Brent Craig doesn’t buy into the notion that ignorance is bliss. Instead, he thinks that’s precisely where school nutrition programs have gone astray.
“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” says Craig, director of nutrition services at 57,000-student Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colo. During his four years at the district, Craig has used communication as the foundation to heal a troubled program.
Refocusing the program: Douglas County is an affluent district, with only 3% of its students qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals. “I have sophisticated eaters in my students,” Craig says. “We did a study two years ago and the kids eat out for dinner almost four times a week.”
Prior to Craig’s arrival in 2007, most of the students purchased à la carte items and not a reimbursable meal. “During the 2006-2007 school year we spent about $3 million with Little Debbie purchasing snack foods,” Craig says. “We’ve really changed that up. We don’t really sell any à la carte anymore. About 75% of our sales were à la carte and we’ve switched that to where we’re serving between 60% and 65% of our district reimbursable meals.”
Craig says that to get student buy-in to the reimbursable meal program he had to revamp the menus and the way food was prepared. The department is moving toward what Craig calls a “Whole Foods model” of school foodservice. “There has been a big demand from students and parents for healthier food,” Craig says. The district has a goal for 95% of all fruits and vegetables to be fresh. “The 5% is really just in case there is a freeze in Florida and we can’t get oranges or it’s too expensive,” he explains. “We are moving toward fresh meats. We just switched over to fresh ground beef instead of having that processed or precooked. We have a local commissary cook our ground beef and make it into things like sloppy Joes. Instead of having it processed through the USDA or anything like that we are doing it ourselves. There are a lot less preservatives and additives.”
Craig also has started a Chefs Move to Schools program. Harvest bars featuring fresh produce have been added at more than 20 schools. When a new bar opens, a local chef comes to the schools to interact with the students. Area chefs also have done presentations, many focusing around local produce. For one assembly, Colorado corn was brought in and chefs taught the students about the corn. The students helped shuck the corn, which was served on the day’s lunch menu.
Bonnie Betz, chief financial officer for the district, says one of Craig’s greatest strengths is knowing his audience. “When I arrived last year I was impressed how Brent really understood the climate. Brent has a difficult situation because he has very involved parents with very high demands. He responded to them. He said that the Douglas County nutrition services department was known as the king of à la carte prior to his arrival. Brent went out and made significant changes to his operation to provide a very cost-effective, but very nutritious, lunch. I think it’s a really good leadership quality when someone understands the environment that they are working in.”
Betz says another challenge Craig faced with leadership acumen was when the district considered outsourcing the nutrition services department. “He dealt with some very difficult times with employees who were feeling unappreciated and felt that they were going to lose their jobs,” Betz says. “To try to turn around the feelings of his staff he created some culinary boot camps. He had five or six middle school sites and all of the kitchen staff would meet and volunteers from the local chefs’ association would train the staff. The excitement from everyone involved was really infectious.”
Along with better training his staff to use the fresh products, Craig built a warehouse two years ago “so that we can have better control over our food purchases and are able to get in fresh and healthy products.” Craig hopes that in the next three years the department can open a commissary at the warehouse where items will be cooked, chilled and delivered to the schools. “This will give us an added opportunity to have fresh items,” Craig says. “For instance, instead of buying chicken patties, we can take boneless, skinless chicken breasts and we can cook them, cut them and send them to the schools.”
Spreading the news: After reworking the menus, the next step was getting the word out to parents and students about the department’s efforts. Craig created a nutrition services Facebook page to share news and information. On the page he also interacts with parents. Craig or a member of his department answers parent questions and starts conversations with the site’s visitors by asking them questions, such as what did you eat for breakfast? Craig says the Facebook page has been a great way to help change negative perceptions about the program, which Craig says have been a longstanding problem in the district. [To learn more about the Facebook page, read the May cover story “Making Social Media Work.”]
“We have some moms who get together and they each take a day and they bring in lunch from places like Jason’s Deli or they have a personal chef come in and do a special lunch for these kids,” Craig says. “We have a group of parents who have partnered with Whole Foods to bring in high-end boxed lunches that cost like $7 or $8. Whole Foods delivers food to these schools. It’s sort of their effort to run out the school lunch program because they have no faith that the school lunch program can be healthy. We probably have 10% to 15% of our families that will only eat organic or whole foods. There are some people who just won’t eat school food. It’s a challenge I never thought I would have to deal with.”
Craig says that, for the most part, the parents who have the negative opinions about his program simply don’t know about the changes that have been made. “When people learn the good things we’re doing they have a different attitude,” he adds.
Reaching the students was next. After seeing positive student reaction to culinary events by local chefs in collaboration with Chefs Move to Schools, Craig created For Kids, By Kids, a program that seeks student input. “We are finding that kids like to get involved in creating and having a say as to what their world is about,” Craig says.
At the middle schools For Kids, By Kids started with two area chefs coming into the schools to work with health classes to develop a line of trail mixes and granola that are then prepared and sold in the cafeteria. Craig says this program is how he has continued to sell à la carte items. “We’re going to continue the à la carte, but with the kids helping to design what they think would be good snacks,” he adds. Craig says schools are developing items that will make up the snack menu.
The ProStart class at the high school also got involved with For Kids, By Kids. The class, in collaboration with Chefs Move to Schools, took a cheese Big Daddy’s pizza and developed seven specialty pizzas. The pizzas were taste tested by fellow students and sold in some schools. The pizzas also played a role in the revamp of the high school lunch program.
Open and closed: Last school year the high school campuses were opened for lunch for the first time in 50 years. Craig says he expected the move to be a financial “disaster” for the department. “We expected to lose about 30% to 35% of revenue when they opened the high schools,” he says. Craig knew he had to come up with a way to keep the students on campus and participating in the meal program. He did this by replicating what the students would find at off-campus dining options.
Craig opened a Subway franchise at each of the nine high schools. “We own the franchises,” he says. “We bake the bread and we make the sandwiches right there in front of them like if they were having a commercial Subway experience.” He also opened up Berry Blendz, a franchise much like a Jamba Juice, which has been popular with students.
Pizza was another item that was changed. The high schools had been selling Domino’s pizza, but after the success of the ProStart specialty pizzas, Craig began selling those pizzas instead of Domino’s pizza in three high schools. “We bake the pizzas off and cut them right in front of our students to give them a pizzeria feel,” Craig says. “Plus, the students are developing the pizzas. There is great power in something that is kid tested and kid approved because the item seems to be more acceptable and the kids have faith in that.” The Buffalo chicken and vegetarian with balsamic glaze are two favorites.
“We try really hard to make [the high school cafeteria] like a mall food court type of experience,” Craig says.