Oregon food service workers back in kitchens

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The Oregon School Employees Association is celebrating a triumph for food services in the Dallas School District kitchens, where private contractor Sodexo is out, and OSEA members are back in. The change adds 20 new classified employees, and improves service with fresh foods cooked on site, rather than the heat-and-eat selections from Sodexo. "I feel like we are no longer in it for the money rather than the kids," said one member.

Dallas' unique partnership with Central School District is generating excitement from children and the community alike. The wholesale effort to serve fresh foods cooked on site has even attracted local media coverage.

Mike Vetter, food service director for both districts, said food quality had become "a major concern" in Dallas under contractor Sodexo. Since food was cooked at a central site, distributed and reheated at schools, there was little staff could do to make meals more appealing to students.

Food service workers Sarah Smith, Teena Shilling and Alexandra VezosAdministrators in Dallas took note of the contrast with nearby Central, which offered locally grown produce, lunches prepared on site and a willingness to experiment.

New Dallas OSEA members are on the forefront of an improved food service program: Sarah Smith, Teena Shilling and Alexandra Vezos (pictured at left, from left to right) are cooking fresh food daily at Lyle Elementary. Shilling and Vezos are now district employees after working for Sodexo.

"(Dallas) wanted that exact same experience, with us cooking the food fresh at every school," Vetter said. "Food's not meant to be served from a hot box."

Shilling, head cook at Lyle Elementary School in Dallas, brought her commitment to and love for students over from the contractor to the school district. She said the new food is fresher and students have more options. While she was always treated well by fellow staff, she and fellow cook Vezos said they couldn't help but feel separate from district employees.

"When they'd have classified (employee) appreciation days, even though the teachers would say 'Go help yourself' (to food); I never felt right," Shilling said. "We didn't feel like part of the family."

Vetter said Dallas "hired the best we could … I can't tell you how thoroughly impressed I am with the staff we hired."

Vezos said the return to local control of food service means on-site staff members have more leeway to make changes. Now they can ask a supervisor or the principal. Under the top-down system at Sodexho, she said, the chain of command was much more daunting. This also allows the kitchen staff to get word out in advance if a menu item is changing: for example, serving fish instead of chicken due to supply issues.

Shilling senses a shift in the institutional mission: "I feel like we are no longer in it for the money rather than the kids."

Stronger nutritional requirements have also nudged food service departments into finding and developing meals children are still willing to eat. While the Dallas program is still evolving, Shilling pointed out little changes such as no longer serving pepperoni with pizza and removing ranch dressing from the salad bar.

"It's a lot of work with the government regulations, but we're able to achieve my goals of trying to get kids to eat and enjoy food again at the schools," Vetter said.

This willingness to experiment has been a hit with students, said Sarah Smith, a new employee who handles clerical duties in the food service department. Kiwi, cauliflower, fresh spinach and sliced peppers are generating curiosity with appearances on the fresh fruit and salad bar.

"I've had several kids come through with something and say, 'I've never had this before. What is it?'" Smith said. "It's crazy how much kids love the red peppers."

"If a student gets the choice of what they want to eat, it improves the learning process," Vezos said. "(For) some kids, this is the only meal they get some days."

[Oregon School Employees Association/photo courtesy OSEA]