Why Fort Worth cafeteria workers are worried about their jobs, food quality

The future of Fort Worth school cafeteria workers has crept back into public dialogue as the district considers a potential food service contract with the May 4 school board election approaching.

The United Educators Association, which represents about 25,000 teachers and school employees, raised the issue with candidates recently. At least one school board member has questioned the effort on social media in recent days.

“I spoke at Saturday’s LULAC meeting at Nueva Leon about FWISD’s proposed outsourcing of our breakfast and lunch services to a private company,” Ann Sutherland stated on a Facebook post. “I don’t know why Dr. Scribner is supporting this, as it would not only weaken our control of our children’s nutrition but also affect out 800 cafeteria workers, most of whom are Hispanic women.”

Cafeteria workers have been worried about their jobs being outsourced by the Fort Worth school district since 2017.

In October 2017, dozens attended the public comment portion of a school board meeting to voice their concerns, saying they don’t want the district to issue a request for proposals to find a private food service company.

The workers said even though district leaders told them their jobs are not threatened, they believed early talk of improving high school food service foreshadowed outsourcing.

Sutherland’s comments thrust the issue into the public as the board prepares to review bids. Asked in an email to respond to Sutherland’s comment, district spokesman Clint Bond stated: “We are evaluating the responses we have received from our recent Request for Proposal and plan to have a final recommendation to the Board later this spring. It would be inappropriate for us to comment until that process is completed.”

Tobi Jackson, president of the school board, said the board will review the issue in April. She said trustees need to understand several aspects of the issue before voting, including the costs or savings for the school district.

School leaders have said they want to boost food services and offer better food options while saving money.

“At this time, I support excellent, health and ‘good tasting’ food for students and staff on campuses,” Jackson told the Star-Telegram in an email, adding that she wanted to learn more about the issue before saying whether she supports outsourcing.

The deadline for companies to submit those was on Feb. 26, according to the district’s more than 100-page request for proposal. Four companies responded: Aramark, SFE, Sodexo and Chartwells.

The effort by school leaders to address food service issues isn’t unique to Fort Worth schools. In 2017, Houston schools ended a contract for food services.

“We want the new arrangement to be in place for the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year,” Bond said. He said the district expects a school board vote this spring.

Nutrition service workers

The typical wage range for the district’s nutrition service workers, or cafeteria workers, is between $11.09 and $13.86 an hour for 183 duty days, according to job descriptions. Outsourcing and consulting services have been used for certain maintenance and academic services. However, the district has not outsourced on a large scale, Bond told the Star-Telegram in 2017.

Steven Poole, executive director of the Tarrant County-based UEA, said the issue is critical among cafeteria workers.

“They are worried for their jobs,” Poole said, adding that the district’s request for proposals states that district workers will keep their job under a food service contract. But he worries about how this creates a “blended approach” and about how it will work.

“Future vacancies become privatized positions,” Poole said.

Norman Quigley, president of the Fort Worth Education Association, told board members during their meeting Tuesday that he wants the board to vote on the issue before the cafeteria workers are off for the summer. He said he doesn’t want the workers, who are also represented by his group, to be blindsided by a change in management.

“The employees are going to be working for the contractor which gives them the right to hire and fire,” Quigley said. “If you currently work for the school district, they can terminate you and hire somebody at a lower wage in your place. Basically, we are setting the cafeteria workers up for failure.”

What the candidates said

District 2

Tobi Jackson: “Food service employees were discussed by each board member during a meeting and each board member stated our goal was to maintain all employees at FWISD employees. Staff has models, the RFP has a matrix and the board has yet to hear from staff about the proposed implementation of employees as blended, 100 percent privatized or 100 percent FWISD employees. Each of the three options have benefits and lack benefits. We must make the best decision for our students and employees.”

Chad E. McCarty: “I’m absolutely concerned about the folks who work in those cafeterias and I believe their jobs should be retained and protected. They are trying to do the best job they can with what they are given. But the food service management should produce menus and food that kids will eat, because if they don’t, it hurts our kids. It hurts both their health and their education. And if the management needs to change to make that happen, then I could absolutely support that.”

District 3

Cleveland Harris: “Outsourcing jobs is not the way to do it. I believe what they have to do is to take a long look at the children’s health. The USDA is serving children food that is not healthy. It’s canned. It’s high on sodium. ... Children need something that is organic. There are a lot of health issues with our children. My question is are they going to bring food in or are they going to prepare the food in the cafeteria? ... There’s a lot of questions. They are rushing.”

Quinton “Q” Phillips: “I absolutely plan to find out more about what agreements are currently in place and what solutions would work best for all parties involved, starting first and foremost with what is best for our students in Fort Worth.”

District 5

Carin “CJ” Evans: “Improving our schools’ cafeteria services is part of the important work FWISD must do, but I do not wish to see management of FWISD’s food service outsourced. I believe that this is not the best decision for our schools, for FWISD’s employees, nor our long term best interest of the district. While trying to address budgetary constraints, I fear the solution may actually accidentally complicate things down the road, legally speaking. I look forward to working together with the entire board to find a solution that will be the best for our entire district.”

Carla Morton: “While I appreciate the complexity of balancing school budgets due to the appalling lack of funding for public education in Texas, I cannot support the outsourcing of FWISD food services. Several teachers have emphasized to me the importance of the cafeteria workers within the culture of a school, particularly in elementary grades. I also worry about safety issues when allowing an outside vendor to choose who works within our schools, both with regards to food safety as well as trustworthiness of the individuals themselves. Finally, I want to protect the jobs of our current cafeteria workers. These are not high-paying jobs, but the cafeteria workers would earn even less with fewer benefits and protections if they were employed outside of the district.”

District 6

Anne Darr: “I think it warrants investigation because the food in FWISD is not known for its quality. ...Those who work in the cafeteria are integral parts of a campus and they are important to children’s lives. They are not just people serving food to children.” Darr added that if the school district decides to contract with an external company, protecting the cafeteria workers’ jobs “needs to be a part of the contract.”

Lisa Saucedo: Saucedo said she is aware of food quality surveys and that students often don’t like food options and added: “I think it is important that students get a lunch. We need to work and figure out how to get those kids quality food that they enjoy and give the existing cafeteria workers the support they need in feeding those kids. I think I need to explore it (the issue of outsourcing cafeteria workers) more. I think the existing staff needs support to ensure that they are providing quality lunches to all students in FWISD.”

Sandra A. Shelton: “It appears that employees in good standing will be shared with a new vendor. This presumes the ability current cafeteria employees to accept or reject the new vendor’s performance standards and choose to vacate or keep a current position. Any vendor looks for good employees and presumably from the RFP will be open to those in FWISD (unless in negotiation that matter has been modified). I would urge the worried workers to read the RFP.”

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