Becky Domokos-Bays was ready for a new challenge. On Sept. 11, after 11 years as director of food and nutrition services at Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia she left to take the helm at Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the fastest growing districts in the country.
Domokos-Bays got what she was looking for when she took a job closer to home. Her new district has 87 schools (and counting), some 70,000 students, 430 foodservice employees and a county that spans more than 520 square miles. Alexandria City had 16 schools and 14,000 students.
To make things even more challenging, Domokos-Bays joined after the school year started, meaning she’s still working to visit all her new schools to meet students, staff and principals.
“Every job has its challenges, but I look at the positive side,” she says of the late start. “I get to see things already in progress, with plans already made. I get to see how the menus and food looks. What do our kitchens and equipment look like, how are we presenting food and how are we marketing the program?”
Getting to Know the New Job
Domokos-Bays spends three days a week visiting 15 schools with an assistant who coordinates the schedule and directions. She’s visited more than half the schools already and aims to have seen them all by Thanksgiving.
“Basically I’m in listening mode when I go out,” says Domokos-Bays, also the vice president of the School Nutrition Association. “I observe and am not looking to make wholesale changes yet.”
She’s been impressed by what she’s seen so far: “The kitchens are beautiful, nice and well equipped.” And there’s one in each and every school. The food is good, too, but the participation in the evolving district isn’t what she’d like.
The affluent district in Northern Virginia has been adding three, four and even five schools a year as population has surged. Twenty years ago, it had just 40 schools. Three new ones opened this year, she says, and one more is coming in 2015 and another in 2016. “It’s just a very dynamic county right now,” Domokos-Bays says. “Part of the county is rural, part is suburban.”
The affluent district serves just 17 percent free and reduced, unlike at Alexandria City, where it was approximately 60 percent. Her participation ranges from as low as 15 percent at some high schools up to 70 percent at other schools.
Although she says she’s not looking to make massive changes so soon, Domokos-Bays has made two significant ones so far. Those kitchens she called beautiful are all equipped with dishwashers, yet the district continues to use Styrofoam trays. “I can’t in good conscience do that,” she says. “Everything goes in landfills here. If we didn’t have dishwashers, it would be a different situation.”
In October, the district started making the transition to hard trays, of which they already had a significant amount in stock. Domokos-Bays is also adjusting the menu from a three-week cycle to two weeks to focus on the more popular items.
“The weak link is the number of wells we have on the serving line,” she explains. “Some older schools have just three wells and we’re trying to serve too much on those … We talked to managers and looked at the most popular items, sales reports and what the kids like and in the middle of November we’ll start with a revamped two-week cycle menu.”
She’s also looking to get kids involved in taste tests, although she says the food is well regarded by most. “It’s not that they don’t like lunch here, it’s just that they prefer to bring their own,” she says. “Some are still in farm communities, and in December they are bringing in venison and tenderloin sandwiches.
“One thing I am hearing about is the lines and that’s a nationwide issue,” she adds. “Lunch times keep getting smaller and smaller and we have about 25-30 minutes and that includes walking time. Kids like to be kids and hang out with friends and at high and middle schools it’s all about who are you going to sit with. I think that’s where our work comes in to prove to our kids that this is someplace you want to come and eat.”
In addition to focusing more on the popular items and lessening the choices to speed up service, Domokos-Bays also is looking at more scratch cooking. “We’re equipped to do it and we do make some things like our own mac and cheese and spaghetti sauce. We could do more if we could figure out some good recipes and I’ve got one of my staff working on that.”
So far, the changes seem to be working. Participation is trending up so far.
“We’ve accomplished a lot after a month, but we’ve got a long way to go,” says Domokos-Bays.