Seattle Schools' Nutrition Services Report Released

The district released the report that they commissioned on their Nutrition Services department.  (I already read it earlier this week from a source.)  Pegi McEvoy just did an overview presentation to the Board which sought to make the report look better than it is.  She said the consultants said that they have seen operations where the recommendation was "burn it to the ground" and that is not the case here.  The report also compliments the professionalism and genuine caring of the nutrition services staff.

Here's the report.

My big picture view?  
Providing food service is part of the district's job.  They actually can make money on it.  For free/reduced lunch service students (well, most of them), it may be two of the meals they get in a day.  Both from a health perspective and an academic perspective, well-fed students do better, both in the classroom and the playground.

The district is probably losing money on this department and there is no reason it has to be that way.

There are many things in this report that will come as no surprise to many SPS parents.  However, it is distressing to read them here because it means that the district is ignoring what Nutrition Services AND parents AND students have been saying is important for a school cafeteria.

What is the bottom line?  

Students are not getting the nutrition they need in a timely manner, with some students getting less access to food than others, with food being less-than-visually appealing and less-than-tasty.  Nutrition staff are dealing with equipment from the '60s.  And, for whatever reason, the most popular items are not available every day.
SPS Board Student Wellness Policy (3405) states:
Students have equitable access to healthy foods and potable water throughout the school day—both through reimbursable school meals and other foods available throughout the school campus that meet or exceed Federal and state nutrition standards; Students are given adequate time to obtain and consume meals in an environment that encourages healthy eating...
If you read the report, this is not what is truly happening in Seattle Schools and it seems to be the direct outcome from unfunded this program, both with resources and people as well as proper organization.  I note that the report states that there are"a number of online, free resources" that the district could use.

What did they find?

Good Things

- the union (Local 609) and Nutrition Services both recognized the value of professional certification.
- a self-serve salad bar is available in all Seattle public schools.
In many cases, the consulting team observed SPS students eager to select something from the salad bar and doing so without prompting by cafeteria staff.

The Not-so-Good

- Even though district enrollment has grown, the numbers of free/reduced lunch students has been fairly steady (between 18-21,000.)  participation in school meals has steadily dropped especially for full-pay students from 27% in 2001-02 to 13% for 2015-16.  F/RL participation appears to have gone from about 70% down to 61%.

- the indirect costs charged to the Nutrition Services program are excessive and, apparently, haven't been examined in awhile.

- training for staff could be improved and "brought into compliance with USDA requirements."

Current procurement practices have resulted in a lack of effectiveness and adherence to regulations. SPS is not adhering to the updated USDA procurement rules for child nutrition programs that became effective October, 2015. 

However to keep in mind, 
  Procurement was previously handled by a procurement specialist on the NS central office staff. The position was eliminated due to budget cuts. Procurement responsibilities were shifted to the operations manager position that is currently unfilled. Procurements are being handled by central office staff members who are trying hard to keep this critical function afloat but who have limited knowledge regarding child nutrition procurement.

- The NS department is essentially a $13 million enterprise, but it is functioning without sufficient timely financial information. This is primarily due to vacancies in a number of key positions, but it is nevertheless negatively impacting the financial performance of the program. 

- The district is not using the available Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) for all eligible schools. This is likely negatively impacting meal participation at those 20 elementary schools. The SPS schools that have implemented CEP have shown steady lunch participation, in comparison to declines in other comparable SPS schools. 

The USDA notes these advantages to CEP:
Easing administrative burden. CEP allows eligible schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, without collecting school meal applications or monitoring eligibility when serving meals. This gives food service staff more time to focus on preparing nutritious meals their students will enjoy.
Increasing participation. All children at CEP schools receive meals at no charge, incentivizing participation and increasing program revenues.
Improving efficiency. CEP helps lunch lines move more quickly, allowing children more time to enjoy their meal.
Eliminating stigma. Because all students eat at no charge, children at CEP schools are no longer identified as low-income in the lunch line, and no child at a CEP school will ever receive an “alternate” meal, or be denied a meal, due to a negative account balance.
Fighting childhood hunger. Children attending CEP schools can count on two nutritious meals every school day, stretching families’ limited food budgets and reducing hunger among our nation’s children.5

- The efficiency and effectiveness of the NS central office could be improved with reorganization. 
There were no fewer than seven suggestions here.  However, the consulting group went on to recognize many other areas that are problematic. (See pages 10-12.) 
In comparison to peers, SPS has staffed its NS department more lightly. 

Current lack of a food inventory management system for the central kitchen and school sites has resulted in inaccurate usage data for forecasting; products being unavailable when needed; and district resources tied up in excess school inventories.

The district lacks an equipment replacement plan. Outdated, inoperable, and inadequate equipment is negatively impacting production and productivity.

The district does not maintain and repair kitchen equipment in a timely manner.  


- The NS department does not control the length of lunch periods at individual high schools. Instead, the district relies on historical practice and the decisions of principals as to the length of lunch periods and the number of students who must be served during that period. This ineffective practice has severely impacted service quality of school meals at the high schools.

On this point they noted three things about the high schools: 
- do not schedule enough lunch periods for all free/reduced-price students to be served a meal - the average serving period is just 32.5 minutes, despite an average of 737 students per serving 
- do not provide sufficient facilities to handle high capacity meal periods – only three of the eight high schools observed had adequate seating for just the number of students eligible for free/reduced lunch each lunch period; and 
- make little effort to accommodate lunching students elsewhere on campus – seating in outdoor areas is not provided; students eat sitting on hallway floors. 
As a result, high school lunch participation is low. For 2015-16 through January, it was just 18.9 percent. Given that 38.2 percent of the district’s high school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, its high school lunch participation should be much higher. For low income students the lack of true access to school lunch meals means they either go without needed nutrition or spend money they can ill afford on food items obtained off campus.
Combined, the short lunch periods, few serving lines, and extreme lack of seating convey to high school students that they generally should not even try to obtain a school meal. It is therefore not surprising that high school lunch participation is low.
As currently configured, the high school lunch period scheduling at most SPS high schools in no way meets standards for equitable access or adequate time.
I will note here from observing a couple of high schools at lunchtime - many kids go buy a bag of chips and a soda.  That is not a lunch.

-Almost no elementary students have at least 20 minutes to eat lunch. This is contrary to best practices, the national trend, and district policy. 

- Not all elementary students have recess before lunch. This is contrary to best practices. 

The Food Itself

- Planned menus do not meet identified menu planning best practices, leading to decreased customer satisfaction and participation.

- Pre-pack hot entrée and side components limit menu variety options and do not optimize the flavor, freshness, or eye appeal of the meals.

- Kitchen capacity and equipment in secondary kitchens is not being utilized to prepare popular food items onsite, decreasing customer satisfaction and participation. The district secondary schools, with the exception of NOVA High School, do not prepare entrée and side items onsite, using standardized recipes. Entrée items are primarily heat and serve convenience foods.

Ah, NOVA. They have their own small kitchen and a kick-ass cook who makes everything from scratch. Here's their sign about it:

 - Customers do not have all menu choices available to them at each lunch period and/or toward or at the end of the serving line. - The district’s salad bar options are repetitious, limiting vegetable and fruit options.

- Secondary meal options lack creativity and neither reflect a variety of current menu trends, nor the variety that customers find off campus. 
- Vegetarian meal options are limited. 
-Elementary menus do not offer a salad, sandwich, or yogurt parfait meal daily, limiting what are typically popular student choices. This likely negatively impacts elementary lunch participation. With the exception of two items that are offered one day a week, SPS elementary schools only offer two hot entrees each day. No protein items are offered on the salad bar, so a student cannot select a reimbursable meal solely from that area.

- At SPS secondary schools, serving line configurations, single POS stations, crowded dining rooms, and the anticipation of long wait times discourage participation.

- In general, school cafeterias have inadequate line signage to encourage meal participation. The district is not fully using the NutrisliceTM software it has. The primary method used to advertise the menu consists of paper copies of the menu taped to the serving line door or a handwritten notice on a board. For younger students, the menus is often posted too high for them to be able to read. For all
students, the printout is too small to easily read while moving through the serving line. On the serving lines themselves, food signage is often placed above the height of younger students. Sometimes the signage incorrectly identifies items.
- The district lacks equipment and supplies to maintain temperatures on the serving line. Staff has difficulty keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold throughout the serving period. Compounding this problem, serving areas are not configured to support healthy eating choices. In several cases, it appeared that food safety might be in question.  
- Food bars are popular and practical. They can offer cultural items and support dietary preferences within the entrée and side options. Panda Express and Chipotle are examples of local restaurants where customers can customize a meal from various options. Popular school food bars are:
  • taco: with meat or seafood and/or beans, vegetarian beans and peppers; kernel corn; tortilla or tortilla chips;
  • teriyaki: with oven seasoned baked rice or noodles, chicken, beef or seafood teriyaki and stir fry vegetables;
  • pasta with marinara and meat sauce and/or meatballs; Italian blend or roasted vegetables;
  • baked potato with a meat and vegetarian protein option and vegetable option; and
  • soup and bread.
What the company, Prismatic Services, was asked to do by SPS:

In March 2016, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) contracted with Prismatic Services, Inc., to provide the district with consulting services for its Nutrition Services (NS) Department. As detailed in the district’s Request for Proposals and Prismatic’s proposal, the primary objectives of the study were:
  • review and analyze management structure and service delivery model in light of increasing enrollment and declining participation rates;
  • review best practices and current organizational structure related to roles andresponsibilities, efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, career ladder structures and professional development;
  • review current menu, supply chain, and production schedules with focus on creatinga climate of customer service and satisfaction, increasing participation rates, and utilizing capital equipment investments; and
  • review and analyze current inventory of kitchen equipment and providerecommendations on equipment purchase and/or replacement based on the district’s current service model, accommodation of changes to menus to improve customer satisfaction and participation, and improve safety conditions
The Prismatic group visited schools, the central kitchen and interviewed school staff as well as JSCEE staff.  


Unknown said…
No surprises in this report. Hopefully the District takes the next step and implements the recommendations that will increase participation.
Anonymous said…
Do they identify which 3 high schools are doing okay?

Unknown said…
NOVA has a decent lunch period. If I could make more suggestions I would love to see a salad bar, we could put a scale so students know if they run over a poundage they would need to pay a bit more. I have run a rather successful professional salad bar before (in the private sector.) I am not making everything from scratch, more so I am utilizing the available goods and offering vegetarian/vegan options with every meal, primarily a scratch build your own burrito bar. I rather enjoyed the visit from the consultants and find most of this report...I did read it all, it's be very eyeopening. We can make the food better. Most of the kitchens have the equipment to do better, they just need more hands and time. I really don't know how I do what I do in the time given, but I have had some rather steady student help that are learning meal components, knife skills and basic pairings of flavor and visual impact. I thank my students for helping make this a success.
Anonymous said…
only three of the eight high schools observed had adequate seating for just the number of students eligible for free/reduced lunch each lunch period

I wonder which 3 these are. Hale has one lunch period but kids can sit in the Commons area, the Activity center, outside courtyard, outside anywhere, or classrooms. Clubs meet during lunch. Lunch is only 30 minutes and there is a 5 minute passing period after lunch to get to class.


Anonymous said…
I have a freshman daughter at Ballard High School and she believes that it is totally normal to eat lunch everyday sitting on the floor somewhere. Given the lack of seating in the lunch area, she spends her lunch period essentially roaming the halls looking for her friends to sit with, and free carpet space on which to sit. She started the year bringing her lunch in her nice little lunch bag. But with the prevailing culture being that of sitting on the floor and/or roaming around to look for your lunch buddies in the science pod, or the history pod, or wherever they have located that day, the whole point of actually eating lunch seems more and more to be lost on her. I am sure that some eating of something gets done, but the environment overall is really not conducive to it when you are looking for your friends in the carpeted areas of the hallways. Yes, it my job as a parent to encourage healthy eating and I do that. But I think it is really interesting that she thinks it is totally normal to go eat lunch on the dirty floor somewhere everyday. And she would never stand in the lines to buy food because she says they are long.

Anonymous said…
Agree about running out of food items - there are 3 lunches at our K-8, and during the 2 years that they are in the last lunch period (it goes by grade) my kids never bought lunch, because they realized pretty quickly that the cafeteria usually runs out of the better entrée by then, and sometimes out of both (there's always the salad bar, and they hand out leftover yogurt & such from breakfast, so no one actually goes hungry).

Mom of 4
FedMomof2, the report noted that the floor is not the cleanest place for anyone to be eating.

HP, I'm not sure they did ID the 3 high schools doing well.

Mom of 4, the consultants noted your concern. It does seem unfair that if you are last in line (thru no fault of your own), you get fewer choices.
Anonymous said…
No shock on the findings here.

The question is will the district actually do anything to clean up this operation?

A side note from eating a school a long, long time ago.

I went to a number of schools in the district (5) from K-12. Some schools still had a functional kitchen, and the majority of the food would be made in house. That food was edible.

Other, mostly newer buildings, had all the food trucked in from the Central Kitchen and warmed up for meal service. That food was absolutely inedible.

When I was a Whitman, they still had a grill and deep fryer that was functional. You could eat from the salad bar (always open) the burger bar (always open, and was edible) or from the cooked in house district mandated entree of the day (usually edible). Lots of choices and the lines were long. Students rushed to the lunch room to get in a line so they could eat.

The very next year I was at Ballard (@Lincoln) and the food was central kitchen food. The same kids who were eagerly lining up to eat the cafeteria food at Whitman learned after about a week that the lunches were inedible. Pretty soon we were all wandering up to QFC every day and eating from the deli. The lines at Ballard (@Lincoln) were no existent because the food was so bad. There was no improvement when we moved into the new Ballard. Again, central kitchen food.

Many years ago, the district had the cash registers set up so the kids had electronic accounts and wouldn't need to bring cash every day (and it would auto verify FRL). Presumably, a similar setup is still in place.

Since the district generally knows which kids are buying lunch and how often, if they cared, they could track the same kid's purchasing behavior as they move from Elementary to Middle to High School, and then cross-reference with how the food is being delivered to look for areas of improvement.

But doesn't anyone think they would actually do something like that?

Anonymous said…
^^^^ I hit publish prematurely before editing. I apologize in advance for a couple of mistakes.

The last line should read "But does anyone think they would actually do something like that?"

Anonymous said…
Why doesn't this surprise me?

Although NS maintains an inventory of equipment in the schools, it could be improved.
Data provided to the consulting team indicates equipment condition is not maintained accurately. The district has 133 pieces of equipment older than 50 years; of these, 53 pieces are noted as being in “excellent” or “new” condition.

And yet, I've heard of new furniture being purchased for JSCEE offices - kind of boggles the mind how this kind of thing just goes along with no one questioning the rationale....

Charlie Mas said…
Everything in this report has been well-known for a long, long time. Once again, we pay consultants to tell us what we already know. If there were an authentic review of Nutrition Services the people in that department could have produced this report themselves, but did we even need Nutrition Services to tell us? Isn't this information simply common knowledge within the District?

All of this is just so discouraging. This report tells of a deep and persistent apathy. Apathy about feeding students. Apathy about the time they are given to eat, the options they are given to eat, the space they are given to eat. The utter absence of care is so stark that it's really sickening.

And I don't mean a lack of care by the nutrition services staff, but by the nutrition services management. Surely this is the second-worst department in the District when it comes to management (no one can compete with the dysfunction in HR). And this gross mis-management has been calmly accepted by the district leadership for years and years. Nutrition Services is frequently cited for Unfair Labor Practices as well.

So now what? Now the schools are supposed to actually follow the policies around student meals? What have the Executive Directors of Schools been doing before this? Why haven't they rejected the schedules given them by principals? Do the Executive Directors even know the policies? Do they care about the policies? What, if anything, do the Executive Directors do?

The more I think about this - this shocking neglect bordering on cruelty - the angrier I get. Because I know that nothing will change and this terrible story will continue to be the story in future. Because nobody cares. They didn't care before this report, they don't care now, and they aren't going to start caring.
Dave W. said…

To be fair, Nutrition has not been cited often for unfair labor practices. Although there has been a series of poor choices as Director, it is the job of the Labor Relations side of HR to address such practices before charges are filed and has failed to do so for 20-30 years.

Charges HAVE stemmed primarily from principals making schedule changes that have the effect of hurting the program and students. Then the District defends them. We have won many if not all of those cases.

You are again spot on about principals but a good example would be when Sara Pritchett changed McClure from two lunches to one. Banda PROMOTED her to Director soon after.

That's the level at which the Board needs to take action and make support of the Nutrition program part of the evaluations of principals.
Dave W. said…
As you may recall, our union (Local 609 at: protested mightily when Don Kennedy and MGJ used the Council of Great City Schools to recommend make foods downtown and stop cooking in the schools. We demonstrated repeatedly at Board meetings to no avail.

At the time CGCS said the District "could save a million dollars" by that move. What actually happened was they lost a million customers.

The glass palace just doesn't listen to regular people like us.
I share Charlie's feelings. I am frustrated with the district yet again. So many seemingly smart people at the top and yet, operations struggle year after year.
Meg said…
As Dave pointed out, during Goodloe-Johnson's tenure, SPS management declared that the district would save money and increase revenues by having all schools use foods prepared in the central kitchen. At the time, many members of the community pointed out that this was likely to cause students who could choose to participate in the meal programs to STOP participating.

This may sound familiar: after spending a lot of money (that could be in classrooms) to come up with it, SPS management unveils a Great Plan That Do Great Things. Affected communities point out substantial flaws in the plan, but are ignored, because They Don't Really Understand. Eventually, those flaws turn out to be significant (and expensive) problems. This is often eventually pointed out by an expensive consultant (using money that could be in classrooms).

Also familiar: in this case, SPS managament forced schools to adopt their vision, citing things like consistency, economies of scale (since the "savings" would benefit "all students"), and simplification of a "complicated" process.

Management didn't listen to schools, or their communities, nor did they provide adequate support to schools to implement management's plan. The big problems schools have with lunch - they can't provide adequate lunch time or space to students, since the physical facilities are acutely overcrowded - are ones that management calls "site-based decisions" and declines to provide any help on. Help, in this case, is likely to = $$$$ to deal with the problem.

SPS nutrition services management appears to have a very similar approach to other parts of JSCEE management: if JSCEE management wants schools to do something, it's for reasons of cost-effectiveness (which... don't even get me started), consistency, providing all students with a similar service. If it's a problem schools are having (often because central has pushed it on them - schools cannot control their enrollment, for instance) that JSCEE management does not want to acknowledge as a problem or deal with, then it's a "site-based" decision that they "can't" interfere with.

I'm probably just being cynical. It's probably all just an odd coincidence.
Jet City mom said…
My daughter was on FRL when she was at Garfield, but reportedly the lunches were so bad she went elsewhere.
Its really a critical issue.
When I was in high school, even though we had multiple lunch times, there was no way for me to get lunch, and eat it in the cafeteria, because it was too crowded. ( in junior high, we sat on the bathroom floor, but in high school the bathrooms were too dingy, in grade school, which didnt have a cafeteria, we sat at our desks)
As a result, I went with friends who had cars who went off campus. However, they either had teachers who were more flexble or didnt have class after lunch, as I was locked out of the classroom for being late, which contributed to me dropping out.
Anonymous said…
Meg, that is heartbreakingly accurate. Whenever we have something a couple schools are doing well and other schools less well(advanced learning, food, curriculum, focus, even managing their own enrollment and waitlists), instead of trying to replicate success, or teaching other schools how to do it, we either love to death the popular place by overcrowding it, shut it down, or take it to central and wreck it for everyone.

Anonymous said…
I am an elementary teacher in a school with very high poverty. I want school breakfast to be more nutritious. My very hungry students are frequently given a slice of toast with margarine, apple juice, cinnamon roll, or cereal. There is little or no protein. It is not satisfying or balanced. We need a school breakfast revolution!
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