Change always comes with obstacles, opportunities, challenges and triumphs; certainly the 2017-2018 school year has been replete with changes for the Child Nutrition Department. This year marks the beginning of a partnership with Sodexo School Services to provide meals for the students, staff, and faculty for Tahlequah Public Schools. From day one there were questions about what to expect from this bold new venture. While there have been stumbling blocks and even a few failures, I can say with confidence that the overall quality of our food service operation has improved and continues to make strides for higher levels of excellence.
One of the biggest changes to happen to Child Nutrition was the increased variety available to all customers. Students, faculty, and staff at the elementary schools now have twice as many entrée options for lunch as they did before. Middle and high schools offer up to 5 times more lunch entrée choices at a variety of different concepts; now a guest can get a sandwich made to order on a freshly baked sub roll, enjoy comfort foods from a variety of different cuisines, grab a burger and some fries, or even get a slice of pizza made and baked in the very same school they are attending. Additionally, the partnership with Sodexo allows the Child Nutrition Department to receive bread delivered fresh weekly, as well as produce from locally-sourced vendors, if such items are available. The new menus also came with new marketing, transforming the serving line into Elementary Clubhouses, turning the grill into the Honor Roll at the middle school, and making things caliente at the high School Salsa concept. In fact, the demand increased so much at the high school (compared to last year), we had to open a third point of service.
Another big change occurring this year was the conversion of the snack program to a more-filling supper meal. Students receiving afterschool meals are now getting a more substantial offering, meaning they won’t have the “hungries” when they get home from school. Each meal is designed to ensure every child is offered all of the basic components to make a meal, and a positive collateral effect has been the daily exposure of fresh fruits and vegetables to students. The supper menus have even expanded to include hot items like grilled cheese sandwiches and pepperoni pizza. As we move forward with the supper program, we will continue to seek ways to expand and improve this very important service.
Behind the scenes has been a changing landscape as well. This year is the first with a combined labor force; while the school district provided all of the manpower needed to prepare and serve all meals in prior years, virtually every school has a blended family of Tahlequah Public School and Sodexo employees. Even the duties and responsibilities of managing the food service operation are shared between a Tahlequah Pubic Schools representative and a Sodexo partner. As with any new family there were adjustments to be made and questions to be answered, but time has proven to be the essential ingredient in making our schools “One Best Team.” To be honest, we no longer have “employees’; each member of the Child Nutrition Department is an ambassador who is charged with preparing wholesome, top-quality meals, providing the very best guest service, and making everything happen in the cleanest, safest environment possible.
So what have these changes (and how we have handled them) meant to the food service program? Our bold venture has led to increases in meals served year-over-year (including adult meals). Students are excited again about lunch and the choices they have. We still have challenges to overcome, namely increasing breakfast participation, but this is just an opportunity in disguise. As we continue to build the best team, provide the best service, and offer the best products, we will come closer to our ultimate goal – to feed every child every meal every day. Change, in the case of Tahlequah’s partnership with Sodexo, is a really great thing.