Almost five years ago, Weld County School District 6 in Colorado made a decision to completely change how it produces school meals. At the time, the district, located about 30 miles north of Denver and encompassing the municipalities of Greeley and Evans, had been mostly relying on prepackaged product stored in a central warehouse and distributed to its 25 school sites.
“Because we are high free/reduced [currently, the number is almost 62 percent], we knew that some students’ only meals were from our program during the day, and we had the desire to do better, offer better foods,” explains Nutrition Services Director Jeremy West.
West also knew that the requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which would emphasize more freshly made meals along with tighter nutritional standards, were on the horizon.
It was time to make a decision about the future of the school meal program.
HEAD OF DINING: Jeremy West is director of nutrition services for the Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6 in Colorado.
“I had had the opportunity to attend a culinary boot camp put on by a local organization called Live Well Colorado where they talked about how you can do scratch cooking in any school system, really,” he recalls.
That led to a school meal assessment with a consultant chef, Kate Adamick of Cook for America, “because I knew where I wanted to go but wasn’t sure how to get there,” West says. “She came in and helped us look at everything.”
That was in the spring of 2011, when less than 20 percent of the lunch menu was made from scratch. By fall that year, that number was 75 percent.
How did that big turnaround happen in such a short time?
A key role was played by a central production facility the district owned that, West says, had largely been dormant for more than a dozen years. Over the summer of 2011 the facility was taken out of mothballs, remodeled with new equipment purchased with funds secured from a combination of sources and made ready to begin serving meals come fall.
FSD Jeremy West has overseen the conversion of Greeley-Evans Weld County (Colo.) School District 6’s school meal program from most preprocessed to mostly scratch in the past five years. Photo: Greeley-Evans Weld County (Col.) School District 6
“Because I had gone through the boot camp and school meal assessment, I was able to apply for a grant through the Colorado Health Foundation,” West explains. “My initial remodel cost just under $400,000, and I had a grant that covered about half of that. The rest came from the district’s capital funds budget and my own operating budget.”
The availability of district capital funds illustrates the level of commitment the nutrition program received from the school system’s higher ups.
“I’ve had the blessing of having a very supportive administrative team and a board that was all about the education of the whole child, which includes their nutrition,” West offers. He also cites a local healthcare system and the local health department as especially proactive in providing resources and aid to his meal program.
“I put together a plan and started hitting the road with it,” West recalls. “I went to a lot of community groups, spoke to a lot of school folks about what we were doing. I also had to get my own team on board because when you hear, ‘We’re going to start cooking from scratch,’ that makes them nervous.”
Of course, the nutrition services team had to be on board with such a significant change in how school meals would be produced, and getting them ready for a new production and distribution system was one of the biggest challenge that had to be met over the course of the summer of 2011.
“To start with, we had to get a ServSafe certified person into every school kitchen, because they hadn’t cooked with raw product for like 20 years,” West recalls.
“That first year we were really developing our systems as we were operating,” he adds. “We had never produced chili for 10,000 servings at once, so just getting the recipes right, figuring out how to transport the food were challenges.”
Fortunately, the district had already been using a centralized distribution system with refrigerated trucks except “it was just there to move boxed items,” West says.
Under the new production system, prep work would now be done in the central kitchen and the food then sent out chilled to the individual schools where it would be finished. Fortunately, most individual school kitchens in the district were still fully equipped with units such as steam tables, ovens and steamers.
The new centralized production approach, of course, did mean a restructuring of labor. West says he removed 120 daily labor hours from the school sites and reassigned them to the central production facility, though savings on labor were scant because of the need to add pricier culinary talent, including the district’s first executive chef.
“That was a challenge,” West recalls, “finding an executive chef who has that right mix of culinary talent and management skills, because the job is really a lot of logistics and management of people.” The executive chef, a position currently filled by Matt Poling, also helps with nutrition education and does chef-in-the-classroom demos in addition to the kitchen oversight and menu development duties.
The central production team is currently composed of 15 individuals, including an executive chef, a sous chef and a chef de cuisine. The district also gets the services of up to 10 dietetic interns each year from the University of Northern Colorado.
Streamlined production capabilities, more
One factor that helped reduce labor needs at the school sites was new salad bars.
“It’s much easier to open a bag of carrots and put it in a long pan than it is to portion up a hundred individual cups of it,” West says.
The salad bars were mostly financed by grants from a variety of sources, many of them in state (Colorado is especially blessed with such financing resources, West notes). “I think at the time there were two or three grant programs that wanted to fund salad bar programs,” West recalls. “I bought 46 salad bars and only needed to pay for six of them.”
Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6 has a salad bar in all 25 of its school sites. Grants paid for all but six of the 46 units. Photo: Greeley-Evans Weld County (Col.) School District 6
Meanwhile, the USDA provided funds for a number of equipment purchases, such as a new combi oven. “I cobble together whatever grants I can find to make it work,” West offers.
Grant-fueled equipment additions over the past few years have included a produce washing machine, a custom-built immersion blender called a Rotospater and various produce processing units like slicers, dicers and choppers.
Securing grants was especially critical in the early going because the department’s finances were anticipating taking a hit from menu changes that involved removing some enduring favorites like chicken nuggets. “To this day,” West says, “whenever I ask about what they would like to see on the menu, at least one kid will say chicken nuggets…”
Lunch participation indeed did decline in the revamped program’s first three years, but by last year it leveled off and even started to grow some, West says. In the earlier years, increased breakfast participation driven by breakfast after the bell programs helped offset lunch count decreases.
To further control costs, the cycle menu was reduced from six to four weeks and the number of items offered per day was scaled back. This not only streamlined purchasing but “also helped our kids see the foods more often so that they would try it and give our staff a lot more familiarity because they’re producing it more often,” West notes.
Items made from scratch range from the district’s own ranch dressing and gravy to roasted chicken on the bone, hand-rolled burritos and mashed potatoes made with Colorado redskins made with the skin on.
“The elementary kids didn’t touch those the first year because they’d never seen potatoes with skins, but now they love them,” West says. “Sometimes you just gotta stick with it and talk about it and eventually they will try it and once they try it they’ll usually like it.”
The central kitchen also makes it possible to generate extra revenue by producing for outside customers. It already supplies an area Catholic school and has been approached by several area day care centers.
The processing capabilities also allow Weld School District to serve as a food hub. It currently produces soup in bulk for a nearby district and processes produce for Denver Public Schools that the district grows on its own farms.
While the streamlined production capabilities made possible by the central kitchen is quite an advantage for the district meal program, so is the facility’s extensive storage capacity, which allows bulk forward purchasing when prices are low as well as the storage of large quantities of premade ingredients.
“I have enough storage that if it makes sense to buy a truckload from a manufacturer I will do that,” West offers. The storage space also helps economize production.
For example, the district used to make tomato sauce using #10 cans of tomatoes, but then switched to buying the product in 55-gallon drums, “which cut our tomato cost in half,” West says.
Much of what is still purchased premade goes to the breakfast program, but the department still commits to one scratch-made breakfast item each week.
Another regularly purchased preprocessed item is fajita-style chicken for the Global Café menu’s ethnic dishes, but most of the rest of the chicken, as well as beef, purchases are of fresh product from local sources.
West had been buying locally in small quantities all along ever since he arrived at Weld School District in 2009, but the local purchase program really ramped up once the central production center went fully operational.
Weld School District’s local purchasing is greatly abetted by membership in a procurement collective called the Northern Co-op that also includes a dozen other nearby districts. The members not only pool purchasing clout but also forge relationships with area growers and learn more about each other’s needs and even such basics as language: “they want to sell in bushels, but I need a piece count, so we need to understand that,” says West, who has also served a term as chairman of the Colorado Farm–to-School Alliance.
One of big local purchase success stories for Weld School District has been pinto beans, a key ingredient in its very popular scratch-made burritos (which replaced a preprocessed burrito served previously). The dry beans are cooked down, combined with cheese and hand rolled.
The daily lunch menu at Weld School District progresses from two daily entrée choices at the elementaries to three in the middle schools and four in the high schools. All levels get a scratch-made item from the production center that is finished off onsite as one choice, plus a sandwich or wrap deli item. The middle schools also get the Global Café station, which rotates a variety of ethnically themed menus weekly. The high schools get those three choices, plus pizza daily.
A la carte is not a big factor, but West is proud of his department’s performance on the vending front, as the department’s 23 machines did nearly $100,000 in business over the past year despite the restrictions imposed by the latest federal competitive foods regs. West credits the quality of the products manufacturers have been able to develop that meet the regs while still appealing to customers in school environments.
One recent addition to the meal program, which West credits to the Cincinnati Public Schools, is a flavor station program that allows students to spice their dishes to their own tastes. The district worked with a local spice company to develop some custom blends and the program was piloted last year in select middle schools, then rolled out this year to all secondaries. Among the spice combos are ranch, Italian and Tajin, a Mexican spice blend about which West says, “I never heard of it, but the kids know about it and they love it.”
West came to Weld School District seven years ago from the much larger Colorado Springs district, where he had been assistant director in charge of operations. His previous experience had been in healthcare foodservice, primarily eldercare (“I worked one day in a restaurant and found it was not for me,” he quips about his commercial foodservice experience).
Joining West at Weld School District was Kara Sample, RD, who now serves as assistant director and district dietitian.
“We knew what we could make out of this, that there was already some great infrastructure in place,” West says. “I inherited a district that was in a good spot, except for the food, and we knew we could do better with the food.”