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


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

Another popular smoothie that is vegetable based is the Green Monster, which combines frozen spinach with apple juice and sour apple flavoring. In all, the smoothie menu now has 25 flavors, rotating on a regular basis.

The smoothie program isn’t the only way Dunham and his team have found to use up its fund surplus. For example, the district also has built a 3,500-square foot freezer, which is designed to help the district take advantage of “opportunity buys,” when vendors have excess product they need to get rid of. 

Dunham was able to make use of the freezer almost immediately when an area farmer had an overabundance of strawberry purée.

“He needed to get rid of it in anticipation of a new crop, and we were able to purchase it and do strawberry shortcake that met our nutritional guidelines at half the cost it normally would,” he explains. “So the freezer is another way we can keep our food cost lower.”

In August, the department also opened a small production center adjacent to the central office, where cold foods such as sandwiches and salads are prepared and shipped to 70 elementary schools. The center uses ozone technology—ozone diluted in water—to wash produce in order to rid it of pesticide residue and harmful bacteria.

In addition to providing components for elementary school lunches, the production center also supplies items for the district’s after-school program and a new dinner program. 

The dinner program, which started in October, is another example of Pinellas County being ahead of the curve. The meals, currently offered in 32 schools, are free to any child who wants one, and parents are invited to share in the meal at a price of $3.50.

“This program was created because Pinellas County hasn’t quite recovered from the economic downturn of 2008,” Dunham explains. “The unemployment rate is still 9% or 10%, and a lot of people who are working are in entry-level jobs, and no one believes they are going home at night and preparing dinner.”

In the program’s first month, 5,800 students were served, and in November the number had climbed to 6,700. 

Vending and more

In its efforts to ensure that more students have access to nutritious foods, the department also has turned to vending machines. Dunham added machines in all 16 high schools that sell reimbursable breakfasts and lunches. Students enter their birth date and their student ID number to receive their meals, and the district gets credit for the meal. Students can also pay cash, but those meals are not part of the reimbursable count.

“The vending machines have attracted students who don’t want to wait in a cafeteria line, especially in the mornings, when they might not feel like interacting with other humans,” Dunham says. 

In part because of the vending option, Pinellas County Schools has seen breakfast participation grow from 18,000 to more than 22,000.

Other technology the district is making use of includes the installation of flat-screen monitors in cafeterias that display the day’s menus and nutrition information and a mobile app for smartphones that allows parents to see school menus on a daily basis. 

But even as Dunham embraces the technological aspects of foodservice, he has concerns about the human element.

“Students have to have access to the program,” he notes. “What keeps me up at night are administrative rules and people who don’t understand food or even understand students. They try to whisk students through lunch in less time than it takes you to fill up at the gas station. They don’t pay attention to students’ needs. They just see a crowd of people and they try to move them from one place to another.

“Students get hungry, especially the younger ones,” he adds. “That has to be recognized by administrators. We can provide perfect menus and all the fruits and vegetables children need, but if they don’t have time or ways to access them, we’re still going to have problems.”

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