Changing of the Guard
D.C. Schools has revamped its entire foodservice program and found that students, once again, will eat school meals.
In Washington D.C., “change” is not only a word associated with President Obama’s campaign, but also with the District of Columbia Public Schools. In many ways, the 46,000-student district is mirroring the transformation currently underway at the White House. The district is under the direction of a new chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who has promised to bring the under-performing district to the top of national rankings. Within the district, the foodservice department, which had a $14-million debt for the 2007-2008 school year, has turned to Chartwells to revitalize its program. For a department plagued by money woes, less than stellar programs and options and dwindling participation rates, David Goodman, executive director, is confident that the department can do an about-face, stop the financial bleeding and entice students, once again, to dine in the schools’ cafeterias.
“The schools had been neglected for so long,” Goodman says. “When I came here in September 2007, [the program] was completely broken. The food was terrible. We were hardly serving any kids.” In one high school, only 200 of the 1,100 students were participating daily. In another 800-student high school, fewer than 80 meals were served each day. Goodman attributes the low participation rates to poor food quality and choices. He says that cars from local restaurants would line up outside one high school, to sell items to the students. “One place was offering two slices of pizza and a soda for $6, so we knew the students had the money to spend,” he says. “They just weren’t spending it in our cafeteria.”
Small steps: Goodman believed that if the quality of the food and programs increased, more students would participate. To test his theory, Goodman started pilots in two high schools during the 2007-2008 school year. Because of his background working for management companies, Goodman decided the best pilot would be one that had the same components of what a contract company would do if it were to take over the district. In the pilot schools, the menus and facilities were upgraded. The schools also received a makeover in their marketing schemes, staff uniforms and training. “What we found was that participation went through the roof,” Goodman says. “For example, one high school that had 800 students was feeding about 100 kids a day. When we upgraded the food, we went to serving 500 meals a day and we went from collecting $80 a day in à la carte sales to more than $1,000 a day in three days.”
This turnaround was a wake-up call for Goodman. “This put us on the notion that we had to find a way to redo all these schools as quickly as possible,” he says. “We knew it would take a lot of money to redo these schools. We knew we didn’t have the funds internally to do this and sustain it. We didn’t have the funds because we had lost $14 million. We weren’t selling food. We had the most baseline operation you could imagine. I had a high school with 1,100 students and needed only two employees to run the operation because no one ate there.”
Goodman decided hiring a management company was the best way to get the project off the ground.
So last June, Chartwells took over the district. Goodman remains with the district as executive director and is the contract liaison. With the exception of a couple of administrative staff, the other 400 employees have been transferred to Chartwells. “We run like a contract administration office now instead of a foodservice office,” he adds. “We watch what they do and make sure that they do everything according to the contract. They guaranteed to reduce our debt to $6 million, so that’s an $8-million savings to the district in the first year.
“I think even Chartwells was a little shocked at how bad things were,” Goodman says about the transition. “Chartwells has made a $4.3-million investment in the district for equipment and renovations. I think we will need $10 million just to get the equipment up to date in all the schools.”
Menu changes: Based on the success of the pilots before Chartwells took over, Goodman knew that the food was the key to getting more students to participate. One of the reasons Goodman says the food was such an issue was the district’s procurement process. “We couldn’t just go out and buy from a normal purveyor,” Goodman says. “It was a very rigid procurement system that wouldn’t allow you to buy like a restaurant, where you could look at your menus and what your students wanted and then adjust your orders accordingly.” Goodman says the district was forced to follow the federal government’s procurement rules, meaning he had to decide before the school year which products and how much of each product the district would need. This meant that changing the menu halfway through a semester was nearly impossible.
To address this problem, Goodman created a “mini district within the district.” Two schools started purchasing items from outside the district’s regular procurement system. “We locked those two schools into the bids for other area school districts,” he says. “We saw an immediate positive result. In one 900-student high school we were serving 60 to 80 meals a day. That went up to between 600 and 700 a day, and à la carte sales went from $15 a day to $600. We knew that this was just a test and that we couldn’t sustain it for the entire district, but we wanted to show what could be done.”
Goodman says the food quality and lack of variety were also huge issues. “Before I got here, there was a single entrée available for lunch. Now there are at least four or five entrée choices each day, and the food is better than the food a lot of these kids get at home.”
Since taking over, Chartwells has done much to revamp the menus. All the high school menus have changed and five of the 80 elementary schools have moved from premade, prepackaged, frozen meals, to fresh cooking. Goodman hopes to change the remaining schools to fresh-made soon. With the move to more fresh cooking at all the schools, culinary training has become a priority.
In the year since upgrading the menus, participation rates have increased significantly. For example, elementary school breakfast participation is up 25%; middle school lunch participation has increased 13%; and high school lunch participation is up 99%.
Changing the environment: Goodman and Chartwells knew that altering the food was a major step in the right direction, but they also knew that the serveries were in dire need of repairs and upgrades.
The first school to get a major facelift was Duke Ellington School of the Arts. This 800-student high school was the site where cars from local restaurants sold food to students. In October, the cafeteria received a $600,000 redesign to include what Chartwells calls “environments,” or serving stations. The environments are: Play Bowl, offering traditional favorites such as casseroles, roasted meats and hot vegetables, and theme bar days such as a pasta or Mexican bar; Ready Set Deli, which serves cold deli sandwiches; Crust & Stuff, with pizza selections; Wild Greens, with made-to-order salads; Grab a Stack, which has hot sandwiches, grill items and other specials; and Outtakes, which offers snacks and drinks from the Balanced Choices program—Chartwells’ healthy selection program—and prepackaged sandwiches, salads and wraps. With six different serving stations, the students now have as many as six entrée choices daily, as opposed to the one offered before Chartwells took over.
The food wasn’t the only thing to change at Duke Ellington. The servery was redesigned to add more lighting, bright colors and signage. The servery’s highlight is the stage area, which has a lounge feel with sofas for seating. The focal point of the stage is an ivory piano on which Duke Ellington, the legendary jazz player, once played.
Since the redesign, Duke Ellington’s lunch participation has increased 226%. “We’re like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” Goodman says about the foodservice department’s transformation.
The next school to get a makeover was 1,100-student Anacostia Senior High School. This $400,000 renovation was done primarily during the holiday break in December and was similar to the one done at Duke Ellington. The cafeteria has the same environments and signage, but Goodman says one of the biggest—and simplest—changes was more lighting. “We had maybe 30 lights in here before and now we have 80,” he says. Sconces were hung throughout the servery, adding an upscale element to the previously dull walls. Seating in the cafeteria includes four-top tables, high tables with bar stools and a lounge area with sofas.
All the stations are located together, with the exception of the deli because the speed of service for made-to-order sandwiches is slower than at the other stations and Goodman didn’t want the longer lines to disrupt the traffic flow at the other stations. The redesigned cafeteria opened Jan. 7, in a ceremony attended by district personnel, Chartwells’ employees and students.
“The kids have been so excited about the renovations and that the district would do this for them,” Goodman says. “Now our main problem is the crowds. We have kids who actually want to eat with us. Some schools only have one lunch period, so we’ve had to set up more points of service so get the kids served quicker.”
Goodman says the way the stations are set up at Anacostia will help with traffic flow because a students can go to any line and order an entrée from any of the stations, with the exception of the deli. The stations are set up so that an employee from the Play Bowl station can pass an entrée to an employee at the Crust & Stuff station.
Even though all of the district’s 121 serving sites have not received extensive renovation like the ones done at Duke Ellington and Anacostia, Goodman says all of the schools have received some updates. He adds that even if Chartwells doesn’t renovate all of the schools, he believes all of the schools will eventually receive a renovation with funds from the district. “A lot of big, inner-city school districts don’t see the nutrition department as being that important,” he adds. “But the new chancellor has made it a priority and really partnered with foodservices.”
Other changes: Goodman says getting free and reduced applications turned in was another issue the department was having. “We had a 57% free- and reduced-percentage rate, but that number wasn’t right because the applications had not been collected correctly,” Goodman says. This fall the district ran a campaign to increase the number of applications it collected. Applications were put in immunization clinics and other places where parents often visited. A media campaign was also started to get the word out. Goodman says they received a 90% return rate, and the district’s free- and reduced-percentage rate is now 70%.
Goodman also got all of the schools on Provision II breakfast, meaning all students eat for free. A breakfast in the classroom program also started this school year. Forty-five schools now offer this service. He is working to get selected schools on Provision II lunch as well.
A POS system was also installed in the district, to the tune of $1.1 million—$600,000 of which was spent to train the staff. Goodman says this has increased the speed of service and accountability for the free and reduced program.
Up next for Goodman and the district is to continue culinary training by bringing employees to work in the renovated cafeterias at Anacostia and Duke Ellington.
"We've come a long way, Kelly from Chartwells says. "We still have a long way to go, but I'm excited about that."