By Mark Ward, Sr., Phd 2013-07-30 03:54:32
Two innovators share tips about making the switch to serving scratchprepared school meals. Meet Jenny McComb For the better part of the last few decades, school nutrition operators have relied on processed foods in assembling school meals in their efforts to contain labor costs, manage high volumes in short time periods, meet student preferences and remain financially self-supporting. But today, scratch cooking is making a serious comeback in many districts in the wake of consumer trends emphasizing the values of “slow” food that is locally sourced and minimally processed. But K-12 operations encounter new challenges in this quest to revive the “good old days” of scratch-cooked school meals, contending with a scarcity of both equipment and cooking skills. Jenny McComb, child nutrition director for the Provo City (Utah) School District and an SNA member since 1986, has watched the pendulum swing. “When I started here as a cook, everything was made fresh,” she recalls. “Then we went to processed foods in the 1990s. But after I became director in 2005, we made a commitment to scratch cooking.” The Switch to Scratch At first, the transition was tough going. In 2005, when the economy was doing well, there were plenty of jobs available in the private sector, and McComb had difficulty attracting the people she needed to implement her new approach. When the recession hit a few years later, it was a blow to all, but she found one silver lining: “I was able to staff up and hire some really great people!” she enthuses. “Since then, scratch cooking has been a huge success in our district.” That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. “Provo is an old city with old schools,” McComb explains. “We budget funds each year for new equipment and for the labor and training needed to make meals from scratch.” School nutrition managers are required to be SNA certified (and McComb pays them accordingly), as are full-time cooks (who are given two years to achieve certification). At the same time, “It takes marketing dollars to spread the word,” McComb advises. Her team produces a professionallooking department website, Facebook page, newsletters, brochures and nutrition education resources for teachers, students and parents. Much effort is likewise put into merchandising and food presentation since, as McComb puts it, “Customers eat with their eyes.” [Editors’ Note: For more on Provo’s social media efforts, see “Are You ‘Social’ Savvy?”, June/July 2013.] Fresh Perspectives The result is a thriving school meals program marked by innovative nutritious menus, meal counts that rise annually and financial surpluses reinvested in equipment and training. The program has garnered best-in-state recognition from the Utah State Office of Education four years running. McComb and her team also contribute their collective expertise to School Nutrition’s Kitchen Wisdom Panel, a volunteer group that reviews and tests recipes for the magazine. Chances are, you have benefited from McComb’s scratch cooking experience! Raised on a Utah livestock farm, McComb enjoyed home-cooked family dinners featuring fresh produce from her father’s garden. After high school, she worked as a hairstylist until she married and started a family. She followed her children to school, taking a job with the Provo City School District as a cook. This led to five years as a cafeteria manager and then 12 years in charge of the district’s central bakery, catering segment and delivery operation. When her predecessor retired, McComb was named director. While she could boast nearly 20 years of experience in the department, McComb admits, “When I got the job as director, I was scared to death!” So, she worked to “dig in and learn every facet of the job” while initiating the shift to scratch-preparation methods. Her talented and dedicated staff, as well as the resources available through her state agency, SNA and the School Nutrition Association of Utah, also helped to ease her transition as a leader. Today, McComb helps others to do the same, serving as professional development chair for her state association. “When I started as a cook,” she recounts, “I thought I’d do it for a few years and then move on. But once I was a manager, the light bulb went on. I could be creative and innovative while serving some really great kids. That outlook is the best advice I can give.” Current Title: Child Nutrition Director City, State: Provo, Utah Full Name: Jenilee Favorite School Food as a Kid: Homemade rolls Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: Journalism Bedside Book/Magazine: “Anything by Traci Hunter Abramson!” Dream Dinner Guest: “My husband” Meet Peggy Lawrence Peggy Lawrence, SNS, nutrition director for Rockdale County Public Schools in Conyers, Ga., doesn’t mince words when it comes to her earliest school meal memories. Growing up in a small Minnesota farming community as the daughter of the town grocer, she learned about good food. “But at school, our meals were—and there’s no other word for it— terrible,” she recalls. Though the principal did little to rectify the situation, he did listen patiently to Lawrence’s frequent pleas for better fare. Fast forward years later, to when Lawrence crossed paths with her former principal. “I informed him that I’d gone into school nutrition,” she recounts. “He remembered my old complaints about our school food and laughed, ‘So, you found a way to make a career out of it!’” Laying the Foundation Making an award-winning career out of school nutrition has been a swift and steady ascent for Lawrence. She parlayed a job as a Marriott catering manager for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics into a position as a cafeteria manager for nearby Gwinnett County Public Schools. Earning a University of Georgia master’s degree in education opened the door to a managerial post with the Rockdale district. Just two years later, in 2001, she was appointed its school nutrition director— while still the youngest employee in the department! A dozen years later, Lawrence’s career continues to impress. Named in 2012 as the Georgia School Nutrition Association’s Director of the Year, she also is influential on the national stage as an SNA spokesperson who has been quoted in The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, U.S. News & World Report, Fox News, National Public Radio and many other national and regional media outlets. Lawrence’s reputation is founded on a solid program that serves 16,000 students in 19 schools with a staff of 200 and a yearly budget of nearly $10 million. But it didn’t happen overnight—and she faced some significant financial challenges. At the heart of her turnaround strategy was the decision to put more emphasis on scratch-prepared meals. Making a Fresh Start “Better quality leads to more participation,” says Lawrence of her reasoning for change. “Kids love the smell of fresh cooking as it comes from the cafeteria!” The processed foods her program had been serving were not really reducing labor costs, anyway, because their use had not been coupled with enough reductions in staff to generate a true savings. However, as the “youngster” in her department, she faced a challenge in convincing her managers and staff to undertake the switch to scratch cooking. “I gained trust and credibility by treating people well and with respect, and by acknowledging their expertise in their own areas,” Lawrence explains. “I talked to them, listened and communicated, showed that I cared.” That reservoir of trust allowed her to take a firm stand on making changes. If employees resisted the extra labor required for scratch, Lawrence had gained the authority to cite the options: start cooking or cut jobs. Some of the initial resistance was born of Lawrence’s insistence that recipes not be simplified down to employees’ current skill levels, but that their skills be raised to the level of the recipes she wanted to use. The approach has paid off with enhanced quality, greater participation, accolades from students and, in turn, a newfound pride among staff members for producing undeniably superior meals. Lawrence, too, learned lessons from the experience. “People are naturally resistant to change,” she avers. “But they’re more likely to be on board if they trust and feel a part of it all. Show your people that you really care about them and their contributions. Talk with them, build up relationships. People who feel they’re really a part of something will do a whole lot.” One other change for Lawrence in the years since she came to Rockdale is the school enrollment of her two children, now in kindergarten and second grade. It means writing a check for their school meal accounts. “So, as a parent, I’m conscious of the value and nutrition my family receives. Scratch cooking can make great ‘dollars and sense’ for your program if you empower your people to excel at it.” Current Title: School Nutrition Director City, State: Conyers, Ga. Bedside Book/Magazine: Better Homes and Gardens Dream Dinner Guest: Bruce Lawrence (late father) Top of Your Bucket List: Visit Norway and Sweden Favorite Subject in School: English Hobbies: Cooking, exercising, time with family Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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