Some advice from three school food service stars

Some advice from three school food service stars – Betty Bender

Ralph E. Vincent

Some Advice From Three School Food Service Stars . . .

One of the highest honors in the food service industry is the Silver Plate Award, given annually by the International Food Service Manufacturers’ Association.

Every year there are eight Silver Plate winners–one in each of eight categories, including a category for elementary and secondary schools. From these eight, a Gold Plate winner, or Food Service Operator of the Year, is selected.

Winners are chosen not only for their management skills, but also for the training and career development opportunities they give their employees, their participation in professional food service organizations, and their contributions to civic, charitable, and educational activities in their communities.

Competing for the award are the very best food service managers from the nation’s restaurants, hotels, resorts, hospitals, public and private institutions, corporations, schools, universities, and colleges.

This year’s Gold Plate winner is a school food service director– former American School Food Service Association president Betty Bender of Dayton, Ohio.

The award is a personal achievement for Bender–she is the first woman to receive the Gold Plate Award since 1968 and the second school food service director ever to receive it. Her award is also a tribute to the professionalism of school food service, proving that school food service managers are facing and tackling the same tough challenges as food service professionals everywhere.

Some advice from the pros

In putting together this special school lunch issue, we began by asking Betty Bender and two other recent Silver Plate winners– Charles Tutt, school food service director for Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Shirley Watkins, director of food and nutrition services for Memphis City Schools, Memphis, Tennessee–their advice on building successful school lunch programs.

While some of their specific suggestions varied, their overall message was the same: Know your customers and involve them in your programs. Give them lots of choices and help them develop skills that will allow them to choose well. Serve attractive food in a pleasant, non-institutional setting. And keep an eye on the competition.

Some of the biggest changes in school food service in recent years are the result of what’s been going on outside the school lunchroom. With the growth of the fast food industry, school food service managers have found themselves in stiff competition with slick advertising, fancy food displays, and split-second service. Even in schools where kids cannot leave school grounds for the restaurant down the street, the impact of the fast food revolution is felt.

The importance of variety and choice

“When I first came here,’ says Betty Bender, “we offered only one menu and that was what we served and that was that. Those days are long gone. Today kids like to have some say as to what you’re going to put into your cafeteria, and they like to have choices as they go through the line.

“With all the advertising and the fast food restaurants that are available, and with families eating out, you find that your young customers are quite selective in their choice of foods, and they have very definite ideas.’

For a generation accustomed to choice, variety is a must. Bender, Tutt, and Watkins all offer salad bars and have one or more other specialty bars, offering such varied fare as deli food, soup and sandwiches, pasta, and Mexican food.

“We’ve gone to multiple choices of entrees,’ says Tutt. “Every day in all of our schools we have pizza, and we have tacos. In the elementary schools, we also have hot dogs.

“Plus, we offer a special of the day–districtwide. It is the more traditional school lunch–for example, spaghetti and meat sauce, french bread, tossed salad, green beans and fruits that go along with the entree of the day.

“Another thing we do is offer three different 1/4-cup servings of fruits and vegetables instead of the traditional 1/2 cup of vegetables and 1/4 cup of fruit. This gives the kids more variety to choose from.’

“Offer versus serve,’ a plan that allows students to take three, four, or all five lunch components, reinforces the concept of choice, since children are no longer forced to take food they do not want to eat.

Getting kids involved helps

Along with more choices on the serving line, the three award winners also give students a chance to get involved early on in menu planning through taste tests and advisory panels.

This past spring, for example, Watkins had students taste test foods to help determine what items the food service staff would buy for the first half of the coming school year. Keeping tuned in to what kids want is not only helpful, she says, it’s essential.

“In the past 10 years we’ve tried to identify and recognize what children wanted and we’ve tried to provide that. Of course, I think the thing that has changed the eating habits of children is the fast food restaurants. Children are now looking for foods they can hold in their hands.

“But I’m not certain that this might not have been true all along. It’s just that we were not astute enough at that point to find substitute items for them or to ask them before we planned the menu what they’d like to have.

“As a child, I always liked a sandwich, so maybe kids’ tastes haven’t changed that much. We just had to change to recognize that. I think we found out we’d better ask them or our programs would go down the drain.’

Does giving kids what they want mean compromising nutritional quality? Not if it’s done right, the three food service directors agree.

“I’d rather see a child eating good nutritious fast food on a daily basis than eating junk food every day,’ says Tutt. “We put out good, healthy products for the kids. The taco, for example, has cheese and lettuce, meat and bread product with it. And you can’t find a more nutritious product than pizza. It’s got a little bit of everything in it.

“The way we offer this program, what kids take, they eat. I think that’s a lot better than the old program we had years ago where 20 percent of the food ended up in the trash can. We’ve got only 2 percent waste now, and I don’t think it’s that high.’

Some of the new favorites are simply variations on traditional school lunch items. Instead of baked chicken or chicken tetrazzini, for example, kids are going for chicken nuggets or breast of chicken patties. “These are high protein items,’ says Watkins, “so children are still getting the needed nutrients.’

More difficult than planning balanced meals with the new foods is keeping up with the latest trends. “The challenge for us,’ says Watkins, “is keeping up with what kids think they want. An item that’s hot today may not be hot in 6 months, so it’s up to us to constantly seek out things on the market and find out what our competitors are offering children.’

There’s more to lunch than food

Part of what their competitors are offering children is a non-institutional, pleasant place to eat. While school food service directors don’t usually have the freedom or the resources to make dining areas what they’d like them to be, making a few changes can make a big difference in students’ attitudes.

Betty Bender has been looking into how students in her schools feel about the lunch program. A survey at one of the high schools showed just how important the serving environment is.

“The students’ greatest complaints,’ she says, “were the decorations in the cafeteria, the noise, and the lack of supervision. We had more comments about appearances that we did about food. I was surprised.’

In Colorado Springs, some improvements have paid off in increased participation. “We have an advisory committee here,’ Tutt explains, “and we asked them to go out and convince the principals that they had to give the kids more time to eat and that the kids needed a nice, comfortable environment. They’ve done this, and our participation is up 8 to 10 percent.’

Like many school food service directors, Tutt feels his schools still have a long way to go. “We have not yet been successful in getting into a condition that I would be happy with,’ he says.

“For example, I have a high school smack downtown with the kitchen and dining area on the fourth floor. There’s a beautiful view of the mountains, but the building was built 60 years ago, and the room has not been touched in 60 years–paint or anything. The furnture is at least 30 years old. It’s a dungeon up there, and I can’t get 150 kids to eat lunch there.

“All the fast food restaurants are across the street, and the kids are going out. We’ve got kids in that building who have never been up there, and I don’t blame them. It’s one of our better operations, but I don’t want to eat there. It’s hard to beat all of that.’

Two schools that Tutt is pleased with, however, offer good examples of what can be done. One is a high school that has made the best of an awkward space.

“The room itself is absolutely atrocious,’ Tutt explains. “It’s two-and-a-half stories high and looks like a gymnasium with lots of metal. But they’ve sectioned off the room down on the lower level and made it a very warm comfortable area with walnut-grain tables and orange chairs.

“The other school is a junior high that has a regular one-story room with a stage in it. All along one wall there are windows that look out at Pike’s Peak. The interior walls are brick and the tables are walnut with bright golden-rod-colored chairs. It’s also a very warm, comfortable dining room.’

Some improvements can be made easily

Of course, a lot depends on budgetary constraints. Some improvements can be costly, while others can be made for relatively little.

“If you’re going for tables and chairs and carpeting, that’s a major expense,’ says Bender. “So is actual physical remodeling. You have to have your school board’s approval, your principal’s approval, the whole series of steps before you can get all that done.’

Even getting a new cost of paint isn’t that simple. “If it’s not your turn to be painted,’ Bender says, “you don’t get painted until it’s time to be repainted.’

One less expensive alternative, Bender suggests, is painting murals on the walls. This can be done by art classes and can brighten up and add some fun to lunchroom walls.

Watkins agrees. “Most of our elementary schools have painted murals with some sort of cartoon character on the walls. We asked them to get away from the drab, institution-type effect, and they’ve responded to that.’

When opportunities do come along to redecorate, make the most of them, says Tutt. “You can’t win everything,’ he says, “but you can try.’ Be especially selective in choosing furniture, he advises.

“A lot can be done with furniture,’ he says. “One problem in an institutional situation is that you have to have durable chairs, and this pretty much eliminates wooden chairs.

“But rather than dull, blase pink chairs, buy good solid orange ones. Not bright. Not a bumblebee black and yellow, but a warm fall-type color. You know you’re still in an institutional atmosphere, but not so strong a one.’

Serving areas also deserve attention

Attractive serving displays add color and warmth to a school cafeteria. “I think it’s important for school food service people to try and make the serving area appealing,’ says Watkins. “The way food is merchandised and positioned on the steam table can help remove the institutional atmosphere.’ For example, she advises, make sure the food on the steam table has varied colors and use garnishes to make food more attractive.

“Merchandising doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,’ she says. “You can use things you already have, such as fresh vegetables and fresh fruits for garnishes. You can perk up any food and make it appetizing and appealing.’

While everyone agrees that eye appeal is not enough, it does count a lot. “Of course,’ says Bender, “you’ve got to have good food. That’s a given. Kids are not going to eat if your food’s not good. But kids eat with their eyes first. And I have to say that the helpfulness of the employees is also a key, just as the environment is.’

Good food. Nice surroundings. Helpful people. What kids want at school is not that different from what any of us wants when we’re eating away from home.

“We want to make sure lunchtime is a happy time,’ says Watkins. “It’s the one time children get a chance to really enjoy themselves during the day, because school really isn’t always a lot of fun for children. When they get in the cafeteria, it should be a place that has a good atmosphere and it should be fun.’

For more information, contract:

Betty Bender Food Service Supervisor Dayton Public Schools 4280 Northwestern Avenue Dayton, Ohio 45427 Telephone: (513) 262-3793

Charles L. Tutt, Director Department of Food Services Public School District 11 1115 North El Paso Street Colorado Springs, Colorado 80903 Telephone: (303) 635-6164

Shirley R. Watkins, Director Food and Nutrition Services Memphis City Schools 2597 Avery Avenue Memphis, Tennessee 38112 Telephone: (901) 454-5250

Photo: Many schools now feature specialty food bars, like this salad bar in an Illinois high school.

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