More Than Just Food for Thought

More Than Just Food for Thought


Food Service Director Denise Brown brought her cost-saving strategy to our school kitchens, and it has already reduced WFISD costs by 34 percent. That cost reduction will benefit children. Here’s how.





Denise Brown isn’t your typical Food Service Director. Her background is finance, not food.


But she was the perfect partner for the Food Service team already in place: Supervisor Lisa Lonsdale had 20+ years logged with WFISD and a bank of knowledge about food service regulations, guidelines, menu planning, and nutrient analysis. Benetta Johnson had 15 years experience as eligibility coordinator for school lunch applications.


Enter Ms. Brown. Her skill set is budgeting, finance, staffing and purchasing. It didn’t take long before a budgeting transformation began.


WFISD Communications Specialist Ann Work Goodrich talked to Ms. Brown about our fascination with all things food, how she’s saving the district money – and where that savings will benefit kids.



Q: Now that I know your background is in finance, I’m not surprised that you reduced WFISD food costs by 12.3 percent and paper product costs by 22 percent. How did you do it?

A: In 2015-2016, we were excited that more children participated in our lunch program than before, and our revenue increased. However, we were also able to channel our commodity dollars – the money we get from the federal government – into paying for the high-priced parts of our menu. That reduced our overall food bid costs, the food that we purchase ourselves.


The federal government gives us about $460,000 to spend for our menus. That figure is based on the number of students who participated in our lunch program last year.


Q: You saved money on paper products, too -- 22 percent. How?

A: We trained our kitchen managers in ordering cups, plates, fruit trays and school kits, which include a spoon, fork and napkin. We educated them on how much they were using.


It’s natural to want to stock up. But we asked them to take the mindset of watching what they used, then to use first in-first out, so they don’t have a lot of excess sitting on the shelves.


They saw the wisdom in this. They understood that every dollar saved in the program is a dollar we can put into better quality food for the kids. And we reminded them that what it takes to get a raise is a healthy department fund balance. As we related to it personally and for the children, it was a whole different mindset for all of us.


Q: So the big story this year is that you’ve been able to save money. Where are you channeling the savings?

A: We’ll have better quality food and more name brand items, such as Bush’s baked beans instead of a generic brand. We’ve found better pieces of chicken. We’re getting the highest quality. With that comes a cost.


Our supervisors spent this past year interviewing students and staff, researching new food products and attending workshops and food shows statewide. New breakfast items are sliced blueberry bread and whole grain mini donuts.


New lunch items are beef enchiladas, hot ham and cheese sandwiches on fresh pretzel buns, beef and cheese burritos, Philly cheesesteak subs, chicken quesadillas and a jalapeno beef wrap.


Q: So what are the kids loving to eat right now?

A: Kids will be kids! For breakfast, their favorite menu items are cinnamon rolls. For lunch, they love pizza and chicken tenders. But their A#1 favorite is nachos: chips, with crumbled meat and cheese sauce, with salsa and jalapenos.


Q: What’s waning in popularity?

A: Menu items that generated the least participation last year were breakfast burritos, fish sandwiches and taco snacks.


Q: Are the kids eating well?

A: They’re doing well. Some are a little more finicky than others. That’s why we go to food shows every year and talk to vendors to make sure we find new products the kids might like. We want to taste-test and sample so we can find the best food out there that meets our regulations and guidelines.


Q: Will kids eat their fruits and vegetables?

A: They’ll eat apple or orange slices or cooked broccoli and cooked mixed vegetables. They like raw carrots. We serve some salads in the secondary schools. It’s unbelievable, but kids really like cooked cabbage.


Q: Is Mexican food most popular?

A: Some of our new food items coming in are Mexican. We found a beef and cheese burrito we feel the kids are going to like. The older the children get, the more they like the Mexican items.


Of course, they like the staples: steak fingers, chicken tenders and pizza. To get the most participation, we have to give the kids what they want. But we also have to work to make each menu item compliant with regulations set by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Our vendors have worked very hard to create offerings that meet the guidelines.


Q: What are those guidelines?

A: A few years ago, we were required to offer 100 percent whole grains. Now our sodium levels are being strictly monitored and must be really, really low. Sometimes it’s hard to add flavor and taste. We have to be creative to come up with spices to get that taste in there.


Q: What’s the latest on sodas? Are they long gone from schools?

A: Yes. Vending machines offer only water and Powerades.   Even campus vending machines must be “smart snack” compliant and meet the same regulations and guidelines for fat, calorie and serving sizes as our menu items.


Q: Is this all a good idea? It’s a lot of work for you.

A: It’s a lot of work for a lot of people throughout the state and country, at the USDA, at TDA, for our vendors, our kids and our parents! Everybody has to go with these changes. It’s hard when kids can still go to McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell after school. You acquire those tastes. But then you come to school where we’ve reduced the fat, gone to 100 percent whole grains, and taken out the salt. It’s very hard.


Q: What do parents need to know about school lunches this year? Are prices going up?

A: Breakfast will continue to be free for all students. A lunch at the elementary school will be $2.55; at the secondary, $2.65. That’s a dime increase on both.


We want to remind parents they can access school menus on our website at They can also find a link there to access My School Bucks and use it to make credit card payments to their child’s lunch accounts. They can do this 24/7. They no longer need to worry about sending cash or checks to school with their children. They can set low balance alerts, view account activity, and set up recurring payments. They can even make payments for all their children in one easy step, even if they attend different schools.


Q: What’s most surprising to you about food in schools?

A: It’s how things have changed. Kids are no longer served greasy pizza, salty French fries, and sauced-up chicken wings in their school cafeterias. Meals must now be lower in fat, calories and sodium and contain lean proteins. They must include more fruits and vegetables and whole grains.


It’s not like the old days. Just as there have been changes in testing requirements in the classroom, there have been changes in the cafeteria. Is change good? Absolutely. I’m in complete agreement with meals being more healthy and nutritious for our students.


Q: What’s ahead?

A: We’d like legislators to find a happy medium as they consider whether to reauthorize the legislation for 100 percent whole grains/extremely low sodium levels or relax a few of the guidelines. We’d like to make school meals a bit more tasty and appealing to the students.


After all, kids are accustomed to a flour or corn tortilla. Then they come to school and get a 100 percent whole grain tortilla. They’re familiar with the look and taste of that white flour biscuit from restaurants, or Pillsbury’s Grands biscuits, then come to school and get a 100 percent whole wheat biscuit.

Could we find a happy medium? It’s all about the health and nutrition of the kids, but ultimately we want to get them fed so they can be productive and learn.


Q: We in the public forget how much of what you do is regulated from “on high.”

A: We do want people to know that we must adhere to many regulations, rules and guidelines. And they came from someone other than me. We’re out there fighting for the kids. We want the public to know we’re working hard at it by talking to vendors and the School Nutrition Association. Everybody is working together to try to do the best we can for kids.