Q&A: Melanie Konarik, director of child nutrition services Spring Independent School District, Houston, Texas

The 2,400 students at Dekaney High School in Houston, Texas, have high expectations when it comes to lunchtime. Fortunately, the district has made a point of expanding the options it makes available to students.

Dekaney High School added drop down lights and updated colors to create more eye appeal for its serving lines."The kids look for food similar to the area's fast food and other restaurants, which many of them work at," says Melanie Konarik, director of child nutrition services for Spring Independent School District in Houston, Texas, of which Dekaney High is a part. "We look at what these restaurants are offering and develop healthier recipes for these items in our school cafeterias."

To broaden the appeal of its foodservice program, the district redesigned its scatter-system cafeterias to include themed food concept lines. "Dekaney High is very diverse, with about 75 percent of the student body qualifying for free or reduced meals," Konarik says. "The demographic has helped us determine the type of food we offer."

FE&S spoke with Konarik about how Dekaney High School is successfully meeting the needs of its mixed student body.

FE&S: Describe the changes in Dekaney High School's foodservice program.

MK: The serving lines are divided into themes. Before the renovation, the lines were not as specialized. We had snack bars, and the a la carte items were separate and more limited.

FE&S: Can you describe the themes and menu items in Dekaney's revamped lunch offerings?

MK: There is a Tex-Mex line, sandwich line with food prepared in front of the students and a grill line with burgers and spicy grilled chicken sandwiches, which are a best seller. There also is a pizza line where kids select slices with different toppings. We always offer cheese pizza and two other varieties, like pepperoni or Hawaiian with ham and pineapple. This station also has calzones and whole-grain pasta dishes, including spaghetti and mac and cheese. We have a line that provides fresh salad and fruit bowls. The Asian food line has entrees, such as sweet and sour chicken, teriyaki chicken with broccoli and mandarin orange chicken, in addition to sides like brown rice and spring rolls.

FE&S: The kitchen layout is unique. Describe the equipment that is integral to the menu.

MK: We have a long, 5,500-square-foot kitchen that is narrow, so as a result, workers have designated areas. Our cookline includes 6 convection ovens, 2 new combi ovens, a blast chiller, 2 steamers, a 30-quart mixer, a 60-quart kettle, a braiser, a food processor and a microwave. Pass-thrus are situated between the kitchen and the cookline for warming and cooling food items. There also is a griddle area with a grill and heated drawers that also includes a conveyor oven for pizza.

FE&S: In a high school kitchen, efficiency is key. How does your production process facilitate speed of service?

MK: There is minimal on-site preparation. We use prechopped vegetables, and lunch meat arrives presliced. We have to carefully watch portions, due to federal school lunch regulations. Also, because quick cooking is important, we batch cook most of our foods. To ensure consistency, staff uses steamers to prepare frozen vegetables and conveyor ovens to cook our pizza.

FE&S: What piece of equipment is most invaluable to your operations?

MK: Because government regulations mandate that we bake instead of fry, combi ovens have helped increase the quality of breaded items such as chicken nuggets. These ovens also are effective in reheating leftovers.

FE&S: What other changes have been made to your menu due to the government's school nutrition regulations?

MK: We now have to offer more healthy items that the children haven't tried, and it can be a challenge to get them to eat these foods. We've added more dark green vegetables, like spinach, to the menu.

FE&S: Have you altered the front-of-house aesthetics to enhance the food appeal?

MK: We have a serving line with drop-down lights to make food look more attractive. Although we had two pizza serving lines, due to the kitchen design, we could only have drop-down lights on one. Even though the lines were exactly the same with the exception of the lighting, we found that the kids would stand in the line with drop-down lights longer. The ambiance attracted them.

FE&S: How do you see high school foodservice evolving in the years ahead?

MK: About 15 years ago, there would be one lunch period for all students that would include food carts, which were eventually eliminated.

 

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