Brent Craig: Communicating change

Brent Craig has opened the lines of dialogue at Douglas County Schools.

Brent Craig doesn’t buy into the notion that ignorance is bliss. Instead, he thinks that’s precisely where school nutrition programs have gone astray.

“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” says Craig, director of nutrition services at 57,000-student Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colo. During his four years at the district, Craig has used communication as the foundation to heal a troubled program.

Refocusing the program: Douglas County is an affluent district, with only 3% of its students qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals. “I have sophisticated eaters in my students,” Craig says. “We did a study two years ago and the kids eat out for dinner almost four times a week.”

Prior to Craig’s arrival in 2007, most of the students purchased à la carte items and not a reimbursable meal. “During the 2006-2007 school year we spent about $3 million with Little Debbie purchasing snack foods,” Craig says. “We’ve really changed that up. We don’t really sell any à la carte anymore. About 75% of our sales were à la carte and we’ve switched that to where we’re serving between 60% and 65% of our district reimbursable meals.”

Craig says that to get student buy-in to the reimbursable meal program he had to revamp the menus and the way food was prepared. The department is moving toward what Craig calls a “Whole Foods model” of school foodservice. “There has been a big demand from students and parents for healthier food,” Craig says. The district has a goal for 95% of all fruits and vegetables to be fresh. “The 5% is really just in case there is a freeze in Florida and we can’t get oranges or it’s too expensive,” he explains. “We are moving toward fresh meats. We just switched over to fresh ground beef instead of having that processed or precooked. We have a local commissary cook our ground beef and make it into things like sloppy Joes. Instead of having it processed through the USDA or anything like that we are doing it ourselves. There are a lot less preservatives and additives.”

Craig also has started a Chefs Move to Schools program. Harvest bars featuring fresh produce have been added at more than 20 schools. When a new bar opens, a local chef comes to the schools to interact with the students. Area chefs also have done presentations, many focusing around local produce. For one assembly, Colorado corn was brought in and chefs taught the students about the corn. The students helped shuck the corn, which was served on the day’s lunch menu.

Bonnie Betz, chief financial officer for the district, says one of Craig’s greatest strengths is knowing his audience. “When I arrived last year I was impressed how Brent really understood the climate. Brent has a difficult situation because he has very involved parents with very high demands. He responded to them. He said that the Douglas County nutrition services department was known as the king of à la carte prior to his arrival. Brent went out and made significant changes to his operation to provide a very cost-effective, but very nutritious, lunch. I think it’s a really good leadership quality when someone understands the environment that they are working in.”

Betz says another challenge Craig faced with leadership acumen was when the district considered outsourcing the nutrition services department. “He dealt with some very difficult times with employees who were feeling unappreciated and felt that they were going to lose their jobs,” Betz says. “To try to turn around the feelings of his staff he created some culinary boot camps. He had five or six middle school sites and all of the kitchen staff would meet and volunteers from the local chefs’ association would train the staff. The excitement from everyone involved was really infectious.”

Along with better training his staff to use the fresh products, Craig built a warehouse two years ago “so that we can have better control over our food purchases and are able to get in fresh and healthy products.” Craig hopes that in the next three years the department can open a commissary at the warehouse where items will be cooked, chilled and delivered to the schools. “This will give us an added opportunity to have fresh items,” Craig says. “For instance, instead of buying chicken patties, we can take boneless, skinless chicken breasts and we can cook them, cut them and send them to the schools.”

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