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Food Service Staff Provide Stability for students despite Uncertainty of pandemic, food Supply Shortages, more

food service worker ringing up student lunch

It’s nearly lunchtime at Skyline High School, and the Food Services team is almost ready for the hundreds of students who will soon file through the lunch line. Final preparations include filling the warming trays with fragrant orange chicken, stacking wrapped burgers and readying individual servings of fruit and vegetables for the hungry teenagers. 

“Ready?” Kitchen Manager Rachel Carlson asks her team, smiling behind her mask. “OK, let’s get these kids in!” Students begin filtering into the cafeteria, which is called the Cascadia Café, welcomed by Carlson and the other Food Service employees. The number of meals served at Skyline has increased dramatically since before COVID-19, when Carlson said they would celebrate if they hit 100 meals served. Now, the team of seven serves hundreds of students each day and their all-time high was 561 meals served. “That is an incredible increase in the amount of food coming in and out of this kitchen,” she said. Part of that increase is likely due to the fact that meals are available for free this school year to all students as part of the National School Lunch Program. 

Food Services staff from throughout the district emphasize two things: First, they love feeding their students. And second, their work has been immensely more challenging since the pandemic began. The two biggest obstacles they have faced have been staffing shortages and supply chain issues, said Brian Olson, Director of Food Services. At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, 23 of the department’s 76 positions were filled with brand new staff. “These new employees got thrown into the craziest year in child nutrition ever – which I never thought I would say after last year,” Olson said. “They have gotten in there, rolled up their sleeves and learned from the person next to them – or from each other, if they’re both new.” 

Across the board, new and experienced kitchen staff members have worked incredibly hard to overcome obstacles such as continued food supply shortages that necessitate frequent menu substitutions. “They’ve been amazing,” Olson said. “It sounds cliché in our industry, but you can’t learn if you’re not fed. It’s absolutely important to feed our students while they’re at school.” 

The other major difficulty has been having enough staff members on site to fully operate. Some of the elementary locations are meant to operate with two-person teams, but if one person is unexpectedly absent and a substitute is not available, it’s not possible for the remaining staff member to prepare all the meals, serve and perform cashier duties by themselves. In those situations, Olson has moved those locations temporarily to a meal kit model.  

Lori Blair-Kargl, who has worked in the kitchen at Skyline for eight years, helped out at four or five different kitchens since the pandemic began, said she is grateful to be back at Skyline in person with the students. “I’ve loved the connection with the kids,” Blair-Kargl said, noting that she particularly enjoys meeting new Spartans and following their progress until graduation. 

At Cougar Mountain Middle School, which is temporarily housed at Ringdall Junior High in Newcastle until construction at their new building wraps up later this school year, Kitchen Manager Teri Langdon said that the supply shortages have been incredibly disruptive. In recent months, their school only received about 60 percent of the items ordered on any given delivery day. It was a dramatic difference on one recent day, when they suddenly received nearly everything they had ordered.  

The challenges have helped them become even more efficient, organized and prepared than they were before the pandemic, Langdon said. “It taught you to be adaptable when things change,” she added. “We are feeding every kid who wants to be fed. I couldn’t ask for a better crew.”  

Note: If you know a family in need of food assistance, please connect them with our community partner, the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank, issaquahfoodbank.org.