Squeamishness around blood was the impetus for a career change for this year’s K-12 Silver Plate winner. Julia Bauscher, director of school and community nutrition services at Jefferson County Public Schools, in Louisville, Ky., was a premed student working on her degree in dietetics from the University of Kentucky. After realizing that “me and the sight of blood don’t get along,” Bauscher, who was working for the university’s dining services team, decided to take a different route, into foodservice.
While attending graduate school, Bauscher started working part time as a food broker, selling to non-commercial accounts. She later joined the company full time and spent the next 12 years in foodservice sales, an experience that would shape many of the practices Bauscher has employed during her school foodservice career.
One day in 1994, Bauscher called up Jefferson’s coordinator of food procurement, with whom Bauscher had worked, to see if she wanted to purchase some products. The coordinator told Bauscher she was retiring and suggested that Bauscher apply for her position. Bauscher did, and she’s been with the district for the past 19 years.
Central production: Shortly after she joined the 101,000-student district, the department conducted a feasibility study to determine if a central kitchen made financial sense. Unemployment at that time was very low and the department had difficulty staffing the kitchens at its 144 feeding sites. The department thought a central kitchen would help. In 1997, ground was broken for the project, which Bauscher calls her “baby.”
“I was the manager at the central kitchen for 10 years,” she recalls. “I was able to open that facility and manage the process of recipe development. I wrote the HACCP plan. The experience there was wonderful.”
Bauscher’s previous career in food sales also enabled the district to be more competitive in its bid process. “My experience in sales was very helpful because I knew all the people. So I was able to bring in more players to the table, people more interested in selling us product, which made the whole process a little bit more competitive.”
Other directors in Kentucky took notice of Bauscher’s central kitchen. Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services for the USDA, was then the school nutrition director for Hardin County Schools, in Elizabethtown, Ky. “Julia is very insightful,” Thornton says. “She was very instrumental in initializing the central production kitchen. As a leader, she took that from an idea to a very successful opening. I believe it was the only central kitchen in Kentucky at the time.”
Taking over the director’s chair: Thornton wasn’t the only one who noticed Bauscher’s potential. Jefferson’s director, Cheryl Sturgeon, “had been grooming me, I think, to take over her position,” when she retired, Bauscher says. In 2008, Bauscher did just that.
When she took over, Bauscher knew she needed to make some adjustments to the department’s structure. “That was a time when everybody was beginning to point the finger at school meal programs as one of the contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic,” she says. To better communicate the department’s mission, Bauscher created a coordinator of nutrition initiatives position. That person represents the department on community organizations and helps to expand the program’s reach through the acquisition of grant money, such as the Walmart Foundation’s Breakfast in the Classroom grant.
Another one of those grants is the Louisville Putting Nutrition to Work grant through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The department received funds that enabled it to work with a local chef, Jim Whaley, to reduce the sodium in its recipes. Through Whaley’s work, recipes saw an average sodium reduction of 40%. The district has already met the USDA’s first regulation for lowering sodium in school meals, which goes into effect in 2014.
Buying fresh: Whaley also helped teach Bauscher’s staff how to work with fresh produce. He recently used local peppers, zucchini and kale in a minestrone soup recipe. That’s just one example of how Bauscher has pushed for fresh—and, when possible, local—produce.
With her experience in food procurement, Bauscher knew she would need to put out an RFP to competitively price fresh produce for the district. Last school year, she negotiated contracts with two farmers, who supplied her with produce such as watermelon, squash and peppers, which were processed in the central production kitchen. This year, Bauscher has contracts with six farmers. Next year’s contracts will increase the items on the RFP from 10, the original number, to 18.
“From August to December 2011, I purchased $800,000 in fresh produce,” Bauscher says. “From August to December 2012, I purchased $1.2 million in fresh produce. The dollar value of local in that [in 2012] was less than $100,000, so we have much room to grow.” Bauscher is working to expand local purchases by buying beef and chicken as well. She’s purchased 11,000 chickens from a local farmer, which will provide enough meat to be menued twice. “But that represents 6% of the farmer’s income for the year so it’s a huge economic impact,” Bauscher says.
“She’s a real people person,” Thornton says of Bauscher. For her part, Bauscher is quick to deflect any personal accolades.
“A single person cannot accomplish anything,” she says. “I’m fortunate to work with a great team and colleagues across the country who inspire me. That’s what’s nice about our division, there are no trade secrets. We share whatever we can to make everyone else’s lives easier.”