Lack of cafeteria workers a worry in Niskayuna

PHOTOGRAPHER: INDIANA NASH
Kathy Bennice poses by the menu of the day at Van Antwerp's cafeteria, where she's worked for 25 years.PHOTOGRAPHER: INDIANA NASH Kathy Bennice poses by the menu of the day at Van Antwerp's cafeteria, where she's worked for 25 years.

— At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Mark Treanor was panicking about lunch.

He wasn’t sure if there would be enough hands on deck in the Niskayuna school cafeterias to help feed students.

Treanor, the director of student and staff supportive services, said he’d never seen a shortage in the kitchen like this.

“There were six openings at the start of this year,” Treanor said, referring to the food service jobs. These workers serve food to the students and help with food preparation and lunch cleanup.

Across the eight kitchens across the Niskayuna school district, almost every kitchen was down a staff member.

“That’s really tough,” said Kathy Bennice, a full-time cook at Van Antwerp.

Bennice has been working in the kitchen for the past 25 years, having started out in a part-time food service assistant position.

“It was perfect because I wanted to be home with my kids and contribute to the family income,” Bennice said.

Food service assistant shifts are 3 1⁄2 hours in the middle of the day, which allowed Bennice to see her kids get on the bus and to be home in time to greet them as they returned.

“Now my kids are grown up and away and I’m still here!” Bennice said.

For her, coming in every day to cook for kids makes the job rewarding year after year.

“Especially when the kids come in after lunch and say, ‘Wow, that was great! I loved the food,’” Bennice said.

But the job has been stressful this year, as one of her most experienced staff members retired.

“She’s actually my neighbor, and we’re really missing her now,” Bennice said, “We usually have a staff of five. We started this year with a staff of four, and it’s been very difficult.”

During a recent school board meeting, Treanor said the school is not alone in these staffing issues.

“Restaurants in the area are also having a hard time finding good cooks,” Treanor said.

Nationwide, 4.7 million people worked in the food service industry as of 2014, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although that number is higher than in years past, the growth rate has slowed.

Bennice, who has done almost every job in the kitchen, said staffing was never really a concern in years past, at least not to this degree.

“We used to have people come in and say, ‘Are there any openings?’ But these days, you need the two incomes … there’s probably less stay-at-home-moms in the area,” she said.

In the past week, Treanor said the school district finally has been able to reach out to the right group of people.

“We’ve reached out to Niskayuna parents and grandparents and folks that are anxious to work part-time,” Treanor said, and ten people within the community responded. They’ll be sitting through interviews and training processes in the coming days.

This will come as a welcome break for Bennice and others working in the cafeterias across Niskayuna.

“It’s been difficult, but we’re finding a rhythm,” Bennice said. “It just means that everyone has to take on a little bit more than usual.”

Reach Gazette reporter Indiana Nash at 417-9362, inash@dailygazette.net or @indijnash on Twitter.