Whatcha got cookin’ at the caff?

Whatcha got cookin’ at the caff?

MSD Food Services overhauls meal options for upcoming school year

Marion School District When the bell rings to open the 2018-2019 school year, students in the Marion School District will be getting a tasty change.

What may be a trend within the Arkansas educational system, MSD has shifted its food services to a private provider, Aramark. Aramark is a nationwide provider of services from catering special events to corporate dining services and has been in the school nutrition business for more than 60 years.

The company will begin work for the district on July 1 and the first step will be to freshen up the cafeterias on every campus, including some redesigning, new decorations and motifs.

“My deal was to provide better services to the students,” said Susan Marshall, Comptroller for MSD. “Food services (within MDS) has been doing very well, we just wanted to offer more to the students, give them more lines to choose their meals, some different options.”

The shift offers completely new menus, district wide, which will be designed and overseen by a professional chef.

Particularly at the high school and junior high school, students will have a choice of serving lines that include homemade pizza, a taco line, salad bar, fresh grilled (outdoor) foods and even a “grab and go” line that provides a nutritious sack lunch for students who may be in a hurry.

There may also be a “coffee bar” that will provide smoothies and coffee-based drinks at the high school only. That is just a few of the expected changes. Aramark's services comply with all Federal guidelines and regulations for school food programs.

With Aramark's national scale of operations, Marshall said the company's purchasing power would be much better than the district making its own food purchases. The company has promised the district profits after the first year while holding the line on students' breakfast and lunch prices. Adult prices will go up slightly.

Marshall said the change was not something MSD jumped into. Instead, district officials looked at other companies in the food services industry. After sampling some of the tasty offerings, MSD officials paid a visit to the Jonesboro School District, which already had a contract with Aramark. The company was not aware MSD officials would be paying a visit.

Marshall said the group sampled many of the foods Aramark offered at JSD.

“We looked at the company in the field and sampled all that they served,” she said. “Students will get prepared food, not pre-packaged food. I'll eat just about anything, but I want it well prepared. We are all looking forward to this.”

Students will also get a second chance breakfast. If, for any reason, the student cannot eat breakfast in the school's cafeteria before classes begin, they will get that “second chance” and be allowed to eat in the classroom.

“If you are hungry, you are not learning,” Marshall said.

Aramark has even included local “tastes” in its innovative menus, according to its website.

The Jonesboro School District has one created by the high school chef, called “Jonesboro Barbecue Chicken” and the students love it. But that's not all they love about the district's new and improved dining program.

“The menus are awesome. The flavor of the food is unbelievable. We could never have created the menus we have now on our own. The number of kids who are eating now is unbelievable,” said Sue Castleberry, Assistant Superintendent.

Since 2014, Aramark has introduced many dining innovations, including more than a dozen lunchtime food concepts, breakfast and smart snacks. The result has been a year-over-year increase in student dining participation of nearly 100,000 meals a year, as well as a significant increase in annual dining revenue.

This is a dramatic difference from Jonesboro's years as a self-operated dining program. Although 73 percent of district students qualify for free lunch, in the district's selfoperated days few students were actually eating the meals. Lack of variety, inconsistent food quality and poor presentation turned students off.

“At one point, as district staffing was changing, officials asked themselves a critical question: 'How do we deliver a better product for our students?'” said Robert Ginder, Aramark District Manager. “They wanted to increase food quality. They wanted to increase participation. They wanted to provide choices. They really wanted somebody to think outside the box when it came to service meals and nourishing students.”

JSD charged Aramark to make the changes, which include innovative K-12 dining programs, vast selection of grade-specific dining concepts, bulk buying power, student dining regulatory expertise and well-rounded human resources program.

Aramark also introduced new breakfast programs at Marion.

Within the Jonesboro District, over 50 percent of our students were not eating breakfast, yet up to 80 percent qualified for free breakfast at Jonesboro.

With the changes, that number quickly grew to 95 percent with annual dining program revenue increased year-over-year meals service by 100,000 students.

Not only will students get new food choices and experiences, they will also get to critique Aramark's fare through the company's proprietary Student View-POINT™ survey system that delivers critical feedback for continual innovation in K-12 food and nutrition programs. With more than 50,000 responses gathered annually online and on-site from clients, students and parents, Aramark can stay in touch with student dining needs, attitudes and behaviors and can customize solutions that provide ongoing improvement and valuable impact for the districts the company serves. The surveys

help Aramark identify what items are popular, what students value and expect, and what changes are


To make sure they are on the right track, Aramark uses student feedback and has created more than 250 new recipes every year.

To make sure their services meet MSD students' and staff's taste, Aramark held taste-testing and sampling events for students, faculty and parents to determine and introduce new menu items at the school district.

“I see no negative side to this,” Marshall said.

As far as the kitchen staffs go, they will become employees of the Aramark, if they wished. Some had enough years on the district payroll and retired but will also go to work for the food service company.

“They all got a two percent pay raise and will get a $200 bonus if they stay with the company for 90 days,” Marshall said. “And the district will pay them for any unused sick leave with the stay with Aramark 90 days.”

By Mike Douglas