Human Resources


The human resources 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.

Organization Chart for Food Services - Site-Based Production Model, Medium-Sized District A

Organization Chart for Food Services - Regional Production Model, Medium-Sized District B


USDA Professional Standards

The USDA finalized the rule for Professional Standards for school nutrition professionals March 5, 2015 and it went into effect for all school districts July 1, 2015. A summary of the rule can be found here. To write this ruling the USDA 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 three categories based on the student enrollment in a given district:

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

For each district size group the USDA developed minimum standards for hiring the director position which range from specific education benchmarks to combinations of education and field experience. We recommend that relevant experience in the field should always be included in leadership positions, regardless of educational areas of concentration like food and nutrition, food service management, dietetics, family and consumer sciences, nutrition education, culinary arts or business.  Management experience to the scale of the district size and budget scope is preferred over the more abstract experience of majoring in a specific related area.  School districts may exceed the minimum standards and we find that in larger systems, director level positions will, for the most part, recognize educational degrees and have minimum years in the field to be considered for hire. 

The USDA has created a guide to help school districts understand the requirements of the new standards with regard to hiring and training.  It includes the training standards for each job category, training topics and their codes, requirements for tracking trainings, where to find trainings and creating your own trainings.  Most state offices are also creating or adding materials specific to the rule and often in addition to their typical annual trainings so we advise checking with your state office first when looking for opportunities in your region. 




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.

Organization Chart for Food Services - Site-Based Production Model, Small-Sized District

Organization Chart for Food Services - Central Production Model, Large-Sized District

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 Standard for minimum required annual training is an excellent addition to school nutrition programs and will help support more efficient and well informed teams who will be better able to support their school communities in a recognizable, consistent and professional manner.  In addition to the guide the USDA created a searchable database for district to find free or low cost training resources organized in the four areas of; nutrition, operations, administration and communications/marketing. They have also created a tracking tool to assist the districts or a district could create its own.  Directors are supposed to undertake a minimum of 12 hours of continued annual training; managers should receive 10 hours; and other employees working at least 20 hours a week should have 6 hours of training and employees working less than 20 hours per week, 4 hours.  In addition, food-service directors in every district, no matter its size, would need to have at least 8 hours of food safety training within five years prior to hire or within 30 days of hire.  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.

Though the training requirements must be performed annually, there is no funding to support this. We recommend including staff development in your budget as part of your anticipated annual expenses ‒specifically to support USDA required hours as specified by position.  Though it may be possible through creating short targeted trainings to include them within the regular budgeted hours by employee, creating a line item specific to training will ensure that you can support the requirements.  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 4-, 6 -, 10-, or 12-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.


Webinar Training

Staff development is an essential component of overall program success and we are excited that the HHFKA supports this vision. Staff development prepares employees for advancement within the organization, which makes your department an attractive employment option for motivated workers.   We have included videos and webinars that 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 performance evaluations 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.


Take advantage of our Multimedia Training content to help you develop beneficial staff training sessions. 



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