Building Better School Cafeterias

There's no question the school foodservice landscape has changed dramatically in the last year and continues to do so. In fact, many trends and movements in school foodservice have opened up new, untapped areas for designers and management advisory services consultants, from creating college-level serveries to helping reduce waste through more scratch cooking and other initiatives.

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Better Quality Food

"The whole premise is to bring restaurant quality food to foodservice management," says Jonas Falk, creator and CEO of OrganicLife, a 7-year-old school foodservice provider and catering company serving hundreds of schools in Illinois that's reached $20 million revenues and 300 employees with plans for further expansion in the Midwest. Falk, who attended high school in a northern suburb of Chicago, remembered the dismal cafeteria lunches prepared with, for the most part, frozen, processed food.

While a student in Michigan State University's hospitality program, Falk came up with the idea to transform school cafeterias into college-level serveries with branded restaurants and the type of food both students enjoy when they're not in school. To prepare for the venture, Falk clocked time in the kitchens of four-star Le Francais and Les Nomades in Chicago under legendary chef Roland Liccioni, who serves as the company's executive chef, and ran a commissary-catering kitchen in Wheeling to build up his client list at the elementary level.

"When you walk into a typical high school cafeteria, things have barely changed over all these years," he says. "Our whole mission was to bring a high-end food court atmosphere to the schools we serve with restaurant-style branded concepts."

Thanks to the sophistication and diversity of the menu, the cafeterias Falk creates resemble a gourmet food court in a shopping mall or airport rather than a traditional school foodservice operation. For example, the dining options include Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches, build-your-own rice bowls and burritos, Mediterranean salads and hand-tossed pizzas and pasta.

As a result of Falk's success and other factors impacting this segment, many designers now see high schools as a relatively untapped market. Why shouldn't students be able to enjoy high-quality, fresh and nutritious meals?

Whether designing a new facility or overhauling an existing one, the process tends to be pretty fast — just 30 days — compared to other segments, Falk says. "Most schools don't have the budget or time for a deep reconstruction, but most of them have these gorgeous kitchens that they've never used much before because most don't do any actual cooking, just reheating."

Going back to scratch cooking means using more ranges, convection ovens and other basic equipment. And, depending on the menu mix and service style, school foodservice operators may look to include other equipment items such as specialty pizza ovens and induction burners that allow for out-front cooking. Naturally, additional cold storage to house fresh ingredients is a must. "We may use more employees to cook food like this, but oftentimes using fresh vegetables and having a cook scramble eggs to order is cheaper than opening a package of pre-scrambled eggs and reheating them," Falk says.

Reducing Waste

Of course, when transitioning to a scratch cooking environment, school foodservice operators need to be mindful of managing waste appropriately. This includes seizing the opportunity to reduce packaging and food waste.

"Buying in bulk is the first step to reducing packaging waste before service even begins," says Greg Christian, founder of Beyond Green Partners, a sustainable foodservice consultancy. "We are buying a lot of to-go containers and plastic bags and these are made with paper and oil and get shipped around the world."

Beyond that, many school foodservice operators still participate in cupping, which means taking pre-prepared and pre-prepped foods like chopped fruit and vegetables and spooning them into individual containers for students to pick up on a line. That leads to pounds of waste — often plastic — thrown out each day.

"People say they don't have time to cook from scratch but they're wasting time elsewhere, like with cupping," Christian says. Sizing down the menu can make bulk-buying and cooking from scratch easier. "Instead of four entrée choices a day, maybe you have two choices," he says.

Montgomery School (K-8) in Chester Springs, Pa., has done away with individual portion sizing all-together, using a family-style serving setup where two children out of the eight at each table are tasked with being the "waiters" for the week and other students help set up the placemats. A small area off the kitchen also includes a fresh salad bar and some grab-and-go items like peanut butter sandwiches.

"Learning doesn't just have to happen in the classroom," says Stephen Schappert, food director for Metz Culinary Management, the onsite food management company that has worked with a school-created nutrition task force last year to continue to improve the quality of the food. "We try to inspire the kids to prepare them to succeed in life."

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