Variety and choice are keys to success in Cobb County

Variety and choice are keys to success in Cobb County – Celebrating 40 Years of School Lunch

Steve Watson

Variety and Choice Are Keys to Success In Cobb County

If you spent your early years washing pots and pans, making things “spic and span’ might become a way of life. And that’s exactly what has happened to Mary Nix, Cobb County, Georgia, school food service director, whose food service operation in metropolitan Atlanta sparkles and shines.

“By washing pots and pans in high school, I grew up dealing with school food service,’ Nix says. “So I can say that I’ve worked in literally every phase of the school lunch program.’

A former president (1980-81) of the American School Food Service Association, Nix became director of food service in Cobb County in 1975. In 1980, she won the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Service Manufacturers Association for elementary and secondary schools in recognition of the quality of her food service. She has run out of wall space to hang all her awards.

“When I first started in Cobb County, we had a solid base to build upon,’ Nix says. “We focused on developing a system of accountability that would allow the school food managers to maintain their own style of leadership. We wanted them to have a simple system that would free them to manage their programs.’

Serves a fast-growing county

In Cobb, one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, Nix has faced tremendous challenges. During her tenure, the school system has grown from 35,000 to 55,000 children, and the schools have moved from offering one menu to many choices.

More than 42,000 lunches are served at 68 schools each day. The schools average higher than 75-percent participation in the school lunch program. Since less than 10 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price meals, creative Cobb managers prove you can break even with a limited amount of federal reimbursement.

To deal with the demands of running a large food service operation, Nix sets guidelines for budget, meal patterns, and productivity while delegating the responsibility for individual operations to the school food service managers. She wants managers to develop programs specifically for their clients–the students.

“The emphasis is on developing controls at the point of delivery,’ she says. “The decisions I make are not as important as those made where the food is served. We provide technical assistance to help the food service managers implement programs that are effective for their communities.’

For example, the Cobb system does not have centralized menus. “We want every school to plan its own meals,’ Nix says, “because there’s a big difference in preferences at each school.’

Walton High is a good example

A good example of Nix’s decentralized approach is Walton High School, a 1984 Georgia School of Excellence, located in an Atlanta suburb.

Walton offers a variety of food choices. Imagine a menu with rib-eye steaks, eggs benedict, grilled fish, “Buffalo’ chicken wings, and a 50-item salad bar. These items, which sound more at home in a trendy restaurant than a school cafeteria, are only part of the variety and quality served to 1,500 students at Walton.

There are five serving lines, including a dinner line, where a traditional school lunch menu with at least two entrees is offered, and a specialty line that contains two types of pizzas. A short-order line offers hamburgers, foot-long hot dogs, chicken filets, and milkshakes. Another line has deli sandwich items, and students also have a variety of choices from a soup-and-salad line.

Special menus offer additional choices. Once a week the lunchroom has Mexican day featuring burritos stuffed with fillings students choose themselves. Crab salad is offered twice a week, and ethnic foods are served often.

Some of the other unusual foods served at Walton include pasta salads, kiwi fruit, fresh mushrooms, corn beef, bagels, sweet and sour pork, grilled liver, and french onion soup. Because there are a significant number of Jewish students and faculty, a number of Jewish foods are served during religious holidays.

“With as much variety as we serve, it’s very difficult for finicky eaters not to find something they like,’ says Pat Trapanese, Walton food service manager.

Staff emphasizes nutrition education

Trapanese and her staff work with the faculty to emphasize nutrition education for the students. “In addition to working with coaches and preparing pre-game meals for athletes, we try to talk to students individually about nutrition,’ Trapanese says. “The students will remember the foods they enjoy, but it is up to us to teach them about the nutrients the foods contain.’

Trapanese thinks serving kids ought to be fun. “Because it’s such hard work, we might as well enjoy it,’ she says.

“The staff is to be commended for the variety of foods they serve at Walton,’ Nix says. “You work hard to please high school students because they are familiar with the latest food trends. We’ve also worked to make gradual changes in the way foods are prepared by reducing the amount of fat and salt.’

Food service workers use the batch cooking method to prepare food as it is needed. Most food items are prepared on site with very few leftovers. The staff carefully observes where items are picked up most frequently on the serving line. “Part of merchandising is knowing where to place certain food items for maximum exposure,’ Nix says.

Managers encouraged to stress quality

Mary Nix marches to her own beat. She has put into place ideas that were completely unorthodox because, as she likes to say, “we didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to work.’ For example, she encourages managers to use the more expensive brand-name product if it is of much better quality. She has found that the increase in cost for name brands will usually be covered by added food sales.

Nix is very choosy when it comes to using products and uses USDA commodities extensively. USDA-donated tomato paste, beef, cheese, and flour go into delicious homemade pizza. Donated sweet potatoes are used for sweet potato bars with toppings and sweet potatoes baked in homemade pie shells–both student favorites.

Nix has not followed the trend toward self-service that is popular in many areas of the Southeast. She prefers traditional serving lines because she feels they are faster, easier to clean up, and more sanitary. She also feels they make it easier to control portion size.

A key to the success of the Cobb County school food service is involving local managers in decision-making. Nix has an eight-member “Magic Committee’ comprised of food service managers who serve without extra pay on a rotating, yearly basis.

They evaluate bids on products and make suggestions on equipment purchases and food service operations. The group recommends to the Cobb County school board what products to buy and helps evaluate products through taste tests.

“If we involve the managers, who are responsible for participation and plate waste, they become intent on improving the quality of their products,’ Nix says.

Training is a high priority

Training is also an integral part of Mary Nix’s management philosophy. Each school food manager must complete 180 hours of training, some equivalent to college coursework. Every employee must complete annually a minimum of 12 hours of training in nutrition, sanitation, food preparation, and public relations. There are also manager meetings devoted to program improvements.

Nix has gotten positive results from her training efforts. She says she has seen the pride level increase tremendously and the skill level of the food service managers improve. “The bottom line is that a program succeeds when the staff is excited about serving young people and committed to finding better ways to do it,’ she says.

“We’ve seen food service managers with average programs improve the quality of their systems when they and their staff developed enthusiasm and showed they cared about school food and the people they serve. There are many intangibles in the food service industry. But there’s no substitute for enthusiasm!’

For more information, contact: Mary Nix, Director Cobb County School Food Service P.O. Box 1088 Marietta Georgia 30061 Telephone: (404) 426-3380

Photo: Mary Nix (left) has been food service director in Georgia’s Cobb County for 11 years. Her awardwinning program serves more than 42,000 lunches in 68 schools each day.

COPYRIGHT 1986 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group