Human Resources


The human component is critical to any organization, and a clear understanding of the expectations and challenges related to staffing is essential for full-scale change to take place. Every school district has a different organizational structure and hiring practices.  In some districts, the food services department is responsible for all the hiring steps for their department, from developing job descriptions to posting, interviewing, testing, and hiring; others have little control over hiring procedures or have little say in who ultimately is hired to their teams. In most cases, food-service staffing involves a combination of support from HR and legwork within the department. 

The attention paid to food-services hiring and the way departmental positions fit into the administrative and classified pay schedules vary enormously. Just as there are wide-ranging differences in food-service operations and practices, hiring procedures likewise differ greatly from district to district. Some districts update job descriptions regularly and follow a specific format.  But all too often there are no job descriptions, even for the director position; if they do exist, they often have not been updated to reflect changes to the food-service model.  The organizational structure of each school district’s food service department depends on its history and the relationship of food services to the district at large.


USDA Professional Standards

The USDA is in the process of issuing standards for school-food positions, following a stipulation in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that the Department establish professional standards in school food service (see Proposed Rules). To this end, they performed extensive surveys to determine what standards were being used by districts across the country. They found a wide range in the experience and skills sets hired, regardless of district size. For example, the “director” position is not defined consistently across the industry, as requirements for the job are largely influenced by the size of the district and its approach to staffing.

In setting out “minimum” standards, the USDA professional guidelines define “minimum” standards and base their definitions on district size, recognizing that the responsibility and complexity of the system increases with the student population. They created four categories based on the student enrollment in a given district:

  • Student enrollment of 2,499 or fewer
  • Between 2,500 and 9,999 students
  • Between 10,000 and 24,999 students
  • Student enrollment of 25,000  or more

The results of the USDA survey showed that in districts with fewer than 2,500 students, 27% of directors possessed only a high-school diploma, while 34% possessed an associate’s degree. The new standards, which are still under review and have not been definitively issued, are based entirely on educational achievement, specifying an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree, or “equivalent educational experience”; they do not include hands-on experience in the field of food service operations or management.

For districts with student enrollment under 10,000, no experience is required to be hired as a food-service director. For districts with enrollments of 10,000 or more, the guidelines read: “While no prior level of experience would be required, the proposed rule strongly encourages school food authorities to seek individuals with at least one year of management experience, preferably in school nutrition programs.” In practical terms, this means that a 600-employee team, with an operating budget upwards of 40 million dollars, could be placed under the leadership of a new college graduate without any prior experience in a large-scale food service environment. From our perspective, this is absolutely inadequate. Prior leadership experience on the ground‒either in school-district food service or in a large-scale private-sector food service business‒is a critical baseline for successful school food management. The director must possess proven fiscal acumen, human-resources management skills, culinary and nutritional expertise, and familiarity with facilities infrastructure and operations. Having a good understanding of the regulatory environment, being familiar with the often highly charged environment of school district politics, and being able to manage a broad variety of employees is essential for a successful director; a year’s experience and a college degree is not an adequate minimum requirement, in our opinion. 

We strongly encourage school districts to set a higher standard for the director role than the minimum set out in the federal guidelines with respect to years of high-level management and business experience, though we concede that those currently serving in the director role should be “grandfathered” in, and would not have to meet the new requirements. Our Director of Food Services Sample Job Decription lists more complex and broader standards for the director position. 

The matter of compensation is not addressed in the new USDA regulations, but the emphasis on college degrees, both undergraduate and graduate, as an evaluation rubric may make it easier to align food-service department leadership positions with other administrative salary schedules that rely on academic degrees, helping to bring directors’ salaries in line with those for other administrative positions. In general, compensation for the food-service director position is usually far less than that for many educational and professional positions in school districts, regardless of any degree held. Furthermore, despite the enormous fiscal responsibility assigned to food-service departments, particularly in large school systems, the director’s compensation at a large urban district is often nearly the same as that of a director at district a tenth of the size.

Organizational Structure

Organizational structures are not standardized in school food service and it’s not uncommon for a department to not have one. Some districts post organizational chart on the district website, but these rarely show much hierarchy detail at the department level. You’ll find, however, that it’s a really useful exercise to chart out your current structure and examine the roles and tasks associated with each position.  If you’re implementing an operational shift, your organizational structure will also shift. 

In the sample organizational structures we’ve shared, the size of the district and type of operational model are the most important factors.  Of course, the department must be able to support the proposed organizational structure financially. Laying out a detailed organizational chart is an excellent tool to help you assess what it will take to move your program toward your goals.


Alternative and “New” Positions

Districts that have begun the process of shifting their operational model away from ready-to-heat foods often find that the existing staff lack the skills required to implement the change. There are not many food-service workers left from “back in the day” when school meals were cooked from scratch. Part-time positions and younger entry-level employees have become increasingly prevalent in the food-service workforce, and many of them are hired with no culinary or food-production experience. In some cases, districts shifting back to whole-ingredient cooking seek out employees with culinary degrees. Some districts are even adding “executive chef” titles to their organizational structure; New York City was one of the first large districts in the country to add this role, back in 2002. Other districts have hired a former executive chef to take the director role. From the standpoint of business management in a “real” food environment, executive chef experience can be a great asset in a director. 

Even aside from roles like executive chef‒ production chef, or sous chef, the position of “cook” takes on a new meaning in districts that have decided to either upgrade or expand their central production facilities or shift away from site-based ready-to-heat production in favor of regional and central scratch-cook production systems, and the job description is often revised to require professional experience in the field. Hiring skilled workers to both produce scratch-cooked meals and teach existing team members new skills for handling fresh foods is a cost-effective and efficient way to support this transition. The shift in production responsibilities requires site employees to implement a higher level of customer service and learn correct handling of fresh foods being finished for service; if they have been limited to heating up prepackaged meals in the past, they will need additional training to succeed in the new service environment. 

Job Descriptions

Job descriptions include all the details that flesh out the organizational chart. The descriptions in every district will vary depending on the district size and staffing history; there truly is no standard. A few school districts will list directors and assistant directors, but many more districts have only a director and a few managers on the administrative team. Other districts have clearly defined divisions between operational positions and jobs involving accountability and financial analysis. 

We have developed a variety of sample job descriptions that will provide some of the language to describe the full breadth of positions required for your proposed operational model. It’s generally a good idea to simplify the number of job titles to create a more efficient workflow. Position descriptions that assume multiple tasks will help you meet the bottom line. It’s also essential to create job descriptions and roles that emphasize accountability, which can be evaluated over time by managers or supervisors. The way the titles of supervisor, coordinator, manager, lead, and assistant are used will vary a lot from district to district. The most important distinguishing factor is whether the position involves directing, supervising, or evaluating other staff. 

Practical Tests

In making the shift to a fresh, whole-foods approach to school food, it is essential to hire qualified candidates. Because the skill-set needed is so specific, it’s a good idea to evaluate applicants for food production positions by having them complete both written and practical tests. School-site staff candidates can also be tested for math and practical questions that relate to site-based tasks. Take a look at the sample testing materials we’ve developed for this purpose.

Cooking Test

Math Test

Staff Development

The professional guidelines developed by the USDA under the HHFKA also include minimum standards for staff development or annual training of food-service team members, including directors. (This is described in the regulations as “minimum required annual continuing education/training for school nutrition program directors” and also “proposed continuing education/training standards for school nutrition program staff.”)  Directors are supposed to undertake a minimum of 15 hours of continued training; managers should receive 12 hours; and other employees working at least 20 hours a week should have 8 hours of training. In addition, food-service directors in every district, no matter its size, should maintain a minimum of 8 hours of food-safety training that is renewed every three years. Though the guidelines recommend food-safety training for all food-service employees, we would advise you to train as many staff as possible for formal manager-level certification training, so that they can in turn train other employees. Particularly in larger districts, having one or more members of the management team certified as ServSafe trainers lowers the cost of certified food-safety training and makes it easier to train and recertify staff in ServSafe procedures. This also makes it easier to develop customized resources and standard operating procedures that suit your operational model.

The USDA states in the regulations that they intend to develop a “certificate” program focusing on four core areas: nutrition, operations, administration, and communications/marketing. At present, however, food-service departments are still burdened with the cost of the continuing education and certification required by the staff-development regulations. Even if the USDA offers a “free” certification program, departments must still pay their employees for the time spent in training. We recommend including staff development in your budget as part of your anticipated annual expenses. For employees that work 20 hours or more, a minimum of 8 hours should be budgeted, in addition to hours budgeted for starting up or closing down your school sites. Depending on the complexity of your operation and your desire to revise your operational model, you may want to budget for more training than the minimum 8-, 12-, or 15-hour requirements by employee type. Grant money and outside funders might be able to support the additional training required to prepare your staff for a significant shift in operations.

Multimedia Training

Staff development is an essential component of overall program success. It prepares employees for advancement within the organization, which makes your department an attractive employment option for motivated workers. The content in our Multimedia Training area can be shared for use when developing training sessions for your team. 

Negotiating with Unions and Associations

Many school districts have a collective bargaining agreement with a union, or a memorandum of understanding with associations for their classified employees. When considering any type of reorganization that includes changes to job duties or reclassification of job types, it is imperative to consider how the collective bargaining agreement or memorandum of understanding protocol will affect the reorganization. If you are reducing the number of employees or completely eliminating a job classification, you will need to consider where the affected employees will move within the organization. The union agreement may allow those employees to bump workers in other classifications because of seniority or time spent in another category, regardless of whether they are suited for transfer to the other positions. 

It’s possible that the agreement may require you to “meet and consult” with union officers to outline your plans. In this case, you only need to advise them of your plans, and can proceed with or without their consent. This is not the norm, however; most bargaining agreements require that you “meet and confer to negotiate” the reorganization. In some more restrictive cases, the union must approve any job description changes. When you set out obtain union agreement, be sure to have your facts and figures ready in advance. You should also draw up a plan that provides some incentives for the union to agree to the change, such as agreeing to tutor employees so that they can pass a test for a new position, or offering a career path for employees to move up as they attain certain skill sets. 

We strongly advise against outright dismissal of staff based on “lack of work, lack of funds,” even if such a case could be made. This would not create a positive environment for moving your program redesign forward. You should emphasize the positive reasons for the change, such as providing healthy and nutritious meals that can provide greater job satisfaction to the employees. You can also include reasons for meeting mandatory guidelines for the kinds of meals served or the qualifications of the food-service employees. Even if you don’t have a union or an association to deal with, you will find that including the employees in the planning as the reorganization moves forward will create a better atmosphere for change.  

Performance Evaluations

One other aspect of human resources that many food service departments overlook is regular evaluation of staff members. No matter how much time is spent on human resource issues, a lack of regular reviews and consistent standards for staff performance contributes to a time-consuming negative cycle of retaining employees whose performance is marginal. Cooperating with the human resources department to establish clear protocols that address the breadth and variety of positions is invaluable. In many cases, this requires the development of specialized review forms that are compatible with food-service positions. We have provided some samples that can be used as models when developing your own. Taking the time to complete meaningful performance evaluations will help prevent non-performing employees from hindering the success of your programs.

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