Sue Mitchell: Nutrition champ

NuMenu success: This past school year (2005-2006) was the first in which Bartow County used the USDA Nutrient Standard and Menu Pattern, or NuMenus, and Mitchell is thrilled with the results. "We used it very successfully and our meal sales did not decrease at all; district-wide we had 83% to 84% daily lunch participation," she reports. "NuMenus allows us to put more of our food budget into fresh fruits and vegetables and beautiful whole-grain breads. We also introduced our Mega Salads, these are entree salads that are a complete meal with the addition of bread and milk."

The most challenging aspect of automating food production was building the inventory database, since all specifications and nutrient analysis on every food item had to be entered. (Overall, the department has about 160 employees including those in warehouse & distribution, administrative plus school-based employees.) She recalls painstakingly weighing individual potato puffs and cups of mozzarella cheese so the nutrient analysis as well as the production records would be correct based on accurate baseline weights for each item, and every item was weighed three times!

GPO clout: Procuring the nutritious products she needs to fit NuMenu parameters, and at an affordable price, has forced Mitchell to become an activist. She spearheaded the formation of the Georgia Education Cooperative by encouraging the foodservice directors throughout the northwestern corner of the state to form their own group purchasing organization. Together, members of this fledgling GPO, or "cooperative," as Mitchell calls it, represent 20 school systems serving more than a quarter of a million meals a day, so it truly has clout with the supplier community.

"When I was in the larger system in Cobb County, I spoke with the milk company about reducing the fat content and they began provide 1/2% fat chocolate milk," she says. "Here, about 25 miles down the road, the same milk company couldn't do it. But with these 20 directors, we met with the company and the next school year they provided the product."

Management internship: Finding qualified managers is a challenge faced by directors in almost all sectors of business, but Mitchell has managed to keep her roster full, with trained personnel who really want the job. By initiating a management internship program within her system she now has more applicants than job openings. "We notify the schools and any individuals already on our staff can apply," she points out. "We use an evaluation instrument that tests their knowledge of math and basic algebra. It also tests their ability to take written direction and to communicate in writing; plus, there's a pretty rigorous interview process. Once they're selected, they continue to work at their schools while attending training classes including ServSafe and 180 hours in management and food handling."

She finds it "pretty amazing" that so many apply. However, in addition to the fact that being chosen to enter the internship program is a positive step in furthering their careers, applicants know from the outset they're working for a department that cares. "We have increased salaries over the last several years, it's about $8.60 an hour to start, and the benefits are also good," Mitchell says. "But I think it's more than that; the people who work in school nutrition in Bartow County Schools have a real love for what we do, and we talk about it a lot."

This year the entire department was proud that it passed the Coordinated Review Effort (CRE) and the School Meal Initiative (SMI) with flying colors. "This is a combined review mandated by the federal government and coordinated by the state," Mitchell explains. "Every school system operating the USDA School Breakfast and Lunch Programs is subject to a CRE and SMI once in every five-year period. We passed at a very high level even though it was our first year to use Nutrient Standard Menu Planning."

Mandate met: On the heels of this achievement, the department has had its wellness policy recommendations adopted by the Bartow County School System Board of Education, without any changes. Every district across the country has been racing the deadline to create such a policy prior to the start of the 2006-2007 school year and Mitchell's team, meeting on five separate occasions, completed its recommended policy, submitted it and received approval by April.

Holding meal costs steady: Financial and budget administration is certainly an important part of Mitchell's job. As she says, "If you're not generating enough money to cover your cost, you're doing your district a disservice."

It's clear from the figures that the district has cause to be pleased. "Here, we have picked up numerous costs that were previously paid by the General Fund. We are now totally self-supporting! My proposed budget for 2006-2007 is $6,514,000; that's keeping our meal price the same as last year but increasing wages by 4%, and always serving very high quality food. I believe you must have that as well as great customer service. Without that you won't have the revenue to run your business."

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