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Lunch Staff Shortages Persist At CPS As One Of Its Top Schools Is Unable To Feed All Students For First Time

Whitney Young's cafeteria struggled with a one-day lunch food shortage for the first time. Staffing and supply chain issues have plagued schools across the district since last year.

Chicago Public Schools has struggled with lunch staffing issues in cafeterias.
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)/Flickr
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CHICAGO — A Chicago school was unable to feed all its students at one point last month — and other schools have also seen issues with their lunchrooms.

Rickey Harris, Whitney Young Magnet High School principal, said at an Oct. 19 local school council meeting that cafeteria staff were unable to feed all students one day because of an unforeseen staff shortage. Three out of the five cafeteria workers had unexpectedly called off, leaving two workers to prep and cook the school’s lunch with no backup, Harris said.

Because it was a rainy day, most students chose to eat a free lunch from the school cafeteria instead of leaving campus, Harris said. That and the shortage of workers overwhelmed the lunch system, he said.

Administration at Whitney Young were unable to step in since they found out about the problem after lunch periods were over, Harris said.

Harris did not say how many students missed out on lunch, but he said he was assured by Chicago Public Schools administrators the shortage would not happen again.

When a school is short-staffed, the district sends employees from a citywide pool. If no one is available to send, the operations teams or the food service managers provide on-site support to ensure meals are served, district officials said.

It’s not known if the citywide pool was contacted to help with the one-day staff shortage at Whitney Young.

“Chicago Public Schools is committed to providing healthy, high-quality food to all students. Staffing has been a challenge amid a national labor shortage but CPS schools have continued to serve free and nutritious meals to students every school day. To mitigate the impact of this labor shortage, CPS continues to host monthly job fairs and are extending offers to qualified candidates daily,” a CPS spokesperson said in a statement.

Staffing and supply chain issues have plagued the district since last year, with lunchroom managers having to having to juggle last-minute menu swaps and COVID-19 concerns.

Multiple lunchroom workers told Block Club Chicago in January their schools struggled with keeping their shelves stocked and having an adequate amount of staff to prep and serve meals.

The district has 316 Nutrition Support Services vacancies affecting 236 schools, and many schools face additional staff shortages due to employees calling in sick, according to a CPS spokesperson.

Englewood’s Harvard School of Excellence has seen problems, too.

Kendra Snow attended the school in the early ‘90s, and now her children go there, she said. She joined the local school council this year and learned the lunchroom has struggled to keep up with students’ needs, she said.

“My kids started taking their lunches to school this year. They say the food is disgusting, that it doesn’t taste right and that they run out of food three times a week,” said Snow. “So the lunchroom staff always winds up making whatever they have on hand.” 

A former lunchroom manager who worked at the school for a decade before leaving last year said it wasn’t uncommon for them to run out of food. The staff wouldn’t realize what menu items they were missing until after the vendors delivered their orders. She said she wasn’t aware if the vendors knew they weren’t sending the full orders. 

“What I used to do is have a backup: You had to have a bag of something so that you wouldn’t run out of food. You know how many kids you got coming in, so you always cook a little more,” said the anonymous staffer, who now works at another school. “We’d make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just in case.” 

The lunchroom manager and two other employees were tasked with serving 346 students, which she said was a five-person job. Being spread that thin made the work even more difficult, especially when it came to ensuring every student had a meal, she said.

“For a lot of these kids, this is the only time they’ll have a meal. To not have what we needed was a struggle. I know the principal doesn’t have control over that, and I’m not even sure she knew,” she said.

Harvard Principal Aisha McCarthy did not respond to Block Club’s request for comment.

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