Cafeteria confidential

The inside scoop on running a high school lunchroom


Sophie McCarthy

Cafeteria staff members Edina Husic and Souria Benchabane smile and laugh as they wash the day’s dishes. Parkway School District partnered with Chartwells for food service needs. “The camaraderie that we all have back there, it’s like a big family. I think that’s my favorite time for everybody,” West High chef Timothy Kennedy said.

Lunch. The time of day that many students look forward to but never seems to come quickly enough. The appeal is strong: food after a long class period, eating with your friends and those crispy french fries making the cafeteria comforting. It is a place where students do not have to worry about the stresses of school, like the test they have next period. But not many students realize what goes into producing the food eaten daily.

Preparing breakfast and lunch for high school students is just the beginning of the work the cafeteria staff does. West High Regional Assistant Director Amanda Schroer ensures that the two meals are produced and transported to all 28 schools in the district. And behind the scenes, there are a multitude of people involved in getting the food to schools, cooking it and then putting it on a truck to deliver it to the satellite location.

“There’s a lot of logistics that go into preparing breakfast and lunch for all of the students in the region because we don’t just do the high school, we do the elementary and middle schools too. There’s quite a number of students in the West district, so to get everything prepared, it takes a big staff of great teammates, a lot of organization, logistics and planning,” Schroer said. “I have a great team and a wonderful management team that helps me get everything organized, so we get everything flowing nicely, and everybody gets what they need.”

West High chef Timothy Kennedy is just one member of that team. He starts his day early — at 5:30 a.m. — to prepare food for students and help run the kitchen.

“On the days that we have pizza, [the] first thing I do in the morning is make all the pizzas. I start at about 5:30 [a.m.]. I’m usually done with that around 7:30 or 8:30 a.m.,” Kennedy said. “We usually make about 30 to 40 full-sized pizzas, so it’s probably about five hours of preparation that goes into it.”

Chef Timothy Kennedy smiles beside West High Regional Assistant Amanda Schroer in the cafeteria. (Sophie McCarthy)

Kennedy is already working for five hours to prepare meals, and that can quickly be amplified by a rapidly decreasing amount of staff. The staffing shortage stretches beyond the classroom and has plagued both Parkway Food Service and the food service industry in general. 

“It’s hit hard at the K-12 levels. So, on a normal day, I should have 14 staff members at the high school alone. Right now, we have four. In a normal, full year, we should have upwards of 35 staff members in the region. Right now, I have just shy of 20. [It’s a] very drastic change in the amount of staff we have to prepare the number of meals,” Schroer said. “There will always be 1,400 students in this high school, but my staff keeps diminishing through the years.”

With this shortage, Schroer had to find the best way to combat the lack of staff. This entailed limiting menu choices to only the most popular items, thus, decreasing the work the cafeteria employees feel every day.  However, it’s still stressful for Schroer and her colleagues as they don’t simply take a frozen pizza and heat it in the oven; all meals are prepared fresh and handmade in the kitchen. 

“Everything is made fresh here in this cafeteria. Our pizzas are handmade, meaning we get the raw dough, crimp the crust [and] put an oil mixture on it with seasoning. We don’t homemake the sauce, we buy that, but we put [on] the sauce and the cheese,” Schroer said. “Our taco line is all hands-on preparation. [We] set it out on the line for you all to choose from, so that is a drastic change from three years ago.”

Chartwells is the newest food provider for Parkway Schools and focuses on providing healthy, delicious meals for grades K-12. Although the company has only been around for two years, it has quickly warmed its way into the hearts of food service workers in Parkway, Schroer included. 

“[Before] Chartwells, a lot of Parkway’s food was brought in by vendors like Panera or Papa John’s. That ended with Chartwells. It’s a little bit more labor intensive, but I think the food is a lot more fresh [and] more like what you get served at home,” Schroer said. “[Also, Chartwells] takes over the food service production aspects, so all our purchasing goes through them. We still are partners with Parkway and are all three working together to provide healthy meals to all the students.”

Executive Chef Jeff Schroer walks through the kitchen with a delivery.
(Sophie McCarthy)

While Chartwells takes over the food production and purchasing, the staff in the kitchen takes part in developing new recipes for students. They don’t simply buy food and distribute it; the kitchen goes through every step, taking extra care to get student opinions and ensure every item is perfect

“We work with our regional chefs and taste [recipes] with the staff. We also do student sampling, so you can taste [them],” Schroer said. “We do some recipe development during the summer, put in our two cents, and we’ll go back to the drawing board and make it better.”

There is pressure to prepare and order food, but beyond that, further meticulous attention is required regarding allergies.

“We are very strict about [allergies]. We always mark everything as allergen[s]: gluten, fish, eggs or milk,” Kennedy said. “Our boxes are always marked, and we use different cutting boards for things that touch.”

Cafeteria food service has many moving parts that go unnoticed, and although it’s not an easy job, it’s well worth it for Schroer.

Region Chef Tori Bates helps in the kitchen and smiles, holding a sheet pan.
(Sophie McCarthy)

“The most rewarding [thing] is coming in and being part of the most diverse work environment. [The] West region has some of the most diverse working dietary aides, representing a lot of different nations, and it’s great that I get to experience that diversity in the workplace,” Schroer said. “I also like interacting with the students here, too. I love hearing the comments — whether negative or positive — because we have to know what we’re doing right [or] wrong to make it better for you guys.”

Schroer recognizes and appreciates all staff members, knowing the extra effort they put in due to food service shortages. However, she wishes people were more appreciative, especially students.

“All of the staff are simply looking for some recognition and understanding that this isn’t the easiest job,” Schroer said. “Just the simple ‘thank yous’ really go a long way. The little offer of gratitude is sometimes all that somebody needs.”