Fairfax County Public Schools has turned its nutrition program around by first challenging stereotypes.
At a glance:
Fairfax County Public Schools
Falls Church, Va.
10th—Ranking by size of all school districts in the country
$932,000—Reduction in food cost from the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year, contributing to a $1 million budget surplus
- Started its own signature line of sandwiches and salads for faculty and staff
- Offers breakfast, lunch and supper programs for students, including a barbecue summer lunch program
- Plans to install salad bars in all 141 elementary schools
In just one year, the foodservice team at Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Va., has taken its nutrition program from operating at a deficit of $1.5 million to a surplus of $1 million. It’s a major boost that coincides with the arrival of Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition and food services, at the start of the 2015-16 school year.
Taylor believes the combined talent and experience of his staff has enabled the program to accomplish so much in such a short time frame. But the changes all started with a shift in foodservice philosophies.
“You don’t have to be the butt of jokes and serve mystery meat,” says Taylor, who previously worked in similar roles at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Riverside Unified School District in California. “By changing perceptions you’re going to win trust, increase participation and grow your revenue.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Taylor, who came to Fairfax at the start of the 2015-16 school year, credits much of the first-year turnaround to $1.6 million in food and labor cost reductions. The rest of the surplus was found in an increase in participation—and for that, Fairfax had take some risks.
The changes started small. At the beginning of that school year, staff focused on installing a salad bar in one elementary school in hopes of gaining the trust of principals, parents and students.
“You can take a 5-year-old and make them a lifelong healthy eater. It can be done,” says Morgan McGhee, food service operations specialist for Fairfax, who conducts salad bar etiquette training.
That training includes exposing students to fruits and vegetables and engaging them in conversation about eating healthy. Fairfax students go through the salad bar first when entering the cafeteria, and staff are placed on either side of the bar to connect with the diners and encourage them to eat fruits and vegetables in a wide range of colors.
“The first question I ask them is, ‘Why is it important to have fruits and vegetables?’ to try and start that conversation,” McGhee says.
Less than a year after the first salad bar was installed in April 2016, dining services has added bars to another 10 elementary schools, and has plans to install 10 more by the end of the school year, plus at least 31 annually for the next four years.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Once the salad bars in the elementary schools caught on, the team moved on to more ambitious projects, including a signature line of sandwiches and salads for faculty as well as a new variety of sandwiches and salads for middle and high schools. Taylor says Fairfax’s signature menu allows faculty and staff to become familiar with the food program and, in turn, act as role models for students.
“We’ve always asked teachers to eat kids’ food and pay adult prices, and they were our worst critics,” Taylor says. “We wanted to win over the adults [with the new offerings], since they are the ones who are going to communicate to the students and their parents.”
Additional changes included daily outdoor barbecues for middle and high schoolers, breakfast in the classroom, an after-school supper program and rotisserie ovens at high schools. The team also released the cafeteria menu for the entire 2016-17 school year at once, which Taylor says helps parents and Fairfax’s partner farmers.
“Every parent pays attention to menus, so it gives us an opportunity to market our program to them,” Taylor says. “It’s also a way to provide farmers with an outline of what we’re going to be buying.”
Although the program was operating at a deficit when staff started launching these new initiatives, Taylor feels the changes generated trust, which increased lunch participation—and $891,762 in additional revenue for the school year.
“Like with any business, you must make investments to improve your brand, regardless of your current position,” Taylor says.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Racing the clock
As the 10th-largest school district in the country, the foodservice team at Fairfax will spend the next two years expanding these initiatives. With more than 180,000 students to reach, it’s no small undertaking.
“We have such a large district,” says Maria Perrone, food services operations coordinator. “With all this innovation and all this excitement, people want this delivered as soon as possible.”
The district is in the process of hiring a salad bar coordinator, an assistant director, an additional nutritionist and a marketing team, among other positions, to ensure the initiatives are implemented in a timely and organized matter. Meanwhile, Taylor is proud of the team’s work so far, and is quick to point out that his team is what propelled the program to success.
“When I was hired, [the supervisor] wanted a world-class foodservice program, but you can’t do that if you don’t have the right people; and the fact of the matter is, we have the right people. They’re flat-out making it happen,” he says. “It’s a process, and it’s not some destination we’re going on. It’s a journey and it will continue to evolve.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Rodney Taylor
Director of Nutrition and Food Services, Fairfax County Public Schools
What is your motivation behind introducing salad bars to all the elementary schools in the district?
One of the major motivations besides turning the program around is when we’re successful here, we will have salad bars in all of the elementary schools in the 10th-largest school district in the country. So, for the naysayers that say these changes can’t be done, I will have done it in a small affluent district (Santa Monica-Malibu USD); I will have done it in a medium-sized, high-need district (Riverside Unified School District); and I will have done it in the 10th-largest and a very affluent district (Fairfax).
What is your biggest goal for the food program at Fairfax?
The goal is to teach a whole generation of kids to become lifelong healthy learners, and we’ll do that through the salad bar. It serves as the vehicle for the excitement.