The weight of young students rests on the shoulders of the nation’s school foodservice programs. Directors view the challenges as opportunities for positive change.
By all measures, Mary Kate Harrison is part of the big league.
“I run an $85 million business,” she says. In many ways that puts Harrison on equal footing with similarly sized chains such as Shula’s Steak House and La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill and way ahead of those with lesser revenues—Pei Wei, Potbelly and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House among them.
As do industry colleagues, she oversees a grab bag of responsibilities: turning a profit, managing workers, producing at high volume—in her case 240,000 daily meals—and finding new revenue sources. It’s up to her to buy the right equipment, explore technological resources that boost efficiency and keep customers happy through food and service initiatives. To wear all those hats well, “You have to know a lot about a lot of things,” she says.
But in her role—not of chain CEO but as head of the Hillsborough County ( Fla.) Public Schools— Harrison has situations that are unique to school foodservice. Rather than satisfying Wall Street with comp sales increases and year-over-year growth, her returns to major stakeholders include healthier children eating safer, better food.
Business issues fly at school foodservice directors like a volley of loose balls. Urgent concerns of childhood obesity, hiring freezes, food safety, schools’ roles in improving and teaching nutrition, commodity programs, school boards and budgets that either don’t keep pace with costs or that actually shrink have added a complicated layer to basic tasks of feeding school children. To get it all done right, this high-profile industry sector requires tight cost control measures and strong messaging that wins over customers—not just the students but mom and dad as well.
“We have to balance outside pressures with inside issues,” Harrison says, and that can be a struggle. But as taxing as it is for Harrison and other school foodservice directors, they have shown that it can be done by digging in with creativity, determination and out-of-the-box approaches.
Upwards of 29 million students ate school lunch on an average day last year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) State of States: 2006 report on nationwide nutrition programs. The government opened its wallet to the tune of $6.8 billion to subsidize districts with students participating in the National School Lunch Program.
Of schools serving lunch, 81% also participated in breakfast programs last year, according to FRAC. That equates to more than $1.8 billion of additional federal funding. But even with federal dollars, most districts still must find ways to build revenue. Vending, catering, à la carte and, in some cases, creative relationships with charter schools and day-care centers are among the avenues being pursued.
In Oklahoma City, for instance, Chartwells School Dining Services manages foodservice in 88 public schools in the district. The Rye Brook, N.Y.-based division of Compass Group now works with nine charter schools there as well, according to Resident District Manager Steve Gallagher.
Changes in nutritional policy for many districts add unexpected stress to budgets. To their chagrin, parents are learning that some of the price increases hit their budget lines.
“A large number of schools raised meal prices in 2003 when they started implementing wellness policies [because fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grain items cost more],” says Erik Peterson, director of public awareness at the School Nutrition Association in Alexandria, Va. Regardless, school lunch is “still the best bargain in town,” Peterson says.
Cents and Sensibilities
At Bartow County Schools in Georgia, the only menu variance between grades is portion size and price. The cost to the district ranges from 75 cents to $1.50 to produce a meal. Entrées are sold for $1.75 at the elementary level and $2.00 at its high schools. Hillsborough Schools charge $2.25 for a meal in its secondary schools and West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, Calif., last year raised prices 50 cents to $2.75.
Students want meals that look and taste like what they can get at the local QSR. They’re partial to pizza, fried chicken and soda—all of which are restricted items in many schools these days.
“From a nutrition perspective, our biggest challenge is getting kids to eat more healthful options or coming up with creative ways to make those items more appealing,” says Cheryl Luckett, Chartwells region dietitian for the Southeast.
To reach those goals, reimbursable meals are being reinvented and then marketed in ways that appeal to students. Districts are mixing premade products and traditional scratch cooking.
“I would venture to say that very few school systems do true scratch cooking,” says Sue Mitchell, director of nutrition services in Bartow County ( Ga.) Schools in Cartersville. “If you want a consistently high-quality product, there are many packaged items that require little more than putting raw ingredients together.” She estimates as many as 65% of the district’s hot entrées are premade.
Cold entrée salads such as its Spicy Spaghetti Salad and leafy green vegetable salads are served in clamshell containers “like you get at Wendy’s or McDonald’s,” she says.
“Larger districts have been [mimicking chain restaurant-style packaging and merchandising] and smaller districts are adopting those techniques,” Peterson says. “Schools are marketing and branding for a consistent look and feel and moving away from cafeterias toward food courts and lounge-style dining.”
School foodservice is a business serving more than students—it requires a community focus.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the complexities of school foodservice,” Harrison says. “I think people still think it’s a group of volunteer employees who serve food that has all been donated by the government.”
Wellness at a Glance
Beginning July 1, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 requires that all schools with federally funded meals programs must have developed and be actively implementing wellness policies that address nutrition and physical activity. Responsibility for developing programs resides at the local level.
The policy is designed to be a cooperative effort among key constituencies that include students, parents, teachers and school foodservice professionals, each of them invested with responsibility for feeding children nutritionally sound meals and encouraging appropriate levels of physical activity.