Listen First, Assess Second

19 Sep Listen First, Assess Second

As I noted before, I have this dream of mutating (not changing) the current system. And I truly believe the mutation needs to start at the very beginning…with the children and for the children and where the children eat at the schools. There are a handful of schools and institutions nationwide where this revolution has already taken afoot. Let me outline below the process that we have taken at the elementary level to bring about the mutation.

To begin, we really need to understand what the current reality is. Intently, authentically, and respectfully listening is half the battle in making the assessment accurately. This must be done without judgement.  If we begin the mutation on the right foot, working, not judging, collaboratively as a team, then the program really soars.

The assessment is step 1 and is all encompassing….everything from menu to payroll, to staff and to profit and loss statements and more.  What exactly are the students eating and getting access to on a daily basis? Is there a mission statement for the school or the movement? How much of the budget is devoted to equipment? What is the staff compensation? What has been the profit and the loss trends in recent history? Are you or have you been overstaffed or understaffed? All this can be done before any meetings or site visits.

On-site analysis is step 2. I always encourage individual meetings with employees from top to bottom to facilitate open and honest conversations. When with administrators and managers, I ask “What is working? What isn’t working?”  They already know my dream, but I want to know what their dream for the kitchen is? Do our dreams align at points to one another?

Are the teachers and maintenance staff on board with the change, because realistically, they are going to be the soldiers who, quite literally, may have to do the dirty work?  Have you ever attempted anything like this before, such as a school garden? Was it successful? What is the perspective of  the teachers? Are they speaking from the perspective of an 8 yr old who just can’t eat one more hot dog? Or are they speaking from the perspective of a middle school teacher who has eaten at the same salad bar five times weekly for 15 years. Both are very natural perspectives and both are very informative. Discerning the differences of viewpoints comes from intently listening….remember what I mentioned above?

It’s hard to engage a kitchen staff who is frustrated and disillusioned. Morale is important for the kids to learn in the classrooms and morale is important for the staff to want to change.  What do you want to learn next? Have you learned anything recently? Do you have a dream? Have you been here or working in this field a long time? Look at their resume, and have a dialogue.

The kids are the key to the entire assessment. And while this shouldn’t be a novel idea, it is. No one actually engages the actual recipients of the meals what they actually like. Let’s start a dialogue with questions as simple as, “Do you want better food? Do you eat the food you are given? Why or why not? What would you like to see on the menu? What is the name of the person that prepares or gives you the food?” If the majority don’t even know the names of the staff, then that usually is a red flag. There has been a disconnect. The students know the name of their teachers, their principal, and their crossing guard. What do you think is the reason they don’t know the names of the kitchen staff? It’s a small detail but it is indicative of a larger problem.

Next, let’s look at the physical space. Let’s walk into storerooms and the coolers. This examination can tell a lot. What have they been purchasing? Processed food is expensive. Can we make almost the same item with scratch cooking and do it for the same price? What’s in the garbage cans? More than likely, it’s preventable waste. I did a plate waste study in three Midwestern schools last year. I found between 10%-17% over production. If extrapolated for the entire country, that translates to 1 billion meals per year in overproduction. This is wasted money in products and labor. Is the current staff tracking and recording production? My bet is no.

Another study I conducted was into the practice of “cupping”. “Cupping” is when kitchen staff put food into individual small plastic containers, which is a resource, time and labor waster. Another study took place in one school district with five schools total and 19 staff members that practiced “cupping”. We eliminated “cupping” and scratch cooked 13 out of 20 days and did not have to add any extra labor. You see, it can be easy. The time is already there, we just need to use it wisely.

To summarize, to begin an assessment of what is really going on, it starts by listening. Ask the right questions. Then truly listen to the answers. Once there is an open dialogue of listening and not judging, then a clearer understanding of what will and can be done to bring about change will emerge. Get everyone….managers, kitchen staff, hourly maintenance staff, and the students to common ground. Then….we can begin.


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