In today’s challenging school foodservice environment—providing
nutritious food options that actually taste good, while at the same
time watching the budget—Mary Lou Henry, foodservice director for Knox
County (Tenn.) Schools, has aced the test.
When Henry became director in 2000, she inherited a foodservice program that had lost $1.5 million in three years. Although she knew the financial status the school was in from her previous job as a consultant for the state’s Department of Education, Henry says she didn’t know the extent to which the program was in debt.
“When I started I learned there were a lot of things that weren’t where they needed to be,” she says. “I knew that it would be a challenge, but I’ve always enjoyed a challenge to some degree.” So Henry simply assessed the department to see where the problems lay and went after them one at a time.
One such problem was the district’s use of a centralized warehouse for commodities. The goods were being shipped to the warehouse for distribution to the schools at the same price as it would be to have those same goods shipped directly to the schools. But the warehouse method incurred additional costs in the form of labor and transportation. So she began having goods shipped directly to the schools, which she estimates saves $180,000 a year.
After performing a labor study, Henry also found that many schools were actually overstaffed. In addition, all maintenance for the foodservice department was outsourced. So she created a foodservice maintenance department that includes an electrician, a plumber and a refrigerator worker so that the maintenance can now be done in house and at a lower cost.
“Because we’ve cut out things, that has enabled us to add other things,” Henry says. One such addition was the installation of a computerized point-of-sale system, which replaced the old cash register system. Among other things, the new system allows for easier tracking of student meals and transferring of information from individual schools to the central office, Henry says.
Paper or plastic: After making the program financially stable, Henry set out to improve other aspects of the 55,000-student district. One such change came in 2005 when the district switched from paper to plastic milk cartons; Knox County was the first school district in Tennessee to make the change.
“I was looking at ways we could increase the calcium intake of the students,” Henry says. “Because, looking at their nutritional needs, calcium is one of the areas that so many of the students do not receive enough of.” She says she was hearing from students, and vendors as well, that students would drink more milk if it were offered in plastic bottles because, they said, it tasted better and was colder. So she made the switch and sold more than a half a million more units of milk the following year, or an 8.5% increase. The following school year, milk sales increased by nearly another 400,000 units.
But all those plastic bottles add up in the trashcans and landfills. So Henry, along with the American Dairy Association, piloted a recycling program at 12 of the district’s 82 schools. The program, which is a partnership with local environmental groups, such as Knoxville Beautiful, places recycling bins and advertisements showing the new look of the plastic milk bottles in school’s cafeterias. The staff then work with students to ensure the bottles make it into the designated bins. To help increase awareness of the program, there have been contests and promotions, including a kick-off event that featured a large plastic cow, which elementary school students could have their picture taken with. Last year, more than two million bottles—or 204 garbage truck loads—were recycled and the program has expanded to 36 schools.
“We are working now to try and get into revenue sharing with the recycling company,” Henry says. She explains that one of the goals of the program was to make it profitable for both the recycling company and the school. “It does cost more to use the plastic bottles, but our main emphasis, of course, is to increase the calcium,” she says. “And if we can offset that cost with a little revenue sharing from the recycling company, then we won’t have to increase the price of milk—at least not as often.”
The recycling program has expanded to include other items as well, including cans, cardboard and other kitchen items that previously ended up in landfills.
Breakfast and lunch: Henry knows that nutritious foods are not the only way to impact students’ wellness. Three years ago she started a program in the middle and high schools called “Smart Lunch,” which is a high-nutrient, low-fat, grab and go lunch that allows students to move through the serving lines quickly. The extra time can then be used by students on a 10-minute walk. In one high school during the first year of the program, more than 200 students signed up to walk during lunch.
“So if you add that up over a week, that’s 50 minutes of walking exercise that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” she says. “We try to work with the students’ health and dietary needs as well. Learning the attributes to a healthy lifestyle is just as important in a child’s education as any curriculum area,” she adds. “After all, what is the advantage to a quality education and a good occupation if one is in poor health and cannot enjoy life?”
Knowing the importance of fruits and vegetables, Henry allows students to choose additional produce items at both breakfast and lunch at no additional cost. “Our children no longer have to decide if they want orange juice or a banana with their cereal,” she says. “They can now have both if they choose.”
Henry adds, “If a child takes advantage of the extra fruits and vegetables at school, with breakfast and lunch, they can actually get their five fruits and vegetables each day, even if they don’t get any more at home.”
The district also recently started a cycle menu program. There is a basic 11-day menu that each school follows, and every manager has the option to add additional choices to their own school’s menu. Henry says the change makes things like ordering, inventory and managing leftovers easier for the cafeteria managers. “The cycle menu allows for less waste of food items and, therefore, makes it more affordable to add the additional fruits and vegetables at no additional cost to the meal,” she says. By having a set number of items, the managers know exactly what to order and don’t have to worry about items sitting in the freezer for a month, waiting to be placed on the menu again.
Knowing the importance food has on students’ ability to learn, Henry suggested one elementary principal turn her at-risk school into a Provision III school, meaning all students would receive free breakfast and lunch. She also implemented a program where breakfast was served in the classroom. But even though tardiness and the number of students waiting outside the nurse’s office have decreased and the school is no longer on the at-risk list, Henry isn’t basking in the limelight. “I’m not about to take credit for it all,” she says. “The principal put many other things into practice.”
Staff improvements: To increase professionalism in the staff, Henry used money in the foodservice account to buy uniforms for the department’s more than 600 employees. “The staff love it because they don’t have to worry about what they are going to wear to work each day or furnish it for themselves,” she says.
“The juggling act of keeping everything going on a day-to-day basis—the equipment all running properly and the staff at each school covered—” is what Henry says is the most difficult part of her job. “We have (more than) 600 personnel and lots of days we work short,” she says. Compounding the problem, she adds, is the urban location of the district, meaning there are a high number of foodservice jobs available. “There are lots of (employment) options,” she explains. “And the schools aren’t always the best paying and they do not always (offer) the best benefits, so you have a fairly (high) turnover within the system.”
In an effort to minimize that turnover, Henry uses an employee recognition program with a year-end awards banquet, and a training program that, if taken, can increase workers’ hourly wages by 80 cents. “We try to make it attractive and show them we appreciate the job that they do,” she says.
Last year, Henry applied for and received a $10,000 grant from the state for the district’s wellness program. Knox County was one of 10 districts to receive a grant. The funds went into an in-service training for principals and other school personnel on how to organize and start their own Coordinated School Health Program, of which Henry is now a member.
In addition, five pieces of exercise equipment were purchased and placed in the central office for the 200-plus employees at that location to use. While the schools had exercise areas, she says, the central office didn’t have one. “One of the pieces of the (Coordinated School Health Program) is exercise, not only for students but staff as well,” Henry says.
One of Henry’s goals for the program is “to continue to provide healthy and delicious meals to the students of Knox County Schools, as well as to teach the importance of lifelong food choices that contribute to the students’ overall well being.”
“The most rewarding part (of my job) is when you go out to schools and you see these happy little kids coming through the lines,” she says. “You know that you are giving them good quality food, and probably in most cases, the best meal they are going to have all day.”