LINDA STOLL has improved foodservice at JEFFCO PUBLIC SCHOOLS by:
• CONDUCTING focus groups to better understand student desires and tailoring the foodservice program around those findings with programs like build-your-own bars
• HIRING an executive chef and doing more quick scratch cooking
• WORKING with local companies to create new products like customized spice packets
• PARTNERING with the high schools to run the student stores and vending machines
Linda Stoll, Jeffco Public SchoolsSteve Bell, chief operating officer for 85,000-student Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado, describes Linda Stoll, executive director of foodservice, as irreplaceable. “If I lost her, I don’t know how I would replace her,” Bell says. “She is one of the top-talent performers in the foodservice industry.”
Stoll has done much to earn such high praise. In her four years with the district, Stoll has revamped the menu and service following focus group input, worked with local companies to create new products and turned a USDA competitive foods violation into a profitable—and compliant—student store program.
Customer service: The year before Stoll came to the district, a student group made a video about Jeffco’s meal program that wasn’t complimentary and contained inaccurate information, Stoll says. In reaction to that video, the school board directed the department to work with students and parents to find out what they wanted in their program.
Through a Live Well Colorado grant, Stoll brought in consulting firm Ideas To Go to conduct focus groups with students. The focus groups were held in a reality TV house, with cameras in every room and an area where Stoll could watch the groups in real time.
Through the focus groups, Stoll learned that the students’ definition of fresh wasn’t being met in the current foodservice program. “At the secondary level, Jeffco had largely been a grab-and-go lunch program so that it was quicker for students to get through the lines,” Stoll says.
“The kids told us when they see a sandwich sitting in a line that is wrapped, they assume it is left over from yesterday. It wasn’t what their definition of fresh was. Their definition of fresh was that they wanted to see it made in front of them. Beyond that, they also wanted it made the way they wanted it.”
To meet that expectation, Stoll created a build-your-own burrito bar, similar in style to Chipotle. Students can select a soft tortilla, crispy tortilla shell or salad as their base. Cilantro lime rice or Spanish rice, refried or black beans, three kinds of meat, two kinds of cheese, and various sauces and condiments round out the choices.
The concept was so successful that three other variations were added: Asian bowls, pasta and burgers. The bars are staffed by student workers. Stoll contracts the student workers through clubs trying to raise money for things such as trips. She pays $2.50 per day for each student.
Recipe revamp: Stoll has made other changes to the menu. In late 2009, she hired an executive chef, Jessica Wright. Under Wright’s direction, the foodservice department has implemented what it calls quick scratch, a method by which the department uses precooked, unseasoned proteins to create housemade dishes. For example, seasoning is added to precooked ground beef for use on the burrito bar.
“We don’t have the equipment or training to try cooking proteins from scratch,” Stoll says. “I refer to it as naked protein. I want ground beef that is cooked, drained, with no salt or anything added to it.”
Another change was reformulating flavored milk. “I talked to our local dairy and said high fructose corn syrup is really an issue with our parent group,” Stoll says. “I asked, ‘can’t we try sucrose?’ They said, ‘I know we are heading in that direction, but the industry really isn’t quite there yet.’ We put a little bit more pressure on them and said the industry may not be, but we’re there.” All milk sold in Jeffco schools is now produced with sucrose and has no more than 22 grams of sugar.
Colorado Proud: Another area of focus for Stoll is working with local companies to develop products for her schools. For example, she worked with Custom Blending to develop spice blends. “I hate sending out gallon buckets of spices to schools because the amount used at each school is different,” she says. “Custom Blending developed these spice packets for us, and one packet does one pan.” Packets include marinara sauce, Southwestern and a harvest blend. “It’s been really good because one of the problems with prepared spice packets when you buy them commercially is the sodium level,” she adds. “We can have them do it sodium free for us if we want.”
Other local partnerships include working with a company that freezes produce to serve during months when produce is not in season. Corn on the cob, cantaloupe and butternut squash have all been frozen and served months later in the schools. Another company makes applesauce out of Colorado apples, and yet another company provides a locally produced marinara sauce.
All these partnerships have been helpful with monthly Colorado Proud days, when everything served on the menu is grown, processed or produced in the state.
“Linda’s greatest attribute is she stays ahead of the curve,” Wright says about the menu advancements. “She’s not one to let grass grow under the feet. She forges ahead.”
Facing challenges: The menu isn’t the only area in which Stoll’s impact has been felt. During her first year at Jeffco, the department had a CRE review, which checks foodservice departments for compliance with USDA regulations. The review cited the district’s student stores as being in violation of competitive food regulations. This was the second time the district’s student stores had been cited for this violation.
“In talking with the department of education, they said, ‘you didn’t get any better in five years, what do you want us to do?’” Stoll recalls. “We decided we would like them to be pretty hard on us. They said we were in violation of regs and if we didn’t stop they would withhold our reimbursement, which comes to about $9.9 million dollars.”
At first, it seemed like the only answer was to close the stores. However, a high school principal worked out a plan with Stoll. “He said that the student store is another serving line for us,”
Stoll says. “He said it was really important and asked what we could do. I said let me run the student store as if it’s another line and we’ll do some profit sharing with you.”
Everything served in the student stores now meets the department’s nutritional guidelines. Using the model developed for the build-your-own bars, student workers run the student stores.
“We don’t tell kids that it’s another serving line. We want them to still think of it as the student store because it increases the cool factor,” Stoll says. “The stores offer some different things there than what is on our lines because of the lack of labor. We do fresh fruit smoothies for them and we have the kids who can operate the blender for us.”
The profit margin is split in half between the foodservice department and the schools. The schools also pay for 50% of the foodservice employee who works in the store. Stoll says last year $360,000 was returned to the 15 high schools with student stores.
The profit sharing model was expanded to include snack vending machines when another audit found those machines were in violation of competitive foods regulations.
Another challenge Stoll faced was communication with the department’s 350 serving sites.
“One of the things that I always felt was that with 350 sites it’s hard to have good communication out to the sites,” she says. “When we do communicate with them, I think they’ve always had a little bit of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ feeling.”
So Stoll created key communicators, a group of 15 site-level managers that meets twice a month to address any issues. Those site-level managers then communicate with the other managers. “Communication now comes from peers and not from the admin building,” Stoll says.