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Healthy choices: for better selection, nutritional awareness and cost savings, districts are opting to outsource food services.

ALMOST EVERY DAY, television news and newspapers report on the growing challenge of childhood obesity. While waistlines are expanding, school budgets clearly are not. Combine these two ingredients and districts have the perfect scenario for outsourcing the management of their food service program.

School districts around the country have turned to external food service partners because they recognize the valuable solutions these partners offer, with a variety of nutritious foods and a great dining environment for students. Districts also have the opportunity to reduce their food service costs and even turn a profit, while maintaining high levels of employee satisfaction.

APPLES IN APPLETON

External food service partners have the culinary and operational expertise to design and standardize healthy meals that appeal to a variety of palates.

Last year, the board of education in Appleton, Wis., passed a new student nutrition policy that eliminated soda machines and created food guidelines even more stringent than those mandated by the federal government. Among the guidelines: any food sold before or during school must have no more than 30 percent of its total calories from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat.

It was up to Appleton's provider, ARAMARK, and food service director, Peg Panici (a 20-year employee), to re-engineer all recipes offered to Appleton's 15,000 students. Their goal was to improve the nutritional value of students' favorite foods without sacrificing taste.

"If you look at it from the outside, our menus don't look much different," says J.C. Arce, ARAMARK district manager. "We still have pizza, burgers and chicken sandwiches. But the ingredients and food preparation are different."

To help meet the district's nutritional goals, Appleton and its partner also found creative substitutes for foods. For instance, ground beef was replaced with lean turkey and mayonnaise with yogurt.

The nutrition policy also required that candy and other sweets in vending machines be replaced with healthier options. Now they stock yogurt bars, fresh fruit, milk, water and other healthy selections.

Parents and teachers have noticed a marked difference in the children.

"People who have kids in the schools say their soda intake has dropped at home because they don't have soda available to them in the schools," says Terri Behnke, supervisor of purchasing and grants at Appleton.

At the district's alternative high school, administrators also report improved student behavior, partly crediting the change to more nutritious food.

"They noticed big changes in the kids," Behnke say. "The students have less discipline problems now that they're serving food that is lower in fat, lower in sugar and healthier."

The encouragement of healthy eating extends beyond the cafeteria. At the elementary level, a professionally developed nutrition mascot, SPIKE, raises awareness through classroom visits, monthly premiums and educational videos, with lesson plans. And this program is just one of ARAMARK's many nutrition initiatives. In the Celebrity Lunch Lady campaign, today's hottest celebrities promote nutritious eating to middle and high school students through meal deals, promotions and a loyalty reward system for making the right food choices. Additionally, the company is the national sponsor of the American Diabetes Association School Walk for Diabetes. "Your food-service provider can be a strong ally of schools and parents in combating obesity and promoting student health," Arce says.

UP FROM 20 PERCENT TO 70 PERCENT

A district's decision to outsource its food service program can have a dramatic effect on meal counts. More students will participate in the school lunch program if they have more appealing choices and convenient, efficient service.

That's what Phyllis Milne discovered last fall. As associate director of school administration in York County, Va., Milne, along with parents, teachers, students and other administrators, boarded a school bus and headed north to eat lunch at a school cafeteria in Pennsylvania.

It's not that there wasn't anything they liked on the menu in York's 12,000-student district, but they wanted to check the references of all the providers being considered to manage the district's food service program later that year.

"One of the schools we visited had 10 different serving lines, a sub line, a taco line, a pizza line, a hot lunch line, a salad line, and a grab-and-go line for prepared sandwiches," Milne said. "We were very impressed that so many students could be fed so quickly, and that the kids were enjoying the food, not throwing it away."

Not long after that visit, the York County Board of Education approved ARAMARK as its food service provider. After just a few weeks at the 18-site district, the company had trained employees, implemented new menus and converted cafeterias to student-friendly dining environments.

"We had done what we could and done a good job with our local people, but we wanted to offer our kids more variety and more appealing food that would also meet our nutrition goals," Milne says. "We felt the program's overall success could increase if someone from outside the district came in with that kind of experience."

The district's objectives were clearly met during the first semester ARAMARK was doing the cooking in York County.

Entree choices in the elementary schools increased from one item to four; in the middle school, from two to between six or eight and, at the high school, from two to between 12 and 14. As predicted, lunch sales increased with the number of food choices. High school student lunch participation soared from 20 percent in 2003 to nearly 70 percent at the end of the 2004 school year. The increase in meals sold meant the district would receive more government entitlements through the National School Lunch program.

Meanwhile, the district faced a new challenge.

"We had to add more serving lines--which is a good problem--so we could accommodate everybody during their lunch time," Milne says.

The food service program also had one primary financial requirement: it had to be self-supporting. Unlike many school districts with month-to-month budget challenges, some outsourcing partners invest in equipment, renovations and additional resources to ensure a long-term return on the partnership.

"It's a different philosophy when a business partner comes in," Milne says. "The company is able to think long range, offer more equipment, and do more training in order to generate more revenue in the long run."

DECREASING MEAL COSTS

In some districts, an outsourcing partner's operational and financial performance is so exceptional that the price of lunch can actually be reduced, making meals affordable to more students. Houston is a good example. In September 2004, the district announced it would charge 10 cents less for its full-price lunches, and students eligible for reduced-price meals would pay 20 cents instead of 40 cents.

"It's very important that we make the cost of a school meal more affordable because we want our children to eat at school and get the nutrition they need," says Abelardo Saavedra, interim superintendent of HISD. "We have a very efficiently-run school service program, and the good work of our men and women in that program is helping to bring down costs for students."

RED INK TO BLACK

Administrators in Millard, Neb., considered outsourcing their food service program when it appeared the in-house operation that served 20,000 kids at 31 school sites would soon be in the red because of rising costs.

"In a managed services company, food service is what they do; it's their core business," says Ken Fossen, Millard's associate superintendent. "We had a good in-house program, but felt we'd benefit from this level of expertise."

The district, which was committed to keeping meal prices steady, sent out a request for food service proposals and selected ARAMARK, due to its appealing and nutritious menu offerings and the efficiency and quality of its overall program.

A dramatic financial shift resulted from the company's ability to increase top-line sales and the number of federally subsidized lunches served. At Millard, the food service program showed more than 60 percent growth in annual sales.

Outsourced providers deliver students the dining environment they experience outside of school. Sales increased dramatically after Millard's food-service provider introduced its One World Cafe elementary dining brand in January 2004. For its partner districts, Millard's food-service provider also recently introduced two new dining concepts. Now in over 120 schools throughout the country, middle school students are going to the 12 Spot during the lunch hour, while high school students enjoy their favorites at the U.B.U. Lounge. Each branded concept is based on extensive research and includes everything from menu design and environmental enhancements to merchandising and promotions.

"In the past, school lunch has been unfavorably received by some students," says Jim Stillwell, general manager of food services in Millard. "But with exciting dining programs, we have changed this perception and driven participation with creative, well-balanced menus and marketing that wins them over."
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Title Annotation:Food Service
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1460
Previous Article:Myths & facts K-12 realities.
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