Charles Anderson: Mission Accomplished

In Clark County, Nev., administrators tapped a principal and ex-military man to turn around the district’s foodservice program.


CHARLES ANDERSON has turned CLARK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT's foodservices into a profitable enterprise by:

  • Reorganizing staff, reducing payroll, and making procurement, production and distribution of meals more cost-effective
  • Restructuring the bid process to take advantage of price fluctuations
  • Investing in program enhancements that ensure more children will be able to afford school meals
  • Challenging employees to perform at a higher level and then recognizing them for their efforts 

In the mid-2000s, the foodservice program for the Clark County School District in Nevada was losing millions of dollars annually. By 2007, CCSD’s CFO, Jeff Weiler, had had enough. To try to stop the bleeding, Weiler turned to a seemingly unlikely “fixer:” a middle school principal named Charles Anderson.

“[Weiler] backed me up against his pickup truck and said, ‘before you say no, hear me out,’” Anderson recalls about the offer to take over the district’s foodservice program. “You’ve been a successful principal, so you know the education side. You’re retired military, so you’ve dealt with large organizations, and you have a business degree.”

Anderson also is a man who rarely backs down from a challenge. So he agreed to see what he could do—which in his first few months wasn’t much.

“I was here only four months of that fiscal year,” he says. “I could make a few changes but not a lot. Bottom line was a train wreck. We were deep, deep in the red.”

Nonetheless, he didn’t waste any time demonstrating to the foodservice staff that he meant business. His first step was to take control of finances.

“I told the staff, you will not spend another nickel without my personal approval,” he explains. “I had to see where the money was going. That’s the way you cut costs.”

He then set an audacious goal for his first full year: to be in the black, “even if it was only by one dollar,” he notes. The department ended that year $46,000 to the good and has turned a profit each succeeding year, which has allowed Anderson to upgrade the district’s central kitchen.

The largest district: Clark County, which includes the city of Las Vegas, is the largest school district in Nevada. There are 327 schools in the district, spread out over 8,000 square miles, and more than 300,000 students—75% of all the students in the state.

Virtually all the food served in the district comes out of the central kitchen, which is overseen by Assistant Director Virginia Beck. Elementary schools receive either preportioned trays that are reheated on site or meal components prepared cook-chill. Eighty percent of the elementary schools serve the trays, while the remaining schools dish up items off serving lines.

Middle and high schools receive meal components but have the equipment to assemble the meals on site.

Overall, the system was neither efficient nor cost-effective. Among the problems Anderson faced were rampant overtime, overstaffed schools, poorly organized routes for shipping food to the schools, an overstocked warehouse and a procurement system that needed to be restructured.

“I consider myself the CEO of the Clark County School District foodservice group,” he notes. “We have 327 franchisees out there. The first week I was here I looked at the financials and I would have closed 150 franchisees right then, if I could have. Of course, I couldn’t do that so we had to work out ways to become more efficient.

“We’re profit and loss, and we operate on a day-to-day basis. Being a business, we have to have people who truly understand the bottom line, because we don’t take a nickel from the general fund. We pay rent, indirect costs, just like any other business.”

Anderson started by assessing his executive team, making hires as necessary and reassigning current staff.

“We had some very talented and qualified people,” says the former U.S. Army officer. “They were just in the wrong jobs.”

One of his key additions was Assistant Director Beck. A registered dietitian with a master’s degree in psychology, Beck was familiar with Clark County, having performed reviews of schools in her role with the state’s Department of Child Nutrition and School Health. Anderson brought her on as a dietitian, then placed her in charge of procurement and the operation of the central kitchen. Together they lead the 14-person executive team that has turned the program around.

“Charles Anderson is an exceptionally strong leader, but at the same time he is compassionate and into treating everyone equally,” says Beck. “He commands a lot of respect, not just in our department but throughout the district. He doesn’t have the foodservice background, but he is extremely intelligent and has so much [outside] experience to bring to the table.”

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