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How K-12 operators find strength in partnerships

In early 2014, Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Nutrition Support Services faced a significant challenge: the prospect that its already cash-strapped budget might reach a breaking point if the City Council passed a ban on polystyrene products. That ban would have required the school system to switch its cafeteria trays to a version that was more expensive by about 11 cents—which, in a school district serving 400,000 students, adds up quickly. “For us, a penny is a million dollars,” says Leslie Fowler, director of Nutrition Support Services. “And every million dollars is 12 teachers.” It seemed an impossible obstacle. dining woman students

But CPS was able to make the switch anyway, thanks to a new purchasing partnership it had entered into called the Urban School Food Alliance, or USFA. Combining the buying powers of six of the nation’s largest school districts—Chicago, New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade and Orange County, Fla.—the Alliance negotiated rates for environmentally friendly trays down to five cents each, just a single-cent increase over polystyrene.

Collectives like the USFA come in all shapes and sizes. Neighboring school districts team up to leverage their local buying power and reduce the cost of creating a new regional supply line. Some schools are developing cross-segment partnerships with local operators at colleges and universities, corporations or hospitals, all of which have a stake in the nutritional development of school-age children.

The USFA perhaps is the best known and most successful of these partnerships, demonstrating the challenges and successes of purchasing coalitions. Here’s how the six member districts are making it work—one obstacle at a time.

Goals and challenges

The USFA launched out of the desire among these large urban school districts to do more with their foodservice programs—and to do it better. Fowler says the need became clear to her at a School Nutrition Association conference, as she realized that most of the hundreds of schools in attendance didn’t operate the way CPS does. When FSDs shared advice and operational techniques, she says, the news wasn’t particularly applicable to her own district. “There was really no way for major school districts to share best practices,” she says.

Eric Goldstein, USFA chairman and CEO of New York City’s Office of School Support Services, says a general frustration also existed among these major city school districts, rooted in their inability to procure the volume of healthier ingredients they wanted or influence any of the conversations about national school food standards. There was a sense that these school systems had the potential to wield power in those conversations. “Urban centers have our own needs and have been ignored in [these] debates,” Goldstein says.

Goals and challenges (cont.)

But, of course, there were real challenges to building the kind of coalition necessary to achieve all of this; namely, the implicit limitations of linking six major school districts, each with its own state and local administrative red tape. “It’s hard enough to do things in one bureaucracy,” Goldstein says. So, Fowler explains, the six districts have worked together to identify common priorities and goals, as well as figuring out how to work around regulations. Some states, for example, don’t allow districts to piggyback with other locales in procurement, so in those states the USFA had to write a letter of memorandum.

And while there’s strength in numbers when it comes to purchasing, USFA leaders note that size also can become a challenge. “Getting six school districts to agree on something is hard enough,” Fowler says. The coalition has to hit a sweet spot of being big enough to swing the market in their favor, but small enough to be able to find agreement and align priorities among all of the districts.

Collective successes

There was good reason to celebrate last summer when all six districts of the USFA ditched their ubiquitous polystyrene trays in favor of compostable plates made of recycled newsprint. National news media described the move as “revolutionary”—because these schools serve a combined 2.5 million meals per day, the environmental benefit was significant.

But while replacing the trays is one of the Alliance’s most notable successes, it’s not the only achievement. In late 2014, all six school districts switched to purchasing antibiotic-free chicken out of concern for children’s health. As Reuters noted at the time, such a move would drive costs higher because mortality rates are generally higher in antibiotic-free flocks. But the Alliance’s purchasing power helped negate that price increase, and allowed the six schools to let health, rather than budgetary limits, guide their choices.

Collective successes (cont.) 

The ability to share information also has been a key win. Both Goldstein and Fowler praised the conversations their respective school districts have undertaken to share best practices. Fowler says that her staff came back to Chicago reinvigorated after meeting with Goldstein’s New York City team. The districts are so different, she says, but CPS still was able to glean valuable insight into how NYC Public Schools manages its synergies and efficiencies, benchmarks for staffing levels and productivity, procurement practices and even menu development through rigorous taste-testing.

In return, CPS is known for its strong marketing program, and has shared techniques—such as branding for its dining center—with other schools in the Alliance. Sharing these practices helps each district not only to be at the cutting edge, but also to know where that edge is in the first place. After all, the school food realm can be such a segmented space, Fowler says, that “you don’t know how good or bad you are.”

Cross-segment partnerships

Though most of the tightest partnerships have cropped up between school districts, some operators are crossing segments to work with leaders in higher education, healthcare and corporate foodservice. “In the long term, we need to collaborate,” says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Soon, he says, these grade school students will become customers at colleges and universities. Then, they’ll take jobs and dine at corporate cafeterias, and inevitably will end up in hospitals or senior living. It’s to the ultimate benefit of operators in those segments to get to know this new generation of diners now, Toong says. “We need to work closer together.”

UMass Dining has led the way on that front, first partnering with the public school system in Chicopee, Mass. Toong explains that both the university and the school system were dealing with the same customers more than once per day, and therefore faced a common problem: how to make each day’s menu more exciting. Under UMass’s tutelage, Chicopee was able to introduce new concepts that were exciting to a younger demographic—like tacos, sushi or stir-fry—and prepare them to meet federal nutrition standards and the district’s own goals. After Chicopee schools implemented these menu changes, student participation increased by 10%.

Cross-segment partnerships (cont.)

That success caught the eye of Boston Public Schools, which approached Toong about another potential partnership. Still in a pilot phase, UMass Dining is now working with the Boston Arts Academy on creating similar changes to its menu—moving away from reheated proteins and whole fruits and vegetables to a focus on cooking—as well as developing the skills of a staff that was not really trained in cooking. Though the school’s typical lunchtime participation hovered around 55%, Toong says the day UMass Dining took over the cafeteria with soft tacos, stir-fry, sushi and smoothies, participation was greater than 100%—staff and faculty came to eat, too. “The principal was so delighted,” he says.

Toong also has been teaching the two public school systems about best practices for procurement, and hooking them up with some of the local farms that also are UMass Dining vendors. When produce is in season, he notes, it’s cheaper to buy local anyway since you’re cutting out the middleman. And since UMass already has established a supply line, it’s easy enough for K-12 districts to piggyback off of that.

Going forward

Though Toong admits there’s no real short-term benefit for UMass Dining in partnering with the K-12 segment, he hopes to see the relationships with Chicopee and Boston Public Schools grow in the coming years. “We believe food is a great way to build community,” he says. Maybe some of those students will apply to UMass. And he’s looking to charitable organizations to help support partnerships that improve both operations and food quality.

Meanwhile, the Urban School Food Alliance is moving ahead with new goals. Though each municipality still undertakes everyday purchasing on its own, Fowler says the USFA always is looking at places where its members might be able to team up. They’re comparing the top 20 ingredients purchased in each district to identify alignments, and even discussing planting partnerships in which the districts based in Florida and California would grow extra produce for those with shorter planting seasons, such as Chicago and New York. Beyond that, the USFA has taken public stances on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2015, signaling a willingness flex its political power.

Going forward (cont.)

And though the Urban School Food Alliance is limited to these six major districts, Goldstein says the organization aims to help other schools as well. Likening these procurement improvements to a sailing race, he explains that “we can create a wake and it’ll make for an easier ride” for other operators. He encourages other school districts to reach out to the USFA (many already have done so) for tips on creating their own procurement partnerships. As the urban school districts learned just years ago in creating their coalition, it was something they had to make happen on their own. “No one was going to ride to the rescue,” Goldstein says.

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