New Study Shows California K-12 School Food Staff Shortages Are Three Times Higher Than Public School Teacher Shortages Nationwide

SACRAMENTO, CA – The first study of K-12 school food staff shortages in California revealed the rate of unfilled positions in the state’s school food programs is three times higher than unfilled positions for U.S. public school teachers. High vacancy rates negatively impact schools’ ability to provide access to and serve students healthy, appetizing meals. The study was conducted by California School Nutrition Association and Chef Ann Foundation in partnership with Food Insight Group.

In 2022, California became the first state to implement a universal meals program, which offers free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students. Expanding access to school meals has required more school food staff to meet increased demand while maintaining or improving the quality of meals.

“California is leading the nation in school food reform – it has worthwhile and ambitious goals for supporting the lifelong health and success of kids,” said Josh Rogers, California School Nutrition Association’s co-chair for the Public Policy and Legislation Committee. “The next step is to address the barriers to realizing the state’s commendable vision, which includes developing long-term solutions to school food staff shortages that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and remain pervasive.”

Food service directors within California’s School Food Authorities submitted data to the study during the 2022-23 school year. The results revealed that School Food Authorities had a combined vacancy rate of 12% and turnover rate of 13%, considerably higher than the nationwide food accommodation and service industry, state and local education industry, and California statewide industry rates.

Food service directors who participated in the study noted a perceived gap between the knowledge and skill required for positions compared to the wages they offered, and difficulty competing with fast food or retail jobs. “The work we do is physically demanding and takes training and skill. It’s not the stereotype of the ‘lunch lady,'” one California food service director said.

The research also illustrated how high vacancy and turnover rates can negatively impact the quality of school meals. “Without a larger, more robust school food workforce, our collective vision of providing fresh, healthy, scratch-made school meals remains out of reach,” Chef Ann Foundation CEO Mara Fleishman said. “It’s imperative we address this challenge to fulfill our aspirations for healthier kids and a more sustainable planet.”

Read the full report.

Chef Ann Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to ensure school food professionals have the support they need to prepare fresh, scratch-cooked meals that support the health of children and the planet.

California School Nutrition Association strives to educate and empower its members to provide healthy school meals to foster environments where children achieve overall wellness and lifelong success.

Food Insight Group is a food systems research and policy firm that partners with institutions, philanthropic foundations, and community-based organizations to develop innovative solutions to food system challenges.