Cooking up nutritious success
Every school day Tim Woodley makes the short walk from his desk at the West Linn-Wilsonville Department of Operations across the adjoining parking lot to the Athey Creek Middle School cafeteria.
The school district's operations director, Woodley waits in the lunch line with the rest of the student body until it's his turn to step forward and get a plate of whatever is on the menu that day.
Pizza Fridays and the teriyaki chicken with rice are his favorites, but regardless of what's for lunch, Woodley says he knows he's getting a good meal.
"I know that whatever it is it's healthy, good food," Woodley says. "I have a salad every day, I have whatever the entrée is and it's always hot, nutritious, quality stuff that
is fresh. It's a great place to eat."
The school district's Nutrition Services Department is somewhat unique from neighboring districts in that, at least for the past couple years, it's been profitable. With a budget that operates separate from the district's general fund, Woodley says the goal is for nutrition services to break even. When Woodley started with the district some 20 years ago the Food Services Department was managed by Sodexo — a national service management company. Woodley says the decision to hire an in-district manager in 2001 was the start of transforming the program into what kids enjoy today.
Despite the change, it took years until the nutrition program was breaking even financially. Woodley gives all the credit to Nutrition Services Manager Cynthia Abel, who led the program to begin climbing out of the red when she took over in 2006. Abel's last day was June 30, with her replacement taking over in the coming days, but she says she's proud to leave a well-established program as she departs for retirement.
While becoming financially self-sustaining was always a goal, Abel says her num-
ber one priority was c reating the healthiest, tastiest lunch for kids when she first started.
"If the program doesn't make money that means it comes out of the general fund, which means money coming out of the classrooms," she says. "We have to treat food services like a business. And businesses that don't have good customer service and good food, and good behind-the-scenes management of the books, they fail. At the same time, I think this district has always had a focus on healthy food, but it's taken us some time to figure out what's healthy and also palatable and tasty for kids."
Abel still remembers when the district first made the switch from white bread to wheat bread, which she says is indicative of the challenge that is balancing nutrition with taste. Through much trial and error she says the district has learned what kids like and enjoy. Each school's menu is unique on any given day, but Abel says the district tries to have a salad bar, complete with fruit, as well as a hot entrée. Over time they managed to cut down on food waste, as well as costs, and can now build a meal for a cost of approximately $1.
"Kids didn't buy sandwiches for six months when we made that switch, but they eventually developed a taste and pallet for healthier foods, and the sandwich is a good example of that," she says. "We learned that you just create a really simple, appealing, child-friendly salad bar. You always have to have lettuce, romaine blended with iceberg, to make it nutritious and pretty. You might have a simple fruit like apple slices instead of a whole apple, and so you serve simple things that are good for kids and they're actually going to eat."
The cost of lunch for students is $3.20 at the primary level and $3.45 at the middle and high level. Breakfast is also available on special request for $1.95, although Abel says breakfast participation is low. She says a high participation rate for the lunch program is key, because that indicates the food is desirable and the program is profitable.
"Participation is the big one, and so many factors go into making participation high. Working with schools, working with lunch schedules, making sure kids have enough to eat, making sure they have a place to eat, staffing in the cafeteria, supervision in the cafeteria — all of that comes into play," Abel says.
Things can get dicey when inclement weather causes school cancellations — as happened during multiple snow storms earlier this year — but Abel says her kitchen staff is well-versed at adjusting on the fly. When school is canceled the district donates food it won't be able to use. School kitchens also create their schedule at the beginning of the year to plan for potential hiccups that can arise.
"Our ladies are pretty great, they're well-trained and they're educated. They're efficient and experienced in the kitchen, so before summer we put blurbs on the menu that items are subject to change for field days or when we think there might be late changes," Abel says. "That way there can be substitutions because we want to utilize all of our inventory. We have hundreds of pounds of food in a school kitchen on a given day, and they end up with maybe 10 pounds of produce on the very last day of the year."
With school out for the summer, Abel says she frequently gets phone calls from community members wondering if there's a summer lunch program. While the district has had a summer program in the past, Abel says it's not financially viable without a community partner who can help with costs and provide labor to serve. The district would consider reinstating a summer program should the right partner come along, but Woodley is focused on continuing the positive momentum the Nutrition Department has going in the meantime.
"I would ask that for parents whose kids don't participate in school lunch, just give it a try. That's all I would ask. It's not what adults remember of school lunches," he says.