Institutional Dining: Private Schools

By Nancy Weingartner Monroe with Foodservice News

When Taher, a food service management company with the lion’s share of private schools’ lunch programs in the Twin Cities, wanted to introduce a new product from Ferndale Farms to students at The Blake School in Minneapolis, they didn’t bus the students to the farm, they brought the turkey grower to meet them where they learned.

“We had the farmer come to school and talk about how they feed, raise and process and how they get those products to market,” says Mark Brodersen, vice president of operations for Taher, a local company with 2,600 employees in 19 states.

Because farmers aren’t used to visiting schools, Taher designed a trading card with his picture and stats, similar to a baseball card, as an ice breaker for students. “And we had kids who wanted him to sign them,” Brodersen says. “Young people today want to know where their food comes from and they like the local angle.”

In case you’ve been out of school for more years than you were in, school lunches have evolved considerably—no more Jello-O and mysterious meat hiding in gravy. For instance, high school students at St. Paul Academy don’t have trays. Like a buffet at a wedding, they take their plate through the line and then go back for seconds if they so desire, says Mark Dickinson, director of operations and security at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

There’s a self-service soft-serve ice cream station, but Dickinson was quick to defend the food program by saying the cups are small and it’s not available every day.

Like the turkeys from Ferndale Farms, the food being prepared in private schools is fresh, prepared onsite from scratch and free of dyes and preservatives. “You can pronounce all the ingredients that go into it,” Brodersen says.
For Nicolle Thomas, the foodservice director from Taher at The Blake School in Hopkins, the difference in her years in public schools and private is worlds apart. For one thing, she says, Blake is not on the National School Lunch Program, which gives them more flexibility and “higher student satisfaction.” “We can use salt, heavy cream and butter,” she says, adding “not that those are the core of our recipes.” With just a little higher budget than public schools have, Blake students get organic fruits and vegetables when available and shellfish (no, not lobster, shrimp).

Public schools have also made great strides in bringing kids healthier lunches.

While Taher uses broadline distributors for staples and mainlines, they supplement with meat and produce from local farmers. And they’re also getting the schools into the act of growing their own food with the addition of a Flex Farm or hydroponic grower from Fork Farms in Appleton, Wisconsin. The vertical units grow leafy vegetables and herbs and are both a source of food and education. When they introduced it at Blake, students planted the seeds in the individual pods and then harvested the produce when it was ready. “Kids can see it, touch it and taste it a couple weeks down the road,” Thomas says.

And in an age of culinary transparency, “they’ll know where the produce in the salad bar came from,” Brodersen says.

All three private schools I contacted for this story referred me to Brodersen. It’s clear why. When the schools outsourced their cafeteria, they rightfully trusted Taher to handle everything.

For many of the schools, it’s a cashless operation at least from the students’ vantage point. School lunches are paid with their tuition. Others are retail operations where around 80 to 85 percent of the students have computerized meal tickets with a declining balance. “And we still take good old cash,” he says. In some cases, students with the meal tickets will want an extra item and will use their own cash to purchase it.

For its clients (Taher manages foodservice operations for some public schools, corporate dining rooms, and the FBI, as well), staff acts as the foodservice director. Each campus has a chef onsite and Taher hires the staff, trains them and develops the menus and recipes. “We are a chef-based company,” Brodersen says. “We’re a bunch of foodies.”

Thanks to social media and cooking shows, kids’ palates today are more sophisticated and kids are more willing to try foods other than the safe harbors every cafeteria needs to have for picky eaters. To encourage the kids to try new items, kitchen staff will sample new recipes to get buy-in. At one time they tried to come up with compelling and cute names for the items but decided it was often more confusing than helpful. For instance, the kid-favorite macaroni and cheese won’t be the popular boxed variety that’s an orange color not found in nature. Because their homemade version is closer to tan, staff sampled it with students to explain why it looked different and also provided a few modifiers to let students know it was homemade.

“Children take their first bite with their eyes, so how it looks is equally important to what it’s called,” Brodersen says.

At Blake, the students are also privy to ethnic foods, that the chefs and registered dietitians, like Thomas, developed after attending international trips with Taher’s Chef Council.

After one group’s trip to Japan, the kids were served “barbecued eel on a cute little skewer.” “We served 200” samples, Thomas says.

Founder and CEO Bruce Taher also likes to show up at schools with his five-foot-wide Paella pan and demonstrate how to make the crusty Spanish rice and seafood dish.

Pizza will always be popular—“If you served it every day, kids would eat it,” Thomas says—but fresh fruit and vegetables are receiving a number of likes.

Private school students don’t work in the foodservice program, but the Taher staff does provide teaching moments, such as with the hydroponic gardens and cooking demos. At the K-5th grade campus at St. Paul Academy, Taher staff weighed the garbage after every meal to make students aware of how much food was thrown away, Dickinson says. They also do composting.

Staffing has become more difficult over the years, Brodersen says, since the mid-day hours aren’t always attractive for part-time work. Each school has dedicated staff, but for events such as homecoming and graduation, they often borrow from other campuses.

But even with all the changes school cafeterias have seen, there are more changes coming.

St. Paul Academy is a closed campus, so students aren’t allowed to go off campus for lunch. And while we had heard of cases where high school students were getting busted for having third-party delivery systems bring them food from their favorite restaurants for lunch, neither Brodersen or Dickinson were aware of that being the case in their school programs.

But one thing Taher is looking to launch soon is an app that uploads the weekly menus and nutritional information, including food sensitivities. A natural extension of that app, Brodersen says, is to include a function where students can order their lunches ahead of time and not have to stand in a cafeteria line. They are still working on how it can it be done so that it’s not a disruption, or too costly. Although with technology, “you have to have some costs attached to it,” he says. “We have to be able to figure out a way to absorb some of those tech costs.”

School may still be heavy into reading, but the real world is moving to apps, not a paper menu sent home in a backpack.

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