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There haven’t been enough cooks in the kitchen at the Orono Middle-High School cafeteria. That doesn’t seem to have fazed Ben Jacobson.
The Regional School Unit 26 food service director has been pulling double duty of sorts, supervising the shared cafeteria at the middle and high schools and the Asa Adams Elementary School cafeteria while also preparing all the school meals for 500 middle and high school students.
That’s two meals a day, five days a week, for 500 students, while basically doing two jobs — apparently with few complaints from Jacobson. That all adds up to us being really impressed.
“It’s a struggle, but we stay positive. We’re all here for a reason,” Jacobson told BDN writer Sawyer Loftus. “We want to be here for the kids. I’m here to build a program and build something meaningful.”
What had been at least a two-person full-time kitchen crew at the middle-high school cafeteria didn’t return this year, and he hasn’t been able to replace those employees. Several weeks ago, the district hired a part-time employee to wash dishes and clean, and has recently approved a new full-time kitchen manager position — if someone can be found to fill that role.
The struggle to staff this school kitchen in Orono may be a particularly acute and local example, but it is not an outlier in terms of the challenges being faced in school kitchens across the country. Between labor issues and supply shortages, the already difficult job of feeding America’s students has been especially challenging this school year. And that is after a year and a half of COVID-19 strain and adaptation
“I don’t know where all of the people are,” Laticia Baudhuin, who supervises school nutrition at a school district in Wisconsin, told NBC News in September. “We’ve had some labor issues in the past. Being a lunch lady is really, really hard work, and unfortunately, it doesn’t draw a lot of people in.”
As we look at this situation and other labor shortages, we frankly have more questions than answers. But we expect that these complex issues will require multi-faceted solutions. And we’re confident that people like Jacobson stepping up to do the work of several people, while inspiring, won’t be a sustainable solution in the long run. Despite his admirable positivity, Jacobson did acknowledge that such a taxing system could be a recipe for burnout.
We’re not going to solve America’s workforce issues in one editorial, but we can send a message to all the people keeping school kitchens open in the midst of staffing challenges. To Jacobson and all the other school food service workers out there making sure students are fed during a difficult time: We see you. We appreciate you. Thank you for doing what you do.