Foodservice Operation of the Month

What a school district learned when switching to bulk meal service

Think offering items in bulk isn’t for your operation? You may want to reconsider.
bulk food items
Photo courtesy of ​​Fallbrook Union High School District

While the past year has been full of challenges, it’s also stripped the word “can’t” from many operators’ vocabularies. At Fallbrook Union High School District in Fallbrook, Calif., Director of Food Services Judi Reynolds and her team could never have imagined serving their students in “bulk.”

But with cafeterias closed, experiments with whole produce, family-size entrees and meal kits with recipes have become the norm for Fallbrook’s foodservice team. And with far less labor required for bulk service, Reynolds thinks it’s a great choice for operations of all types to consider.

Talk to your suppliers about what you’d need—and if they can’t help, look elsewhere.

Don’t assume you can’t explore bulk service because your suppliers won’t be able to deliver what you need. When Fallbrook serves up chili, for example, they require an ounce and a half of grains to complete the meal for federal guidelines. Their “local tortilla man” is happy to make and bag up those little servings of chips, Reynolds says, so her team can stay focused on making their chili.

But not every conversation has gone that way. In fact, most haven’t—so Fallbrook looked to an unexpected source for a win-win relationship.

“Overall, we’ve had a horrible time finding what we need from suppliers,” Reynolds says. “So we purchase a ton from our local supermarket because they pack it the way we need right now.”

The grocery is “happy to bend over backward” to get Fallbrook what it needs, Reynolds says, “because if they know they can move $12,000 worth of product to us on Tuesday, they can give people more hours that day. It’s a lifesaver for us while also providing a small benefit to the community to get people some work.”

Peek into the freezer and pantry for inspiration.

When Fallbrook’s team decided to formalize its bulk program, staffers took an inventory: “We just said, ‘What’s in our freezer now, what do we need to use up, what’s coming in from USDA —and what can we create?” Reynolds says. “Now we sit and do our monthlong menus based on all of that.”

Also consider taking the reverse approach: What don’t we have? Are there any favorites we haven’t served in a while? Recently, a member of the Fallbrook staff recalled pulled pork hadn’t been on the menu for a while, so they put together a meal kit for a Carnitas Tamale Pie made with corn muffin mix, chopped green chiles, red pepper, enchilada sauce and more—and it was a huge hit with families.

Consider customers’ home environments.

Bulk meals are convenient in that customers receive multiple servings in a single pickup or delivery—but it’s not always convenient to store all that food. Before spring break at Fallbrook, for example, the food staff is planning an 11-day serve. 

“We have some families coming in with two children in a house, and some coming in with eight living in apartments,” Reynolds says. “So, we try to think: if they have a lot of kids and little storage, how can we make this work?”

Sometimes it means offering that 5-pound chicken wing meal in a bag so it’s more flexible to store compared to a rigid container. Or if the week’s menu includes orange juice, which requires refrigeration, the team will offer shelf-stable apple juice when possible. And switching to whole produce rather than pre-cut servings means tomatoes, pineapples and onions can hang out on counters for a while instead of going right in the fridge.

“We think about this a lot, but some point we have let to go a little because we can’t serve in the perfect way for thousands of families and homes,” Reynolds says. “But if we can work on some tweaks that make mealtimes that much easier for some families, that’s a real win.”

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