Ann Terrell: Cook-Chill Champ

It's been 20 years since Ann Terrell first began working for the Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools, following in the footsteps of Shirley Watkins, who went on to win the Silver Plate Award and serve as Under Secretary for Food and Nutrition Programs in the Department of Agriculture. Hired to fill the position of operations consultant to school foodservice in 1984, Terrell already had solid industry experience behind her as well as a passion for kids and nutrition that has stood her in good stead throughout two decades of budgetary restrictions on the one hand, and the explosion of free and reduced-price meal participation on the other.

"I was intrigued by human anatomy, physiology and the interaction of food on the body, and I loved to cook," she recalls. "I was enrolled as a pre-med student at San Diego State but changed my major to become a therapeutic nutritionist. After completing my bachelor degree, I got married (later divorced) and moved back to Memphis where I earned a master's degree in food production management and service from the Univ. of Memphis. I actually started my career as a vocational education teacher, training students for entry-level jobs in the food industry. Following that, I worked in food and beverage management for Holiday Inn, a job that gave me private industry experience, as well."

Regs in mind: As operations consultant, responsible for all day-to-day operations of the numerous Memphis school cafeterias, Terrell was required to absorb all the USDA policies, rules and regulations, a task Watkins had warned her would take the better part of three years—and it did.

When Watkins left the system in 1993, Terrell took over as nutrition service director, providing services to 185 schools feeding 114,000 to 115,000 students daily of the 120,000 enrolled in the district. Today, approx. 71% of students are receiving free or reduced-price meals. In addition, summer service is provided for about 22,000 students with meals delivered daily to approx. 300 sites.

Formulating a strategy to take Memphis City Schools into the 21st century in a fiscally responsible way, Terrell lobbied the executive staff for the go-ahead to build a cook-chill production center. By 1999, the second time she had broached the plan, approval was granted; and by December 2000, an architect was hired.

Up-and-running: "By mid-September of this school year, we started shipping product to all our 185 schools," she explains. "The schools retherm the center-of-the-plate product they receive from us. We also ship bread, pastries, salad fixings, fresh fruit cups, etc. All they have to cook on-site are the vegetables. We're also doing small, film-wrapped trays with 'bagged' lunches for field trips or in case of an emergency power loss in a kitchen. Within an hour of a request, we can ship it since our assembly line can be speeded up to produce about 250 to 300 sandwiches per-hour. We make sure the components meet the USDA school lunch guidelines."

Well before construction started, she had done her homework, visiting numerous cook-chill production centers across the country. Some were operated by schools including Long Beach, Calif., Norfolk, Va., and Corpus Christi, Texas, as well as Methodist Hospital right there in Memphis, Disney World in Orlando, and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.

She paid close attention to what she saw. "I wanted to make sure we didn't purchase equipment that wasn't going to be used frequently," she points out. "Plus, I wanted to make sure I'd be able to say that the products we're producing are less expensive than those we could purchase. Therefore, we don't make pizza—we can buy it cheaper—and we don't send out pre-plated meals."

$2M-plus savings expected: Terrell expects to realize financial benefits from the central production center in one-to-three years, about the same length of time 22 other school districts across the country indicated it had taken them. "This will be through labor savings, mainly through attrition since we do have a labor union," she says.

"Presently we've adjusted our meals per-labor-hour and we'll implement that over the summer. If we can reduce 120 (seven-hour) positions over the next three to four years, we'll be looking at approx. $2,100,000 in savings just in salaries—and that's without calculating benefits."

Terrell is pleased to note the improved consistency of food preparation, one of her underlying objectives in deciding to undertake the cook-chill project. In addition, the nutrition resource library, located within the central production center, is a personal source of pride. It's linked to her impassioned belief that "school communities share (with families) the responsibility for the nutritional health of students."