Staff and menus adapt to changing culture of nutrition

Something good is cooking in campus cafeterias, and the recipe includes happier staffs. From school kitchens in Berkeley to community college taquerías in San Diego, classified AFT locals are raising wages and winning full-time status for food service employees.

Big changes in Berkeley schools began when food service workers affiliated with AFT Local 6192, the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees. Before the change in 2012, Local President Paula Phillips said, managers used to warn workers not to miss work during the holidays.

“Telling food handlers that they can’t call in sick is unconscionable,” Phillips said.

Union site rep Elizabeth Dunkle said work is getting better since the AFT affiliation.

“This is a very physical job, with injuries from lifting, burns, slipping and cuts,” Dunkle said. “And while wages have improved, most of us still can’t afford to live alone. We need roommates or a family structure. It’s especially hard to get by when you’re unemployed for summer.”

Dunkle works at King Dining Commons, where she and two other senior cooks, backed up by two prep cooks, produce about 2,500 breakfasts and lunches daily for preschool through teenage students.

“This is a very physical job, with injuries from lifting, burns, slipping and cuts. And while wages have improved, most of us still can’t afford to live alone.”

— Elizabeth Dunkle, King Dining Commons, Berkeley Unified

“For a lot of these kids, that may be the only balanced meal of the day,” she said.

Temp abuse is a major problem in food services. Although Dunkle earned culinary and hotel restaurant management degrees, she wasn’t made a permanent employee until about seven years ago.

“People may be working full-time now, but they lost time and benefits they would have otherwise accrued.”

The problems are similar in community colleges. In July, the San Diego district reclassified a group of food service “temps” as permanent employees, including one who had worked there for 14 years.

Tina Solórzano Fletcher, membership coordinator of San Diego’s AFT Guild, said the local was able to raise wages for long-time kitchen workers by including food staff in the office-technical salary schedule, which offers more steps.

From her vantage point at the grill and taquería station, Jackie Townsend thinks work also flows better now at San Diego’s Miramar campus, thanks to teamwork and training the union negotiated. Townsend and Maureen Henshaw came to Miramar from the Mesa campus after the district revamped the test kitchen about two years ago. Henshaw works in catering and the deli, as well as the taquería.

San Diego hired Henshaw after she graduated from the culinary program at Mesa about 18 years ago. When she started, meals were built around red meat. Today, people eat more salads, veggies and other unprocessed foods. The cafeteria makes its own fresh pasta, pizza dough and sauce.

“You have to come up with new menus to reflect new tastes and what is considered nutritious,” Henshaw concluded.