These Unsung Heroes of Public School Kitchens Have Fed Millions

Vincenta Hunt worked at I.S. 59 in Springfield Gardens, Queens, during July and August, and on hot days, she said the oven’s thermometer measured the room’s temperature at 104 degrees. She pointed out that classrooms had air-conditioners. “Why did we not get one?” she asked. “We’re in the kitchen, and it’s hot.”

In July, at the Julia Richman Education Complex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, union leaders recorded a temperature of 136.9 degrees in the kitchen (it has since been equipped with an air-conditioner).

The Department of Education will not confirm how many of its kitchens lack working cooling equipment, but a department spokesman said that it is “working closely with our labor union partners and elected officials on establishing a task force and creating recommendations for long-term solutions regarding the air-conditioning in kitchens.”

Finding kitchen staff willing to work has been one of the biggest challenges for the department.

Many with pre-existing health conditions have been on paid leave, while others are opting for unpaid leave rather than risk exposure to the coronavirus.

“It’s a big issue, making sure we have enough staff to feed the community, because the need is definitely there,” said Shawn Chambers, who supervises 44 kitchen sites in the Bronx.

Ms. McNeil said that her kitchen staff has dwindled from 11 to four over the summer. “It was smooth sailing, and now you’re multitasking,” she said. “I feel like my body is being torn down on a physical level, mentally too, with the heat and so many different work assignments.”

Still, others who have serious health conditions are not qualifying for paid leave. Sharon Lipscomb, who has worked in school kitchens for 22 years, was hoping that a recent cancer diagnosis would qualify her for medical leave, but because she was not treated with chemotherapy or radiation, she said, her request was denied. Since then, she has moved among three kitchens, finally landing in one that didn’t have air-conditioning. “The heat beneath the mask is terrible,” she said.

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