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Q&A: Ann Cooper, director of food services, Boulder Valley School District, Boulder, Colo.

It wasn't long ago that Colorado's Boulder Valley School District's foodservice program centered on highly processed food prepared in finishing kitchens.

About three years ago, however, the district did a complete 180 with its menu and production. Today, its 54 schools feed 30,000 students approximately 12,000 mostly from-scratch meals daily.

Boulder-Valley-SD-3To meet the government’s school nutrition requirements, all of Boulder Valley School District’s lunchrooms now include salad bars."Before I came on board six years ago, the district's parent group and president of the school board were initiating a change in the foodservice program," says Ann Cooper, Boulder Valley School District's director of food services. "In the last three years, since the new menu was implemented, school lunch participation has increased more than 16 percent."

FE&S spoke with Cooper about the turnaround and how it has impacted the Boulder Valley School District's foodservice program.

FE&S: When you joined the district, the foodservice program was overhauled. What did this entail?

AC: From my perspective, the best way to control payroll costs and control quality is to have centralized production. We first conducted a full assessment of the school district. We then took the first year to redo the infrastructure. This included remodeling three central kitchens. We also had to change our staffing in order to balance out on-site kitchen hours with hours in the production kitchen.

FE&S: Describe the remodeling process for the central kitchens.

AC: None of these kitchens were enlarged, so the remodels were mainly focused on adding production equipment for scratch cooking. We brought in steamers, convection ovens, tilt skillets and additional refrigeration. We looked for equipment that would help us produce quality food in large batches, like blast chillers with roll-in refrigeration and combi ovens.

FE&S: How do the schools' on-site kitchens support the menu?

AC: Although the three central kitchens handle the bulk of the prep and production, each school has a finishing kitchen with a rethermalizer, steamer, double-stack convection oven, triple sink, refrigeration and dishmachine.

FE&S: The central kitchen overhauls preceded the planned menu changes. What changes were made to the food offerings after the renovations?

AC: Our former menu consisted of frozen and prepared food, including chicken nuggets, tater tots, corn dogs and burritos. Now we're offering healthier dishes made from scratch, such as oven-roasted chicken with brown rice, lasagna, chicken pot stickers, tamales, chicken fajitas and rice bowls with a side of farmer-fresh radish slaw. We also installed salad bars in all of our schools, which helps with compliance of federal nutrition requirements. As a result, the quality and flavor of the food is much improved. We are on a six-week menu cycle.

FE&S: The response to the menu changes was positive. What is the school lunch participation rate?

AC: School lunch participation is 45 percent for grade schoolers, 35 percent for middle schoolers and 17 percent for high school students. We only have 20 percent of the kids enrolled in the free and reduced meal programs.

FE&S: What is most unique about your foodservice program?

AC: Our school district has a catering department, which handles the lion's share of internal district events in addition to off-site parties and kid's events. We actually have a food truck that serves the high schools and is used for catering. These meals are reimbursable and are differentiated from our school lunch menu. Items include chicken quesadillas, charbroiled burgers and pulled pork sandwiches.

FE&S: What are the biggest challenges districts are faced with in terms of school foodservice?

AC: There are five main issues that most school districts face. These include sourcing food; financing food costs and overhead; lack of facilities or limited kitchen space; human resource issues that include training staff to cook rather than heat; and educating the children by properly marketing the foodservice program. Although our food costs are a bit higher now, as a percentage, the payroll costs are a bit lower, so it's balanced out.

FE&S: The Boulder School District has other changes in the works. What are your plans for the year ahead?

AC: Starting this year, we will be building one centrally located, 25,000-square-foot kitchen for the entire district to replace our three central kitchens. This is a two-year project. In addition to utilizing the current equipment in our three central kitchens, we'll be purchasing a lot of new units, including roll-in combis, roll-in blast chillers, tilt skillets, big steam kettles and large mixers.