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School Foodservice Pressure

Providers prepare healthier menu items to time-starved students


From the need to produce healthier meals to feeding time-starved students, the pressure on school foodservice has never been greater. In order for K-12 foodservice to thrive, though, operators will need to leverage smart foodservice equipment packages and strengthen their supply chain relationships. To help facilitate both, the Illinois School Nutrition Association will host an equipment-only event Jan. 26-27 in Utica, Ill.RHS-Grab-N-GolowresTo help students get their food in a timely manner, many school districts now employ various grab-and-go options featuring healthier menu items.

Tracie Suter, SMS, assistant director of nutrition services for Bolingbrook, Ill.-based Valley View Public Schools and state president of the Illinois School Nutrition Association, spoke to FE&S about current foodservice issues. (Watch for a more in-depth story about school foodservice in the January issue of FE&S).

FE&S: How has school foodservice evolved in the past five years?

TS: School meals were pretty significantly overhauled beginning with the 2012-13 school year. USDA mandates presented a challenge for some, but I think this caused us to really take a different approach to how we were servicing our customers. Increased numbers of fruits and vegetables, lower sodium products, and whole grains forced school food operators to look at what they were currently doing and make some changes so that they were able to maintain participation and customer satisfaction.

FE&S: Describe how those changes affected your operations.

TS: We saw a resurgence of salad bars, alternative serving solutions, grab and go models and stand-alone kiosks to accommodate different methods of serving. Fresher and healthier items began surfacing and finding new and innovative ways to prepare and enhance foods became the norm. Scratch and speed scratch cooking, made-for-you meals, ‘flavor stations’ in front of the house and back of the house are popular as foodservice operators are learning to cook once again, often adding herbs and spices instead of sodium to flavor the products they are preparing. I feel that we’ve grown so much as an industry. Though it was not always easy, we have become better business partners with our industry members — from brokers to manufacturers, to other operators. We’ve banded together to move forward together for the good of our customers. More than ever I have seen inclusiveness and cohesiveness like never before.

FE&S: In what ways will school foodservice operators look to leverage their equipment packages to help meet those challenges?

TS: Now more than ever is a time for schools to reach out to their equipment manufacturers and brokers to find out what is available. Gone are the days where an operator would buy one piece of equipment for one cooking process. There have been so many advances in technology and equipment is much more flexible than it was just 5 or 10 years ago. I have seen foodservice operators shy away from equipment because they’re intimidated in what they don’t know, but all of the changes in our menus and preparation techniques have encouraged changes in equipment to meet those needs.

FE&S:  How are school foodservice directors or operators working with their supply chain partners to help move their businesses forward?

TS: Reducing inventories (ex: using speed scratch items that can be used in several applications), being a good business partner by communicating needs, product usage and providing more robust, accurate bids. School foodservice has become such a special niche, serving products that cannot be sold across other channels. We need to recognize this and be willing to think outside the box, adjust the way we’ve always operated in the past and work together for a mutually beneficial relationship.