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Snack Program at Low-Income Portland Schools Will Pause Oct. 18 Due to “Shortage of Cafeteria Workers”

The district says it will resume Nov. 1. The district paused the program for fear of staffing shortages when the impending vaccine mandate deadline comes on Oct. 18 for school employees.

Nestled under “upcoming events” at the bottom of a weekly newsletter sent to teachers at Cesar Chavez K-8 School on Friday morning was one bullet point that caught the eye of teachers.

It read: “Oct. 18 - Snack service is being put on pause due to a shortage of cafeteria workers district wide.”

That’s this coming Monday.

The daily snack is provided through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a U.S Department of Agriculture grant program where states get federal dollars to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income schools in various districts that are approved. The grant money is dispersed through the Oregon Department of Education.

Snack service is offered at 22 of the elementary and middle schools in Portland Public Schools. Those schools are: Boise-Eliot/Humboldt, Cesar Chavez, Faubion, George, Harrison Park, James John, Kelly, Lane, Lee, Lent, Martin Luther King Jr., Marysville, Pioneer Programs, Rigler, Rosa Parks, Roseway Heights, Scott, Sitton, Vestal, Whitman, Woodlawn and Woodmere.

The grant is on a year-to-year basis, and the start of this grant year was Oct. 1. PPS says on its site it has funding for the program through the entire 2021-22 school year.

Whitney Ellersick, senior director of nutrition services for the district, told WW in an email: “Since we have to order some of the items weeks in advance, we decided to pause the service next week to allow us a chance to support our regular services with any staffing impacts.”

Those potential staffing impacts, Ellersick later clarified, were in preparation for the looming vaccine mandate cutoff date for all K-12 school staff: Oct. 18.

“We paused the program (suspending orders in advance) out of an abundance of caution, in case of potential staffing issues next week following the COVID-19 vaccination mandate,” Ellersick said. “However, since we are not actually anticipating major staffing issues, the program will resume on Nov. 1.”

The halting of snack service comes as the Monday deadline approaches for most state and hospital employees to comply with Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate of COVID-19 vaccinations. The vast majority of workers have already received shots.

Of the district’s 7,387 total employees, 7,061 are vaccinated and another 84 are partially vaccinated. Only 104 district staff—less than 1.5%—are not vaccinated nor have requested an exemption. Twenty-one exemptions were denied.

(The district says the total number of employees has dropped, but does not know by how much: “This number has gone down because of changing workforce, including end of temporary assignments, inactive employees who have been contacted turned in official resignations, and other turnover. For example, coaches who worked last year and were still on our list but will not be coaching this year.”)

At Cesar Chavez, snack time is midmorning. Cafeteria staff fill a bag with the snack of the day—always a fruit or vegetable—and a child from each classroom goes to the cafeteria to pick it up and bring it back to their classroom. The teachers take students outside to eat the snacks.

Teachers at Cesar Chavez, who asked that they remain anonymous, tell WW that for some kids whose families are food insecure, these snacks are critical.

Ellersick added: “There are no rules or requirement for how we provide the program. It is a program to allow students to try fresh fruits and/or vegetables and to model healthy behaviors, hopefully with an emphasis on ‘new’ options such as kiwi berries, kumquats, daikon radish, rainbow carrots, fresh pineapple, mini bananas, etc.”

On Friday evening, the principal of Cesar Chavez, Risa Muñoz, sent an email to staff saying the school would be supplying snacks for all students on Monday: “We will have snacks in the front office on Monday. Please stop by and pick up what you need for your class. We do not have staff to divide it into individual bags.”