Q&A: Dennis Gomez, district manager, and Tom Hoagland, general manager, operations, Rhode Island School District

Heading into the 2008-09 school year, the State of Rhode Island wanted to improve nutrition in its foodservice operation. To achieve this goal, the state sought ways to add more fruits and vegetables to the menu in a way that was appealing to students, and to utilize as much locally grown product as possible.

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Fernhill-Veggie-LineFernhill Elementary SchoolIn the first year, the school district's foodservice management company, Aramark, rolled out its Cool*Caf fresh fruit and vegetable bar as a trial at six schools in the state. "Now, as we are going into the fifth year of the statewide program," says Dennis Gomez, Aramark's district manager, "there are now more than 20 Cool*Cafs statewide in 14 Rhode Island school district foodservice programs."

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FE&S spoke with Gomez and Tom Hoagland, Aramark's Rhode Island operations general manager, to discuss the Cool*Caf concept and the issues involved in incorporating more produce into K-12 foodservice programs.

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FE&S: Describe the Cool*Caf concept.

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TH: It is basically a four-foot-long self-serve salad bar. Produce is available on top of the counters with either one- or two-sided access. Items also can be served on refrigerated units with wheels or on existing counters and lines. There are between four and six vegetables and fruits offered daily on a rotating basis. During the fall, we offer two to three Rhode Island-grown items, such as cucumbers, squash, apples, peaches and plums. With Rhode Island's school lunch programs, children can choose up to three sides with every meal.

The produce creates a very colorful display.

FE&S: What were the challenges you faced in implementing this program?

DG: Having farms deliver the produce we needed and ensuring these businesses employed proper food agricultural practices were big issues. Farms are required to go through our supply chain so we know where all produce comes from. We also keep an eye out for recalls and food safety issues.

FE&S: How did you address the equipment needs of the schools to accommodate this program?

TH: One of the things we discovered quickly was how challenging, in many cases, the equipment options were in the schools' kitchens. We teamed up with the New England Dairy Board's Fuel Up to Play program, which offers grants to schools for encouraging healthy eating and exercise. We received up to $3,000 per grant for individual schools, which we split with the physical education department. With the foodservice share, we have been able to purchase eight new food processors that allow us to process large quantities of carrots, zucchini, cucumbers and other produce. We also looked to our supply chain for assistance. There is a Rhode Island company that processes fruits and vegetables from farms for us. This product, in turn, is sent to our national food distributor and delivered with other food and supplies.

FE&S: What were the equipment considerations with this concept?

TH: What we have tried to do is rebuild the service lines. When budgets allow, we replace entire lines. One school purchased a new four-well steam table with lights, a four-foot cold bar with internal refrigeration and lights, a refrigerator and a cashier stand. We are equipping and revamping with this concept in schools where we can spend the money. When school districts purchase foodservice equipment, it is about low bids. I am looking for equipment that works and is durable at the best price possible. Schools do not have the budgets to spec top-of-the-line units.

DG: We discovered rapidly that most kitchen equipment in school districts is very old. Some units have been around for 30 or 40 years. Implementation of this statewide program has led to considerable financial improvement in our school district's bottom line. By law, surpluses in the school lunch program have to be spent for the benefit of those programs, thus enabling the replacement of old kitchen equipment. For example, over the last two to three years, we replaced ovens, steamers, tilt skillets and refrigerators in three accounts, and more are in the works. We're letting equipment companies know that this is a target-rich environment. We hope to replace antiquated lines in almost all these districts and bring them into the 21st century.

FE&S: How are you addressing the USDA National School Lunch Program guidelines?

DG: We're seeing an increase in fresh fruit and vegetable bars in all school locations, whether with this concept or traditional countertop locations. We're promoting fresh produce, locally sourced and in season, wherever possible. The new USDA requirements haven't affected the way we work because, in most aspects, Rhode Island was already utilizing those standards. The combination of fresh, healthy food, marketing through the Cool*Cafs, higher participation and new, improved equipment has enabled the Rhode Island school districts to improve the image of school food and save money at the same time.

FE&S: How are storage issues being addressed?

TH: The very nature of perishable produce creates a storage issue. We try hard to bring it in as it's ripe. Most operations are centrally satellited out of local high schools or junior highs that have the storage capacity for these items. Processing and storage are ongoing challenges.

FE&S: What has been the overall impact of this concept?

TH: Children eat with their eyes, so the more attractive we can make it, the more they take it.

DG: Not only does this national program create fresh fruit and vegetable bars, but it helps build lunch program participation in schools. We've seen between a 5 percent and 10 percent increase in overall participation with this model, which builds revenue.

FE&S: How do you see fresh produce in school foodservice programs evolving in the future?

TH: I look forward to more years of success as we improve our supply chain for local produce, and we continue to upgrade the kitchens and serving areas. We intend to continue to enhance services and improve operating efficiencies, as other school districts join the statewide program. Specs and bids in our area are calling for locally grown produce. We've seen incredible increases in fresh fruit and vegetable production in Rhode Island since 2008-09. There is no doubt that kids enjoy eating it, parents and the community approve of it, and I think it's the wave of the future for school foodservice, not only in Rhode Island but also nationwide.

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