Rapid City Rapid City

Behind the scenes of a school foodservice makeover

For a South Dakota school district looking to improve its operations in every way, it was foodservice warrior-turned-consultant Jean Ronnei to the rescue. Here’s a look at what happens when a district hires a consultant and starts getting real about foodservice goals.

Jean Ronnei, former director and COO of Saint Paul (Minnesota) Public Schools, has retired from that job, but her schedule now appears busier than most of us working full time. In her new role as a school foodservice consultant with Pro-Team Foodservice Advisors, she’s been jetting around the country to assist foodservice directors and their teams with resources and support for operations both front of the house, back of the house and in the databases that back it all up.

She’s been working on several different projects, and one she’s especially proud of is her recent work with Rapid City (South Dakota) Area Schools.

When she first met with Janelle Peterson, the director at Rapid City, Ronnei says she was impressed with her open-minded attitude.

“For a foodservice director, inviting scrutiny can sometimes be uncomfortable and requires an open mind,” Ronnei says. “That shows a progressive director who’s interested in looking for the next thing…who can open things up and say, ‘I don’t know everything.’”

Because of the district’s relatively remote location, new ideas don’t exactly grow on trees when it comes to seeing what other districts are doing firsthand.

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Janelle Peterson, foodservice director at Rapid City Area Schools

“Like any director trying to improve one’s program, a lot of ideas are floating around,” Peterson says. “Having Pro-Team Advisors come in and look at our program, and then sit down and brainstorm with our admin team was especially helpful in identifying which projects would work in our district.” 

“Janelle was looking for a jump-start of her program,” Ronnei says. “She doesn’t have a lot of peers in the area that she can just go and visit for ideas. When I was in the Twin Cities, it was much easier for me to go visit people.” 

Fresh eye review

The process typically begins with Ronnei’s “fresh eye review,” something she modeled after peer reviews and benchmarking from her previous career.

“It’s just like it sounds,” she explains. “Getting a fresh perspective on your foodservice program. The end result is a report that provides recommendations and specifics of what was observed in the district.”

During the review, which lasted a couple of days, Ronnei observed breakfast and lunch service, interviewed kitchen staff, cooks, managers and students. She tasted the food and looked at the marketing and signage, analyzing the whole experience from her own perspective.

After taking a look with fresh eyes, Peterson drafted a five-year business plan for the district, which then had to be approved by the school board and other stakeholders.

What can you delegate?

One of Ronnei’s major recommendations in the plan was not related to food, but to staffing. She recommended that Peterson hire an assistant director.

“If you’ve got a program that’s large enough and you have two people in leadership positions, you can have succession planning and also you get a second set of skills,” Ronnei says, adding that two people in leadership roles is almost always better than one director pulling 70-hour work weeks.

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Amazing what one new piece of equipment can do

Another piece of the makeover focused on equipment, particularly a 42-year-old packaging line used to preplate meals for elementary schools, since most don’t have full kitchens. The Pro-Team helped to formulate a bid for new equipment, which has made a difference in production and quality of the food. 

“Our elementary meals are now being prepared and transported out of one site [previously they had come from two different sites] and an overwrap machine was purchased to automate the wrapping of the containers,” Peterson says.

The more modern overwrap machine also punctures holes into the wrap so when entrees are heated, steam can escape, making the food items less soggy. And previously, the overwrap was foil, but now it’s clear, so students can see the food.

“The overwrap machine has also provided us the ability to offer more than broccoli florets as the green vegetable component,” Peterson says. “Our elementary sites are about the size of broom closets, and there is no space to store bulk salad containers. The only form of refrigeration at these sites are the milk coolers. So a simple item like garden greens has been difficult for us to offer. Now, we can send out individually wrapped boats of garden greens, allowing us to offer more choice to our students.”

Taming computer headaches

“They also needed menu software,” Ronnei says. “Janelle will write the menus and we do the nutritional analysis. That frees up more of her time for leadership, big-picture stuff.”

Ronnei refers to herself and her team as “behind the curtain dietitians” who have worked in the field and can give advice on ingredients and products. 

Meals per labor hour is another measurement Ronnei uses as a barometer for a district: “How many hours are you putting into a cafeteria compared to the labor hours? It’s a formula that lets you know how you’re doing compared to others with similar enrollment and demographics,” she says 

With behind-the-scenes changes being made, the most visible and exciting change was the cafeteria makeover, Ronnei says. 

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Looking and tasting great

“I worked with a graphic designer and sign producer, and our goal was trying to figure out what Janelle and her team were looking to convey,” she says. 

Instead of pitching health messages, Peterson chose images and marketing materials that conveyed “health and joy.” 

“Healthy food being joyful without being in-your-face healthy” is how Ronnei describes the marketing vibe.

The biggest impact to the menus has been the introduction of new signature line items, mainly sandwiches and salads. The new sandwiches include a chicken-bacon ranch sandwich, chicken Caesar sandwich and an Italian sub. Entrée salads like chef, taco, Greek grilled and garden are popular already with students, Peterson says.

A made-to-order sandwich line has been added, and students are liking the choice there as well, but there’s initially been a bit of confusion as the salads and sandwiches aren’t a la carte items, but meant to be part of a reimbursable meal. (Salads come with flatbread triangles, dinner rolls, breadsticks or a soft pretzel for the grain component). 

“We need to tweak the signage so students understand what a meal looks like,” Peterson says, alluding to the fact that improvement will always be a work in progress.

Still, “feedback about all the choices has been positive,” Peterson says. “I was speaking to the school board last Monday night, and a board member spoke up to say that they had heard numerous positive comments about the new choices we’ve been offering.”

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