Patrick White 0000-00-00 00:00:00
When school districts grow or shrink, school nutrition operations are presented with new challenges in responding effectively and efficiently to major enrollment changes. Life would be so much easier if everything always stayed the same. Systems truly could be perfected in such a predictable environment. But we live in a world where we are continually forced to adapt to changes in circumstances beyond our control. In school nutrition, one of those uncontrollable variables is the number of students who need to be fed. You know that it’s hard enough to predict meal counts from day to day, as there’s often no way to know for sure how many students will be ordering a meal. But it can be even harder to manage a school nutrition program when there are significant changes in the number of students from year to year. That’s the challenge facing school nutrition directors in those districts experiencing sizable shifts in community and student population. Several years of growth—or decline—in the number of students can make a real difference in labor needs, kitchen/ cafeteria size and design, reimbursable meal counts and so on. Following is a look at some of the ups and downs, literally, of managing such changes. THE UPS… Growing Pains Katy (Texas) Independent School District (ISD) is a large district that’s becoming ever-larger. On average, Katy ISD, located in the western suburbs of Houston, has been opening two to three new schools every year, expanding from 21 schools to 52 in just over a decade. “One year, we actually opened six schools, and we had four new schools this past year,” reports Lydia Bontempo, child nutrition director. “And the growth is expected to keep coming.” In 1985, district enrollment was 15,455; it’s projected to hit more than 73,700 in 2015 and to continue to rise after that. With that in mind, when kitchens at new schools are built and equipped, it’s usually planned with the mindset that the initial student populations at those schools will increase in the future. “We used to have just one serving line at elementary schools, but now we build them all with two lines. Even if we open them using just one line, we know the second line may be needed in the future,” Bontempo explains. It’s not only the opening of kitchens and the staffing of new schools that presents challenges. It’s also been tricky at existing schools to feed student populations that grow beyond what those buildings were designed to accommodate. “We have had overcrowded schools continuously over the years, as we wait for new schools to be built,” Bontempo notes. “We’ve had to add temporary point-of-sale lines; that’s probably been the strategy that’s helped the most. We’ve also worked with principals to add additional lunch periods when that’s possible.” Fortunately, most Katy ISD principals seem to understand the impact of a growing number of student customers on the school nutrition program, she credits. “They have an interest in getting students fed as quickly as possible, so we’ve all had to work together to see how we can make that happen.” Bontempo notes that while there haven’t been any menu changes made specifically to speed service, new equipment has been added in some schools and, frequently, cafeteria employee hours have been increased to accommodate additional serving periods. But simply hiring—and training—all of the addition employees needed to operate this expanding district has been a challenge, concedes Bontempo. And not just in the school cafeterias and kitchens; staffing at the central office has necessarily increased, as well. “We’ve had to make sure we have enough clerical staff to handle everything and enough supervisory people to manage,” she states. In fact, Bontempo created a manager training program specifically to help her operation handle the district’s seemingly perpetual growth. This allows her to be well-prepared with experienced staff ready to step in when new sites are built. For example, if she knows that four schools are expected to be finished in two years, she can identify and train top-notch candidates to be ready to roll when the sites are open for business. “We try to place them in good learning opportunities beforehand,” she emphasizes. There are other challenges, as well. As enrollments rise, so does the diversity of the Katy ISD student body. The numbers of vegetarian students and those with special dietary requirements naturally have gone up, for example. It’s not enough to look just at how the total number is growing, asserts Bontempo. “You need to look more closely at who the students are and where they are coming from.” The district has seen its free/reduced-price counts rise over the years at certain schools, for instance. At other schools, a la carte sales are stronger. Recognizing where those types of changes are taking place is important from a management standpoint, she advises. Another aspect of responding to changing demographics has meant communicating with the parents of children moving into the district, especially when, according to a district survey, nearly 30% are moving to the community from out of state. “They’re coming from all over the country, and we have different [nutritional] rules here in Texas than they might have in, say, Virginia,” notes Bontempo. “Regulations are becoming more nationwide, but up to this point we’ve had a few different rules.” Having so many children move to the district from out of state changes the dynamic from that of a community featuring mostly children (and their parents) who grow up in the district. “We’re learning from them about how we can make ourselves better, too,” Bontempo asserts. Overall, the increasing size of the district has a positive financial impact on the school nutrition department. “When you feed more students, you have more revenue,” Bontempo observes. But there also are times when the growth presents additional expenses. For example, when the opening of a new school results in smaller enrollments at two schools instead of a larger population at one. “You still have to staff both schools. We might have had six staff at one school, but now we have four at each for a total of eight,” explains Bontempo. It may take a few years before both schools are large enough to help offset that additional labor cost with additional revenue. On the Grow Pine-Richland School District in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh may be small, but it has seen sustained growth for quite some time, rising 106% over the past two decades. Several years ago, a new school opened and, just recently, a large addition was completed at the high school to help accommodate the increased number of students. That construction project included remodeled and expanded kitchen and cafeteria facilities. “The kitchen and food court that we had were not large enough and did not have enough equipment to handle 500 students per lunch period,” reports Cherry Cerminara, general manager of the Pine-Richland foodservices department. Those areas had been designed long ago to handle some 300 students per lunch period, and they were bursting at the seams. “We needed space for additional staff, but we didn’t have the workspace for any more hands,” she explains. “I think the biggest impact when you have more students is always on labor.” Getting students through the line in a timely fashion also was a priority. “We now have more serving stations and more cashier stations to be able to handle the larger crowds,” says Cerminara. “We have lots of places for students to pick up different types of meals and grab-and-go items, and lots of cashiers now.” More foodservice employees were hired and, in fact, she plans to add even more in the future, now that space allows. The Pine-Richland School District also is undertaking an effort to “right-size” two of its elementary schools by moving some students to better balance rising enrollment amongst those buildings. “While they were talking about doing this, the superintendent came to ask me how this would impact our department,” says Cerminara, who was pleased to have been included in the discussion, even though she’s not expecting much of an impact when that change takes place next school year. In fact, she thinks the re-balancing may help by taking some of the strain off the cafeteria staff at one school, which had been overpopulated. “And I think we’ll have more effi- ciency and productivity at the one school where the population had been lower,” Cerminara adds. “It won’t affect food costs or serving times, but it will help even things out a little.” …AND DOWNS Reduced Circumstances In Prescott Valley, Ariz., Humboldt Unified School District (USD) recently closed one school, and there’s talk of shuttering another. The district lost more than 1,000 students over the last several years, with enrollment dropping from just over 6,000 students to just under 5,000. Fortunately, the nearly 20% decrease, while dramatic, hasn’t had a huge impact on the school nutrition program, insists Rick Littell, Humboldt’s food and nutrition director. In large part, he says, that’s because of advance personnel planning, a critical strategy he and other directors facing declining populations prioritize. “At the end of each year, we lose a few staff. But I don’t rehire until the beginning of the next school year, when we know the number of meals we’re going to be serving at the different schools,” Littell explains. “I hire substitutes, but we fill in our permanent positions only when we see what we need.” Using this attritionbased approach, Littell has been able to avoid laying off any staff. Overall staffing numbers have shrunk along with the student population, but by maintaining roughly the same ratio of staff-to-students, the school nutrition program has managed to continue offering the same variety of entrées at each school. Serving a smaller customer base does mean added financial pressures. “It makes it a little more challenging,” says Littell. He credits his degree in hotel management and past work experience with Marriott for helping him to adapt to the business challenges of declining populations. “We’ve lost students, but with the economy the way it is, we’ve also gotten more free/ reduced-price students—that count has gone up, which helps a little bit from a financial perspective,” he accedes. In addition, he works to make ends meet by always seeking more efficiencies in the program, such as by making better use of USDA Foods. The Kitchen Shrink Dayton (Ohio) Public Schools experienced many years of decline in student population before enrollment numbers stabilized, and even rebounded slightly, in recent years. “We went from about 23,000 down to about 14,500 today,” cites Cathie DeFehr, director of nutrition services. “I think a lot of innercity districts have faced the same situation: They’ve gotten smaller and smaller as people have moved to suburbia.” Not only has this phenomenon had an impact on the total number of students in Dayton, it’s also altered the composition of the student body; the percentage of free/reduced-price meals has increased significantly, she notes. Having fewer overall students has had an obvious impact on staffing within the child nutrition operation, not only at individual school kitchens but also at the central office, she points out. “That’s changed the way we do things. People now typically do several tasks, as opposed to having one person devoted just to a single job,” reports DeFehr, citing, “We once had 11 dietitians, and now we’re down to two, including myself.” Staffing numbers were cut district-wide, and the central production kitchen was closed down as enrollment declined. There’s also been a significant impact financially over the years, says DeFehr. Even though the proportion of students qualifying for free/reduced-price meals was greater, it was not enough to compensate for the general decline. “The fewer kids we feed, the less money that comes in,” she notes. “It was a tough time when the population was going down. Our department has been in the red for six years, until we turned the tide this year, and next year we expect to break even.” With population—and thus enrollment— seeming to stabilize, the many changes made over the years to increase efficiency have put the nutrition services department in a solid position to be successful, DeFehr states. Closing Time Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools has seen its student population drop from about 75,000 in 2004 to around 64,000 this year. Food and Nutrition Director Loretta Zullo, SNS, says her program has certainly been affected, “Just because it’s had such an impact on the district as a whole…and we’ve had to respond just as the district has had to respond.” She adds that she’s fortunate to be included in district-wide discussions about how best to achieve the correct capacity for the number of students being served. “I’m on that planning committee, and I feel good that they do recognize that foodservice is an integral part of that planning,” Zullo credits. The impact of declining enrollment has been significant in the community, which had seen a surge in growth during the 1980s and 1990s. Schools were built during those decades to accommodate additional students, but now the district is having to close some facilities—some for good. In those cases, Zullo has all usable equipment removed from the kitchens and then “churns” those resources to replace and/or upgrade equipment at other sites. “We really try to make the best use of the assets that are removed from those schools,” she explains. But not all sites are being closed permanently. Some schools are being “re-purposed” by the district. After students are moved to other sites, various school and community education programs move in. In those circumstances, Zullo is opting to keep the kitchens open as a way to free up capacity at the district’s central kitchen and help support satellite sites. Like many other districts facing declining labor needs, Mesa’s school nutrition program has been able to avoid lay-offs and maintain its efficiencies through simple attrition. “Fortunately, with the natural turnover that occurs, we have been able to absorb employees [from sites that have closed] and reassign them to other schools,” says Zullo. Even when retirements have affected certain supervisory-level positions, these were left open, with the knowledge that they likely would be eliminated in the near future. “You don’t want to have to displace anyone,” she states of the very real human benefits of personnel planning. Another factor that has helped the operation to rise above its challenges, she adds, is that overall participation has remained very strong. “We’re still feeding 70% of our students reimbursable meals, and that doesn’t include a la carte sales at our secondary schools,” Zullo explains. “So the numbers are less, but the participation is actually up 2 or 3%.” In addition, she credits the members of her “superb team” for their efforts to control food costs and run the school nutrition operation as efficiently as possible. Zullo is quick to point out the importance of not getting too caught up in the overall changes that affect community populations and student enrollments. Instead, “We try to focus on each site individually to make sure it’s as productive as it can be,” she explains. While finances and staffing levels can be managed with strategic decisions and foresight, it can be more difficult to manage emotions when a school district shrinks. Recently, Mesa administrators made the difficult decision to permanently close the district’s oldest school, a junior high that had been welcoming students for some 60 years. “Our manager there had been a student at Mesa Junior High, so she really came full-circle there,” recounts Zullo. She herself has had to adjust to the melancholy associated with a downsizing district. Zullo has been with Mesa Public Schools since the 1990s, when it was still opening schools. Those days of dealing with new school construction were challenging, she recalls, but there was an excitement to it. “The emotion of downsizing is so much different, because it’s such an indicator of your community in general,” she explains. For communities like Mesa that once experienced such growth, the reality of shrinking “is really just culture shock,” says Zullo. “It’s a much more emotional thing than dealing with growth.” For other school nutrition directors facing the prospect of declining district populations, Zullo recommends a proactive approach. “Truly try to be a part of the district’s planning process. You hear so much [about things] that other people may not think will impact child nutrition, but you know it will,” she advises. “And get your own people thinking about it early, so you can manage staffing through attrition. That way, you never have to tell a whole bunch of people they no longer have jobs. You really need to stay ahead of it.” THE SIZE OF IT Fluctuations in student populations are nothing new. Most school districts have, at one time or another, encountered both growth and decline. But a sustained pattern can present significant challenges to the school nutrition department to rise and respond to the consequences. Like so many aspects of this profession, such responses are not a matter of…er…one size fits all. While common strategies, such as forecasting, should be applied, the specific solutions will be very localized to meet the individual needs of the particular community. Arguably, the most important step is for school nutrition directors to be part of the facilities planning discussion. Make sure you know what options are under consideration and speak up about how they might affect the school nutrition operation. In addition, pay attention to what’s going on outside the school or district office. How are changes in the community affecting its demographics? Did a manufacturing plant open or close? What other economic influences are at work? How far away is the nearest metropolitan area—your locale might not have been considered a suburb before, but as populations push outward, so-called exurbs might see an increase in the coming decades. Are baby boomers staying put, instead of retiring to other parts of the country? Are young people staying put, raising families in your community or moving away? Finally, don’t let the day-to-day challenges of producing school meals keep you from the periodic analysis and projects related to your own operation. Year-to-year comparisons soon lend themselves to apt forecasts for the next decade, especially when it comes to both your labor pool and your customer base. Whether your district is on the grow or on the decline, do what you can to avoid being caught flatfooted in responding to its effects on your school meals operation. Patrick White is a freelance writer in Middlesex, Vt., and a former assistant editor of this publication. Photography/art from jiunlimited.com.
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