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Serving Students: A Survey of Contracted Food Service Work in New Jersey’s K-12 Public Schools

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In New Jersey, contracted food service workers in K-12 public schools play a critical role in delivering healthy meals to the state’s children. School lunches offer many children, particularly the 250,000 living in low-income families, the only assurance that they will receive at least one well-balanced and healthy meal a day. Federally- and state-funded free and reduced price lunch programs—and the breakfast that nearly 50 percent of New Jersey schools also serve—are essential to our children’s well-being. Despite their important work, New Jersey’s public school food service workers are struggling to support their own families: pay is low, benefits are rare, and opportunities for advancement are limited. In short, in New Jersey the school food program intended to help poor children rests upon the shoulders of workers who themselves earn poverty-level wages.

In New Jersey, the median hourly wage for food preparation workers in educational services was only $8.15 in 2007, and many of these jobs pay no more than the New Jersey minimum wage of $7.15. Contracted food service workers are paid only for their work during the school year and are not paid for school holidays or other days when school is closed. Most workers receive few, if any, health care benefits, leaving many of them uninsured or with no other option than to enroll in New Jersey public health insurance programs. In fact, the food service industry ranked third in 2002 among industry sectors with the highest percentage of employees and their children – over 6,300 – using New Jersey FamilyCare.

While contracted food service workers struggle to get by, they nevertheless have significant responsibilities in the school cafeteria. From preventing food contamination and identifying foods that cause allergies, to proper storage and disposal of food, these workers are at the front-line of keeping school children safe from food-borne illnesses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes their critical role; in recent years, the agency has directed that food service workers be trained to recognize potential bio-hazards. In their regular contact with students, these workers – a majority of them female – also have the opportunity to encourage children to eat well and to make healthy food choices, an important role as obesity rates among children in New Jersey and across the country continue to climb. It is important to note, however, that there is no requirement that contracted K-12 food service workers be granted sick days, a concern for both the health and safety of the students and the workers themselves when there is an economic incentive for these low-wage employees to go to work while ill.

This report provides a unique look at contracted food service workers in public schools in New Jersey and nationally. The data, drawn from federal and state sources and other research, is supplemented by findings from a number of focus groups held in New Jersey in November 2008 and February 2009. In the course of developing this report, two things stand out: first, the virtual absence of data and information on these public school employees who play a significant role in student health and safety; and second, the strong commitment of these workers to the value of their job and to the students, despite low wages, lack of benefits and often difficult working conditions.

Contracted food service workers deserve the opportunity to make family-sustaining wages with benefits, and have the training required to get good jobs with the opportunity for a career path. The following report and its recommendations are a first step in reaching these goals.