voicing their concerns about changes to the menu and the overall lack of support to management as far back as last December.

“They just threw us into this,” Soto said.

In addition to demanding more from food preparers while offering less support, there are other indication’s that the DOE’s Office of FoodSchool and Nutritional Services efforts to revamp student menus is failing. 

According to Nesbit, as many as 30 to 40 students at his Brooklyn school were recently denied food because their free lunch applications had not yet been processed.

“Me and my staff and a few of the school aides said, well, we’ll just pay for you,” Nesbit said. “But some of the kids were actually embarrassed for that to happen in front of their peers. So they said, forget about it, we won’t eat”

Local 372 is anticipating a labor-management meeting with the Office of SchoolFood and Nutritional Services shortly to talk about the increasingly untenable situation.

“Even though the formula that they use for staffing is not an item of collective bargaining, we’re hoping to have an open discussion on items that they’re not really taking a look at,” Crespo said.

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