After a bumpy start – | Directory Mayhem

Isla Osborne, left, and Frankie Nagle choose fresh vegetables for their lunch at Van Hise Elementary School on Madison’s West Side in this June 2015 photo.

AMBER ARNOLD – Archives of the State Journal

The increase in wages for foodservice workers in the Madison School District has improved student meals, which were lackluster at the start of the school year, according to district officials.

The school district was criticized by parents earlier this year for a lack of nutritious school meals. Administrators blamed ongoing staff shortages, which have now eased following a $5 an hour wage increase for employees last month.

“I have to say, the timing of the $5 raise was incredibly opportune,” said Josh Perkins, the district’s director of food and nutrition.

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Perkins said the department faced layoffs and other departures over the summer and before the school year, on top of an already thinning workforce, leaving it “very few options.”

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The raise “immediately revived interest in positions,” Perkins said. As of Monday, when employees made a presentation to the Madison school board at a workgroup meeting, 23 new food service employees had been hired, cutting job openings in half since the start of the school year.

The new hires have helped the district cook fresh again at its production center and produce more varied and nutritious meals. Many of the staff working at the production center had to fill vacancies in the school district to help with meals and stop cooking for themselves.

“So that was really the whole point. When they come back, you’ll start to see more robust items,” said Cedric Hodo, the deputy superintendent operations officer for the buildings and auxiliary services.

Because of the pay rise, Madison is now one of the highest-paid counties in the state. Previously, he lagged behind other districts.

“I think that’s a really, really great thing that the district has done,” said Jennifer Gaddis of the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, who has worked with the district to improve its food service program.

plan ahead

The district is working with a number of groups to improve sustainability efforts, use local produce in meals, and expand its scratch cooking operations.

Some of those efforts include piloting a composting program in two elementary schools this year, and evaluating and replacing obsolete equipment.

Sherri Swartz, a food service worker at Anana Elementary School, told the board Monday that the quality and variety of food has improved since the school year began, but she has questions about the future.

“It looks like there are a lot of exciting ideas out there, and I’m excited to see how many new hires we bring on board,” said Swartz. But she said as an employee who is “literally at the bottom of the food chain” she wanted to make sure food service staff were not left behind.

“Honestly, things are pretty shaky right now, pretty bumpy. We still have a long way to go just to get back to normal, regular food service,” Swartz said.

She said it will take time to familiarize the many new employees with the operations, particularly the computer system used for ordering, payments, menus and more, and she had concerns about the time employees would have to support the students during mealtimes. She also has questions about communication, especially menu changes.

Hodo said his team would do a better job of communicating changes in menus to staff and schools.

“I think our team can do a better job on notification so our community members can plan better,” Hodo said.

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