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From the Superintendent's Desk...

What’s for lunch today at school?

 

OPAA!

 

Opaa! is not a food.  Opaa! is the name of the food service management company that the Ravenna Public School District has contracted with for food services for the 2017-18 school year.  Opaa! is a family-owned and operated company that is based in Chesterfield, Missouri that has been serving students and schools since 1978.  They serve over a 100 school districts in several states.

 

After subsidizing the lunch fund from the general fund for several years, the school district was looking for a way to eliminate the need to subsidize the lunch program with tax dollars.  An ideal school breakfast and lunch program is one that is “self sustaining”.  In other words, a school lunch program should be able to generate enough revenue through the sale of breakfasts and lunches to pay for food nutrition program employees’ salaries, supplies, food, repairs, equipment and other operational expenses.  Unfortunately, even after making several modifications and a reduction in staff during the 2016-17 school year, the school was unable to make the program “self sufficient.”  As a result, the school district requested bids from food service management companies in order to help eliminate the need to spend tax dollars on the school nutrition program.  Opaa! was the company that won the bid, and guaranteed that the school nutrition program would have no deficit and no corresponding subsidy using tax dollars for the 2017-18 school year.

 

The change over to the new school lunch program, has generated questions, which I have attempted to answer below.  Please know that if you have additional concerns or questions, I’d be happy to answer those for you.  You can email me at <ken.schroeder@ravennabluejays.org> or call me at 308-470-0502.

 

Why did the school go to a contracted food service company?

The primary motivator was to make the program more cost effective for the school district.  A second, but also very strong motivator was to provide for greater selection and variety in the items offered to students.  With the new program, students have 3 entrée choices each day.  Student also have access to an ala carte program, which will slowly grow in choices and offerings as the program grows. Additionally, they have access to free lemonade and tea, instead of just milk or water.

 

Has there been any change in staff in the lunch program as a result of the change to a food service management company?

No.  The kitchen staff are an excellent group of employees.  The superintendent specified that all kitchen staff had to be retained in order for the change to occur.  An Opaa! company requirement is that the kitchen manager be employed by Opaa!.  So even though the kitchen manager was retained, she is now employed by the Opaa! rather than the school.

 

Are there additional rules and regulations to follow as a result of the change to using a food service management company?

Absolutely.  The change to a food service management company has meant much change for the kitchen staff, secretarial staff, and administration.  There is far more paperwork involved and much more work to do in the kitchen area.  The USDA and Nebraska Department of Education are heavily involved in such ventures and provide strict regulatory oversight of such operations.  Their oversight attributes greatly to the increased work load for all involved in the school nutrition program.

 

 

How long will the school use the services of a contracted food service management company?

The contract between the school and the food service management company is a 1-year contract, which is renewable each year for up to 5 years.  If the school district is unhappy with the service of the company, they can get out of the contract after the 1-year period.

 

How has the transition to a food service management company been for the kitchen staff, administration, and secretarial staff?

Rocky.  It has not been a smooth transition.  We have encountered about every imaginable problem from bread that does rise, to spices that don’t taste right, recipes that are incorrect, paperwork errors, billing errors, etc..  However, this situation is not different from many others that we experience at the school.  When something isn’t right, we roll up our sleeves and work hard to fix it.  Keeping in mind that the program is only a couple of months old and that it holds the capacity to relieve a portion of our tax payers’ burden, we are resolved to make the program successful.

 

Will the parents and students have the opportunity to offer input on the new program?

Definitely.  Opaa! will survey students twice a year about ways to improve the program.  A NDE Nutrition Service requirement is that there be an advisory committee created that is comprised of student and parents.  If you are a parent who is willing and able to serve on this committee, you can contact the school and volunteer to be on this advisory panel.  Recently all 7th-12th grade students were emailed by the superintendent and asked to provide feedback.  There were solid emails generated by approximately 20 students with great ideas for making needed improvements.  The school loves input from students and parents on how to make things better.

 

Does my kid get less to eat than she or he did in the past?

Yes and no.  Some of the entrees are smaller than they were previously.  But some of the entrees are the exact same entrée.  A chicken patty is a good example of this.  It’s the same chicken patty we have served for years.  The entrees that are smaller are so because they now conform to the nutritional guidelines we are held to by the USDA.  Also, a company that is trying to make money by selling food isn’t going to put anymore food on the tray than they have to in order to meet the USDA requirements.  They are running a business.  They are trying to make money.  However, even though some of entrées are slightly smaller, students can literally take as much fresh fruits and vegetables as they wish to eat, provided they eat the items they have chosen.  So, no student should go away hungry.  Student who only want the main entrée and larger portions of the main entrée may walk away from lunch hungry.  But the student who takes the main entrée, loads up on fresh fruits and vegetables, has a second entrée, and/or has an ala carte item or two has NO chance of being hungry.

 

Can my kids get seconds?

Yes.  They can get seconds on main entrees, sides, and anything from the fresh fruit and veggie bar.  This is one of the problems that students have pointed out to us.  Namely, when they go to get seconds on items there aren’t enough available.  The school is working to improve on this problem and is backed by Opaa!.  The company has stated, “Have the kitchen staff make enough food to ensure all students can purchase their first entrée choice, even if we have to throw away food.  Opaa! would rather throw food away than not have enough to ensure students get their first entrée choice.”  I understand where the concept of throwing away food offends our Midwestern sensibilities.  However, we have to remember, they are running a business.  Think about how much food McDonalds, Runza, Burger King, etc., throw away each day.  Opaa!, like these restaurant chains, is running a for profit venutre and figures food waste into their operational costs.  The school always wants students to have access to what they want to eat when they go through the lunch line.  Doing so is good for students health and well-being and it is good for the school’s bottom line.

 

My kids are starving when they come home from practice.  Are they getting enough at lunch?

The concern of students not having enough calories, particularly those who are involved in extra curricular activities and are at school all day and into the early evening has always been a concern.  It was a concern before Opaa! came to the school, and it has been a concern in every school I have ever worked in, particularly during the Obama-era spearheaded overhaul of the school lunch program.  The other compounding factor in this equation is that some teenagers are simply never full.  I won’t name any names, but I have a child who is constantly hungry and would likely eat anytime you put something in front of him.  He’s a very active, growing boy.  I understand this entirely.  I’m living it.  A solid suggestion is to encourage your student to have a store of granola bars or to bring fruit with them to school.  They can eat these items right after school and before heading to practice.  When my students come home from school on the nights they don’t have a school activity immediately after school, they eat a snack, to get them through until the 6:00 supper.  Most practices end at 6:00 or 6:30 so it is perfectly logical that students who don’t eat an after school snack are “starving” when they arrive at home at 6:30 to eat.  Pack a snack.  Stick it in your locker.  Eat it before practice.

 

Are the menus going to get more variety?  It seems like the same stuff?

Yes.  The USDA requires that the first 21-day menu cycle be set at the start of the school year.  Opaa! then collects the information about what students do and don’t like for the purpose of using that data to create menus for the future.  You can imagine, it takes a couple of menu cycles and looking at this data to understand what should be placed on the menus.  The other thing to consider is the fact that since they are a company who is trying to earn money, they want to serve students what they will eat and in turn what they will purchase to eat.  Another strong way to get this information from students is by talking to students and surveying them regarding their meal preferences, which is what the school and Opaa! plan to do in the future.

 

How long will it take to make positive changes in the lunch program and to have it running like a well-oiled machine?

Christmas.  It will likely take several more months to work out all of the kinks in the program.  Opaa! serves over 100 schools.  So, they buy their products on contracts and in large value to get a lower price.  Think Wal-Mart.  If they get a bad product, like the one we had in the form of bread items that would not rise, it can take several weeks to work with the vendor, negotiate, make the change, communicate the change to Opaa! employees, and create the positive change.  They move slower as a large company than the school does when it was in charge of its own program.  That’s part of the “give and take” of using a contracted food service management company to save money: the school will necessarily be slower in creating positive change for students than it was before because there is now a third party involved in that change.  4 months sounds like a lot of time to work out all of the bugs in a program, but I honestly believe that is how long it will take.

 

These are the majority of the questions and concerns I have encountered with the program thus far.  If you have further questions or concerns about the school nutrition program, I would love to hear from you at <ken.schroeder@ravennalbuejays.org> or at (308) 470-0502.  By instituting this new program, I am trying to simultaneously save taxpayers money and to provide more selection for our students in the lunch program.  This has not been a smooth or easy process, but I am confident I can get the job done for the benefit of our children and for the benefit of our taxpayers.

 

 

 

 

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