Mary Lou Henry: Tennessee Titan

In today’s challenging school foodservice environment—providing nutritious food options that actually taste good, while at the same time watching the budget—Mary Lou Henry, foodservice director for Knox County (Tenn.) Schools, has aced the test.

When Henry became director in 2000, she inherited a foodservice program that had lost $1.5 million in three years. Although she knew the financial status the school was in from her previous job as a consultant for the state’s Department of Education, Henry says she didn’t know the extent to which the program was in debt.

“When I started I learned there were a lot of things that weren’t where they needed to be,” she says. “I knew that it would be a challenge, but I’ve always enjoyed a challenge to some degree.” So Henry simply assessed the department to see where the problems lay and went after them one at a time.

One such problem was the district’s use of a centralized warehouse for commodities. The goods were being shipped to the warehouse for distribution to the schools at the same price as it would be to have those same goods shipped directly to the schools. But the warehouse method incurred additional costs in the form of labor and transportation. So she began having goods shipped directly to the schools, which she estimates saves $180,000 a year.

After performing a labor study, Henry also found that many schools were actually overstaffed. In addition, all maintenance for the foodservice department was outsourced. So she created a foodservice maintenance department that includes an electrician, a plumber and a refrigerator worker so that the maintenance can now be done in house and at a lower cost.

“Because we’ve cut out things, that has enabled us to add other things,” Henry says. One such addition was the installation of a computerized point-of-sale system, which replaced the old cash register system. Among other things, the new system allows for easier tracking of student meals and transferring of information from individual schools to the central office, Henry says.

Paper or plastic: After making the program financially stable, Henry set out to improve other aspects of the 55,000-student district. One such change came in 2005 when the district switched from paper to plastic milk cartons; Knox County was the first school district in Tennessee to make the change.

“I was looking at ways we could increase the calcium intake of the students,” Henry says. “Because, looking at their nutritional needs, calcium is one of the areas that so many of the students do not receive enough of.” She says she was hearing from students, and vendors as well, that students would drink more milk if it were offered in plastic bottles because, they said, it tasted better and was colder. So she made the switch and sold more than a half a million more units of milk the following year, or an 8.5% increase. The following school year, milk sales increased by nearly another 400,000 units.

But all those plastic bottles add up in the trashcans and landfills. So Henry, along with the American Dairy Association, piloted a recycling program at 12 of the district’s 82 schools. The program, which is a partnership with local environmental groups, such as Knoxville Beautiful, places recycling bins and advertisements showing the new look of the plastic milk bottles in school’s cafeterias. The staff then work with students to ensure the bottles make it into the designated bins. To help increase awareness of the program, there have been contests and promotions, including a kick-off event that featured a large plastic cow, which elementary school students could have their picture taken with. Last year, more than two million bottles—or 204 garbage truck loads—were recycled and the program has expanded to 36 schools.

“We are working now to try and get into revenue sharing with the recycling company,” Henry says. She explains that one of the goals of the program was to make it profitable for both the recycling company and the school. “It does cost more to use the plastic bottles, but our main emphasis, of course, is to increase the calcium,” she says. “And if we can offset that cost with a little revenue sharing from the recycling company, then we won’t have to increase the price of milk—at least not as often.”

The recycling program has expanded to include other items as well, including cans, cardboard and other kitchen items that previously ended up in landfills.

Breakfast and lunch: Henry knows that nutritious foods are not the only way to impact students’ wellness. Three years ago she started a program in the middle and high schools called “Smart Lunch,” which is a high-nutrient, low-fat, grab and go lunch that allows students to move through the serving lines quickly. The extra time can then be used by students on a 10-minute walk. In one high school during the first year of the program, more than 200 students signed up to walk during lunch.

“So if you add that up over a week, that’s 50 minutes of walking exercise that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” she says. “We try to work with the students’ health and dietary needs as well. Learning the attributes to a healthy lifestyle is just as important in a child’s education as any curriculum area,” she adds. “After all, what is the advantage to a quality education and a good occupation if one is in poor health and cannot enjoy life?”

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