Thinking Outside the Box to Fill Staffing Shortages

The Kershaw County School District (SC) school nutrition department was fully staffed before the pandemic. Down a third of its staff two years later, they knew they had to try something different to ensure enough resources to feed children in the district. 

When Misha Lawyer, Coordinator for Nutrition Services, had two high school students approach her about part-time jobs, she realized many employees she needed were right in her school district. What started with one high school senior taking college classes online and one high school junior taking classes part-time, has grown into a more robust student work program this year.

“We have a lot of students on accelerated programs and taking electives who are only going to class half a day so they are available to work in the afternoon.” said Lawyer. “We also have a culinary arts program at our high school and have been able to resume an internship program with them.” 

This is the first year nutrition services has hired student employees, Lawyer says they get paid the same as the adult staff. The students attend classes in the morning then work 4-5 hour shifts in the afternoon but must be in good standing academically to work in the kitchen. They help with the supper and after school snack programs as well as help prepare for the next day.

“I know the turnover will be high for my student employees, I am expecting that, but I also am seeing a steady pool of upcoming students interested in working with us,” said Lawyer. 

The Kershaw County School District Nutrition Department is also helping special needs students develop life skills, learning how to take orders, do dishes and prepare food. Next year, they plan to hire one of the special needs students who will be finished with a certificate program.

The district also has a paid internship program for its third year culinary students who learn how to do every job in the kitchen, from preparing to serving.

According to Lawyer, the younger employees bring a different perspective and the staff is able to bounce ideas off of them and help them assess why or why not new menu items are popular among their student peers.

“The student employees offer suggestions for our ‘Try-Day Friday’ and are also helping with menu planning for next year. They know what their friends like and don’t like,” said Lawyer.

With the success they’ve had in such a short time hiring high school students, they are excited to continue the practice for years to come.

“We all have to think outside the box. If we do that, hopefully we can get back to a new normal,” said Misha Lawyer.  She says South Carolina food service directors have been sharing ideas and hiring student workers has been expanding across the state.

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