“There are great things happening in Paramount,” says Chris Stamm, director of student nutrition services at 16,000-student Paramount (Calif.) Unified School District. This statement is most likely heard in operations all over the country, but it’s especially true at Paramount. In his 14 years with the district, 12 of those as director, Stamm has started a summer foodservice program, increased participation, especially at the high school level, and gotten the community involved.
“When I was a student in Paramount, I think I was the only one eating in the cafeterias,” says Frank Barraza, senior accounting assistant. “Now the kids are going in for turkey and mashed potatoes. Who would have thought that? Chris is at the top of his game and he has such a passion for the children. This is a high-need area and he understands that.”
Summer program: Last year for the first time ever, the district changed from a year-round calendar to a traditional one, meaning the students, who were used to purchasing meals at schools during the summer, were going to be left without that option. Located in south Los Angeles County, Paramount is an inner-city neighborhood with a higher than average crime rate, according to statistics from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“I didn’t think about the kids’ lives on the weekends or what they were going to do until we thought about what they were going to do all summer long,” Stamm says. “Are the kids going to stay in their apartments and eat whatever they can get their hands on or go out into the streets and maybe get into mischief? I thought, ‘What could we do to help?’”
Stamm got an idea based off of the city’s STAR (Success Through Academics and Recreation) after-school program. The program offers students academic help and recreation time after school. Paramount USD provides a snack for the program, which is funded by a state grant. Stamm thought he could piggyback off the STAR program and start a similar summer program.
“I thought they could work with us to help supervise the kids and continue what they were doing after school,” Stamm says. “They could help keep the kids off the street. The superintendent loved the idea. We brought it to the board of education, and they loved it.”
Fourteen of the district’s schools were open during the summer. At 9 a.m. breakfast was served, followed by a few hours of recreation and arts and crafts time with the STAR staff. At noon, lunch was served. For the first summer foodservice program, more than 100,000 students were served.
“Our schools could be closed, but instead we are opening them up and making the program available,” he says. “To do a summer foodservice program at a park, we knew kids wouldn’t come. We knew the kids knew the schools were a safe zone.
“We didn’t want to do a brown sack lunch in the park,” Stamm says. “Just like everything that we do here, we wanted to make it a ‘wow.’” So the lunch entrée is a barbecue item like hot dogs, burgers or chicken. In addition to the barbecue item, a five-foot salad bar is available for students to select accompanying items like lettuce and tomatoes for the burgers or chili for the hot dogs. Breakfast is a choice between a hot entrée and a cold cereal. A five-foot fruit bar is also offered.
“We did not just want to feed the students, we wanted to fight the obesity problem that impacts students who don’t make healthy choices and who don’t have an opportunity to exercise and burn off the calories,” Stamm says about the importance of the partnership with the STAR program.
High school revamp: The summer foodservice fruit and salad bars and barbecues are an extension of what Stamm offers every day.
“The salad bar complements the entrée,” he says. “We do a taco day. We just give them the shell and the meat and on the salad bar we have shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, cheese, beans, rice and fruit, salsa and ranch dressing. They build their own. We have a lot less plate waste because they are making it the way they want it. Kids usually take more pride and eat their meal better because it’s how they made it. Instead of someone giving it to them, they have choices every day.”
Other build-your-own days include pizza, sandwich, and a meat and taters day. “We do turkey and gravy, but it’s not like everyone,” Stamm says. “It’s how you present it.” For the meat and taters day, students go through the salad bar line, where they make a salad and select sides such as corn and mashed potatoes. At the end of the salad bar, foodservice employees are waiting to carve turkey roast to order.
Barbecues are offered daily at the high school. “I envision the kids sitting in class smelling the barbecue we are making,” Stamm says.
While many districts struggle to get high school students to participate in school meals, Stamm and his staff have found great success at the high school level. When Stamm first started at Paramount, around 300 lunches were served daily in the high school; now, about 2,300 lunches are served daily. Breakfast at the high school has also seen a sharp increase from approximately 30 to more than 850 served on an average day.
Participation has increased so much that Stamm had to hire more staff—34 people as opposed to 12—and there are now 24 points of service at the high school. Revenue has also increased from $3 million to $8.6 million.
“The increase is because of acceptability that this is good,” Stamm says. “What do you do to get them to eat the food? They aren’t coming for the food; they are coming because we’ve made an environment that is inviting. Everybody gets to see each other, and while they are there they get breakfast too. We play music and we changed our tables from institutional tables into small four tops and six tops. We turned it into a restaurant called the Pirate’s Den. Now before 8 o’clock you can’t even get a seat. The teachers thought the kids were going to be crazy. Instead we get compliments because the kids come into class awake.”
Service with a smile: Stamm also notes that the students are more apt to frequent the cafeterias because customer service has improved. “I said to the staff, ‘Let’s try being nice to them.’ I’m halfway joking, but we started training staff to realize that the students are our customers. The nicer you are to them, you are going to get that same respect back from them.”
Barraza says he has seen the change in customer service since Stamm’s arrival. “Chris’ best quality is his ability to motivate his staff so that they can understand why we are in this business. He focuses on three areas: the quality of the food we serve, the quality and ownership of the dining rooms and customer service.”
Stamm started a two-week training program at a test kitchen where the employees are taught skills ranging from grooming, food handling, safety and customer service. “They get evaluated daily so they know where they stand instead of finding out they didn’t do well at the end of training. We don’t want any surprises at the end.”
Start the day off right: “We did a lot of lunches, especially in the elementary schools, when I first got here,” Stamm says. “The quality and service weren’t all that good, but we had a captured audience. This is a large Hispanic area, and moms stay home. I think moms want to make breakfast and walk their kids to school. I wanted to let moms know that we have a nice breakfast and a nice place for them to eat and that it’s OK to send your kids to school for breakfast.”
Stamm thought the best way to get buy-in from the mothers was to invite them to join their children for breakfast. “We started a Mother’s Day brunch to expose moms to the cafeteria,” Stamm says. An invitation is sent home with each student inviting a mother or grandmother to enjoy a complimentary breakfast on the Friday before Mother’s Day.
Following the success of the Mother’s Day brunch, Stamm started a Father’s Day brunch. “I didn’t think the dads would come so I started off with a dads and donuts thing,” Stamm says. “That wasn’t good enough, so we started a big event for them as well. I couldn’t believe how many dads came.”