School kitchen workers file class action grievance against Jeffco

Employees claim understaffing, product quality has hurt food programs

Casey Van Divier
cvandivier@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/10/20

Four years ago, Andrea Cisneros accepted a position as the kitchen manager at West Woods Elementary School in Arvada. She was told by those who hired her that, to maintain the school’s staff — a …

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School kitchen workers file class action grievance against Jeffco

Employees claim understaffing, product quality has hurt food programs

Posted

Four years ago, Andrea Cisneros accepted a position as the kitchen manager at West Woods Elementary School in Arvada. She was told by those who hired her that, to maintain the school’s staff — a staff of five, including herself — she would need to promote high levels of participation in the school’s breakfast, lunch and a la carte programs.

And she has. When she tells kitchen workers from other schools how many West Woods students participate — up to 300 students purchase lunch on pizza day, she said — they often think they’ve heard her wrong.

Audrey Kesler, an hourly kitchen worker at Wheat Ridge High School, says those numbers rival high school participation. 

But it hasn’t saved Cisneros’ staff in the way she’d originally hoped. Her numbers have dropped from a staff of five to a staff of two, leaving her with only one other employee in the kitchen every day.

“I was promised if I made these sales, I wouldn’t lose my staff,” she said. And as her staff has dwindled, she’s found herself physically exhausted.

“There’s no compensation for my shoulders. There’s no compensation for my wrists,” she said. “They have whittled me down to nothing and expect me to bring their sales up for them.”

March 11, the Jeffco Schools Food Service Association filed a class action grievance against Jeffco’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), claiming that FNS has not met expectations outlined in the groups’ negotiated agreement. 

The association, affiliated with support professionals’ union JESPA (Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association), negotiates an agreement on food service working conditions each year.

The grievance mentions an array of topics, but workers’ main concern is what they perceive as widespread understaffing in kitchens across the district. Many of the kitchen workers believe this understaffing is fueled by food quality issues, as drops in lunch sales can lead to a smaller budget and staffing cuts.

When the kitchen workers began their careers in Jeffco, they made more of their meals from scratch, but now, “half of (the food) comes straight out of the box,” Kesler said.

In a statement provided to Colorado Community Media, Beth Wallace, FNS executive director, and Jeremy West, FNS director of operations, stated that FNS selects which products to serve based on multiple criteria, including nutrition standards, students’ preferences and cost.

“Jeffco Public Schools, specifically our team of an executive chef and dietitian, has worked over the last few years to incorporate student input and variety into our menus,” the statement said

The directors’ statement added the organization must adhere to a strict budget but in the 2018-2019 school year, still managed to increase school lunch participation by 1%. 

At a Nov. 13 board meeting, Wallace attributed the increase to “great new menu items and listening to feedback.”

The directors had no further comment in regards to staffing.

Despite last year’s 1% increase, staff sizes have dropped throughout the years, making it difficult to “provide the service we are wanting to provide,” said Kathy Grimes, food service manager at Chatfield High School in Littleton.

“We want to be there for the kids, not scrambling around, unable to smile at a kid because we’re too stressed out,” she said. “We’re proud of what we’re doing, but we’re beating our head against the wall every day trying to get everything done.”

At Stober Elementary in Lakewood, a staff of two runs the entire kitchen, said the school’s kitchen manager, Sharon Talty. She has been told by her supervisor that FNS may further reduce the staff to one person as participation in the school’s food programs has continued to fall.

“I can’t fathom doing this job by myself,” she said. “I always tell people, I get paid for seven hours a day but I essentially work nine to ten. It’s bad now and it’s only going to get worse.”

Already, there are several elementary schools in the district with only one staff member, said Kesler, the association’s food service president.

On the FNS website, the organization states that FNS does not receive district funding and when it turns a profit, the organization invests that revenue back into its services.

“(FNS) is committed to serving quality food and providing multiple options for our students,” said the FNS directors’s statement.

Across the board, the district’s food service workers believe in that mission as much as FNS does.

“It’s a meaningful job,” Cisneros said. 

But for her and her coworkers, the bottom line is that “my kids don’t like the menu and I don’t have enough staff to bring them through the lines to eat,” she said. “We shouldn’t be held accountable for their failure to staff our kitchens.”   

JESPA executive director Vicki Flores said JESPA members and FNS will meet about the grievance the week of March 9.

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