Wake County Schools

Cafeteria workers stage 'sick out'; parents step up to donate, serve food to Wake students

Posted November 15, 2021 8:38 p.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2021 11:30 a.m. EST

— When cafeteria staff called out Tuesday from more than 30 schools across Wake County, parents stepped in to make sure students would not go hungry.

Christina Jones has children at Brier Creek Elementary, one of the 32 schools impacted by the sick-out. She and other parents collected food items like fruit and sandwiches to be distributed at the school.

"All these children need to have full bellies. Otherwise, why are they even in school? They can’t learn if they can’t focus, and they can’t focus if they don’t eat," said Jones.

Nicole Sickles and her husband responded to the news by making an early-morning grocery store run, piling their carts to the top with snacks like cheese sticks, apple sauce, apple cups, water bottles and oranges.

They dropped off those snacks at Banks Road Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina where their son is in fifth grade.

"This is the only meal sometimes that kids are going to have, and the fact that our schools can't feed our children – are you kidding me?" she said.

School leaders reassured parents that, even without cafeteria service, no child who needs a meal would be left without one.

Some parents received emails from their child’s school saying lunch will be pre-made, non-heated items, and Wake County Board of Education chair Keith Sutton implied schools would order pizza if it came to that.

"We can assure parents that while it may not be the traditional school lunch meal that students are accustomed to, it may be one that students may like a little bit more. It might be pizza or something of that nature, but either way students will be fed," said Keith Sutton, Wake County school board chairman.

Wake schools sent an alert to parents on Monday night, warning that more than 30 schools, due to staff shortages, would not serve meals as usual.

Parents were urged in the email to pack their child's lunches. However, many children rely on school meal programs for both breakfast and lunch, which are served free each day.

School leaders reassured parents that, even without cafeteria service, no child who needs a meal would be left without one.

Some parents received emails from their child’s school saying lunch will be pre-made, non-heated items, and Wake County Board of Education chair Keith Sutton implied schools would order pizza if it came to that.

"We can assure parents that while it may not be the traditional school lunch meal that students are accustomed to, it may be one that students may like a little bit more. It might be pizza or something of that nature, but either way students will be fed," said Keith Sutton, Wake County school board chairman.

Sickles and other parents who came to the rescue Tuesday said they could sympathize with the cafeteria workers' cause.

"They need to be making a good wage so they can feed their children, so they can actually stop striking and come back here and be doing their job to feed our kids," she said.

At Hunter Elementary, PTA President Karen Barnes shared photos of donations piled high on cafeteria tables at her school.

"Today, to support our cafeteria workers, we’re also helping to pass out food," she said. "Our teachers, our staff and cafeteria workers and bus drivers are working tirelessly to provide for our kids. We need to make sure that we provide for them."

District leaders didn't provide a specific number of how many cafeteria workers called out sick on Tuesday, but they said they hope this is a one-day disruption. However, several parents shared messages with WRAL News from their schools urging them to pack a lunch again on Wednesday.

On Monday night, Wake schools sent an alert to parents that more than 30 schools, due to staff shortages, would not serve meals as usual.

This message, which caught many families off guard, comes on the heels of a Wake County Schools bus driver sick-out that lasted two full days at the end of October, when some 160 buses were left without drivers.

The unrest comes as school workers ask for higher pay and district leaders plan to discuss offering bonuses.

Earlier this month, the Wake County Board of Education approved a $1,250 bonus for all full-time employees and a smaller bonus for part-time employees along with a 1% local supplement salary increase for educators.

On Tuesday night, the board will consider another $3,750 in bonuses for employees and an increase in base pay for substitute teachers. If approved, the bonuses would be paid out in three $1,250 installments in January, May and November.

Thousands of school district employees work positions in which the starting pay — and pay for the first several years — falls below $13 per hour.

Those positions are largely clerical, in food service, couriers, drivers and custodians — positions that would have some or significant interaction with students.

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