BILLY REID has transformed the child nutrition department at SALIDA UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT by:
• FOCUSING on the business aspect of foodservice and keeping the budget consistently in the black
• ADDING more choices to the menu mix and focusing on healthy, child-friendly flavor profiles
• ADDING 32 contracts to provide meals to programs outside the district
• GAINING national recognition for the district, with six schools receiving the Gold Award of Distinction from the HealthierUS School Challenge
Billy Reid, Salida Union School DistrictBilly Reid, director of child nutrition services at 2,800-student Salida Union School District in California, had a few other careers before child nutrition. Emigrating from Ireland at 15, Reid worked in restaurants in New York City, first as a busboy, then as a waiter, until he felt the kitchen calling. He graduated from the French Culinary Institute and started his cooking career, which included creating his own line of salad dressings. After a move, Reid attended the California Police Academy just “for the fun of it,” before working at a nonprofit that provides services to adults with learning disabilities.
After seeing a newspaper ad, Reid decided to take his skill set to Salida Union School District, where he has been since 2006. During all of his different employment adventures, Reid learned one thing: business matters.
Numbers crunching: “You can have all the best intentions and all the greatest ideas, but if you don’t have the budget in place to utilize and implement these things, then it’s all for naught,” Reid says. “You have to approach this with a business model and a business mind. I asked my boss on the first day, ‘Explain to me what your budget expectations are of me.’ He seemed quite taken aback by the fact that he was actually being asked. I was told, ‘If you can pay for the custodian at the central kitchen and you have $10,000 left over, I’d be very happy.’ That seemed quite simple.”
So Reid set out to accomplish his goals. For a guy like Reid, who was used to working restaurant hours, what happened during his first month was a bit of a shock. Reid’s first month corresponded with the district’s spring break. For the first time in a while, Reid found himself sitting in an empty kitchen with no customers to serve.
“I was so fresh in the job, I didn’t really know what the job was in its entirety to actually change anything,” Reid recalls. “The phones didn’t ring and there was nobody there to get input from. It was probably the most boring time in my culinary career. I was thinking, there has to be somebody somewhere who needs to eat.”
Increasing participation: This reflection period helped Reid transform the program by giving him the time to focus on the opportunities he had with his department. “Foodservice is all about increasing participation,” he says. “If I don’t do that first, I can’t help anybody.”
When Reid arrived at the district, which is made up of three elementary schools and one middle school, in 2006, participation was 65%. Now participation is around 80%.
The first step was focusing on customer service. “Students aren’t just students. They are customers,” Reid says. “I remember explaining to one of my staff members, ‘How would you feel if you went to a restaurant and the hostess was banging on the table telling you to hurry up?’ People eat here by choice. It’s not just a meal, it’s an environment.”
After focusing on serving the students as customers, Reid started tweaking the menu. Using his culinary training, Reid and the central kitchen staff developed new recipes and flavor profiles.
“Children will eat what children will eat,” says the father of six. “I think the mistake a lot of people are making in this whole obesity movement is that they are, on too broad a scale, putting together flavor profiles that are more adult-based than child-based. You end up alienating children. Kids like pizza, chicken nuggets and hot dogs. They like kid-type food. In our district we have the healthier versions of those things.”
For example, the chicken nuggets are all white meat and made with whole-grain breading. The pizza has a whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese. The hot dogs are made with turkey.
Reid also increased menu choices. Now, in addition to the daily hot meal, students can select a prepackaged salad, such as a teriyaki-glazed oriental chicken salad or a grilled Southwestern chicken salad, or a deli sandwich. The salads are made using romaine or a spinach mix. No iceberg lettuce is used in the district. The deli sandwich is a whole-grain four-inch sub with the option of turkey or turkey ham with low-fat cheese.
This fall Reid is adding a fourth option to the daily rotation in elementary schools: a yogurt, fruit and whole-grain graham cracker meal.
Reid also used his culinary background to get the department to cook more from scratch. He estimates that around 68% of the menu is made from scratch. Reid says using the USDA commodity program has helped in this effort.
Take the department’s barbecue pulled pork sandwich, for example. “I could go out into the private market and buy a good barbecue pulled pork center of the pork entrée,” he says. “Let’s say it’s 50 cents [per serving]. I’m serving 4,000 meals. It’s going to cost me $2,000 to purchase a decent product. If I go through the USDA commodity program, I can do that for 10 cases of raw pork that we cook ourselves, not including cost of entitlement, for $3.25 a case. That’s $32.50. It costs me approximately $17.50 to make the sauce from scratch. I now did the same thing that if I’d bought it on the private market it would’ve cost me $2,000, I just did it for $50.”
Reid says it wasn’t hard to train the staff to cook more items from scratch. “If you have a business-minded chef who knows how to prepare [these items], then you can teach your staff to do it,” he says. “I think a lot of foodservice professionals, the cafeteria workers, I see a lot of them who underestimate their abilities. I don’t agree that it takes more labor to cook from scratch than it does to use a processed product. ”
Twila Tosh, the district’s superintendent, also has noticed Reid’s fiscal prowess. “Billy is always out there finding the best deals that other people turn down because it would require a little extra work in preparation or filling out grants and forms. He is passionate, energetic, committed and creative.”
Tosh adds that Reid’s culinary background has been instrumental in getting more students to participate in the program. “We got kiwis and the kids didn’t know what kiwis were,” she says.” So Billy went the extra mile to prepare them into like frozen popsicles. It took more time on the foodservice staff, but he is always looking for ways to make food accessible, fun and tasty for kids. That’s what makes him successful.”
Looking outside: In addition to increasing participation within Salida, Reid has added outside business as well. The department contracts foodservices for 32 sites, including day care programs, Head Start programs and private schools.
“A class that needs foodservices for lower numbers, individually they are not worth doing. But if you put 10 of them together now you’ve got a route,” Reid says. “The people [at these sites] are glad to be getting fresher food and something they may not normally get because other [directors] may not have the insight to see you can piece them all together.”
Reid also contracts the management for the foodservice department at the nearby Stanislaus Union School District. Reid’s department serves around 2,400 meals each day at Stanislaus, in addition to the 4,200 meals a day it serves in Salida.
“Salida, before I got here, was not a bad program,” Reid says. “It was a school foodservice program. It delivered good food to children and it did it quite well. What I brought to the table is the business edge.”
Marla Vennema, department supervisor, agrees. Vennema has worked for Salida for 18 years. “Billy is very businesslike,” she says. “He has a lot of energy. He’s fun to work with. Billy has gone into a lot more kid-friendly items. He uses a lot more fresh ingredients. When Billy does something, he goes for the top.”
Under Reid’s guidance, six schools have been awarded the Gold Award of Distinction. Three of the schools are in Salida. The other three are contracted sites. These six sites were the first in California to gain the HealthierUS School Challenge’s highest honor.
“I am a foodservice director and every day I work I get to feed children. What a blessing,” Reid says.