Food and Nutrition COVID-19 Resources

Handling Food Service Staff Shortages

November 2020

When staff in a school kitchen cannot report to work, preparing meals becomes a major challenge. Students may be required to change learning methods, different meal distribution methods might be required and kitchens might be temporarily closed. While suspension of meal service due to the pandemic is an option, we know that children are relying on these meals, especially when families may be going through difficult economic circumstances due to the pandemic. It is also important for the economic stability of the non-profit food service account that meals continue to be served. Putting plans in place now will avoid the need to cancel meal service all together. Now is the time to brainstorm and think out of the box to identify a “Plan B” or even a “Plan C” ready to implement.

Here are some ideas and suggestions:

  • Plan Ahead
  • Food service staff should know who the school or district COVID-19 Program Coordinator is. This person will be able to assist when handling COVID-19 issues.
  • Identify school personnel that may be able to assist the food service staff in packaging meals or distributing meals to students. Some schools have enlisted the help of the principal, paras, teachers and other staff. Consider training staff before they need to step in in an emergency
  • Identify a school or district that is geographically close to either reach out to them for assistance or to ask how they handled a different learning model, you can use the Safe Learning Model Dashboard on the MDE website.
  • Consider stocking ahead of time a variety of menu items that require minimal preparation. Convenience items to consider: canned fruits and vegetables, frozen fruit cups, frozen entrees that are “heat and serve”, “Uncrustable” type sandwiches, etc., are easy to distribute to students.
  • Think about preparing “emergency meals” that require minimal preparation and can easily be frozen and stored on-site for easy reheating and serving. One district prepares and stores sandwiches in the freezer, and has shelf-stable products on hand to quickly put together reimbursable meals. If the items aren’t needed after a certain period of time, the food can go into the regular menu rotation. Another school district stores a week’s worth of grab-and-go meals on hand so that they are ready in an emergency.
  • Ask your food distributor about convenience items they have to help make food prep easier.
  • Develop a simple 2-3 day rotating menu. Meal components must be met, but the menu doesn’t need extensive focus on variety. If you are short staffed, or have people coming in to work who are not experienced with food service, you’ll need a menu that is simple, easy to prepare, and that also meets meal pattern requirements.
  • Regular communication with school administrators as well as the school nurse is key. The food service director/manager, principal and other staff will need to work quickly to make the necessary adjustments so that students could still be served.
  • Within Your School/District

o Consider if another kitchen within your district can take on the responsibilities of preparing meals for students in the quarantined school kitchen. Meals could be simple “heat and serve” or even daily bag lunches.

o Consider if staff from another kitchen could be temporarily reassigned to other kitchens within the district

o Explore if there any former or retired food service employees to hire temporarily.

o Consider utilizing community volunteers, parents and/or student volunteers to help assemble or serve meals, or even wash dishes. Be sure to consult with your health inspector to ensure food safety concerns are met.

  • Other Area Schools
  • Inquire with other local schools, colleges, or universities to help provide meals, even for just once or twice a week. Options could include:
  • Daily hot or cold meals (bulk or pre-portioned)
  • Simple “heat and eat” items or meals
  • Bagged lunches, possibly enough to cover several days of meals
  • “Borrow” a food service employee(s) from another school to prepare and/or serve meals.
  • Community Resources
  • Research if there is a local establishment such as a restaurant, health care facility, or senior meal prep site (such as Meals on Wheels) that could prepare meals for students
  • If there is, ask if there is an available employee(s) that could temporarily be hired to help prepare and/or serve meals.
  • Should another school or community establishment be able to share staffing, think about how menus can be revised to be very simple. Consider convenience “heat and eat” items and cold meals, as well as a simple 2-3 day rotating menu. The ultimate goal during this time is to “feed the kids.”