How Many Cooks Does It Take To Feed Kids Well?

Melissa Bailey PhotoDeclaring 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.

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posted by: Noteworthy on May 10, 2013  10:06am

More workers, more payroll; more payroll taxes to pay; more benefits for the expanded payroll and more food loss. This is what the union does, what it always does. Demand more workers, more pay, more benefits - and tell us they’re doing it for the children, or they’re doing it to keep us safe (police and fire) and damn the cost. Who will pay? Property owners and of course, renters even though they don’t see it. Just say no.

posted by: robn on May 10, 2013  10:08am

The Gourmet groceries with hot food and salad bars on Whitney and in York Square are both supplied by remote centralized kitchens. Yalies and Townies alike are crawling over one another to get lunch there. If this is a successful strategy for private businesses then NHPS should take note. The purpose of the NHPS cafeterias is to feed children, not to create jobs that aren’t needed or to artificially inflate wages.

posted by: swatty on May 10, 2013  10:25am

Facts are facts. What is the most economical way to give our kids healthy meals? Seems like Clarke has the xs and os figured out. Onthe other hand, the union people want to be better paid and don’t want to be stuck in a dead end job.

What did Tim do? He left. He left for a reason: more money, better challenge, tired of BOE BS. Whatever. He is in charge of his own destiny. He’s wonderful and the city owes him nothing. That’s the nature of the world. Why is it always the union folks who think because they are hired the world owes them more? If these people don’t like their reality they have the option of moving ON…

Altering spices to get kids to eat? I laughed in my coffee over that one!

posted by: Jim Berger on May 10, 2013  2:46pm

I think this is a brilliant project in several ways—practical and human, economic, and political.  First, it makes use of people’s skills.  Instead of deskilling jobs, it “upskills” them. It allows people to use the abilities they have, and add to them. This in itself is hugely important.  It is a social good to have people work at jobs that use their skills and thus have a commitment to what they do.  Second, economically, having more people working as cooks at a higher pay level puts money into the local economy as these higher wages are spent on goods and services—rather than having this money sent to a distant corporate headquarters.  The tax money spent here is an investment in the city’s future.  A prosperous working class will strengthen the city’s economic-political-social structure.  Finally, politically, this project gives people a sense of their own strength and investment in the social fabric. As cooks, what the children eat is now their responsibility.  They don’t just serve up whatever grub comes through the system.  The food is theirs.  This is not just a matter of a job description and pay grade.  This is a new social and political fact, and it’s one that we should want to bring into being.

And I just want to add that the idea of the union movement is both to raise people’s standards of living and also increase their stake in the public life of their communities.  This project would both these things, and I am impressed by and grateful for these efforts.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 10, 2013  7:03pm

@Jim Berger.Well said.In fact most people who hate unions do not know about history of the labour movement in this country.In fact The labor movement in the United States grew out of the need to protect the common interest of workers.This is what happens when you have no union rights.


posted by: TheMadcap on May 10, 2013  8:23pm

Yeah, unions demand decent wages instead of being exploited. Shocking news. Everyone is jealous of unions because they’re the last segment of the country that isn’t being completely exploited and hasn’t seen their wages stagnant for 30 years. Maybe they should stop complaining and form a union.

posted by: robn on May 11, 2013  1:26pm


It isn’t exploitation to pay cafeteria servers above the city’s designated living wage and it isn’t exploitation to stay with an efficient centralized kitchen instead of creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs. If there was some evidence that the existing staff could do on site food production at the same cost I would be all for it but that argument was not made in this article. The argument made in this article is to spend more tax dollars in New Haven and by doing so, to strengthen out local economy. The problem with that argument is that there’s no proof (or even argument) that the increased cost would be offset by increased grand list which is what pays for the increased cost.

posted by: Curious on May 12, 2013  8:11am

No one has pointed out yet that the people who did these surveys about NHPS food service were not the kids who eat there or their parents, but the servers who stand to get more money from it.

This is just like congress voting itself a pay raise independent of how well they are doing their jobs.

This will pass because UniteHERE owns the New Haven BOA.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 12, 2013  11:09am

Healthy Kids First

Why cafeteria workers
want to cook fresh
meals in New Haven
Public Schools

posted by: Curious on May 13, 2013  10:28am

Three-fifths, I already read the report.

The hilarious joke here is that the report is based on feedback from the people looking for better jobs, not from the KIDS.

“The report is based on surveys of 110 cafeteria workers”

This type of change should come from outside the system.  This is basically the same as telling my boss he should give me a raise based on a report….that was written by me, and based on my own opinions.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 13, 2013  11:29am

posted by: Curious on May 13, 2013 10:28am

This type of change should come from outside the system.  This is basically the same as telling my boss he should give me a raise based on a report….that was written by me, and based on my own opinions.

And Bosses based on there own opinons.Second the school lunch program was run by a outside agency I think call hallmark and they got rid of them due to the fact that parents did complain about the food.