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District Gets High Marks for Both its Food & its Fiscals

The list of challenges facing foodservice directors in large school districts is epic: ballooning food and labor costs, inadequate subsidies chasing unfunded mandates, inventory control issues, participation shortfalls redlining at the secondary level, the lingering lunch lady/mystery meat stereotype contrasting with modern commercial dining expectations, political pressures that are ignorant or dismissive of the realities of school foodservice constraints, antiquated equipment and out-of-date facilities compromising food safety and playing havoc with productivity, workforce turnover and morale issues, language barriers and cultural clashes, etc., etc., etc.

With obstacles like that, it's a wonder any district can maintain a viable nutrition program at all, much less an exemplary one.

Yet, here is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Schools (CMS) with a program that not only meets state-mandated wellness goals, but did so two years before it had to. The district's award-winning meal program feeds a growing population of nearly 140,000 students every day while it has increased participation rates by nearly 25 percent in the past six years. And all in a system that sees 3,000-5,000 additional students each year.

Oh, and one that accomplished all that while operating in the black year in and year out, with net incomes of nearly $3 million in 2006-07 and over $2 million as of March 2008 for 2007-08 (the latest figure available). And that's without a meal price increase for the past seven years, by the way. The district set a fairly aggressive $2 meal price across the board back in 2000 and plans to stay with that at least through next year.

How have they done it?

It starts with a well planned and executed menu program that has been centralized and standardized (though the meals themselves are almost all produced at the point of service). This is bolstered with a strong manager and employee training program that instills and reinforces sound operational practices and boosts across-the-board morale. There is also an effective procurement program that takes advantage of every opportunity. Finally, CMS Nutrition Services maintains a focus on efficient equipment and productivity-boosting technology that have contributed to an increase in labor efficiency — from 14 to 16 meals per labor hour in the past two years.

Overseeing all those efforts is a top-notch top management team led by Director Cindy Hobbs and Assistant Director Amy Harkey.

Nutrition is Job One

CMS has been a leader on meeting current nutrition standards. It implemented North Carolina's restrictions on what could be sold in a la carte lines and mandates requiring school meals to include whole grains and fruits and vegetables two years before the deadline, the first district in the state to do so. Similarly, it also switched to low-fat milk long before federal mandates came into effect.

“We also removed all the fryers from our middle and elementary schools, and took all sugar-sweetened beverages out of our middle and elementary schools and replaced them with 100% juice and water,” says Hobbs.

The department has also embarked on a pilot grab-and-go breakfast program in 25 of its schools where principals and teachers are willing to let students bring tote-along goodies to the classroom in the morning. All schools serve breakfast, but most only in the cafeteria, where inconvenience and time constraints limit customers. The pilot grab-and-go program, however, has boosted breakfast participation from 16 to 20 percent.

Meanwhile, lunch meal patterns have been radically altered by the menu and a la carte changes, which made a la carte selections relatively less appealing and reimbursable meals more so.

“When we took fryers out, our a la carte sales were significantly impacted, especially when we took the french fries out since that was not part of our reimbursable meal,” says Hobbs. “Our reimbursable meal participation went up so much that it shifted our revenue emphasis from cash to reimbursement.”

Today, meal reimbursements represent half of department revenues, while a la carte represents under a quarter. Districtwide, students buy 76,000 reimbursable meals a day, while daily a la carte sales average $66,000 (another $10,000 is derived from sales of after school snacks).

“At the same time, we improved the children's nutrition because now they're getting a complete meal, potentially with a fruit or vegetable,” notes Harkey. “We're nudging them over gradually, substituting produce and whole grains in their diets for the pizza and fries they were eating before.”

Central Menu Control

C-M Schools does not do central production, but it has consolidated menu planning to the central office since it switched to nutrient-based menus from the component-based system it had traditionally used. Now, the only sites that receive satellited meals are seven schools that serve students with special services. The rest all do production onsite.

“The district contemplated centralizing food production at one point, but we convinced them it was unfeasible,” Hobbs says. She cites transportation hazards and food safety as among the primary concerns, not to mention the costs associated with transforming the entire operational culture. All the new schools will continue to be built with kitchens.

The serving sites use menus determined centrally, with only the use of some leftovers and produce items left to site discretion.

Both Harkey and Hobbs swear by the nutrient-based menu approach.

“I'm not sure many people understand the savings you can get with a nutrient based system,” says Hobbs. “For example, instead of a two-ounce protein requirement, they can get the protein in different ways. Instead of all those components, students may select an entree and one other item, so you're not constantly sending students back from the checkout to get their milk or fruit. They get what they want the first time out. I think that was a big difference in lowering our food cost and plate waste particularly.”

The two-week cycle menu now in place gives elementary students a daily choice of two entrees, plus a vegetarian entree, a chef's salad (mostly bought by teachers, Harkey admits) and from four to six fruit and vegetable options — fresh or canned fruits and/or fresh or cooked vegetables as well as dried fruits like raisins or trail mix.

“Since the state nutrition standards went into place, we've offered more produce while cutting down the number of a la carte items available at elementary schools,” Harkey explains. “All of the a la carte items remaining have to meet fat and sugar restrictions, so they are not quite as appealing. That is a big reason for the increase in produce consumption at that level.”

The middle schools have four entree choices daily and also get special “Pizza Fridays” as compensation for the removal of pizza from the daily menu. The new pizza product is lower in fat and saturated fat and replaces a more traditional one previously purchased from a local vendor. The changes seem not to have hurt middle school participation, which was up 16 percent in the first year after the daily pizza and fryers were removed. Currently, participation in the middle schools runs at 63 percent, Hobbs reports, compared to 71 percent in elementary.

Hobbs says one reason such seemingly traumatic changes have had such little detrimental effect on participation may have been because the department got out in front of the story. “We set up a media blitz well in advance of big changes like taking out the fryers, so the kids knew what was coming rather than being surprised,” she says. On the other hand, Hobbs admits that the switch to whole grains was done with no fanfare on the theory that it is a subtle change and best left unpublicized.

Staggering the moves has also helped. For example, fryers were removed from the elementary schools in 2002. The department waited until 2006 to take them out of the middle schools, by which point, new middle school students would have had four years without fryers in their elementary schools. When the fryers are eventually removed from the high schools, the same principle should work again with incoming freshmen.

Secondary Dropoff

In the high schools, CMS's participation does drop significantly — and not surprisingly for anyone familiar with K-12 participation patterns — to 32%. High school cafeterias serve six entree choices daily and so far have retained their fryers.

Harkey is working to source more ethnic and specialty items for the high schools to increase that participation level, but it's a difficult task because CMS high schools end their days at 2:15 each afternoon. “The kids just wait until the bell rings and then grab something once they're outside of school,” Harkey says.

Next year will also see a shift in the way purchasing is done, Hobbs says. The department's antiquated central warehouse — built some 40 years ago when the district was half its current size — will see reduced duty. Last year, the department piloted direct distribution deliveries to high schools to reduce the volume demands on the facility, but that proved inadequate. So next fall, middle schools will also start getting their product directly to their kitchens.

Hobbs has secured a local distributor to do the deliveries and says the change will not affect operational costs. The modest increase in distribution charges will be offset by savings associated with inventory control problems at the warehouse.

That facility will remain in use for stocking product for the elementary schools and for storing commodities. Meanwhile, high schools will have a new freedom to add more items, something that was difficult before because of limited slot spaces in the warehouse.

Those new items will be selected using a three step process, Harkey says. First, new items are vetted by the nutrition team for suitability and compatability with the department's nutrition goals. Then those that are selected are taste-tested by students at various test sites. If they pass muster they are put on the menu. Generally, Hobbs says she only buys enough of an item for one menu cycle. An item that tanks on its maiden voyage may not get another chance though most are given a few cycles to prove themselves.

Recent winners include a bean and cheese chalupa that has become a student favorite, while a recent no go was a stuffed biscuit filled with ground turkey that students didn't go for, “because they couldn't see what was inside the biscuit and they didn't like that,” Harkey suggests.

Taste testing and validating new products is made more difficult because of the district's considerable economical, social and ethnic diversity. A product that may test well in one area may be rejected in another for a variety of reasons. Harkey says the department plans to spread out test sites more in the future so that demand can be judged more accurately.

CMS also has embraced technology to streamline operations, introduce efficiencies and increase service levels. For example, back-of-the-house operations now run on electronic production records and the district purchased new nutrition analysis software several years ago. “All of our databases are product-specific,” says Harkey. “If we use a particular beef patty, that data is put into the system as opposed to data about a generic beef patty.

One advantage of the new electronic system is supervisor can monitor the sites they are responsible for (20 to 22 locations apiece) from their desktops, cutting down time wasted driving from site to site.

At the point of sale, CMS itemizes each purchase. “It's more time-consuming, but it is very valuable for parents, who get to see every item their child purchases. This is especially important for parents of children with special diet needs.”

Staff professionalism and career development have been enhanced through an aggressive training/education program. This year, 20 individuals are graduating from two classes, and Hobbs says she would like to get even more participation. “We want to promote from within if we can,” she says.

The management training program involves about 120 hours of classwork and then a 90-day internship at one of the system schools. “We put a strong focus on sanitation and customer service especially,” Hobbs emphasizes. All of the department's managers are Serv-Safe certified and all new managers are required to take a 10-hour customer service course.

All employees must take a food safety course each year as well as a two-hour customer service course every three years. Both are offered in Spanish to ensure that everyone gets the message.

Increased customer service is a priority for CMS Nutrition Services as it attempts to brand itself as a high-quality provider of nutritious school meals. As part of that effort, all staff will be required to wear new uniforms next year (until now, each school was allowed to set its own policy on this). Hobbs says the uniform look (managers in one color, staff in another across the system) will help project a more professional image. The department is also positioning itself with local media as a source of expertise on child nutrition issue, rather than simply as a source of “bad news” stories. Encouragingly, the number of “positive” mentions of the department has been steadily growing as a result.


Name: Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Schools Child Nutrition Services

Annual Revenues: $59 million

Schools (2007-08): 169

Students: 135,000+

Outlets: 152 full-service cafeterias, 7 satellite locations

Employees: 1,378

Meals Served Daily: 26,000 breakfasts, 74,000 lunches, 10,500 after school snacks, 33,000 other (adults and supplemental food sales)

CMS enjoys a partnershipMore Front of the House Articles Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has reached out to various outside organizations to help it develop, market and serve a more nutritious array of foods in its cafeterias. One of the most successful partnerships has been with the USDA's Food & Nutrition Services Team Nutrition program.

A Team Nutrition grant helped increased exposure to fruits and vegetables to district students by proving education resources, lesson plans and taste testings. Assistant Director Amy Harkey says the department concentrated on dried versions of fruits like mango, papaya, cranberries, cherries and blueberries because they are shelf-stable while remaining highly nutritious, though other additions courtesy of the grant have included fresh items like kiwi fruit and seasonal items like strawberries and melons.

The district works with produce vendor Foster-Caviness to get reasonably priced fresh produce. Nutrition Services Director Cindy Hobbs says she would like to do more local sourcing but price constraints are a barrier. In any case, Foster-Caviness does do some local purchasing when possible to get local product to Charlotte-Mecklenburg school kitchens.

The department has also partnered with area universities like Appalachian State and Winthrop to bring in dietary interns, while the Southeast Dairy Council has helped fund the district's grab-and-go breakfast pilot as well as promotional materials for getting out a healthy eating message. Hobbs is currently exploring an alliance with Johnson & Wales University for internships for culinary students to expose them to potential careers in school nutrition programs.

Perhaps the most high-profile partnerships have been with the local sports teams, the Carolina Panthers of the NFL and the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA. Players have come to the schools for events to promote nutrition and healthy eating, bringing the kind of star power gets youngsters' attention.

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