Let’s talk about turnover. No, not apple turnovers (although I wish we were talking about those). I’m talking about employee turnover. It’s not something we want to talk about, but employee turnover is serious…and it’s especially serious in the foodservice industry.

When an employee leaves a company for any reason and the position is back-filled, it is called “turnover”, according to Rick Hughes, the Director of Food & Nutrition Services at Colorado Springs SD 11. Every time a position is vacated and filled, it costs Food & Nutrition Services Departments many resources to “maintain the course.” These costs include recruiting, screening, hiring, and training, plus any indirect costs created by a “new employee”, such as accidental mistakes.

In foodservice – that means restaurants, but also school nutrition departments – the turnover rate is 62.6%, according to the Money and Career Cheat Sheet. What causes employees to vacate their foodservice positions? The answer is likely disengagement. Gallup Polls reported only 32% of American workers interviewed in 2015 considered themselves engaged in their jobs. 50.8% were not engaged and 17.2% were actively disengaged. Disengagement can stem from feeling overworked, underappreciated, or feeling no purpose or excitement for their job. Read on for tips on bringing that turnover rate down, and how to motivate your staff to appreciate and love their jobs.

Note: These tips are suggestions from the author of Hairnets and Aprons: The Story of a Lunch Lady JoAnn Wismer. JoAnn, a self-proclaimed “lunch lady”, has years of experience and wisdom in the foodservice industry, and a plethora of interesting stories to tell. You can purchase her book here.

Tip 1 – Keep Training

A is required for school nutrition professionals, as per the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. According to a study in The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, staff are looking for classroom-style training sessions. They’re also looking for training that is hands-on, and training that covers “hot”, timely topics. Two of the most commonly requested training sessions are 1) team building and 2) effective communication.

Before any training begins, help your staff to understand the importance of the training they will be receiving. Remember that preferred training methods or styles aren’t the same for everyone. Ask your staff which training setups work best for their learning styles. NOTE: If you prefer to watch a webinar that covers the same information provided in this blog, please click here.

Staff are more likely to engage if the training is in close proximity to their homes or workplaces. This is why in-house training programs, like those provided at Mount Diablo USD (California), work so well. The rules of their training program is that employees must pass the six-month probationary period, and write a letter of intent to the selection committee. This program is five weeks long, free to all participants, and provided at full-scale kitchen sites. Employees must “pass” in each training area in order to progress to the next area.

The benefits of in-house training are, first and foremost, increased knowledge and improved skills. Staff also gain a better understanding of their job duties, and can experience boosted morale because they recognize that the department trusts them and wants to invest in their advancement. For more information about this training program, please contact Mount Diablo USD Food & Nutrition Services.

For additional free, online training resources, be sure to check out the Institute of Child Nutrition, the USDA FNS, and SNA’s Webinar Wednesdays.

Tip 2 – Build Morale

What comes to mind when you hear “school foodservice”? Does it make you feel proud? Switching gears, what does society think when they hear “school foodservice”, or the phrases “lunch lady” or “food dude”? They likely think of Chris Farley dancing around the stage in a hairnet and gloves to Adam Sandler’s famous “Lunch Lady Land” song. Or, they think of their mean lunch lady from elementary school who screamed at them for not eating all their green beans. Most of the time, society’s perceptions of school nutrition professionals aren’t favorable, and that’s unfair. While you do everything you can to feed these hungry kiddos, you aren’t always treated with the respect you deserve. In order to change others’ perceptions, you have to build morale from within.

For starters: when people ask you what you do, you don’t have to say that you’re a line cook or food service director. Instead, you can tell them “I serve nutritious meals to the future of America!” A few more ways to promote yourself and your team from within include:

  • Celebrating School Lunch Hero Day in a big way!
  • Create a school nutrition staff cookbook, with all the staff’s favorite recipes and stories.
  • Pick a “Manager’s Special”-type week, where all menu items are staff’s favorites.
  • Decorate your bulletin boards, digital signage, posters, etc. with photos or Bitmojis of your school nutrition staff.

Another important way to boost morale is to take an honest assessment of your company culture. Consider setting up an employee recognition program, or employee rewards programs for staff to receive discounts from local establishments. You should also assess your internal communication and management. Is employee turnover within your program due to a lack of communication, or poor management?

Tip 3 – Get Involved

There are many ways to get involved in your district without spreading yourself too thin. Promoting your program can, in turn, boost morale and encourage the rest of the district or community to engage. Consider setting up a table at back-to-school conferences. Here, you can hand out information about the program, such as your menus, nutritional requirements, local wellness policy and more. You can also set up a sample tray so students and parents can see the healthy and delicious food students can choose throughout the year.

Another way to get involved is to launch a healthy classroom catering program. For more information on what this means and how to get started, check out this blog.

Tip 4 – Attend Conferences to Network and Grow

Conferences – both state (your state’s School Nutrition Association) and national (the School Nutrition Association) – are a great way to accomplish all three of the tips mentioned above! If you are offered an opportunity to attend a conference, I encourage you to take it! If you cannot attend, I encourage you to send a member or members of your staff to attend, learn and take notes. Conferences provide a wealth of knowledge and opportunities to network with school nutrition professionals from across your state, region, or county. With education sessions, culinary demonstrations, and exhibit halls for discovering and testing out vendors’ products, you can return to your district with new ideas, new skills or even new products or programs to begin implementing.

Looking for more networking opportunities? Be sure to join Facebook groups like this one, or LinkedIn groups like this one, to access a free platform for asking questions, and sharing ideas, announcements and photos.

How Do You Do It?

Is the turnover rate high, or low in your program? How do you encourage staff to stick around? How do you motivate and invest in your staff to keep them engaged? Share your tips for boosting engagement – and preventing turnover – in the comments below.

About the Author:

I'm Cheyenne Meyer, and I am a Content Specialist at PrimeroEdge. I believe that all students deserve high quality school nutrition in order to maximize their learning potential. I am passionate about finding new ways to inform school nutrition professionals about the tools and practices necessary to help their programs achieve excellence.