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School food service workers say they are overwhelmed by CT's free lunch program

FILE: Food & Child Nutrition Services workers with Hartford Public Schools prepare school lunches in March, 2020. Cafeteria workers s students returned to school with fewer cafeteria workers required to meet the demand of more free lunches
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
FILE: Food & Child Nutrition Services workers with Hartford Public Schools prepare school lunches in March 2020. Subsequent staffing shortages and demand increases have left some lunch program workers feeling overwhelmed.

School cafeteria workers in Connecticut say the expansion of the state’s free school lunch program has them feeling overwhelmed. Now they are signing a petition.

In February, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation to expand the free school lunch program, allowing it to run through the end of the academic year.

But some cafeteria workers at Amity Middle School in Bethany say they feel overworked. The cafeteria had more staff before the pandemic, they say, adding they had more access to PIN pads and other materials to help lunchtime run smoothly.

Now some workers claim to have fewer materials and staff but more lunches to serve.

Candie Kader, a cafeteria worker at Amity Middle School, has worked in cafeterias for over 20 years. Kader says she has seen a 40% increase in students who want free lunch. Since then, she says she never knows how much food to make.

“It’s a guessing game. We want more time to get things done, or get us another person,” she said. “It comes down to that and getting those PIN pads.”

Isadora Milanez, a union organizer with Unite Here Local 217, represents Kader and cafeteria workers in other school districts. Milanez says cafeteria workers at seven schools across the towns of Bethany, Orange, Cromwell and Branford have signed a petition seeking better working conditions due to the increased workload.

“If anyone takes a day off or a sick day, it is a disaster,” Milanez said. “People are rushing. We actually had someone who dropped hot mac and cheese all over herself while she was working, and this is a very experienced person. I mean, she would not do this unless she was really under pressure.”

Free lunch is a vital component of a fair education for all students, said Lucy Nolan, policy director for End Hunger CT, an anti-hunger nonprofit.

“Before we had free lunches, a quarter of the kids who were eligible for free and reduced-price meals were not eating them because of stigma,” Nolan said. “That’s why we need this.”

“People may think that some communities are wealthy enough that they don’t need this,” Nolan said. ”But what we’re finding, particularly now with the higher cost of food, is that families need these programs as a way to continue to survive.”

Amity school officials haven’t responded to Connecticut Public’s request for comment.

Lesley Cosme Torres is an Education Reporter at Connecticut Public. She reports on education inequities across the state and also focuses on Connecticut's Hispanic and Latino residents, with a particular focus on the Puerto Rican community. Her coverage spans from LGBTQ+ discrimination in K-12 schools, book ban attempts across CT, student mental health concerns, and more. She reports out of Fairfield county and Hartford.