Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New food service provider earns high grades early

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 9/18/2013

More options equal a better meal.

That was the formula a few students relayed when quizzed about their dining experiences with Opaa! Food Management Inc., the Ottawa school district’s new food service provider.

More options equal a better meal.

That was the formula a few students relayed when quizzed about their dining experiences with Opaa! Food Management Inc., the Ottawa school district’s new food service provider.

“I definitely like it better than last year,” Kaitlyn Madden, Ottawa High School junior, said as she prepared to stab her fork into a slice of meatloaf midday Wednesday in the Cyclone Room at the school. “There are more options this year, and I like the salad bar.”

Jodi Harrell, director of nutrition at Ottawa schools, savored the students’ comments about the increased menu options as she strolled through the Cyclone Room at the high school, 1120 S. Ash St.

“We are offering a full salad bar as a meal for all students this year, which we didn’t do in the past,” Harrell, who worked three years for Chartwells, the school district’s previous food service provider, before becoming Chesterfield, Mo.-based Opaa!’s director of nutrition in Ottawa, said. “We also are offering three breakfast options at the elementary and middle schools and four breakfast options at the high school each day. Previously, we just offered one [breakfast] option.”

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

The Ottawa school board voted 5-2 in late April 2012 to go with low bidder Opaa! Food Management over Chartwells, the only other bidder for the district’s food service business. Opaa!’s bid of $878,957.86 for the 2013-2014 school year came in $71,007.19 under Chartwells’ bid of $949,965.05. The school district and Opaa! have the option of renewing the contract for four one-year extensions, with either party able to opt out of the contract at the end of each school year.

Opaa! — which means “Hurrah” in Greek and typically is shouted in Greek restaurants to denote a pleasurable dining experience — was founded in 1978 by Kenneth Short, a former assistant food director at the University of Missouri-Columbia who started his business by serving Kemper Military School and College, Boonville, Mo., the company’s website said. Since then, Opaa! has grown to serve more than 100 school districts in Missouri and Kansas. Other districts in the region served by Opaa! include Basehor-Linwood, Bonner Springs and Piper.

Chartwells, a division of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, provides dining services to 2.7 million students nationwide, according to its website. The company’s association with Ottawa schools dated back to the 1990s.

It was the tour of Piper’s elementary and high school cafeterias last spring that helped sell the Ottawa school district’s food service committee on the idea that Opaa! had the resources, menu options and quality to be Ottawa’s food service provider, Susan Ward, school board member, said in an earlier interview.

The district’s food service committee, comprised of administrators, school board member Dave White, former school board member Marge Stevens and other district staff, reported everyone they talked with at Piper — administrators, food service workers, teachers and students — were complimentary of Opaa!

“The [Piper] kids said they had plenty to eat and that they were not hungry,” Ward said. “Marge said committee members checked the trash cans — and they were empty. That tells you a lot about the quality of their school lunches.”

Harrell confirmed that trend also is present at Ottawa schools.

“We had very little waste with Chartwells, and that has continued to be the case [with Opaa!],” Harrell said. “We see very little food thrown away.”

Dee James, who has worked in food service at OHS for 21 years, said the transition from Chartwells to Opaa! has gone smoothly.

“The comments I’ve heard from students have all been positive,” James said. “We kept all but one employee, who chose to leave.”

The continuity of the food service staff has made the transition go smoothly, Harrell said of the district’s 25 food service employees.

James said she likes the varied menu options that are available to students each day.

“I’m a picky eater,” James said. “We had a Tuscan sandwich recently on the menu, and I tried it and loved it. We weren’t sure how well it would go over, but it turned out to be very popular. We had to make more sandwiches than we expected between each line change [with the school’s students eating in shifts].”

MYRIAD MENU OPTIONS

On Wednesday’s menu, students had the choice of “homestyle” meatloaf, roast turkey, a Greek chicken sandwich or a grilled or breaded chicken patty as a main entree. Students also could make a salad at the salad bar and select from such fresh fruits as cantaloupe, honeydew and peaches.

Several kinds of pizza were available at the pizza bar, or students could pay cash at the a la carte bar and grab a cheeseburger or chicken sandwich.

The four breakfast options at the high school that day included sausage pancake on a stick with fresh fruit; cinnamon roll with yogurt and fresh fruit; cereal with yogurt and fresh fruit and oatmeal with yogurt and fresh fruit.

Opaa! serves about 1,600 lunches each day in the Ottawa school district, Harrell said.

The food service staff prepared six roasted turkeys to serve at the high school and middle school Wednesday, she said.

“When we serve mashed potatoes, we usually go through four cases (or 36 bags) of potatoes,” Harrell said.

A glance at the September menu indicates Opaa! touts a multitude of food options, and Harrell said all the food service provider’s menus meet or exceed federal nutrition guidelines. One of Opaa!’s signature items is rolls baked from scratch in the school kitchens.

In addition to rolls made fresh daily, Harrell said, some of her staff arrives at 6 a.m. to bake such items as cinnamon rolls, french bread, sub sandwich buns and bread sticks.

“We do a lot of baking, fresh each day,” she said.

The food service staff makes fresh pizzas each day for the high school and middle school, and fresh pizzas are available at the elementary schools every Friday, Harrell said.

“We used to serve frozen pizzas at the elementary schools, so the fresh pizzas have been a big hit with the kids,” Harrell said.

Some of the pizza options at the high school include buffalo chicken, Hawaiian and supreme.

No matter how it’s sliced, Tristan Godinez, OHS sophomore, gave two thumbs up to the pizza bar.

“I think the food is pretty good,” Godinez said. “I like the pizza the best.”

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