Sue Mitchell: Nutrition champ

Sue Mitchell, director of nutrition services at Bartow County (Ga.) School System, has created, via automation, group purchasing and other innovations, a self-supporting enterprise. She is also fresh off completing her first year on USDA's NuMenu program.

"Eat healthy, play hard," is not only the new motto of the Bartow County School System's department of nutrition services, it could be the mantra of its feisty dynamo of a director, Sue Mitchell. You'd just have to replace "play" with "work" and it's a perfect fit. Actually, the motto it replaced, "Nutrition Services, linking nutrition to lifelong learning," also suits her just fine.

Originally a high school home economics teacher, Mitchell has never stopped learning, be it assimilating the latest nutrition discoveries in order to keep students, teachers, administrators and the community abreast of the news; or mastering the newest computer technologies to keep her district on the cutting edge, or honing the business skills needed to run her department as a viable, self-supporting enterprise.

Located in Cartersville, Ga., about 60 miles north of Atlanta in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the Bartow County School System, encompassing 20 schools, serves approximately 12,500 students for lunch each day as well as about 3,900 at breakfast. Sites include one pre-K center, 12 elementary, four middle and three high schools. In 1970 Mitchell started out teaching vocational home economics in her native Oklahoma but was quickly corralled to become director of nutrition services for the Miami (Okla.) Public Schools. In 1980 she migrated to Oklahoma City, where she became child nutrition director of that public school system, which is the largest in the state.

With her move to Georgia in 1993, she picked up the reins as director of nutrition services for the Cobb County Public Schools (part of the Metro Atlanta district). Then, with the new millennium looming large, she and her husband Bill decided to move again in order to improve the quality of their lives and escape from Atlanta's hustle and bustle, not to mention the typical two-hour wait for a table in a restaurant.

Safer transport: When Mitchell assumed her new job in June 1999, she found the Bartow system was "in pretty good shape," but she has worked diligently over the past seven years to make it even better. "The very first thing I did, realizing the need for safety and security in our central distribution system, was to get all our trucks refrigerated," she recalls. "All our sites have full production kitchens, but all our food, except for fresh produce, milk and bread, is delivered to our central distribution warehouse, then trucked to the individual schools. I had to be beyond a doubt sure our food was handled in a safe and secure manner."

Total automation: Next on her agenda was the daunting project of automating all possible processes, including cashiering, warehousing, central distribution, the procurement processes at the schools and the production of claims to the state, as well as food production. "We automated the entire foodservice program system-wide," she explains. "We have significantly reduced the paper shuffling of our cafe managers, and that's a huge time and labor savings. The dollars and cents savings comes from the efficient use of inventory. With as-needed inventory, we have money earning interest in the bank instead of food aging in our store rooms."

Although the central warehouse was in operation when Mitchell arrived on the job, it was not being as fully utilized as it is today, nor was there such an efficient and systematic approach, she says.

Today's automated food production system carries out all the necessary calculations for the production staff, but putting the system in place was quite the laborious task. "Recipes (i.e., production tickets) are printed out and any leftovers are noted," she says. "The manager has a complete production record of what was used or not, and the system updates her inventory. This saves a great deal of time and allows for the products we produce to be really high quality. We test all of our recipes in the system before they're approved for use and our nutrient analysis is all conducted within the system."

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