Since the first day of school this fall, there’s been one person cooking and serving two meals a day, five days a week for the more than 500 students at Orono Middle-High School.
Ben Jacobson does it with a smile hidden under his mask as he moves about the school’s kitchen from task to task, generally with music on in the background. On Friday, his soundtrack was blues as he pulled that day’s lunch from the ovens to divvy up servings and checked to make sure everything else was set for lunch.
Cafeteria worker isn’t even Jacobson’s full-time job. As food service director for Regional School Unit 26, he’s supposed to be the supervisor for the people doing that job at both Orono Middle-High School and Asa Adams Elementary School.
But this school year has been different. The full-time kitchen crew of at least two employees at Orono Middle-High School didn’t return this school year, Jacobson said, and he hasn’t been able to replace them. Until a few weeks ago, when RSU 26 hired a part-time employee to wash dishes and clean, Jacobson had no regular help in the kitchen.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shortage of workers for employers across Maine and the U.S. in a variety of sectors. The shortage has been pronounced for Maine schools that have had difficulty filling positions for substitute teachers, bus drivers and, in Orono’s case, food service workers.
The lack of help in the kitchen has forced Jacobson to limit menu choices, eliminate a la carte options and cook less food than he’d like to from scratch, he said.
“There’s always been that stigma that school food is crap, and that’s part of why folks don’t want to come work,” Jacobson said. “We’re trying to grow and create something here.”
Jacobson has been the director at RSU 26 for five years, and this school year marks his seventh working in school food service, he said.
This year was supposed to be a year when RSU 26 could offer more freshly cooked, made-from-scratch options. On the first day of classes this year, RSU 26 unveiled new kitchens and cafeterias in both of its schools. But with Jacobson essentially alone in the Middle-High School kitchen, it hasn’t been used to its full potential.
“These [new] kitchens were designed to be scratch kitchens,” he said. “That’s what I designed them for. It is set up to do what we want it to do, but it’s a matter of not having enough people.”
As Jacobson navigated the lunch rush on Friday, serving heaping helpings of chili between layers of cornbread, he wasn’t alone. The district’s school resource officer, Ed Leskey, hopped behind the counter to help dish out food. Jacobson’s part-time help, Andy Edmiston-Cyr, washed dishes and kept the kitchen tidy.
While Jacobson has made it work, the system in place isn’t the best and burnout is a real threat, he said. However, Jacobson said his role at RSU 26 is still the best one he’s had in nearly 20 years in food service, which have also included running a diner in Belfast and managing a butcher shop.
“At restaurants, you’re driven by a bottom line. But here, we’re trying to put out as good food as we can and feed the kids. To me, as I get older, that is a much better goal,” Jacobson said.
Having worked in restaurants has also prepared Jacobson for a staggering workload. Landing anywhere between 40 to 50 hours a week is practically impossible in the restaurant world, so things could be more stressful, Jacobson said. But that’s not to say it’s been easy to juggle his administrative role with that of being the sole chef for 500 hungry kids.
“At the beginning, I was just squeezing the administrative work in when I could, but it’s gotten better now,” he said. “The first of the year, I was working 10-12 hour days just to get it done. My focus was to get the children fed first.”
Jacobson usually starts his days around 5 a.m., arriving at the school to prepare food for brown-bag breakfasts and do whatever other prep work is needed for lunch that day.
On Friday, just before the first lunch block around 11 a.m., he was grabbing trays of food, slicing up lunch into scoopable portions and putting pans back into their warmers.
The kitchen didn’t smell like an average school cafeteria. It smelled like a home-cooked meal.
Those who work with Jacobson said they admire his work ethic and passion for creating healthy and delicious foods for kids.
“We all help Ben out. He’s just great,” Leskey said. “The food is great, too.”
“Ben is doing amazing work,” Superintendent Meredith Higgins said. “He was running this kitchen by himself until just a few weeks ago.”
For Jacobson, it’s not the paycheck or the praise that drives him to work hard — it’s the kids.
“It’s a struggle, but we stay positive. We’re all here for a reason,” he said. “We want to be here for the kids. I’m here to build a program and build something meaningful.”
RSU 26 recently approved a new, full-time kitchen manager position that will help ease Jacobson’s work load — if it can be filled.