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Chef Ann Foundation welcomes school administration veteran to the team

Leslie Stafford worked with Boulder Valley School District for 20 years—now, she’s on a mission to help transform school food nationwide. Here, she offers her advice for school administrators and debunks some of the most popular myths about changing school food.

The Chef Ann Foundation is excited to welcome Leslie Stafford to the team as our new Director of Accounting and Human Resources. As CEO Mara Fleishman puts it, Leslie is a “dream team member” to support our mission of healthier school food.

Over her 20-year span working in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), Leslie wore many hats, including Director of Finance and Accounting, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and finally Chief Operating Officer (COO).

“Leslie has a unique understanding of what it takes to move a school district to cook-from-scratch, especially in finance and HR,” says Fleishman of Stafford’s experience. “She will be a great advocate for other district leaders that are curious about what it takes to make the transition.”

BVSD’s Transition to Scratch Cooking and a Central Kitchen

When Stafford started at BVSD, school meals were far from scratch-cooked. Most meals were frozen or processed, and chocolate milk was all the rage. Stafford, a mom to two boys in the BVSD system, was concerned about the quality and nutrition of what they were eating. “I wanted them to eat a ‘hot lunch’ that they liked, and that I thought was healthy,” Stafford recounts.

During her tenure at BVSD, she was assigned supervision of the district’s food services operations. She held meetings with a group of concerned parents—one of whom was Mara Fleishman. The school board president and superintendent at the time were supportive of proposed changes to the school food program and subsequently hired Chef Ann Cooper and Beth Collins, of Lunch Lessons LLC, to conduct a feasibility study and create a five-year plan to move the district toward scratch cooking.

Soon after, Stafford hired Chef Ann as BVSD’s Food Services Director to implement healthy changes and start the process of building a central kitchen. Ten years later, that vision is becoming a reality, by breaking ground on a new facility just weeks ago.

BVSD currently operates with three main production kitchens, but a central kitchen has been the goal for years. While some districts work with several production kitchens or a kitchen in each school, for BVSD, scratch-cooking in a centralized environment is arguably the most efficient and cost-effective model. A few years ago, the district passed a bond that included funding for a central kitchen, and the building is finally under construction. It is scheduled to be up and running for the start of the 2020 school year.

“Supporting the district food service operations was one of my favorite and most rewarding parts of my job as COO,” Stafford says of her time at BVSD. Fortuitously, a CAF position opened up earlier this year that matched her interests, passion, and experience. “I was ready for a new challenge and am excited to work with the CAF team on improving school food on a national level.”

Advice for School District Administrators

Transitioning to a scratch-cooked school food operation can often seem like a daunting task to administrators and staff alike, but the impact is worth it. As COO of a school district, Stafford was always looking at ways to better support education. “The impact of food is not always considered,” she says. “From my perspective, kids can’t learn if they are not well fed.” In transitioning BVSD to healthier school food, Stafford encouraged her peers to consider this as they looked at areas for reform.

Having worked for a school district for 20 years, Stafford understands many of the challenges district administrators face. “Change can be hard in school districts, but with good planning and support, it can happen,” she says.

Below are a few of Stafford’s recommendations for what school officials like COOs and CFOs need to know:

  • Evaluate your district’s facility and equipment needs, and where capital funds will come from.

Knowing your district’s needs is key to transitioning to scratch cooking. Is there money available in the food service fund, or are there capital reserve funds to dip into? Consider grants for capital improvements, too. “It depends on the student population, but if you can create a central kitchen, it will almost always be more efficient,” Stafford says.

  • What is your staff’s skill set? What kind of professional training will they need for your district to transition to scratch cooking?

In some cases, school food staff may need ServSafe training, knife skills, pre-employment math testing, and the ability to meet “fit for duty” requirements (such as lifting heavy equipment and boxes up to 50 lbs). “The challenge is that food service employees are often paid the least among school district employees, so there’s a lot of turnover,” Stafford says.“Providing appropriate training and professional development is crucial for retaining a high quality food service team.”

  • Support and cooperation from school administration, the school board, and the community (including students, parents, and employees) is helpful and often necessary.

Gather and listen to feedback. Chef Ann conducts surveys to find out which menu items students and parents like best, and regular tastings to pique kids’ interest in trying new things. “Many school districts are within diverse communities, with different wants and needs,” Stafford says. “ It’s important to create menu items that are appealing district-wide.” Being responsive to the community, she adds, is also important.

Debunking School Food Myths

Stafford also wants to debunk some of the myths that administrators may have about school food.

  • “You can’t put salad bars in schools.”

“One of the first things people always say is that it’s not sanitary and little kids can’t use them,” Stafford says. Contrary to this popular belief, she has witnessed the implementation and success of salad bars in every BVSD school. “They’re a great way to provide alternative menu items for our vegetarians and students with food allergies.”

  • “High school students won’t eat hot lunch.”

“While it can be tough with open campuses, many district high school students (including my own!) eat hot lunch daily. Trying new things like a food truck can help increase participation.”

  • “Students won’t eat chicken on a bone.”

Stafford heard this one when the BVSD began its transition from processed heat-and-serve to healthier school food. “Parents said their kids would only eat chicken nuggets, but roasted chicken on the bone continues to be a very popular menu item.”

What’s Next?

Twenty years ago, Stafford could only dream that BVSD’s food program would look like it does today. Now, with a central kitchen underway and more changes to come, the district’s 30,000 students can continue to look forward to healthy, scratch-cooked food at school. By bringing 20+ years of school administration and food experience to the CAF team, Stafford hopes to facilitate the same kind of impact on school food across the country.


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