CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine—Twelve months ago, 1,900-student Cape Elizabeth School District hired a new school nutrition director, Peter Esposito, and began the process of rebuilding its foodservice program.
“When I came in they were behind the eight ball financially,” Esposito said. “When I came on they had a deficit from the previous year of close to $70,000. I had to do something to turn that around. Right now we are $3,000 in the black, so we’ve made up more than $70,000 in a year just by increasing our meal counts.”
Back to basics: Esposito said he was able to increase participation by changing the way the department operated. “I needed to figure out how to generate some revenue but also keep moving in a healthy direction,” he said. “They were doing a lot of processed foods and trying to make the money back by cutting down on labor and using frozen food. I’m from a culinary background so I totally changed all of that. We went back to the old-school way of doing things. I increased my labor. I cut down on my food costs.”
Esposito moved away from pre-packaged foods and started making most of the department’s offerings in house. “There is very little that is processed,” he said. “Every once in a while we have chicken nuggets or something like that. That’s just the demand. We don’t want to lose any of our following.”
The department’s staff now bakes rolls and breads. There are more options on the salad bar—as many as 30 per day—so students can pick up a sandwich from the deli and dress it with toppings from the salad bar.
Before making the changes to the foodservice program, Esposito said many students would purchase meals from a store located near the schools. “I went in and scoped it out to see what they were selling. Even the staff would go there and buy their lunch. They had some hot meals and sandwiches to order. It was all the stuff that we have. It’s
just [the department] had such a bad name. I had to come up with something to draw them in. My thing was we needed to make a really good pizza and give a generous slice
so when the kids come down they see it’s a great slice and bigger than the store.”
The new pizza slice is made with whole wheat and low-fat cheeses and a different variety is sold each day. Esposito said the students began purchasing the department’s pizza when they realized they could get a bigger slice of pizza for less money than the pizza sold at the store. Some days, nearly 400 slices of pizza are sold in a 500-student school.
Marketing the program: Since taking over foodservice at the district, participation has increased between 40% and 50%. Esposito attributed this to better quality ingredients. “The kids see stuff being made fresh every day,” he said. “We went out to the public and the kids and we involved them in some things so they see we are using good stuff. We did a video that was on the cable access channel about different practices that we do with the foodservice now. We have a local farmer who we get produce from and there was a segment on the video about the produce coming from the farm to the kitchen to out on the line. They know it doesn’t get any fresher than that.”
The video wasn’t the only way Esposito reached out to the community to let them know about the changes in the department. Some food stylists who live in the district donated time and took photos of the school meals. Those photos were used in materials that were passed out during parent teacher conferences. “We wanted to let parents know what we were doing,” Esposito said. “That really helped a lot because the parents saw that it was a lot easier just to send in a check than to make a lunch every morning.”
Another program designed to help market the school meals program is a chef of the month program where area chefs are invited to cook in the schools for a day. Esposito said the event is fun not only for the children because they get to watch the chef cooking the meals but also for the community. Seniors from a senior center and parents are invited to attend the event. “The first one we had about 10 seniors. The last one we had about 30. We have some parents and staff who come in now. It’s a good meal for a good price. It’s a good way for the community to get together.”
Esposito admitted he was nervous when he first took over the department. He had spent the previous 15 years as a manager in a neighboring district, and he had heard some discouraging remarks about the foodservice in Cape Elizabeth. “Someone where I had worked before told me I didn’t know what I was getting myself into because [Cape Elizabeth’s foodservice department] was so down,” Esposito recalled. “There was talk in the foodservice industry around here that Cape Elizabeth was just heating up stuff and the meals were terrible. So when they said that I took that as a personal slam and I thought ‘it’s time to get to work and turn this around.’ I have a great staff. They’ve really shined.
“Older is sometimes better,” Esposito said. “I’ve worked in the food business in catering and restaurants ever since I was 14 years old, and everybody is always looking for a new way to do things. Sometimes it’s saving time, but it doesn’t get any better than it being done the old way. And fresher is always better.”