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School Food Workers Need More Training, Resources, Survey Finds

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usdaschoollunch.jpgSchool food workers say they need more training and resources to keep up with changes made in the wake of new nutrition standards created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

In a recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 58 percent of 3,372 total respondents said cooks and front-line servers needed training on basic cooking skills, and 68 percent said nutrition directors needed training in developing or modifying menus to meet the new standards.

"To run successful programs and meet updated nutrition standards, most school districts expected to make at least one change in their production approach, like cooking more meals from scratch or implementing recipe changes to ensure appropriate and consistent nutrient content," the report says.

The nationally representative survey was administered during the 2012-13 school year. That's before the U.S. Department of Agriculture set training and professional development standards for school food workers. Those standards set minimum training and education levels for food personnel that vary by district size.

The survey found that school food service workers most commonly receive on-the-job training. Only 37 percent of respondents said their district had a budget for professional development. Of those, just 34 percent said their professional development budget was sufficient.

training.JPGIn a Monday blog post, USDA deputy undersecretary Katie Wilson highlighted some of the department's efforts to train local school food workers:

"USDA is also prioritizing thorough, ongoing trainings which will help build a healthier future for all Americans. Our Team Up for School Nutrition Success initiative, launched in November 2014, provides schools with trainings on topics such as financial management, youth engagement tactics, and menu planning that are tailored to meet the diverse needs of all communities. We also offer a host of specialized resources for school food service staff on everything from food safety, meal planning, and professional standards to recipes, food presentation tips, and guidance on utilizing local produce. USDA understands that by training leaders locally, we can expand our reach tremendously and by empowering mentors at the state and local level, we provide communities with lasting, personalized support that is there to stay."

School food service directors report other challenges in preparing healthy school meals.

 The new survey findings are part of a series of reports on challenges school food programs face.

In 2013, the Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released another report that showed that "many school kitchens are better suited for opening cans and boxes of prepackaged foods than for preparing made-from-scratch entrees and paring skins from farm-fresh produce," I wrote at the time.

Among that report's findings:

  • About 88 percent of school food leaders surveyed need additional equipment to adequately prepare meals. This ranges from less-expensive items like knives and cutting boards to costlier items like $2,000 industrial food processors.
  • Just 42 percent of respondents had a capital equipment budget. Of those, just 43 percent thought that budget was sufficient.
  • About 55 percent of respondents said they need infrastructure changes, like additional space for food storage and service.

More about school lunches:

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