Art Dunham: Savvy businessman

Dunham has transformed dining services by building a production center for cold food prep.

At a Glance

  • 103,646 enrollment
  • $58 million annual budget
  • 52,416 lunches served per day

Accomplishments

Art Dunham has improved foodservice in Pinellas County Schools by:

  • Using palm scanner technology to identify students and get them through meal lines more quickly
  • Using excess funds to create a smoothie program that has increased students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Opening a dinner program that serves nearly 7,000 students a month
  • Building a production center for cold food prep that has enhanced the district’s after-school snack program and will aid its summer feeding program

At a time when so many school districts are struggling to have their foodservice programs break even, if you want to know how good a manager Art Dunham is, look no further than the fact that in 2012, Pinellas County Schools was admonished for having a foodservice fund balance that was too high.

“We had a $3 million surplus,” Dunham admits. “We were told we have to find ways to spend down that money.”

It is a sweet “problem” to have, one brought about through a combination of smart fiscal management and a variety of innovations designed to increase revenue.

Among them are the use of vending machines as an alternate way for students to purchase reimbursable meals and an online application process that has made it easier for parents to file for free or reduced-price meal status, thus increasing the amount of money the federal government returns to the district.

“Art has brought so much strong management and innovation to Pinellas County,” says Michael Bessette, associate superintendent for operational services. “He is willing to try just about anything he can to increase the number of students who get a meal. We are very much on the cutting edge of a lot of things.”

One of those cutting-edge programs has been the use of palm scanners to identify students as they go through the cafeteria lines. Now in its third year, the technology has allowed foodservice managers to move kids through the serving line faster and with more accuracy.

“All it takes is two or three seconds, and not only do we get an image of the child for verification, the cashier sees all of the allergy information we need, along with what they ordered the previous day,” Dunham explains. “And two to three seconds is huge. Students need more time to sit and actually eat their lunch.”

College trained, Army strong

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Dunham got his bachelor’s degree in food management from The Pratt Institute and his master’s from New York University. He then joined the U.S. Army, where he worked for five years helping to manage NCO and Officers’ Clubs. 

In 1977, after he left the Army, Dunham became the foodservice director for the Brooklyn School for Special Children. In 1984 he moved to Gainesville, Fla., and took a job as foodservice specialist for the Alachua County Board of Education. In 1986, he relocated to Pinellas County to be a foodservice supervisor. He steadily moved up the ladder, becoming director four years ago after 15 years as assistant director.

Dunham characterizes his management style as “listen and empower.” In monthly meetings with his core team—29 people in the central office—he seeks ideas for ways to make the department operate faster, more smoothly and more economically.

“I want people looking for ways to do things, rather than looking at reasons why we can’t do something,” he says. 

That philosophy applies to Dunham personally, Bessette says. “Art is very well traveled and he finds things everywhere he goes that he will try to bring back to the district,” he notes. “He’s not afraid to try things out. If they don’t work, oh, well. He just tries something else.”

Sweet potato smoothies?

In the recent past, however, few things haven’t worked out. Take, for example, the smoothie program Dunham implemented in 2012.

“When the state told us our fund balance was too high, we had to spend down that money and it couldn’t be used for things like salaries,” Dunham says. “So at the middle school level we invested $300,000 in soft-serve equipment and began to make smoothies using commodity fruits and vegetables.”

One of the hottest “commodities,” if you’ll pardon the pun, on the smoothie menu has been the Orange Blast. It’s probably the most surprising item, as well, because its main ingredient is sweet potatoes.

“We took sweet potatoes, cooked and puréed them, added orange and pineapple juice and simple syrup and called it the Orange Blast,” Dunham says. “We didn’t tell them there were sweet potatoes in it, but if they asked we told them. And when we did the response was usually, ‘no way!’”

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