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Trimming Bellies and Costs:

In-House Cafeteria Options    



 William Clark
William Clark (far right), chief operating officer at the New Haven, Conn., Public Schools, with one of the district's own food trucks.

For more than a decade, the New Haven, Conn., Public Schools had outsourced the management of its food service program, based on the assumption we could not handle this complex system and balance the budget. New Haven was able to write a check and know that we were complying with the myriad of bureaucratic federal and state requirements relating to meal programs in the schools.

The downside of this arrangement was that the profit for the management company, not unlike other food services firms, was achieved though their food purchasing. In fact, corporate profits were driven by an incentive to purchase more food products. The company looked upon such purchases as a revenue stream with a variety of credits (cash) coming back to the firm from the sellers of bulk purchases. While lip service was paid to healthy food options, the not-so-hidden reality was that processed food and bulk corporate purchasing were the easiest and most efficient means to corporate gain.

While the district used corporate managers, the local union staff handled the cafeteria work of cooking, delivery and service at each of our 47 schools. The cost of staffing, along with that of food purchases and management company fees, exceeded the reimbursement rates for meals served, leaving the New Haven school board to subsidize the program annually at a cost of nearly $2 million.

Parted Company
In 2008, we challenged the management company to be more efficient, more conscious of serving healthier food and purchasing local, fresh produce wherever possible. This proved to be inconsistent with the corporate structure. Healthier meals and local purchasing, the company contended, would necessarily mean greater costs, which they intended to pass along to the New Haven district, deepening our deficit.

We did not accept that conclusion and parted ways with the company, choosing to take the entire operation in-house. The results on the food-quality side have been tremendous. We redesigned our bidding and connected with various partners to secure locally grown and fresh foods. We joined with local growers, including some of our own schools, to find ways for local yields to make their way onto our menus.

We revamped the cafeteria menu to stop cooking multiple choices of meals, which had led to corporate profit and considerable food waste daily. We focused on one awesome meal of the day that exceeded all state and federal requirements with respect to meal components. We supplemented that meal with a deli sandwich option and ultimately a salad bar in every school. The results are healthier meals for students. More fruit and vegetables, more fresh, scratch-cooked items and more satisfied students. No fried foods, no unhealthy snacks, no flavored milk.

Staff members are happier serving food they prepare themselves. They present and serve the meals with pride, and their positive attitude translates to the students who are more inclined to accept and eat the cafeteria meals. More meals consumed results in more revenue.

Over the last 10 years, New Haven has experienced the same inflation as any other school district. Wages, benefits and cost of food products are the main inflation drivers.

The choice to serve healthier food and the elimination of processed foods has increased the food cost delta, as well. These increases have not been offset by corresponding gains in federal reimbursement rates, which have remained relatively flat over the same period.

While we have secured a few outside grants to support the healthier choices, these do not cover the inflationary costs. Thus, school districts are faced with the challenge of either setting aside more funds to supplement and balance the meals program or making cost-cutting decisions on food quality, preparation, purchasing and labor. Assuming a modest inflation of compensation and food costs over 10 years, New Haven should have seen an increase in its deficit of 2 percent to 5 percent, at least.

Positive Choices
By adjusting bids and creating competition for the selling of healthier foods to New Haven students, we have found that competition can be used to offset inflation costs. By focusing on preparing one really tasty and healthy meal of the day primarily through our central commissary, we have focused our menu and purchasing to a specific set of items, which repeat and allow for predictable costs and revenue streams. Slight adjustments to these recipes result in additional menu options without changing the purchasing, thus keeping the product costs and labor stable.

Finally, outreach efforts such as menu boards and nutrition lessons in the cafeterias during meals better educate students about positive meal choices. This results in students being more confident about trying the fresh fruits and vegetables they may otherwise not be exposed to and thereby become better consumers of healthier eating inside and outside of school.

Now, five years since transitioning back to an in-house operation and by committing to the strategies outlined here, New Haven has been able to fund its food division at the same level financially as the corporate-managed operation.

Yet the business side of this process remains complex and challenging. Our next step is to use better private-sector metrics to reduce waste, inventory and purchasing while maximizing claimed meals. To be fair, the corporate folks and their systems have this down to a science. Our school district needs to do a better job at it, and if we do, I am confident we can actually provide healthy meals while lowering the local commitment to balance the budget.

Based on a recent state audit, we are taking corrective action on the process side of food operations (forms, claims, etc.). The state praised our food quality, including our meeting or exceeding healthy food standards, but the auditors noted our need to improve on the central-office side. Once we do, we look to become a model district.

Considering the inflationary costs of food, salaries and benefits over time, our district has saved money by keeping the local contribution flat. The difference is we have done it with healthier meal options. The focus is on the physical well-being of our students, not a corporation’s bottom line.

William Clark is the chief operating officer of the New Haven Public Schools in New Haven, Conn. E-mail: william.clark@new-haven.k12.ct.us 


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