School Lunches to Get Makeover: New Director Presents Strategies to Help Department Break Even

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Thursday August 15, 2013

The woes plaguing the South Burlington School District’s nutritional services department are no secret. Issues such as declining participation and the length of time it takes to get through the lunch line have been contributing to a growing deficit for the past several years.  But last month, the District hired Rhonda Ketner as the Director of Nutritional Services and she’s excited to reverse this trend. She has invested time in meeting with the nutritional services staff, completed an in depth analysis of the current profit and loss statements, and done research on increasing sales and participation. From this body of work, Ketner has devised strategies for the 2013-2014 school year that she believes will put nutritional services in line to break even.  She presented many of her ideas at the August 7 school board meeting.

One of the first areas Ketner examined was staffing and efficiency. When three full time benefited individuals left, they were replaced with three part time non-benefited individuals. The anticipated savings of this change alone will be $100,000-$125,000. Ketner will reorganize positions for more versatility and increase efficiency through staff training programs in areas such as proper knife skills and cooking techniques. Use of a chef/trainer, who would be an independent contractor and funded through a grant or anticipated savings, could be of great assistance in the training process.

This emphasis on efficiency does not equate to the utilization of lower quality ingredients. The use of fresh and locally sourced foods will continue to increase in the preparation of all meals. All of the recipes have been reformatted to include notations on the cost of ingredients by weight which will result in a $10-$15,000 per year savings, according to Ketner. One of the obstacles the District has faced in using local ingredients is the time it takes to process them. For example, hundreds of pounds of zucchini and eggplant as well as fresh herbs were donated to the school district recently and it took 2 hours for 7 volunteers to process the ingredients for use later in the year for soups, stews, and sauces. A marketing effort is planned to alert parents to these changes as well as instituting an update to the website to incorporate nutrition links. 

This multi-pronged marketing approach will include students as well. Several strategies are going to be directed specifically toward students to help entice them to buy school lunch. One strategy is to gather student input in the design of the cafeterias. A second idea is a grab-and-go setup called “fresh express” which will debut to decrease the time students are waiting in the lunch line. The fresh express will include a choice of two items: a sandwich and a soup of the day or salad bar. Additionally, there will be no increase in food prices and adult prices will be reduced to the 2009 levels for lunch and salad bar to entice participation.
The board was impressed with the plan Ketner presented and look forward to seeing the results of its implementation. 

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent