Scottsdale Schools officials say central kitchen can provide more than food

A view of the SUSD Governing Board and top district officials during a May study session at Mohave District Annex. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Just as your neighborhood bar and grill is altering its business model to compensate for mandated minimum wage increases it appears Scottsdale Schools is looking to employ a central kitchen model officials there say will help to shoulder the costs of wage increases and provide more nutritional options to local students.

The Scottsdale Unified School District is poised to take its first step to expand the catering project district officials say will not only provide its 24,000 students with fresh food options, but effectively maintain a sustainable income for the department.

Inside what was intended to be a temporary, 4,000-square-foot kitchen, Scottsdale Unified School District’s nutrition services department is producing $1 million in revenue from food it’s creating and providing to neighboring charter schools and local organizations.

SUSD’s nutrition services cooks and packages its catered meals at the Oak Street Campus, 7501 E. Oak St.

After 10 years of operating a successful and growing business, district leaders are now looking to re-invest that money back into the kitchen — expanding its scope and value.

Nutrition Services Director, Patti Bilbrey, says the SUSD catering service provides food to nine separate entities that totals 33 sites.

The governing board has been considering the idea of adopting a “central kitchen” concept in a larger facility at the Oak Street Campus — a mutual investment of $1 million from the $229 million bond voters passed in November 2016, and $1 million from the nutrition services funds.

The central kitchen would provide a once-a-week delivery of fresh food to its 30 schools — but also allow the department to grow its catering services and potentially create a much needed source of revenue, Nutrition Services Director Patti Bilbrey says.

“SUSD is looking to expand service throughout the metro Phoenix area and assist customers meet their student service needs,” Ms. Bilbrey said in a June 7 emailed response to questions. “Our current expansion goal is to see our operation double in size within a 1-2 years after completion of the central kitchen.”

In November 2016, Arizona voters passed Proposition 206, which in part incrementally raised minimum wage from $8.05 per hour in 2016 to $10 in 2017. In coming years minimum wage is set to increase to $10.50 in 2018, $11 in 2019, and $12 in 2020.

“Sixty percent of our employees were impacted by the minimum wage increase,” Ms. Bilbrey said.

“As this minimum wage moves forward — as we know that will be hard for everyone — in our department, without this revenue from this catering business, school meals would increase in price significantly.”

On its June 6 consent agenda, the Scottsdale Unified School District voted to move forward with the project by approving a request for qualifications for the central kitchen.

The Oak Street campus is at 7501 E. Oak Street in Scottsdale. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Creating a business

The idea for a central kitchen has been discussed twice during the last month at SUSD governing board meetings. First on May 4, and most recently during a study session on May 31, where two nutrition services directors outlined needs and wants to continue a successful, sustainable nutrition services program.

The central kitchen idea was first proposed during the planning of seven elementary school rebuilds following the bond passing, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says. While examining plans to remodel schools, officials began to look at hybrid options.

Ms. Bilbrey and Jim Helton, nutrition services operations manager, say they are prepared to fund $1 million of the central kitchen project — asking for an additional $1 million from the bond.

“Last year that area produced about a million dollars of revenue, and about $370,000 of operating profit,” Mr. Helton said of the catering services on May 31.

“That business is by and large business that’s outside the district — it’s Head-Start programs, it’s charter schools — it has nothing to do with SUSD. It’s truly a business we’ve created over the past 10 years.”

The department is confident it could payback its investment in 1.7 years, Mr. Helton says.

“We ended last year with a cash balance in our department of $1,960,000. We anticipate we’ll end this year with a cash balance of $2.2 or $2.3 million,” he said.

“We have about a million dollars we could part with in order to help make this happen.”

While Ms. Bilbrey says there are other areas in which the money could be invested, such as menus or school lunch lines, the nutrition services department is restricted on where that money can go, and she believes it should be implemented into a sustainable system.

“We could look at our menu — anything you’ve got to do though, you’ve got to make sure that you’re making it sustainable because that might be a one-time pot of money that when it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said. “So it’s got to be a sustainable thing.

Fresh food sought for students

With support from the district’s catering service, SUSD is able to provide nearly 30 entrées to its middle and high schools every day.

“The money that is earned, a bottom-line profit, contributes significantly to the program we have,” Ms. Bilbrey explained to the governing board.

“We would not have the availability of all the fresh fruits and vegetables that we have at our schools. We have 27 entrées a day at our middle and high schools, and six entrées a day at our elementary.”

While the kitchen would serve as a place where school food is prepared and made, it will not be delivering hot meals to each campus daily, Ms. Bilbrey said.

“We might create, like our lasagnas — create them, flash freeze them, send them out (to the schools) to put in ovens, cook and serve fresh on site,” she explained. “There’s no way we could do a breakfast run and a lunch run to 30 sites every day.”

With a central kitchen, the district would be able to make some of its own items instead of mass-produced items loaded with preservatives, Dr. Birdwell says.

“There are things that we buy that are already processed that when we have a central kitchen we begin to make ourselves — for instance, salad dressing,” Dr. Birdwell explained to the governing board. “We buy salad dressing in the gallon jugs that are already made, with extra preservatives. Breads, rolls, those types of things.”

Ms. Bilbrey agreed with Dr. Birdwell, noting the importance of fresh food in students’ daily lives.

“As we’re seeing fat and sodium being taken out of our diets in the school food area, you’re seeing (the addition of a) lot of additive things. We have no idea what is being put back into foods to make them palatable,” the nutrition services director explained.

“We want to be able to say ‘whoa, we’re going to put on the brakes, and where we can we would like to produce our own foods,’ to make sure that we minimize that impact of so many preservatives and additives to our foods.”

Ultimately, Ms. Bilbrey says she wants to preserve the quality and the cost effectiveness for SUSD’s students and families, and be able to pay her staff.

“I think our concept that we’re presenting is truly what’s needed in this district,” she said. “I think we look at what could be our most efficient model, and what could meet our needs here in this district, and be able to push that money back into our students, our employees and our program.”

Ms. Bilbrey said following the governing board approval, the next steps will include designing the building.

“Our best estimate at this time is for parents and students to plan on seeing fresh, innovative and tasty items being produced and served no later than the start of the 18-19 school year,” she explained. “Of course, we would be thrilled with an earlier launch and will certainly keep our community informed of the project’s progress.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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