By Amanda Litvinov
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The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) has done a lot of good things for kids since its passage in 2010. School food has gotten significantly healthier since the law’s nutrition standards were implemented in phases between 2012 and 2014.
Food service personnel like Cindy Hertrampf have taken pride in their new menus that offer a wider variety of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
But Hertrampf, who serves as head cook in Wisconsin’s Cassville School District, knows that the law’s training requirements have caused some hardship for her fellow school food service workers.
“I realize that we’re lucky that our trainings have been very good, and that our staff is compensated for taking part in them,” she says. “It just isn’t right that some districts expect people to come in for a minimum of four hours of training on their time, and don’t pay them for it.”
A smart reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act should address the training issue, say school food service employees across the country and the National Education Association, which represents roughly 60,000 of them.
Trainings are essential for the work school food service professionals do. Whether the topic is food safety, sanitation, or nutrition, staff training clearly has a direct effect on students’ well-being. But it shouldn’t come at a personal cost to food service personnel who might have to pay for child care in order to attend an unpaid training after hours, for example.
That’s why U.S. Representative Mark Pocan (D-MN)—who represents Hertrampf’s district—has introduced the “Improving School Nutrition Training Act,” a bill that ensures that training doesn’t become a burden for the nation’s school food service workers to shoulder.
Rep. John Katko (R-NY) is the other lead sponsor of the bipartisan bill.
The act specifies that training should take place during work hours. If a training session must take place after hours, workers should be compensated, and those who simply cannot attend should not be penalized.
“It would be great to have these trainings during school hours,” said Hertrampf, who is part of a staff of three that prepares meals more than 200 students. “But since it’s so hard to find subs to take on the day-to-day work, at least compensate people for taking their own time to come in and get the job done.”
The HHFK training requirements took effect in March 2015. School nutrition program managers must receive 10 hours of training per year, and school nutrition program staff must receive 6 hours of training per year. For staff who work less than 20 hours per week these requirements are reduced to 4 hours per year.
The work that food service professionals do supports the learning of more than 30 million children who participate in the National School Lunch program alone. And it is particularly important for students from lower-income families, like the 22 million students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch last year.
“Food service professionals make all the difference in student health and nutrition for students living in poverty,” said Pat Lieberman, a food service professional from New Jersey.
“Students need healthy, nutritious food to be successful and food service workers deserve quality, paid training and resources in order to meet these important guidelines,” she said.
Lieberman has seen a dramatic rise in the number of students who depend on school meals to help meet their nutritional needs over her 19 years as a school food service professional in Sayreville, New Jersey.
“Just in the high school alone, the increase every year in the number of kids qualifying for meals programs is surprising. When I started here, roughly 11 percent of kids were on free and reduced-price lunch. Now that number is up over 30 percent.”
It’s a pattern that educators are witnessing across the country. And it adds a sense of urgency to their advocacy for a smart reauthorization of the child nutrition law.
For school food service professionals like Lieberman, it’s just common sense: “All food service professionals know that when you nurture the body, you nurture the mind,” she said.