Kings County Academy’s Transition from a Contracted Food Service Provider to a PTA-Run Cafeteria

Kings County Academy (KCA) is a pre-primary to grade 8 school located in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with an early French Immersion stream. KCA has a strong partnership with the municipal Parks and Recreation Department and a long history of a vibrant and dedicated Parent Teacher Association (PTA). The school has an enrollment of 630 students and 70 staff members, and KCA is in an agriculturally rich community. However, the community has a child poverty rate of 23.4%, with many families having inadequate access to healthy, affordable food.

Centrally located within the school, the KCA Cafeteria is a central feature inside the front lobby. This heavy traffic flow location allows students to enjoy the aroma of the delicious meal preparation. 

The cafeteria includes: 

  • A service delivery window 
  • A salad bar 
  • A seating capacity of 222 students.  
  • A full-service kitchen including a stacked convection oven, a flattop oven (2 burners), two food prep areas, a service counter with steam table, a chest freezer, an upright freezer, a sliding door milk refrigerator, a two-door commercial refrigerator, a sandwich prep station/fridge, a microwave, a pantry/storage area, a high-temp dishwasher and a dishwashing station.  

Given the large student population, the lunch service is divided into three separate lunch periods, with primary students receiving delivered box lunches to their classrooms. 

WHY AND HOW DID YOUR SCHOOL TRANSITION FROM A CONTRACT FOOD SERVICE PROVIDER TO A PTA-RUN CAFETERIA?

For many years leading to the decision to transition into a PTA-run cafeteria, families and school staff were dissatisfied with the food served in the cafeteria. Discussions in the PTA and Student Advisory Council (SAC) expressed deep concern about the menu selections that offered highly processed meals with limited nutrition and a lack of fresh vegetables and fruit. Intending to work together to make changes to the food served, families and school administrators made multiple attempts to engage with the food service provider to voice their concerns. They experienced many roadblocks in their attempts to suggest healthier lunch options, resulting in minimal changes to the menu. The lunch program had meagre sales and a lack of interest or enthusiasm from the general school community. Both the school and the wider parent community were interested in providing nutritious options for students at an affordable price and identified a need for change. There were examples of other schools in the area that had previously switched to a PTA-run cafeteria, and KCA was keen to make the transition.    

From the school administration’s point of view, the first step of the transition was the most challenging. It was a two-year process to end the existing food service provider contract, involving multiple meetings with the Regional Centre for Education and the service provider. This process required the school to allow the current contract to end and to demonstrate that the provider was not meeting the school’s standards for healthy food.  

When the school was in a position to move forward with the plan to end the food service contract, the principal came to the PTA in May 2019 with the bold idea to transition to a PTA-run cafeteria for the fall of 2019. With an expression of interest from a Red Seal Chef interested in joining the program, the principal approached parent volunteers who had a keen interest in healthy school food and a desire to contribute to the health-promoting school culture. With nervous/excited enthusiasm, the Cafeteria Committee formed immediately! Two volunteers worked throughout the summer of 2019 to figure out the logistics of developing and managing a PTA-run healthy lunch program. The initial planning included, but was not limited to:  

  • Hiring the head chef 
  • Discussing menu items 
  • Creating a staff contract 
  • Opening a bank account 
  • Securing a Food Establishment Permit 
  • Purchasing kitchen equipment 
  • Opening accounts with various suppliers 

These initial plans were made possible by a generous $5000 start-up budget from the PTA to cover the cost of food, equipment and wages for the first couple of months. It was a steep learning curve for the volunteers and truly a labour of love.   

When the program opened that first fall, volunteers photocopied 600 menus weekly for students to take home and return with their order form and payment, which were cash and cheques only. The information was manually inputted into a spreadsheet of student names and classes, and the money was counted, rolled and deposited at the bank. One paid staff person worked in the kitchen, and a rotating list of daily volunteers helped with the lunch service and clean-up. For the first year of operation in 2019/20, the daily lunch item was $3.50/meal or $3.90/meal, including milk.    

The head chef created a lunch menu that followed the nutritional guidelines provided by the Food and Nutrition Policy for NS Public Schools, using existing local resources and recipes and Nourish NS’ Local Food Lunch Toolkit for food service providers. The rotating lunch menu includes lasagna, burritos, soups, spaghetti, noodle salads, casseroles, tacos, chili, sandwiches, butter chicken, wraps, etc. All meals have a main serving or a side of vegetables/fruit.  

Despite the upheaval and uncertainty of Covid-19, it was a blessing in disguise for the lunch program. Due to changing restrictions and regulations, the PTA Cafeteria Committee had to quickly adapt the program to meet the needs of the changing school environment. All menus and order forms moved to an online format in Google Forms, and most payments were received by e-transfer to the PTA Cafeteria bank account. Thankfully, this was a reasonably smooth transition as families were already getting used to working online. The new online process significantly reduced the time needed for volunteers to process payments. For the second and third years of operation, the daily lunch item was priced at $4.00/meal due to rising food costs and the additional costs of purchasing compostable boxes for classroom delivery (due to Covid-19 regulations for students to eat in classrooms vs open cafeterias).    

WHAT ARE THE GOALS OF THE PROGRAM AND WHY DID YOU PUT AN EMPHASIS ON A HEALTHY SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM?

Creating a sustainable, affordable, healthy school lunch program was the Cafeteria Committee’s top priority. The Committee of parent volunteers prioritized working collaboratively with the head chef to develop a program accessible to all students, to focus on local produce and homemade meals, and showcase new tastes and cultures. The group also put forward a clear intention to expand the healthy school food culture and create meaningful and valued job opportunities in the cafeteria.    

In addition, the new school lunch program would also act as a step toward combating some of the inequities that impede a child’s learning opportunity. The Cafeteria Committee was committed to ensuring that the PTA-run cafeteria was inclusive of all students and that all students would be fed at school. This commitment has been made possible by the incredible support of the school administration.

WHAT SUCCESSES HAVE YOU SEEN FROM FOCUSING ON A HEALTHY SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM?

One of the most apparent successes that we’ve seen is that the number of students participating in the lunch program has increased dramatically. The new PTA-run cafeteria went from serving 128 meals/week during the first week of operation in September 2019 to 1200 meals/week in April 2022. The lunch program currently serves an average of 200-300 meals/day, with a rotating and varied menu selection. Students are trying new foods, and exploring new types of cuisine, and the feedback from families is overwhelmingly positive. Dietary modifications are also available with this program – vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free and lactose-free options are available for each lunch item. A salad bar unit was purchased at the end of 2019 with funding support from the Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education (AVRCE). The weekly salad bar option was added to the program to expand further the availability of vegetables and fruits and student involvement in the program. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 restrictions, there were periods throughout the past two years when the salad bar was not in service.  

As lunch orders have grown, so have the staff requirements. To alleviate the pressure on the head chef and parent volunteers helping with lunch service, the PTA Cafeteria Committee hired their first kitchen assistant in October 2020 and their second kitchen assistant in September 2021.    

The program ensures that all students have lunch, and that no student goes hungry throughout the day. From day one, the school’s administration has generously supported the Cafeteria Committee by paying for the meals of students who need lunch. Providing these meals is done behind the scenes and allows the school to offer a free, nutritious lunch to any student needing a meal. This type of support was not possible with the previous food service provider.    

The KCA PTA Cafeteria is one of the only cafeterias in the region that is not significantly in debt. With consistent lunch numbers and orders coming in weekly, the Committee has a healthy bank account that pays three salaries and all the cafeteria’s operating costs. This financial stability also allows the program to pay fair wages and weekly staff salaries that include all snow days, in-service days, Covid-19-related school closures and school holidays. With this success, the lunch program can also offer the opportunity to fundraise and give back to our communities. By donating $1-2 per meal, the cafeteria recently raised funds for the Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis and Campaign for Kids this spring.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY HAVE BEEN SOME KEY FACTORS THAT LED TO THE PROGRAM’S SUCCESS?

A PTA-run cafeteria lunch program of this magnitude is not sustainable without dedicated parent volunteers, experienced kitchen staff and school support.    

  1. The support of the PTA: The Cafeteria Committee consists of volunteers who have the passion and commitment to put in the effort to make this project work. The program set-up and maintenance have required an initial and ongoing investment of volunteer time and energy to manage a successful cafeteria encompassing employee contracts, salaries, bills, hiring and management, social media content, weekly orders and spreadsheets, daily lunch service support, and ongoing communication with the school and families. 

  2. The support of the school administration: The school’s administration and staff have enthusiastically supported this program with planning and logistics, serving meals on busy lunch service days, delivering boxed lunches during classroom delivery (due to Covid-19), offering feedback, and regularly ordering meals for themselves. Having the full support of the school administration enabled the Cafeteria Committee to have the confidence to embark on a project of this scale. 

  3. Paying a fair wage to the head chef and kitchen staff: The program can attract qualified, experienced and dedicated staff when the compensation is fair and the contract hours reflect the amount of work involved (5-6 hours/day). Qualified staff produce quality, healthy meals, which then increase sales. Employees are paid for all extra hours beyond their contracted hours, including snow days, in-service days, March break and Christmas break.   

  4. A head chef with the experience and confidence to manage a kitchen on their own: The head chef orders food, plans meals, creates recipes, and is willing to work with parent volunteers to accommodate both the schools’ and students’ needs. The head chef works independently in the kitchen, with program support from the Cafeteria Committee. To build and sustain the program, the volunteers and head chef have worked together to create a “team” atmosphere where everyone feels valued and appreciated. There is a feeling of mutual respect and collaboration.

    It has also been essential to have a clear line of communication between the managing Cafeteria Committee and the kitchen staff through regular check-ins and finding out what extra support is needed each week. The Committee makes an effort to send thank you cards/gifts throughout the year and provides flexibility and understanding for the kitchen staff’s life outside of work (providing sick days, paid time off for family emergencies, etc.). 
     

  5. A supportive school community of families and students: Positive school engagement has enabled the lunch program to get off the ground and thrive. Families have donated money, their time, and food items, purchased holiday meals for entire classrooms, etc. Over half of the school population orders consistently from the weekly menu, and participating families express deep appreciation for the healthy options available (and not having to pack school lunches themselves!). This type of lunch program requires the flexibility and support of families at home to work through the transition and allow the team to correct the course when needed. It is also essential to have a relationship with the broader school community to ask for what is required (e.g. volunteers for lunch service or special events, donations of credits for Covid-related school closures, etc.) 

  6. A strong social media presence: This has allowed the Cafeteria Committee to ensure regular community engagement, share the program’s successes, ask and answer questions and promote the weekly order forms and deadlines.   

Overall, we have learned that there is a genuine desire from all partners involved for this lunch program to succeed (from the school community to the kitchen staff, the parent volunteers and the school administration). We also learned that it is possible to create significant change in school food, serving healthy and delicious meals and paying fair wages to kitchen staff. We have created a community of families who are invested in the program by consistently celebrating the cafeteria’s successes (through sharing photos of meals and salad bars), acknowledging the commitment of volunteers and providing the opportunity to raise money for worthwhile initiatives through school lunch fundraisers.    

WHAT ARE SOME CHALLENGES YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED AND HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO OVERCOME THEM?

Mistakes and missteps happen. The Cafeteria Committee and the kitchen staff work with our families, students and school to gain feedback on what is working and not working and then adjust. The Cafeteria Committee hosts regular check-in meetings with cafeteria staff to ensure everyone is on the same page and to brainstorm ways to improve the program and lunch service. With an engaged parent community eager to ask questions, provide feedback, and raise concerns, the Committee can address and find timely solutions to issues as they arise.    

It can be challenging to serve lunches to a wide range of ages/grades in a Pre-Primary to Grade 8 school. Portion sizes look very different for a 4-year-old vs a 14-year-old student. It has been a work in progress to meet the needs of all students. Feedback from families has helped ensure that we are getting it right.   

Many of the challenges encountered by the Cafeteria Committee have provided amazing ‘lessons learned’ and have resulted in opportunities to improve the program. We are mindful of the potential for significant volunteer burnout in managing an extensive cafeteria lunch program. However, due to the program’s success, we have been fortunate to be in a financial position to hire additional kitchen assistants to lessen the demands on the parent volunteers.   

Challenges presented by Covid-19: The pandemic created significant uncertainty around how school restrictions would impact the lunch program. On many occasions throughout the past two years, we shifted where food was being served by moving from cafeteria lunch service to classroom delivery with boxed lunches, and now a hybrid model. Restricted volunteer access to the school resulted in the two Cafeteria Committee members becoming the only volunteers permitted to help in the kitchen. The Cafeteria Committee collaborated with the kitchen staff and school administration to modify the lunch service when and where needed and to implement a program that reflected the current Covid guidelines/policies. 

Thankfully there were no disruptions to the healthy lunch program, except for the interruptions in using the salad bar. We could not use the salad bar consistently with boxed lunch deliveries to individual classrooms and students being restricted to their classroom bubbles. We are happy to report that the weekly salad bar is back in operation this spring, and the students are thrilled! We’ve served a taco bar, a breakfast bar, a pierogi bar, and a baked potato bar in the past month.   

Barriers to sourcing locally produced food: Food procurement policies in our area create significant barriers for schools to source produce locally. Organizations are currently working on addressing this issue with our Regional Centre for Education and the provincial government to help ensure that schools have more autonomy over where they buy their ingredients. The Annapolis Valley Farm to School Committee has had initial conversations with O.H. Armstrong (the leading school supplier) to discuss the lack of local produce in their catalogue and how to increase the local offerings to schools.    

Food storage space in our kitchen facility: As the number of weekly orders has increased exponentially, the demand on the existing space has been challenged. When the school was built, the kitchen was not designed to allow for a high volume of fresh produce to be stored, cleaned and processed, and the kitchen struggles with limited unit space in its refrigerators and freezers because of it. Creative solutions are needed to address this ongoing issue continually. Funding for a new deep freeze has been secured and will be purchased for the fall.  

WHAT TOP TIPS WOULD YOU SHARE WITH OTHER SCHOOLS THAT WOULD LIKE TO TRANSITION OUT OF A CONTRACTED FOOD SERVICE PROVIDER?

Depending on the situation, you will most likely have to go through a detailed process to transition out of a food service provider contract. A school will need to document their concerns with its current provider and demonstrate how the food service is not meeting the school community’s needs. You will also need a group of volunteers who are interested in taking on the challenge and ready to make the transition. They will require funds to start the program and will ideally be willing/interested in paying a fair wage to their employees.    

It is never too early to start the conversation. Planning and figuring out the logistics of managing a PTA-run cafeteria takes time and human resources. We recommend starting slow, paying attention to feedback from students, school staff and families, and seeking support and guidance from other schools that have already made the transition.  

WHAT NEXT STEPS ARE YOU PLANNING TO TAKE TO ADVANCE YOUR HEALTHY SCHOOL FOOD PROGRAM?

KCA is a proud recipient of one of the 2022 Farm to School Canada Grants! This grant will provide a fantastic opportunity for the lunch program to expand to include more student engagement and stronger connections to local farms. Projects will include: 

  • An after-school cooking club. 
  • Field trips to local farms/gardens. 
  • Classroom microgreen growing kits. 
  • Hydroponic towers to grow produce for the cafeteria’s salad bar. 

New partnerships with local farms/gardens will enable food to be grown and purchased specifically for the school lunch program. The cafeteria aims to develop a new system to track its use of local produce and ingredients.   

The Cafeteria Committee would also like to create a bank account balance that establishes a legacy and sustainability for years through school and community fundraising opportunities. 

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