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Union High cafeteria

Dining at Union High (Almost) Too Cool for School?

Choices include a cyber cafe, a to-order deli, a branded food court and a couple of kiosk food stations.

Union (OK) High School, near Tulsa, has an open campus and, at least until this year, featured only a small, traditional cafeteria. Consider that the school is located along a major commercial artery—with McDonald’s, Sonic, Arby’s, Back Yard Burgers, Waffle House and local frozen custard chain Freckles units within short walking distance—and it's no surprise lunch participation has traditionally lagged.

Last year it hovered at around 18 percent. Today, that is no longer the case, and not just because the school welcomed the district’s 1,100 10th grade students to the building population for the first time this fall—students who unlike the 2,100 holdover juniors and seniors have no open campus privileges.

Today, it’s not just the campus-restricted sophomores who are eating lunch (and breakfast) at school. Increasingly, so are the juniors and seniors who are allowed to go off campus if they wish, as well as 280 preschoolers who are provided breakfast, lunch and snacks out of the high school kitchen. And all this new participation comes because of a brand new approach to the food program has made eating at Union High School cool as well as tasty, fun and nutritious.

While the old cafeteria is still operating, it is now just one of nine dining options scattered across the complex. The other eight opened this fall, alongside a new $29 million, 125,000-sq.ft. addition to the existing high school building. Called the Collegiate Academy, the new wing is designed to provide Union High students with a college-like experience in order to prepare them for the higher education experience the district is priming them to pursue.

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Union High cafeteria

That experience includes a college-like foodservice program with different service points scattered around the newly expanded building. All are open during lunchtime, some during breakfast—and one is open all day.

Much of what is offered qualifies for subsidies under federal school meal regulations. This is important because 59 percent of district students qualify for federally subsidized meals, says Nutrition Services Director Lisa Griffin.  “We definitely need to offer students plenty of choices that meet the federal school meal guidelines,” she says.

Transforming the Program

Griffin came to Union three years ago determined to change the food culture. She hired Union High alum Eli Huff, a culinary school graduate with experience in commercial foodservice, as executive chef to overhaul the district menus.

“I wanted to create a program that would offer healthy, appealing food kids would want to eat but which would also be good for them, “Huff says. “That means plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and freshly prepared choices where we use quality ingredients.”

Huff spent his first year working over menus for the lower grades—Union has 13 elementary schools, a middle school for 6th and 7th graders, two separate facilities for 8th and 9th graders, an alternative school and an early childhood center besides the senior high complex.

“Transforming the menus was a challenge because we were limited by the equipment and facilities we had to work with,” Griffin says of the initial phase of the transformation. The Collegiate Academy project represents the first time she and Huff could significantly influence the design of production and service facilities for the dining program and Griffin expects it serve as a model for upgrades in other school buildings over the next several years.

Kale? Yes, Kale...

At Union High, the challenge is to attract older students with convenience, choice, sensory appeal and, well, a strong coolness factor. Choice and convenience are addressed by offering multiple service points, each offering a somewhat different menu mix and service experience.

Four dining outlets are branded stations in the new Union Street Market, where over 700 students now grab reimbursable lunches each day. The stations are Basil’s (Italian/pizza), Mercado de Salsa (Mexican), WokWorks (Asian) and House Specialties (traditional American/international entrees).

Each features an entrée of the day plus sides, including an unlimited amount of fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce is also incorporated into the recipes as much as possible. This is something Huff has gone out of his way to emphasize—and apparently with impressive results.

“He has turned out some fantastic new recipes using healthy fresh produce,” offers Griffin. “He even got high schoolers to eat kale!”  (students reportedly can go through 20 pounds in one lunch period).

Other fresh produce-based favorites include candy-roasted sweet potatoes, farm-fresh cherry tomatoes in a pesto basil sauce and cucumber salad made with onions and sesame oil.

Many of the fresh fruits and vegetables served at the school are sourced through an arrangement with the nearby PeachCrest Farm, a 330-acre USDA certified organic farm in Stradford, OK.

Peachcrest is even able to keep up the deliveries in the colder months thanks to its hoop house: last winter, it managed to supply all of the district’s spring mix needs. Lately it has also begun supplying processed vegetables such as sweet potato sticks.

The Union Street Market has also engaged the broader school community as business and design students helped develop names for the stations and even for individal dishes, and also designed the promotional materials such as the menu boards, fliers and posters.

Kiosks, Cafés and Coffee

The high school also boasts a pair of kiosk stations: The Grill sells some 170 reimbursable meals centered on hot panini sandwiches a day, while the Energy Bar is a grab-and-go a la carte outlet that generates about $300 a day in sales. Future plans call for an advance ordering option to allow staff and teachers to get meals quickly.

Both kiosks are located in high-traffic thoroughfares to provide convenience for students.

Another option is the standalone Deli station, based on the Subway chain’s production model for customized, made-to-order sandwiches. Its three lines, which serve up to 350 customers a day, give students willing to trade the wait time for customized meals that option alongside the other more briskly moving lines at the school's eight other dining locations.

Energy Bar Union High

One of those other locations is the old cafeteria, which, now rebranded as the Caf, lives on as a kind of snack bar offering heartier fare like burgers, sliders and chicken wings. It also sports a new salad bar that helps fulfill the vegetable component requirement for reimbursable meals (and which is a popular stop for health-conscious and frugal adult staff as well). The Caf sees some 225 customers a day for lunch and another 175 or so for breakfast.

The last addition to the mix is the Cyber Cafe in the Collegiate Academy. It offers coffee and specialty coffee drinks, smoothies and grab-and-go foods. Currently generating about $650 a day out of the programs total $1500 in daily a la carte sales, the Cyber Café stays open for most of the day and is also open in the evenings when the Collegiate Academy hosts night classes through Union’s partnership with Tulsa Community College.

The attractive open spaces of the Collegiate Academy, plus its large meeting room, have also helped make it an increasingly desirable venue for catered events, both for internal and external customers. The additional revenue stream bolsters what is already a healthy fiscal outlook for the department, given the growing participation counts and general enthusiasm among students and staff for “their” very cool onsite dining program.

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