Short on Supplies and Staff, RMHS Cafeteria Resourceful and Resilient


Emma Kehoe ('21)

Since last year, payment stations in the cafeteria have been outfitted with breah shields to limit the spread of Covid.

Olivia Chamberlain ('22), Orbit Contributor

It’s lunchtime at Reading Memorial High School. Students rush down the stairs to the buzzing cafeteria. They eagerly catch up with their friends while hurrying to the growing lunch line. “Next!”

“Raviolis please”. Plop. 


It’s normal, routine, simple. 

Nope. It’s a game really. A game where the pieces are swapped out at random and some of the pawns are removed. What does the winner get? The chance to play it all over again tomorrow. 

This game is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. During COVID, people were laid off from jobs or got scared of the virus and quit. Then, when things started opening up again, the overwhelming demand for employees trumped the supply. A domino effect. Individual schools, such as RMHS, are facing worker shortages and so are the distributors that provide food to the schools.

Schools A Low Priority for Distributors

When it comes down to it schools are not the top priority of food distributors. Restaurants come first, then grocers and public markets, and then, on the same playing field–schools and prisons. However, even being such a low-tier concern, schools are very needy and particular about the food that they get. Nutrition Director for Reading and Wakefield, Danielle Collins, explained, “We have to get nutritionally sound food so, in other words, we have these strict nutritional requirements. So everything we serve has to be whole grain, it has to be lower in calories, it has to be reduced sodium. Those aren’t items that these distributors can sell elsewhere because, mainly, people won’t select those items. If they are given the choice they won’t pick something that is the healthier version, or the whole grain version. Therefore, they can’t sell the things that they are bringing in on our behalf anywhere else in the market. So we are a very high need customer to the distributor, which means when these things happen with procurement, and these difficulties happen in the industry, in the environment, we have more challenges than everyone else.”

…when these things happen with procurement…we have more challenges than everyone else.

— Ms. Collins, Nutrition Director

Ms. Collins mentioned that, on average, supply trucks are arriving 8 days late. What’s on those trucks is anything but what is expected. As many as half of the items on the truck aren’t what the kitchen ordered, but are substituted items. The kitchen gets no say or prior notice of these changes as they did in years past. This is simply because of staffing shortages at the distributors. Priscille Tuson is the new RMHS cafeteria manager as of this year. She described a specific scenario of such shortages saying, “The truck shows up and gives us our delivery and they will tell you, ‘We don’t have this. We substituted your chicken tenders for toasted ravioli,’ and I’m like, ‘Toasted ravioli?’ So that’s what you’re having Monday is toasted ravioli because I don’t have the chicken tenders.”

Ms. Tuson further described only being able to follow the given menu 2 of the past 10 days and only having a definite plan for 2 days of lunch the next week, with one of the planned lunches being the ravioli. It’s a puzzle that the staff has to figure out on a daily basis with the lingering threat of teenage disapproval. Luckily though, schools don’t have to worry about following the national nutrition requirements with these shortages. The government is aware of the issue and is allowing schools to file waivers when they can’t meet a certain standard. For example, providing all groups of vegetables as the school had trouble doing 2 months ago.

Dietary Restrictions A Special Challenge

One of the most difficult issues with the shortage and one that cannot be substituted is the supply of allergy or restrictive diet foods. Massachusetts law prohibits schools from being able to just go buy things at the grocery store for these students because of safety and documentation purposes. Yet, there was a three and a half month period where distributors were out of gluten-free items. The school was forced to offer fewer options to these students, or even Chex cereal in extreme circumstances, simply because there was no other food to feed them. Ms. Collins explained, “We have to make sure the student is safe first and then we are able to offer variety as the next step. So the truth is variety went down the tubes, because we just couldn’t offer the same amount of options.”

Reading Public schools also has a nutrition director, Olivia Marks, to help the schools cope with the waning supply and the students with allergies. Every day she meets with the managers of each school and goes through with them, student by student, what they can eat. 

Staff Shortages

The distributors aren’t the only ones short-staffed in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Individual schools and school districts are as well. The RMHS kitchen when fully staffed has about 10 workers. Now, Ms. Tuson says they are lucky if they have 6. The work doesn’t change with fewer people, the number of students stays the same, and the lunches bought, if anything, are more than ever with the current free lunch program that the high school is offering.

They always say ‘Have a good day’ and they are always so nice.

— Madaket Rzepka ('22)

The other schools in the district, such as the middle schools, have even less staff than the high school. So few in fact that the high school sometimes lends workers to help at those schools. Kathleen Volpe is one of these employees. Ms. Volpe comes to work at 8 to the high school. She then helps prep for lunch at the high school until 10:30 when she leaves for Coolidge. This prep work includes making salads, cutting fruit, cooking the meals, portioning fries, or putting condiments out. She then serves lunch at Coolidge and comes back to RMHS at the end of it all to help clean up. “So I have been over to Coolidge a couple of times and they are very short-staffed over there. They only have 3 people and they could probably use one or two more people.”

Grateful Students

Student’s at the high school are mindful of the hard work of the lunch employees. One senior Analise Grady stated that, “It [staff shortages] is something that I don’t really notice a lot because I just go through the line and get my food. I don’t really see what goes on behind the scenes. But there are moments that you can totally tell they are trying to rush and get everyone what they need. And it’s like I can see how hard it is for them.” This is a testament to the adaptability of the lunch staff, that students don’t feel as though the half-staffed kitchen is affecting the flow of lunch. 

Senior Madaket Rzepka further added that the staff shortages don’t dampen their relationships with the students. She explained that, “They always say ‘Have a good day’ and they are always so nice.”

Positive Developments

On a more positive note, hope is on the horizon for Reading Memorial High School. First off, Ms. Collins has added three new vendors. US foods was added to accompany Thurston for groceries and W.B Mason and Imperial Dade were added to accompany Mansfield paper. Ms. Collins explained, “So basically we need three different [paper] places to get what we used to get from one. And we are not really 100% there but maybe we are 70% there.”

This means, hopefully, actual chicken tenders and not toasted ravioli. 

Second, new storage is being added so that Reading schools can store extra food for days when suppliers don’t meet their needs. Ms. Collins is the nutrition director for Wakefield as well as Reading. She shared that in Wakefield they have three walk-in freezers for her to “food hoard”. At Wakefield, they can make a plan for the next full week. In Reading, there is one freezer… for the high school and all the elementary schools combined. To fix this the district is building an outdoor walk-in in front of Coolidge. This means, hopefully, actual chicken tenders and not toasted ravioli. 

The whole lunch staff at RMHS and across Reading are working their best to try to overcome the immense challenges set forth by COVID. All the lunch staff shared their desire to be able to put this behind them and feed the students what they want. Hopefully, these new changes can help Reading take the guessing game out of the lunch service and go back to making kids happy which they expressed is all they really want to do.