Declaring New Haven’s nationally recognized school food program “in decline,” cafeteria workers called on the mayor to invest in more scratch cooking—and more cooks.
The workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 217, delivered that message in a visit to Mayor John DeStefano at City Hall. They handed him a copy of a new report calling on the city to invest in its workforce by promoting more workers to cooks who prepare food instead of just reheating it.
The event brought a new facet to a long-running labor dispute. Local 217, which represents 186 school cafeteria workers, has been stuck in contract negotiations for years. The last contract expired July 1 of 2010, according to Cristina Cruz-Uribe (at right in photo above).
As those negotiations await resolution, Cruz-Uribe has been organizing a new group within the union that put forward a vision for the school food program and its workforce. Cruz-Uribe and Jennifer Gaddis, a phD candidate at the Yale forestry school, compiled a report entitled “Healthy Kids First”—click here to read it. The report is based on surveys of 110 cafeteria workers. Cruz-Uribe joined a group of workers on Wednesday on the steps of City Hall to release the report and deliver a copy to the mayor.
Instead of the union stewards who have spoken on behalf of the union in the past, the event featured some new faces of workers who do not serve in official leadership roles.
Shirley Bookert (pictured) introduced herself as the mother of nine kids and a city cafeteria worker for 13 years. She works at Davis Street School, which, like most city schools, has a “warming kitchen.” That means she does not cook: Food is prepared off-site at the central kitchen and transported to Davis Street, where Bookert and company warm it up. Only 12 of 45 schools have “production” kitchens where food is cooked.
Bookert called on the city to train more general workers like her to be cooks. That would provide a pathway to career advancement, and a wage increase from $16.44 to $19.16. It would also lead to more fresh food and cut down on the waste said she routinely observes at her school.
At Davis Street, she said, students “take the food, walk past the trash, and boom”—toss it out.
After making brief public remarks on the steps of City Hall, Bookert helped lead the charge up to the mayor’s office to deliver the message in person. She brought an entourage of 30 people, including fellow workers, union staff and a half-dozen aldermen, into the mayor’s foyer.
DeStefano emerged after a few minutes and greeted the crowd at the Wednesday event. He heard from Betty Alford (at center in photo), Bookert, and Honey Coppola, an 18-year veteran cafeteria worker currently stationed at Benjamin Jepson School.
“We’re trying to bring cooking back into the schools,” Coppola explained.
DeStefano accepted a copy of the report. “I appreciate all you do with our schoolchildren,” he said. “I’ll read through this.”
After the crowd left, DeStefano was asked if he sees a connection between the demonstration and the labor contract negotiations. “I’ll take it at face value—fresh food,” he said.
Two reports—one from the union, and another from the school system—shed more light on the arguments the workers made.
The union report tells the story of a school food program “in decline.”
The report says Chef Tim Cipriano made big strides towards fresh food in his four-year tenure as the food services head. He brought in salad bars to all city cafeterias, for example. He won national acclaim as one of ten chefs picked to coordinate a program connecting chefs to schools as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign. He was named a White House “champion of change” that year, too. Cipriano left the schools last August for a job in Guilford.
The “lack of sustained leadership” since Cipriano’s departure “has put the quality of our program in jeopardy,” the report reads. It says 74 percent of cafeteria workers believe the program is in decline.
Schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark, who oversees the food services program, said the program has not been without leadership in the last year. Clark hired Linda Franzese, the food services director in Waterbury, to help out New Haven schools on a part-time basis, for a couple of days per week, throughout the year. In addition, Leo Lesh, former director of Denver schools’ food program, has served as a consultant. He took on the role of acting director until the end of April, Clark said.
“There’s been leadership with two incredibly well-respected and long-time tenured food service directors,” Clark said.
Clark said the school system is maintaining its spot as a statewide and national leader in fresh food. Under his supervision, the school district took back control of its school meals from an outside company and started making baked potatoes instead of instant mix and roasted chicken instead of nuggets. Most meals are prepared at Central Kitchen. (Click on the play arrow for a 2009 video explaining the changes.)
“Meals at Central Kitchen are scratch-cooked meals,” he said. Clark also credited the school system with eliminating high-sugar cereals and flavored milk and putting in salad bars in every school.
After focusing so much on fresh food, however, Clark said the food services program needs to concentrate on an area of weakness: An annual $2 million deficit. The schools pay $12 million on food services but only take in $10 million, he said.
Kitchens, No Cooks
In its report, the union argues for decentralizing the cooking and shifting to more on-site production at city schools. That would create more high-paying jobs for workers, 74 percent of whom are the primary breadwinners for their families, according to the report. The union also argues that more fresh cooking would allow workers to alter spices and flavors to kids’ needs, ensuring that less food gets thrown out.
“It’s not unusual for the union to attempt to expand the highest-paid position in the group,” Clark later responded. The city has about 15 to 20 cooks, who make $19.16 per hour, plus full health care and retirement benefits—a “very generous” package for a job that starts at 20 hours per week, Clark said.
Training more general workers to be cooks, as the union suggests, would have an adverse affect on the quality of food, Clark argued. To balance the budget, he said, the schools would have to offset the cost of the new cooks by cutting down on food expenses.
“You’d have to go backwards to get less costly food items, which would be processed foods and the like,” he argued. “It’s not an unlimited budget.”
The union report highlights four K-8 schools with food-production kitchens where staff work efficiently, producing more than the national average of meals per hour.
A monthly report compiled by the school system, however, shares the full story: High schools with production kitchens are among the most costly to maintain.
Click here to read that district report.
In the most extreme example of high cost, Metropolitan Business Academy staff produce only 5.6 meals per labor hour, compared to an industry standard of 10 to 14, according to the report. Labor costs comprise 164 percent of the revenue that comes in, incurring a deficit of $7,000 per month, according to the report.
Labor costs at other high schools that cook their own meals range from 60 to 117 percent of revenue, according to the chart.
Clark said in order to break even in the food program, labor costs and food expenses need to be brought down to 50 percent of revenue.
The union report notes that participation is low at high school cafeterias, in part because unlike in K-8 schools, many high school kids must pay for their meals.
“With conscientious menu planning and additional training,” the Local 217 report argues, “we could cook meals from scratch that high school students—and staff—would choose to purchase.”
Rather than adding more cooks, Clark offered, the school system needs to focus on making use of computer software to cut down on overproduction and waste. The computers and software are all in place, he said, but staff need to “better utilize” them to track inventory “so we’re not losing any revenue or wasting any purchases.”
“Because we were so focused on really elevating the food quality, this was put on the back burner,” Clark said. He said the schools will be retraining staff in coming days “to get them back in and working and utilizing this system.” He said once the school system ensures that it’s getting proper reimbursements for each meal served, then it can “devote more energy to the production side,” to “make sure and meet the needs and desires of the customer”—the kids.