Robert Kelly: Spirit Builder

School of thought: Upon graduation from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Kelly wanted to pursue a career in food on the operations side, but didn't know much about the school sector at the time. After taking a civil service exam, he wound up in a school as foodservice manager and recalls that once in the door he loved it immediately.

Having served as fsd for 12-1/2 years for Rochester (N.Y.) City Schools, then four years as a consultant to schools in the Buffalo area, he knew just what measures were needed when he discovered, shortly after his arrival, that applications for free and reduced-price meals at Winston-Salem were taking an unacceptably long time to be approved.

"Being a contractor, under federal law I can't approve or disapprove a child's application for free or reduced(-price) meals," he says. "A district employee must make that determination. When I learned all these applications were being done by hand, I computerized the process. The first year I was here it was (extremely challenging). Previously, the turnaround period, with the volume and the process, took two to three weeks. Now, we have applications processed in 24 hours. They were being brought in by anybody, but now only a child nutrition employee is the authorized person to oversee the application (process) at the school level."

Here's how the process works under Kelly's direction:

  • Applications are brought to Kelly's office every day by a child nutrition employee who must sign off on them since each is a legal document containing confidential information.
  • Forms are scanned in the foodservice department office, with people assigned to look over each application for missing signatures or other details.
  • Confirmation letters are then sent out to managers to forward to parents; notice of confirmation is sent via e-mail to managers.

"This is our second year with this streamlined system. We have about 24,000 applications on file and the turnaround time is approximately 24 hours. Now, parents and principals love me" Kelly is proud to proclaim.

"Junk" replacement: From now until immediately prior to the start of the school year in September, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004 will top Kelly's agenda, specifically the clause requiring implementation of a district-wide wellness policy.

Kelly recently introduced Chartwells' Balanced Choices wellness program for the regular cafeteria menu. With solid marketing targeting parents, children and the district, it's being enthusiastically received. In a separate initiative, he's focusing solely on à la carte sales.

"About one year ago, the district and I, knowing the Reauthorization Act was coming, developed a Healthy Alliance Committee," he explains. "Members include the superintendent of schools, other child nutrition staff, several principals, some community members and myself. The superintendent and I chose seven elementary schools and two middle schools to pilot a program looking totally at à la carte sales and what we can do to substitute healthy snacks in order to keep these kids from buying junk foods."

"Then we'd also see how it impacts participation and the bottom line," he continues. "At the high school level, a la carte/cash sales are how we make our profit."

Taking action: At the elementary level, a la carte snack sales are almost even with the previous year. These students are buying string cheese, bottled water, yogurt and nutrient-rich bars, among other items. "But the dramatic drop in sales was at the middle school pilot sites, although there was not a drop in supplemental sales in the district," Kelly admits.

"This year we doubled the number of schools in the pilot," he says. "We are trying to educate them at the elementary level so they'll accept it by middle school."

Elimination of fryers from school kitchens represented another move toward making meal items more healthful. But it didn't cut down on sales of fries, which Kelly admits helps boost the à la carte sales. "At the high school level, french fries have always been served as part of a reimbursable meal or à la carte at the middle and high school.

"But we took them away as part of the reimbursable meal. Now, (students) have to pay for them."

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