"Wait! Don't Rebuild That Kitchen."

I'm working with FE&S on this blog to share the story of how an independent school in Buffalo, N.Y., changed its food programs. As a consultant and CEO of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, my goal is to help create a food system that works for everyone. This cannot be done overnight. Complicated problems get fixed in complicated ways, but every success contributes to this change.

Nardin Front View with SignNardin Academy

Nardin Academy is a great example of a school that realizes true sustainability comes from addressing systems and does not happen in the blink of an eye. The school is moving to a self-operated kitchen to align its foodservice with Nardin's overall mission of being an innovative, community-oriented organization that instills in students a socially just mentality. Taking a closer look at this one school's experience of turning into a sustainable self-operating system may help other members of the foodservice community realize that with a little devotion and passion it is not that difficult to change school food programs.

The story starts with the kitchen. Nardin Academy's administration and students had begun questioning how their cafeteria impacted the environment and what it would take to offer students more wholesome food to nourish their bodies and minds. In 2012, the foodservice provider suggested remodeling the kitchen would be the answer to quality issues. So Nardin Academy hired an architect, and the foodservice provider brought in an equipment company who worked with the architect to design a $500,000-plus kitchen.

After seeing this price tag, Business Manager Leslie Johnson wanted to see an example of similar projects. Leslie surveyed the local landscape of school kitchens that had recently undergone renovations and scheduled some visits. When Leslie described this experience to me she said she just felt funny. She saw shiny new kitchens serving the same food. She knew something was wrong but did not know what.

At the same time, a friend's sister had been following my career for the past 10 years. It turns out she had children enrolled at Nardin Academy, and she suggested Leslie call me. So Leslie did, right before she was going to pitch the board about building a new kitchen.

Like most consultants, when I begin working with a new client I suggest doing an assessment of their current capabilities. The assessment represents a critical first step because there is no other way to create realistic, relevant goals for a client, within their financial aims, without knowing their starting point.

I've noticed that organizations can be hesitant about an assessment. If they are hitting their numbers they assume that everything is working fine. The decision makers who would decide to do an assessment are usually the ones who hired the foodservice company or oversee their internal food program. An assessment could mean exposing the true status of their food quality and waste. But Leslie was able to look past the financials and understood that a strategy needed to be built from more than a "just get started" or "just build a new kitchen" mentality.

We assessed Nardin Academy's foodservice operations in January of 2013, generating both a quantitative and qualitative view on how the kitchen was run and what preferences existed for the students. Once people look at numbers, they are always surprised to see how much of the food being served is processed or how much waste the operation could divert. The Nardin Academy administration knew that things could be better, but the assessment really put the situation into perspective. They were able to see what needed changing with the kitchen, and it was deeper than equipment or design issues.

In my next post I will talk in more detail about the Nardin Academy assessment and what happened after they had the results.