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Despite worker shortage, RCSD aims to improve food service 

click to enlarge Kindergartners from World of Inquiry School #58 in the lunch line. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Kindergartners from World of Inquiry School #58 in the lunch line.
Rochester City School District leaders are searching for cafeteria and kitchen employees as they work to improve the state of school lunches.

When students returned to classes in the last school year, many complained about the quality of the food. The district switched vendors mid-year after prepackaged sandwiches with meat that looked odd to some people were provided by an out-of-town vendor.

District Chief Operating Officer Mike Schmidt reiterated Friday, what the district said back in March: that the food was safe, even if it was unappealing. Schmidt said that vendor is long gone and the district expects to offer new options like salad bars, spaghetti and meatballs, and various types of burritos.

While the district plans to implement these changes as the year begins in September, Schmidt said officials are forced to deal with another problem: they’re short nearly 30 staffers. He said the district is working on contingency plans to make sure their food service staff can provide a meal to every child who needs them.

Roughly 200 BENTE union positions were eliminated about a year ago as officials addressed the district's financial problems and shifted to online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While BENTE workers have faced waves of layoffs in recent years, its leader, Dan DiClemente, said it's unusual for kitchen staff to be affected.

“It was kind of an anomaly,” said DiClemente. “They just weren’t serving the amount of meals that they were before.”

“I harped on that as hard as I could before it happened, but right now I’m just trying to get people in here so we can serve the kids.” continued DiClemente.

Schmidt said the layoffs are a reason why the shortage of employees exists.

“When we were closed for an extended period of time we had some layoffs in the food service department, and when we came back in January it was just difficult to recover,” said Schmidt.

But he said it's not the only reason.

“COVID-19 has had a lot of impact on a lot of areas of our community and certainly in the food service industry it was very dramatic,” continued Schmidt. “There was a lot of support for folks and it has been very difficult to get people back in the workforce. We’re not unique in that, I think that has been very well documented, across the country, the restaurant business has been struggling to get people back in.”

Among the supports that Schmidt and district spokesperson Marisol Ramos Lopez pointed to was enhanced unemployment which adds $300 a week to unemployment checks. The Biden Administration is expected to end that in early September.

“I think it's just trying to recover from the shortage that’s affecting every business in our country right now. It has to do with folks not coming back into work,” said Lopez.

She said the district is also short on bus drivers and custodians. They’re intensifying recruiting efforts as the school year nears.

Schimidt said recruiting has picked up after the district and the BENTE Union reached a new contract agreement. Among the terms was a minimum wage of $15 an hour. According to the union, just about every worker received a raise, some got two or three dollars an hour more.

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