Marysville schools make students, servers into partners in serving better meals

MARYSVILLE — "What we've found is that angry people make angry food," said Chris Lutgen, director of food services for the Marysville School District. "That's why we want our food made by and for happy people."

Courtesy photo

MARYSVILLE — “What we’ve found is that angry people make angry food,” said Chris Lutgen, director of food services for the Marysville School District. “That’s why we want our food made by and for happy people.”

Lutgen characterized the district’s nutrition services contract with Sodexo as tailored to meet the needs of food servers and students, with menu items that were made to order. He cited engagement with employees and students as essential to the program’s success.

“We held a focus group at Mountain View High School in response to declining participation in their meal program,” Lutgen said. “We had about thirty kids tell us there were too many options, and the food quality just wasn’t there, so instead, we focused on making a more- specific set of options really good.”

Following the focus group, participation doubled for the remainder of the school year.

Indeed, Lutgen reported that Marysville-Pilchuck High School saw its meal program participation double over the past year as well, citing creativity and balance as key factors to the program’s success.

“We make sure they have a hot item every day, not just a wrapped-up burger,” Lutgen said. “We’ve been able to offer custom salsa bars, and when we give them sugars and carbs, we also make sure those meals have proteins to help sedate them.” Lutgen pointed to presentations such as pasta bars as methods to ensure that “kids will actually eat” certain types of food that might otherwise languish on the line when served by themselves.

On the other side of the serving line, Lutgen touted the variety of multiple training opportunities available to the servers themselves.

“We can celebrate what they’re doing and ensure they’re well-rounded in their field,” Lutgen said.

In addition to serving freshly roasted pork and baked chicken, Lutgen praised his employees for putting in extra effort, not only for occasions such as the schools hosting Native American pow wows and students’ math and literature nights, but also with blue smoothies on “Blue Fridays” and heart-shaped cookies for the Valentine’s Day lunch.

“We’ve had made-to-order waffle bars,” Lutgen said. “And our end-of-the-year barbecue is a favorite of students, staff, parents and community members.”

The schools served 71,552 more meals in 2015-16 than in the previous year, in spite of a decline in student enrollment that resulted in 300 fewer full-time employee positions, which itself yielded a revenue loss of $207,152.

When coupled with labor going $232,500 over budget, Lutgen acknowledged that Sodexo was not able to meet its financial target, but given the trends in participation and the factors that Sodexo was able to control, he asserted the program was “moving in the right direction.”

The district apparently agreed, as it renewed Sodexo’s contract.

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