Six cafeteria workers from Burlington schools voiced their frustrations during public comment at a school committee meeting Tuesday night with working conditions under the town’s new school food service vendor, Whitsons Culinary Group.
“On a daily basis we’re just having a lot of difficulty with this new change,” said Memorial Elementary School cafeteria assistant manager Kim Davis. “It’s not a matter of yes we agree we need some updated food quality, some fresh fruit, but what’s coming into us is just hours of work.”
Davis said some employees were coming in two hours early or staying two hours late to prepare additional food options that students didn’t even want, while others struggled to manage overflowing freezers and refrigerator space. She said the staff was exhausted from managing more dishes and more products while already being understaffed.
“It’s just product after product after product after product,” Davis said. “It’s four different vegetables. I don’t mind vegetables, but you give too many options, these kids just don’t take it because they get confused. And by the time they get through the line, they have five minutes left in their lunch.”
Other workers expressed concerns about the amount of plastic being wasted as items were prepared, wrapped in plastic, and then thrown away. Another mentioned concerns about food safety as metal bins were swapped for plastic.
“I just want to acknowledge all the frustration and exhaustion that you’re feeling,” School Committee Member Martha Simon told the assembled cafeteria workers. “It seems like some of these are longer term since before Whitsons, and many are about the new management, and I do hope there will be more conversation, so your experience can be used as we move forward.”
Burlington Public Schools hired Whitsons to provide school meal services earlier this year, and the service launched in March.
In an update on the food service program later in the committee meeting, Superintendent of Schools Eric Conti acknowledged the change to a new provider had been more disruptive than he would have liked.
“I also believe, and I’ve said this with the managers who I’ve met, this process works in many cafeterias across the country, it could work here,” Conti said. “I do think we have to listen carefully. We may have to limit some menu options. But do keep in mind, we’re at Day 10 now. It’s going to take some time for our students to get used to making choices, and maybe for us to finetune the menus.”
Conti said the district has posted five cafeteria positions that could relieve some pressure on overworked staff, although he acknowledged it could be difficult to find people to fill those jobs.
BPS Director of Operations Bob Cunha later clarified it had been 14 days of service with Whitsons.
“We are still going through the process. We are still learning,” Cunha said. “We’re taking this feedback seriously.”