Dalton Public Schools providing free summer meals despite labor shortage

·4 min read

Jun. 8—For the first time, Dalton Public Schools' summer nutrition program will likely serve more meals to students at summer camps than at neighborhood sites, said Wimberly Brackett, director of school nutrition.

First, academic and sports camps, vacation Bible schools and other camps have not only returned to pre-COVID-19-pandemic status this year, but may be even more numerous than before, and participation is high, Brackett said.

"It's good to see parents comfortable enough to put their kids in those camps, because they get enrichment in addition to food."

Second, many families are taking more — and longer — vacations this summer after two summers with few, if any, vacations, Brackett said. What has been called "revenge travel" — Americans making up this year for vacations they missed due to COVID-19 the past two-plus years — "is definitely real, (and) I'm seeing it," so more families will be gone from Dalton for at least part of this summer.

As was the case the past two summers due to COVID-19, students don't have to be present to receive meals, thanks to a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), so parents, grandparents or guardians can collect meals for children, according to Brackett. The summer meals are free to children 18 and under through the USDA's summer meals program, and any child can eat anywhere, even if it's not his or her "home" school or system.

"About normal for us is 3,000 to 3,500 (lunches a day)" during the summer, but summer staffing is "a challenge," especially with drivers, so "we've had to combine some sites" this year, Brackett said. "With fewer drivers, the drivers we do have are having to make more stops, so it can be challenging to stay on schedule, but we've definitely kept our higher-traffic areas, and we're really focused on the safest areas for kids to go get meals."

Breakfasts and lunches are distributed in several neighborhoods, while there are also eight locations for sit-down meals. A full list of delivery and distribution locations and times is available online at https://www.daltonpublicschools.com/district-resources/summer-resources. The summer food program began June 1 and continues through July 22, Monday-Friday, between 11 a.m. and noon.

Dalton Public Schools' nutrition department contended with a labor shortage during the school year, and that struggle has continued this summer, Brackett said.

"Historically, we've had a lot of high school students working with us, but even (that figure is) down this summer — we have several 15-year-olds working — our competition is other places are paying more."

"We do have good hours, though, for anyone who wants to work for us," she said. "We need people during the morning and lunchtime rushes, but you still have plenty of time in your day to work another job or just relax."

Her department has also been approached by multiple local companies, including Shaw Industries, offering volunteers, and "we'll definitely take any volunteers," she said. Of course, "we'll also pay you if you want to work for us."

For fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1, School Nutrition employees will receive raises, with starting wages increasing from $9.70 an hour to $11 an hour, according to Theresa Perry, chief financial officer for Dalton Public Schools.

"It's not clear if that is going to be enough" to attract and retain the necessary quality and quantity of employees, however.

"My gut says we'll need to go to $12" an hour in fiscal year 2024, Perry explained last month. "We've all heard the stories of (fast-food establishments) paying $17 per hour, (and) we are competing for that group of employees."

"Our jobs are better, (with) no nights (nor) weekends, and better managers," plus the possibility of benefits, so Dalton Public Schools likely doesn't need to match private sector wages, Perry added. "However, we do need to make improvements" on the salary scale to be competitive.

Supply chain snarls have presented another challenge for School Nutrition, although not as much as the labor shortage, Brackett said: "Without people, you can't get the food out."

"We can go months without staple foods we've always gotten," but fresh fruits and vegetables have fortunately not been difficult to obtain, she said. "The produce companies have been wonderful — thank goodness for them — (as) fresh fruits and vegetables go a long way, especially in summer."

With high inflation driving up food costs, free meals during summer may be invaluable to many local families this year, Brackett said.

"It's definitely helpful for families not to have to spend so much on food."