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Three student employees work the lunchtime serving line at Wayzata High School.

At this high school cafeteria, teens are behind the serving line

Wayzata High School solved its foodservice staffing shortage by hiring students.

When Wayzata High School was hit with pandemic-related foodservice staffing shortages, they decided to hire student employees to fill the gaps. The initiative has been so successful that, a year and half later, teenagers are still manning the serving lines.

Prior to launch of the initiative in January 2022, district administrators had been coming to the high school to help serve lunch in the cafeteria, dubbed the Wayzata Cafe. Wayzata had already successfully recruited students for paid positions handling the Plymouth, Minnesota school's social media accounts. Bringing students on to help out with lunch seemed like it could work too.

"It allowed us to keep all of our lines open, keep all of our choices available, and meet customer expectations versus not offering certain things," says Wayzata Cafes director Michelle Sagedahl, R.D.

Each quarter since the program began, Wayzata has hired eight students to work alongside the adult foodservice employees. Students are paid the same wage - $18 an hour - and receive credit as part of the school's student work program. "They're enrolling in the work program instead of taking another extracurricular class," Sagedahl says.

The high school administration typically recommends students to Sagedahl that they think would be a good fit for the foodservice positions. In some cases, students who are interested in working in the cafeteria have also asked to apply. The recommended students have to fill out the same job application as adult candidates, and work with human resources to fill out the same employee, tax, and direct deposit forms. "We want them to get that same real-world experience," Sagedahl says.

Student applicants haven't had to do interviews, since they've already been vetted by the high school administration. So far, Sagedahl has been able to hire everyone that's applied. "If they express interest or we've encouraged them to apply, we typically hire them," Sagedahl says. "If interest keeps growing, we may get to the point where we have to do an interview process."

Students work every day of the week. They're primarily needed for lunch hour shifts, where they handle responsibilities like serving students, filling and restocking the serving lines, and helping with clean-up. Some students also take morning or afternoon shifts. Morning duties include stocking the milk coolers, prepping assembly items like sandwiches or salads, or helping to pan up hot food that will be cooked off during lunch. The main afternoon duty is helping to close down the kitchen.

Some of the student employees had prior foodservice experience, while others are working for the first time. New hires go through a brief orientation to learn about basic food safety and uniform requirements. But there's also an on-the-job learning curve. "Students are largely getting trained on the job, learning alongside the adult employees. We talk through what we expect, but we'll start them working side by side with someone right away," says Sagedahl.

Some students who haven't worked before also need to be brought up to speed on basic work etiquette, like wearing the right clothes and footwear for foodservice. "They need to come to work in close-toed shoes, but on a nice day, many would want to wear sandals to school," Sagedahl says. "So they'd need to come up with a solution, like leaving a pair of close-toed shoes in their locker."

Despite these minor challenges, the program has been a big success. Having students take on more direct serving work means that foodservice managers have more time to tackle bigger-picture projects, like developing and testing new recipes and forecasting new menus. Foodservice staffers enjoy getting a chance to share their knowledge with the younger hires too, and they're gratified when students come back to work for another quarter. "Our staff love having them and are excited to see them come back. It's nice to see them want to keep working for us," Sagedahl says.

Having students on the serving line has garnered enthusiasm and curiosity from fellow classmates too. Sagedahl recounts one student employee who started off shy and gradually became more outgoing. "They've come out of their shell a little bit in terms of selling items to students and encouraging their peers to try new items," she says.

And when a high schooler coming down the serving line sees a peer behind the counter, they're intrigued. "It's fun to see students asking, 'How did you get that job?!" Sagedahl says.

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