Human Resources


The human resources (HR) component is critical to any organization, and understanding  staffing expectations and challenges related is essential for full-scale change. 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 the selection process. In most cases, food service staffing involves a combination of support from HR and legwork within the department. 

The attention paid to hiring and how departmental positions fit into the administrative and classified pay schedules vary enormously. Some districts update job descriptions regularly and follow a specific format. But all too often there are out-of-date or no job descriptions, even for the director position. The following content will provide an overview of all the elements of staffing and running HR from a food service perspective.

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


Professional Development & Standards

The USDA rule for Professional Standards for school nutrition professionals went into effect in 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 skill 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 Standards 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 ranging 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 offer a variety of trainings so we advise checking with your state office first when looking for opportunities in your region.

One of the benefits of the Professional Standards is the justification for food services staff development.  Almost every district has “professional development days” in their calendar for teachers and administrators but all too often food services teams are presumed to be off on those days because students are not present.

The expected hours of training outlined by the USDA is a minimum guide. In districts that are shifting to more complex operations, developing an outline of trainings for the various areas you are working on is useful. Some of the development will be front loaded and require some one-time costs and then some ongoing refreshers or recertification. Food Safety and Sanitation training and implementing Back-Office software fall into that category. Remember to include professional development in your personnel budget.

Identifying the type of training you want to provide, and which employee groups are required will allow you to figure out how many hours and what the professional development budget should be.  The USDA has developed a searchable database for districts to find free or low cost training resources organized in the four areas of; nutrition, operations, administration and communications/marketing. Your state office of child nutrition is also a resource for training opportunities to meet your needs.

Multimedia Training Resources

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. Check out our catalog of webinars and videos that can be used for developing training sessions for your team.


Organizational Structure

Organizational structures are not standardized in school food service, and many departments might not have a finalized structure. Some districts post organizational charts on the district website, but these rarely show much hierarchy detail at the department level. However, it’s really useful to chart out current structure and examine the roles and tasks associated with each position.

In the sample organizational structures below, 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 are shifting away from ready-to-heat foods often find that the existing staff lack the skills to implement the change. Part-time positions and younger entry-level employees have become increasingly prevalent in the food-service workforce, and many are hired with no culinary or food-production experience.

Districts shifting to scratch-cooking tend to seek out employees with culinary degrees and large-scale food service operational experience. Some districts are 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 former executive chefs as directors. From the standpoint of business management in a “real” food environment, executive chef experience can be a great asset in a director. 

Aside from roles like executive chef, production chef, or sous chef, the position of “cook” takes on a new meaning in districts implementing scratch cooking. Whether retooling central production facilities or shifting to regional production systems, cook job descriptions are increasingly revised to require professional food experience. Hiring skilled workers to  produce scratch-cooked meals and teach existing team members new skills 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; if staff have been limited to heating 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 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 to provide some of the language to describe the 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. Titles like supervisor, coordinator, manager, lead, and assistant will vary significantly from district to district. The most important distinguishing factor is whether the position involves directing, supervising, or evaluating other staff. 

Practical Tests

When shifting 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 through 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

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. However, this is not the norm; most bargaining agreements require that you “meet and confer to negotiate” the reorganization. In more restrictive cases, the union must approve any job description changes. When preparing for union agreement, be sure to have 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

Regular performance evaluations are commonly overlooked. 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. Completing meaningful performance evaluations will help prevent non-performing employees from hindering the success of your programs, as well as provide an opportunity for growth and recognition for above-average employees.


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



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