Managing Your School Food Service Program

By Naomi Dillon

She’s as sweet as her name sounds, but a visit from Gertrude Applebaum generally is a nerve-wracking experience. She can find the flaw in a stack of spreadsheets, see the waste in a menu cycle, and detect the disparities down the chain of command. Nothing gets past this woman, which is precisely why school districts with troubled food service programs hire her.

“We became known as turnaround artists,” says Applebaum, vice president of inTEAM Associates, a consulting agency specializing in school food services. “If you were having financial problems, we could turn that around.”

Money woes are the top reason why more than 10,000 clients from 45 states have sought guidance from Applebaum’s agency. The financial foibles the team encounters are often a reflection of poor management, loose controls, or lack of accountability. But, increasingly, budget shortfalls in food service programs are a reality of the times.

Across the globe, food costs are rising. The U.N. Food and Agriculture’s food price index, an amalgam of more than 60 internationally traded commodities, climbed by 37 percent in 2007. The cost of grains rose 42 percent, cooking oils by 50 percent, and dairy skyrocketed 80 percent from the previous year.

The food inflation comes as school districts face increased pressure to serve as the frontline in the battle against childhood obesity. Districts are offering more fresh fruits and vegetables, eliminating high-calorie and high-fat items from vending machines and á la carte lines, and adding more whole grains to meals.

But these changes, prompted by 2005’s federally mandated wellness policies, aren’t cheap. And no extra money is coming.

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