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panel Tara Fitzpatrick

School food pros dish on how to start nontraditional feeding programs

SNA Annual National Conference education session explores ways to expand your services and grow your business beyond the cafeteria in the form of food trucks, busses, summer feeding, charter schools, outdoor events and even golf carts.

Nontraditional feeding programs can protect and increase your revenue, according to three presenters who have made it work in their respective districts. The School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference featured many operations-focused education sessions including this one, focused on the path to “what if?” when it comes to thinking outside the cafeteria. 

The session was sponsored by Cambro, a manufacturer that recently studied lunch periods in schools across the country. The study found that the typical lunch period is about 15 to 30 minutes long (with most being closer to 15), which means some students will not want to wait in line because they won’t have enough time to eat. So mobile, nontraditional, grab-and-go setups have become necessary. But there’s more to it than just filling a need.

Why nontraditional feeding?

Highlighting the economic importance of nontraditional feeding to a foodservice department, or the “why” of the equation, was Betti Wiggins’ advice for setting up a nontraditional feeding program. Wiggins is the new assistant superintendent for nutrition services at Houston ISD. After a long career with Detroit schools, Wiggins has just relocated to Houston and was eager to share her plans and excitement.

“Let’s talk about the ‘why,’” Wiggins said, recalling the economic turmoil of the past decade. “In Detroit, when the rest of the country had that economic cold, we had pneumonia in both lungs with no medicine. We lost students; we regrouped. We did nontraditional feeding to protect our revenue base and ensure we are feeding our kids.”

The goal is to actually make money, not provide a subsidized program.

“If we start thinking in a collaborative way [about nontraditional feeding] that can be a lot of money,” Wiggins said, reminding the audience that “we are very savvy business people.”

She advised getting buy-in from principals and other stakeholders, but to not feel intimidated. “We don’t need principals’ permission; we work for stakeholders, not shareholders,” Wiggins said, citing her success with thousands of after-school meals served in Detroit.

Wiggins advised making sure any remote sites were compliant and accountable by keeping records and making sure quotes provided were accurate and competitive with local caterers or other entities that are stealing business opportunities. She also recommended “doing things they don’t expect you to do. Serve a pancake breakfast on Saturdays. Meet the football players before their games. Are they going to get fast food?”

Hot summer meals or bust

Eric Zacarias, manager of foodservices at Cincinnati Public Schools, explained that it was the need for summer feeding programs that drove him to find an old school bus and outfit it as a food truck.

“We wanted to feed kids hot meals during the summer at schools, parks, pools and rec centers,” Zacarias said. “We were already doing cold lunches in sacks.” 

It cost about $90,000, including labor, to get the bus outfitted with equipment to hold hot food, such as custom-built hot cabinets. After some fine-tuning, it was ready to roll for summer feeding.

However, “I had to make sure it was multipurpose,” Zacarias added. “I didn’t want it to sit idle for the other 10 months of the year.”

So the bus has made appearances at back-to-school and end-of-school field days and welcome picnics.

Previously, events like that meant cheap hot dogs and bags of chips served outdoors and purchased by the school—and a big loss reimbursement for the foodservice department. 

Now, the schools don’t have to spend money on cookout food, and can instead put that money toward something fun for the students’ field day (one school rented a bouncy obstacle course).

Charter schools: “If students are leaving, follow them!”

Sandy Kemp, executive director of foodservice at Albuquerque Public Schools, said she’s looking into turning golf carts purchased by the district but lately unused into a way to serve food.

“The opportunity exists,” Kemp said. “I’m working on a beverage golf cart to bring to high school sites and take it to where the kids are. At sporting events, we could stock it with sports drinks and granola bars.”

Most of Albuquerque schools’ foodservice efforts toward nontraditional feeding have been reaching out to charter schools in the community, or as Kemp calls it, “if the students are leaving, follow them!”

Right now, Kemp and her team are serving 12 charter schools in the area, some breakfast and supper as well. That has meant getting rosters from charter schools, building a database and grabbing the opportunity.

The business side of nontraditional feeding programs was the underlying takeaway of this session.

“Understand KPI. Understand how you set the business dynamic,” Wiggins summed up. “Food plus nonfood plus incidentals…add it up and get paid.”

TAGS: K-12 Schools
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