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The worker shortage means 8 Anchorage elementary schools will go without hot lunch

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At O’Malley Elementary on Monday, students received dried chicken, Cheez-Its, raisins, juice and shelf-stable milk in lieu of a standard hot lunch.

That’s because the school is among eight elementary schools in the Anchorage School District that don’t have a cafeteria manager, so they can’t serve their usual hot lunch and breakfast.

Eric Mead, a fourth grader at O’Malley, was eating a cold lunch provided by the school on Monday. He said the food was “full of delicious things” and plentiful, but he still missed hot lunches.

Without a dedicated and skilled cafeteria manager, the district cannot deliver hot lunches, according to Marci McGill, senior director of student nutrition for the district.

Meanwhile, as an interim measure, the district is offering free, shelf-stable meals that include items like nacho cheese, jerky, crackers, hummus, juices, and shelf-stable milk. Breakfast is based on dry cereals and long-life milk. The meals lack vegetables, McGill said.

“The quality is appropriate,” he said. “However, it lacks variety.”

Staff shortages have disrupted industries and organizations nationwide. This school year, the Anchorage School District also faced the dire consequences of a bus driver shortage that left students without transportation to school for weeks.

“I don’t think we are alone in this shortage, COVID has thrown a wrench, and so I think this is part of the recovery process,” McGill said.

The starting salary of an elementary school kitchen director is $14.21, a few dollars more than Alaska’s $10.85 minimum wage. Across the student nutrition department, there are 39 vacancies in total. Just as during the bus driver shortage, the district offered a $2,500 bonus, which is paid over time and based on hours worked per day.

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Food service workers in the district are members of General Teamsters Union Local 959, Anchorage Food Service, and are in contract negotiations with the district. A Teamsters rep said the group was unable to comment on Monday.

Anchorage’s Alpenglow, Aurora, Bayshore, Chugach Optional, Kincaid, O’Malley, Polaris and Ursa Minor elementary schools all have vacancies for cafeteria managers. Additionally, College Gate, Northwood, Taku, and Whaley Elementary Schools also lack a permanent manager, but use a mobile kitchen manager to provide hot lunches under the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program which provides free meals to students in schools with large numbers of low-income families.

On Monday in O’Malley Elementary, students chatted as they ate their meals at long tables in the school cafeteria. The nearby cafeteria kitchen was empty, while a stainless steel table offered the day’s school lunch option: cartons of shelf-stable milk and plastic-covered packets filled with items like nacho cheese, wheat crackers, salsa, and nuts.

hot lunch, school cafeteria, O'Malley Elementary

“There’s no fruit component and no grain component,” said school principal Cherry Galloway. “Before, we used to make a sandwich or a piece of fresh fruit, but because we don’t have a bar manager, there’s no one to take care of it.”

If the school had someone running the kitchen, that employee would arrive around 9 in the morning and pack hot lunches.

“But you have to be certified and have a food handler’s permission to do that,” Galloway said.

The position has been open all year and no one has applied, he said. Their previous cafeteria director now works in the school’s front office.

Last year, popular lunch items included a corn dog, a hamburger with sweet potato fries, and taco meat with chips. Most popular was a breakfast-themed option, complete with pancakes, sausage and potatoes, said Galloway.

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She noted the school is moving towards a refrigerated lunch, which she said looks more appetizing.

“It will be nice to offer some variety to the kiddos,” Galloway said.

hot lunch, school cafeteria, O'Malley Elementary

Marlee Dalton, a fifth grader, brought her own lunch and was seated with a table of students who ate mostly lunches brought from home. She said she missed last year’s hot lunch, especially the macaroni, and she’s not a fan of cold lunches.

“They’re really not good, the food in them, it’s not good,” Dalton said.

Sixth grader Thomas Clancey said he enjoyed lunch better last year. There was pizza, with cheese and salsa instead of crackers.

“It was like real food,” Clancey said.

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