Over the last two years, FM Top 50 firm SLA Management has grappled with the same uncertainties that every school foodservice program has faced—supply chain hiccups, peaks and valleys of student participation and the need to respond quickly to government mandates. Orlando-based SLA just faces it on a grander scale—at more than 260 schools across 13 states.
President Joe Biden’s recent signing of the Keep Kids Fed Act, by extending some flexibility in school nutrition rules, has removed some of that uncertainty. COO Jake Clifton says he hopes it will result in some stability. “For a while, we were all holding our breathes—schools, families and manufacturers,” he says. “Now, everybody knows participation levels will be more normalized.”
Clifton says the pandemic “was a real expectation reset” and that most clients “are now looking for consistent menu offerings and reliable service.” Consistency has been a particular challenge, given supply chain snafus, and in response SLA has turned to more in-house preparation and a shift away from more processed products. Relying too heavily on the latter, he says, poses a risk from bottlenecks, whereas taking production in house and buying more-available raw product streamlines the process.
To avoid putting too much pressure on the already-tight labor market, SLA schools are moving toward less labor-intensive sides, such as applesauce pouches or dried fruit packets over hand-portioned servings and freeing up staff to focus more on the center of the plate.
Dried fruits “weigh much less and take up less space than #10 cans of fruit, kids love them, there are lots of great options and we don’t have to work too much to source them,” Clifton adds.
Some innovation is sparked at the local level, Clifton says. “Our innovation comes from students and team members, who are partners in the communities or parents,” he explains. Despite serving more than 100,000 student meals a day during the school year, for instance, the menus are not standardized; students in Louisiana see different offerings than those in Connecticut, and dishes are refined to reflect local customs. If the locals advise that tomatoes don’t belong in the gumbo, the recipe is adjusted accordingly, Clifton explains.
One new concept SLA has introduced in recent years is the Think Big Kitchen. The approach is designed to create an uplifting, welcoming environment that will energize students, spark the imagination and think about the world beyond school. Bluetooth speakers supply music. Between the service, the food and the setting, “we hope we provide students with the best 30 minutes of their day,” Clifton says.
SLA also partnered with Nutrislice on a digital menu app that provides nutritional details on meals for both parents and the team. “It’s a huge help because team members have high-quality documentation with less effort,” Clifton says.
As part of a pledge made last year to be 100-percent Styrofoam-free, SLA rolled out a bowl-based menu in some locations, encouraging students to trade traditional trays for a lineup of about half a dozen bowls. And to meet to meet the latest expectations from schools, menus have shifted to offer more plant-based choices, with daily options available for vegetarians.
Looking forward to the coming school season, SLA is embracing normalization. “We tempered our desire to go crazy this year,” Clifton says, partly out of consideration for the staff.
“Our teams are coming out of two challenging years. First it was an environment where people didn’t want to leave their homes, then last year we didn’t know who or what was showing up.” Those phenomena created some stress at the school level, so instead of pushing for change, the focus for the upcoming school year has been “let’s get back to the basics, let’s serve a good meal that’s well presented.”
If there is any silver lining to the Covid pandemic, Clifton says it’s the heightened awareness of the importance of school nutrition. “I think the world and country now recognize the importance of school nutrition and think that really gave our teams a shot to the heart in terms of reminding them what they do and the difference they make,” he observes.
“Covid was a reminder that this is not just a job.”