Anchorage school meal program faces worker shortage, loss of pandemic funding

a person prepares lunch
Server/Cashier Julie Whitfield prepares for lunch at Dena’ina Elementary School in Wasilla in 2020. In Anchorage, the school district is struggling to hire cafeteria workers this year. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

It’s not just bus drivers that the Anchorage School District is struggling to hire as the first day of school approaches. District leaders say there’s also a shortage of cafeteria workers, which could impact student meals.

“We are going to have a hell of a challenge trying to maintain buses, food service, everything else,” said Anchorage School Board member Pat Higgins at last week’s board meeting. “You can’t go to a fast food restaurant, you can’t go to a grocery store, you can’t go to a hardware place without a help wanted sign.”

The school district is competing with restaurants and grocery stores for a small pool of workers, said Andy Mergens, who leads the district’s student nutrition program.

“Everybody’s bumping their starting minimum wage up to try and attract more people, and it just becomes like a bidding war,” Mergens said in an interview.

Mergens said there are 16 cafeteria manager positions open in the district. It’s an improvement from the 22 open positions they started with last school year. Still, that’s 16 schools that can’t serve hot meals.

“Until we can fill those vacancies, barring any miraculous solution to the contrary, we’re going to have to provide those students with a bag lunch, for all intents and purposes,” Mergens said.

Those are shelf-stable, ready-to-serve lunches. Without cafeteria workers, it might be up to front office staff, custodians and other school employees to hand them out. 

Schools that can serve hot meals will still have challenges related to the worker shortage. Without enough truck drivers, ingredients can’t arrive on schedule. That can result in some last-minute menu changes — and disappointed kids.

“The menu makes a difference, because kids will eat what they like,” Mergens said. “Sometimes they’ll show up and, ‘Ooh, it’s pizza day, yay, we get to have pizza,’ only to show up and find out it’s not pizza.”

In an effort to hire more cafeteria managers, the district is offering bonuses of up to $2,500 to both current and new hires. They’re also offering $1,000 to district employees who refer successful applicants. Mergens said there are full-time, part-time and fill-in positions available, and the district will help workers get their food handling certification. He hopes parents might even consider applying.

“Particularly at those schools that are going to start without a cafeteria manager, if you want your school to have meal service, then come and sign up and we’ll get you in and get you started, and hopefully you can help out your kid’s school by filling that role,” he said.

Changes to federal pandemic funding will also impact student nutrition this year. During the pandemic, many schools could feed students for free regardless of income, thanks to waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That ended at the end of last school year.

“Essentially what happens is we go back to the way things were before COVID,” Mergens said.

That means families eligible for free and reduced meals need to fill out an application this year. They can apply on the district’s website.

Thirty-seven schools are participating in the Community Eligibility Provision program this year. All students at those schools are automatically eligible for free breakfast and lunch every day, regardless of income, so families don’t need to fill out an application. 

At the district’s other 43 schools that serve meals, families either pay for them or apply for free and reduced meals. When meals became free at those schools earlier in the pandemic, Mergens said 12% more kids got their breakfasts and lunches at school.

It’s too early to say how many students will qualify for free or reduced price meals this year, especially as Permanent Fund dividends start to boost many families’ income levels.

At full price, lunches cost $4.50 at elementary schools, $5 at middle schools and $5.50 at high schools. Students approved for reduced lunch pay 40 cents.

Ahead of the first day of school on Aug. 18, Mergens said the district is working to make school meals as accessible as possible.

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