Too often, recent high school graduates plunge into the working world with no real-life work experience. A school nutrition internship program at Pulaski County High School in Dublin, Va., aims to change that.
Since 2017, students in the school’s culinary arts program have been recruited to supplement the regular school nutrition staff on the breakfast shift. The school serves about 450 breakfasts each day, divided between traditional meals in the commons and grab-and-go versions distributed from four stations positioned to catch students between first and second periods. The grab-and-go meals have become especially popular.
“Breakfast has been very successful at the high school, but it’s too much for the regular staff to handle,” says Ethelene Sadler, director of school nutrition for the county’s public schools.
Working together, Sadler, the school principal, the culinary arts teacher and the high school nutrition manager decided to try recruiting students to apply for jobs helping with breakfast. In the first year, they hired four student interns, while last year two worked the breakfast shift.
Jevon Prim, the current school nutrition intern, at work.
The interns were trained to use the POS system, then assigned to the breakfast stations. Their shifts fall during the first period and count as local elective credit; a career education teacher and a supervisor evaluate and oversee the interns, who receive a grade and minimum wage for their efforts.
When Megan Atkinson joined the county school system last year as director of career and technical education, she and Sadler realized they had an opportunity to get even more students involved. No culinary arts students had room in their schedule to help with breakfasts, so “we widened the hiring pool to the entire student body,” Atkinson says. During the current school year, senior Jevon Prim has spent about 90 minutes a day during first period helping with food prep and dishwashing.
Sadler and Atkinson ultimately hope to assign additional student interns to some of the seven other schools in the system. “Our greatest need is in some of our elementary schools,” Sadler says. “We have a very busy breakfast program, and if we can hire a couple of students to work in the kitchen or manage the breakfast, that takes some of the pressure off the staff.”
The internships also provides a small but welcome source of income for students in a system with a high number of low socioeconomic status households. “One of the reasons this program is so special is because a lot of students want to work—but they can’t, because of transportation issues,” Atkinson explains. “The beauty of this is transportation has been provided; they are already here.
“It’s a win-win for students and us,” she adds. “They want to work or need to work; they learn how to be good employees; and school nutrition needs employees.”
The internships also reflect a directive by the Virginia Department of Education to provide K-12 students with more work-based opportunities.
Beyond simply providing work experience, these foodservice positions introduce students to the overall process of finding and landing a job. School nutrition managers had candidates go through the process of submitting applications for the positions, then put them through interviews before narrowing down the field. “We tried to give them a realistic experience in what you go through to sell yourself to an employer,” Sadler says.
She found the pool of applicants and their answers to questions surprisingly mature. “These students were very passionate—they wanted these jobs,” she says.
The interns also get valuable exposure to some of the responsibilities that come with employment. “They learn the importance of being punctual, being self-directed, the diversity of employees in the workplace and skills that will easily transfer to other professions later in life,” Atkinson says.
Finally, interns get a small taste of potential foodservice careers as well. “Working with school nutrition might also point them on a career path; they might get an idea of what they could use their skills for after they graduate,” Atkinson adds.