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Serving healthy, restaurant-quality food can be expensive. Fresh produce and lean cuts of meat can be astronomically priced, especially during certain times of the year. For a program not based on revenue, such as food service at Job Corps and in public schools, it could cause managers to overspend. It does not have to be this way.

There are ways to manage a tight budget and serve fresh, high-quality meals to students and staff. Some strategies, such as comparison-shopping with various vendors, may initially be labor intensive but will ultimately produce healthier meals and healthier, happier students.

Some Job Corps centers have begun changing food purchasing and service practices to save money. Public schools have been doing this for years. School districts have conducted several comparisons showing that serving healthier food is often no more expensive than serving unhealthy, convenience products. The Malibu Unified School District in Los Angeles found that during the 1998-1999 school year, healthy meals were less expensive to prepare than traditional meals ($.77 vs. $.88). The University of Wisconsin, Madison, conducted a similar cost analysis with slightly different results. They found that they could save money by purchasing environmentally friendly apples ($18/100) instead of regular apples ($18.43-$34.63/100). They also found that organic chips offered a $.04/oz savings over regular chips. Schools have also seen profits from vending sales increase when switching to healthier alternatives.

Studies have also been conducted on the costs of food for individuals and families. Several studies have determined that food labeled as "lite" or "organic" is more expensive for the consumer. However, at least one study found that when patients were placed on a low-cholesterol diet, they spent, on average, $1.10 per day less than on their normal diet. The principal investigator on this study, Dr. Thomas Pearson, attributed this to the fact the participants stopped purchasing many highly processed, convenience foods, which are expensive. Another study that appeared in the Journal of American Dietetic Association showed similar results, except that they found that during a family's first few months of eating healthy, the cost increased. After the participants had more practice making healthy choices, food costs dropped dramatically. After a year of healthy food shopping, consumers not only added more healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, they purchased them in place of expensive high-fat meats, convenience foods, snacks, bakery items and soft drinks.

In this section, you can learn about:

Menu Planning and Purchasing​

What guides your menu options? Seasonal six-week cycle menus? Low-cost ingredients? Easy preparation?

While cycle menus and quick and easy assembly are not bad reasons to serve certain items, they do not always take into account nutrition, quality, or value.

Working with Vendors

Most of us do not limit ourselves to one grocery store for all of our personal food purchasing needs. We may buy seafood at a specialty seafood market, bread at the bakery, produce at a roadside farmers market and compare costs and sales at two or more large grocery stores for other items. So why limit Job Corps centers to a single purchasing option? Following these steps may be labor intensive in the beginning but once multiple vendors and a system to compare costs are put into place, you will be able to purchase high quality food at reasonable prices.

Work with companies that hold food service contracts to order comparably priced, healthier food items. Large food suppliers can easily make small changes, such as swapping reduced-fat for regular mayonnaise, without any amendments to current contracts. It is important that food service managers discuss with their suppliers their desire to purchase healthy foods. Often, these healthy alternatives are already in place within the company, but the company does not offer them to every customer. It is the purchaser's responsibility to request healthier selections.
  • Use multiple vendors to compare prices and create competition. At a minimum, centers should have two large distribution companies; a local/ specialty vendor like a baker or beverage distributor, as needed.
  • Comparison shop. Different vendors are likely to offer products at drastically different costs and will run specials on items during different weeks. If you are locked into one vendor, you are locked into their pricing scheme. Use multiple vendors to search for the best price. Costs can vary by product quite a bit between companies. Some companies have food costs online while others furnish customers with a monthly pricing guide. Spend a few minutes each week taking inventory, writing an order list, and then comparing products and prices.
  • Ask vendors to deliver products on different days of the week. This ensures freshness, keeps food service staff from being overwhelmed on one delivery day and allows you to add or change menu items later in the week. This is especially helpful to ensure freshness with products that quickly spoil, such as fruits, vegetables and bread.
  • Ensure vendors submit prices that will be locked-in annually. Ask vendors to submit prices for food items, excluding fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat for pricing. These prices should be guaranteed for the year. (Prices for items above fluctuate daily, based on availability; therefore, prices for these items cannot be locked-in with most vendors.)
  • Order food based on quality even if the product is a bit more expensive. Do not waste time with low quality, cheap products. If the food ends up in the trash at the end of mealtime, it is a more expensive product.
Menu Planning
  • Serve seasonal items. Buying items that are in season will usually be more affordable and make a better ingredient. Strawberries do not taste great in January, nor are they sold at a realistic cost. In colder winter months, oranges are readily available as are flash-frozen fruits. They only require overnight defrosting in a refrigerator, require little or no labor, and are relatively inexpensive.
  • Do not be afraid to deviate from the cycle menu. Cycle menus are tools to assist in menu planning. They do not need to be carved in stone. Use the cycle menu as a guide, but deviate as necessary. Look at cost and availability of products and alter the menu accordingly.
  • Offset expensive menu items, such as fish and seafood, with less expensive items, such as pasta to balance food costs.
  • Substitute pre-made convenience items with homemade versions whenever possible. Convenience items are among the most expensive menu options. Strike a balance between foods made from scratch and convenience items in order to prepare food in the available time. Items can be partially pre-made as well. Instead of ordering a pre-made Asian chicken dish, use precooked chicken breast, flash-frozen vegetables and a low-fat sauce made from scratch. This saves money and improves the quality of foods and can be prepared within time constraints.
  • Students like consistency, so standardize recipes to minimize food waste. Every time a recipe is prepared, it should taste the same. If a recipe is not successful, the recipe should be altered or discarded.
  • Limit expensive meals that students do not appreciate. Cold cuts and cheese offerings are often the most expensive items on the menu and are offered daily at many centers! Sandwiches are not always the healthiest option either. Try cutting back (not cutting out) these expensive items.
Cost Comparison

With a little knowledge and a lot of commitment to good food and healthy students, a food service manager can make wonderful improvements to the cafeteria by doing a bit of research and "smart shopping". Smart shopping refers to using several vendors to purchase food items, often using this knowledge to empower negotiations for better prices, service and even special requests. A real cost comparison for a Job Corps center is available.

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Tracking Costs and Inventory

Tracking costs and inventory is essential for any food service establishment. A tracking system helps managers to maintain financial records, and ensure product freshness and order accuracy. Systems may either be computer-based or a simple paper-based logbook.

Computer-Based System

A computer-based system can help to effectively monitor costs and inventory. Computers can assist tracking through a simple spreadsheet or more advanced accounting software.

Example #1: Accounting Software (e.g., Quickbooks)
  • Tracks purchases according to vendor
  • Tracks re-order points
  • Tracks issuance and sales
  • Tracks food by category (beverages, dry goods, freezer, refrigeration, etc.)
  • Tracks physical inventory
  • Tracks cost of goods
  • Tracks daily activity
  • Allows items to easily be added or removed
  • Alphabetizes products for price comparison by vendors
  • Generates profit and loss reports
  • Generates usage graphs by categories
  • Generates issuance comparison monthly and year-to-date reports
  • Makes average cost adjustment for same products
  • Can be connected to other center computers, such as those in finance, for information sharing
  • Provides up-to-date inventory reports quickly
  • Can be used to control budget
Example #2: Spreadsheet Program (e.g., Microsoft Excel)
  • Tracks inventory
  • Tracks cost
  • Tracks usage
  • Tracks categories (beverage, dry goods, freezer, refrigeration, etc.)
Benefits of Using a Computer-based System:
  • Produces less hand-written reports
  • Makes it easier to compare costs per vendor
  • Tracks information from various vendors
  • Helps to create diversity in menu planning
  • Tallies inventory accurately
  • Helps reduce waste
  • Provides detailed reports that would probably not be available if inventory and costs were tracked by hand
  • Allows for reorder reminders
  • Provides budgeting tools
Paper-Based Systems

While the computer is a helpful tool in tracking inventory and costs, much of the same information can be recorded with a paper and pencil. Necessary materials for tracking costs without the assistance of a computer include:
  • Physical inventory binder (should include current inventory with price and previous months inventory)
  • Issuance report (daily)
  • Vendors' current pricing guide
  • Vendor purchase log
  • Re-order log
  • Daily physical inventory sheet
  • Categorized tracking sheets (beverages, freezer, refrigeration, dry goods, etc.)
  • Usage charts for each category

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Alternative Purchasing Options

All food does not need to come from large food service distribution companies. Food can come from local farms, center gardens, and government commodities. Information on working with farms and growing food on center is available.

Creative Use of Government Commodities

Many Job Corps centers receive government commodities. Some of these reduced cost or free items are useful, while others are served in containers that are entirely too large for a Job Corps food service operation, or are not suitable for the student population. The following are some suggestions for creative uses of government commodities:

Have commodities made into another product. For example, a large school system received a tremendous amount of canned sweet potatoes. Students did not particularly like this item, but it was a bonus commodity, and therefore free of charge to the school district. The district was able to have a manufacturing company turn these canned sweet potatoes into sweet potato mini loaves. Of course, other ingredients, such as flour, applesauce, and spices had to be added, but one of the main ingredients was free, the product was healthy, and it appealed to students.

Explore commodity letters of credit (CLOCs). CLOCs are credits available in lieu of commodities to certain schools. Instead of receiving actual commodities, these schools receive sums of money to purchase a specific type of product (e.g., chicken or pork).

Commodities are not created equal. Do not accept an item because it is low cost or free. It is important to receive the same quality of food from government commodities as from food service suppliers.

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Portion Control

Controlling portion sizes not only reduces calories consumed, it also saves money. Of course, some students, especially those enrolled in trades that involve manual labor, need more nourishment than sedentary students. There is a need to strike a balance by offering students enough food to sustain their activity while not tempting students to eat more food than they need on a regular basis.

Portion sizes should follow United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines. Information, including pictures of portion sizes, can be found on the Choose My Plate website. This site also includes information on how food consumption should vary based on age, activity level and gender

Pre-portioning Items

Before each meal, menu items can be dished out into individual serving dishes or pre-cut to a determined serving size. Doing this work ahead of time will limit the amount of food served when a student comes through the line and will speed up service. Use the​ website as a reference. The first time a food is served, servings will have to be weighed or measured to ensure accuracy. It may be helpful to note serving sizes on recipes or in a database.

Limiting Second Servings

Some students need second servings of food because of their activity level or metabolism. Other students who do not require extra calories will eat extra servings because it is convenient or just because it is there. Over time, this can result in excessive weight gain and other health problems for some students. Unfortunately, it is impossible to differentiate one group from another.

Several strategies could be put into place to encourage students to eat only the amount of food they need, including:

  • Reducing portion sizes when students ask for second servings of main menu items. For example, if students typically receive four slices of turkey bacon with breakfast, a student who requests a second serving could be offered two slices.
  • Encouraging students to eat fruit or other healthier items instead of returning for seconds of main menu items. Fruit and salad bar items should look attractive and be presented as an alternative to seconds or dessert. If the physical environment of the cafeteria allows, serving lines for fruits and vegetables should be closer to the seating area than the hot food service lines.
  • Encouraging students to stop eating when they are full. Posters or brochures can remind students to pay attention to how they feel after eating and to resist the urge to overeat.
Minimizing Food Waste

How much food do you think is wasted at your center? If you could cut the amount of wasted food by 50%, how much money could you save? Food is wasted when students are served larger portions than they can eat, do not like the item, or too much food is prepared.

USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that approximately 12 percent of food served for public school lunches is wasted, not including food that is prepared and never served to students. Public school lunches are carefully portioned. Servings at most Job Corps centers are not quite as standardized, possibly resulting in well over 12 percent plate waste.

Plate waste does not account for all of the food wasted. Preparing large quantities of extra food can also lead to waste. While no food service manager wants to run out of an item before meal service is complete, it is necessary to strike a balance between preparing enough food and having too many leftovers. Food preparation for large groups will never be an exact science. Sometimes students want more or less of a certain dish. Sometimes two popular items are served on the same day and are forced to compete with each other.

While it is nearly impossible to eliminate food waste entirely, with a little research and planning, waste can be minimized. To minimize waste:

  • Tailor portion sizes to appetites and needs. Every body does not require or want the same amount of food. Consider offering at least two sizes of menu items, similar to how food is served in many carryouts, coffee shops and restaurants. Think of how French fries are served in fast food restaurants. These establishments allow consumers to choose the amount of food they will be tempted to eat. Many restaurants will also offer smaller or half portions of salads and pasta dishes. Beware of "super-sized" portions. Ensure the large portion is not an outlandish serving.
  • Schedule meal times appropriately. Ensure that students do not eat lunch at 1:30 p.m. and dinner at 4:30 p.m. These students will come to dinner still full from lunch, may end up throwing out half of their meal and then will be hungry later in the evening. It may be worthwhile to conduct an informal survey to gauge student's preference for meal times. Altering schedules by a half hour can make a large difference in student satisfaction and decrease the amount of wasted food. During meal times, ensure that students have appropriate time to eat and are not rushed.
  • Improve food quality. Students may waste food because they do not like it. Ensure that food is not always selected solely on price or convenience. Items served should be high quality, nutritious foods and should reflect student preferences.
  • Allow students to be a part of menu planning. See the Student Input section of this site for more suggestions.
  • Ensure foods serve reflect any nutrition education offered on center.
  • Conduct a food waste study. For one to two weeks, track all food that is wasted, then evaluate the results. How much food has been wasted? How much money has been lost? Evaluating the amount of food prepared can help determine the quantity that should be prepared the next time a menu item is served, or if a menu item should be prepared again at all. Note: Conducting this plate waste study could be a valuable project for Culinary Arts students.
Staff Education on Portion Sizes

Ensure staff serve consistent and appropriate portions to students. A brief meeting can be held prior to each meal to ensure staff know how much food students should be served. A sample plate can be prepared for reference.

Work with Health and Wellness Staff

Food services staff should work with the health and wellness staff to identify students who are overweight or have special dietary needs. Health services staff should provide regular counseling sessions and physical check ups to ensure these students are following a prescribed dietary regimen. Updated copies of this regimen should be provided to food services staff as changes occur. See the Healthy Eating and Active Lifestyles website for more information.

Make Additional Small Changes

Some small changes can make a big difference. Changes can include:
  • Be sure to include large plates on the salad bar. If only small plates or bowls are available, students do not realistically have the option to eat an entrée salad. Both smaller plates/bowls for side salads and entrée plates should be made available.
  • Offer portion and calorie-controlled meals for interested students and supply nutritional information. Some students on center are probably trying to lose or maintain their weight. Food service can help these students reach their goals. While it may not be realistic to offer nutritional information for every menu item, it is plausible to supply information for some foods. Most recipes supply nutrition information as well as suggested portion sizes. If enough students on center are interested in eating portion and calorie-controlled items, these items can be incorporated into the menu. If only a few students, such as those involved in a weight management program, express interest in these items, plates can be made available by request, with advance notice. Keep in mind that students who are trying to change their eating habits not only need healthy choices available, they need a variety of items that are also appealing and tasty.
  • Invest in a variety of serving utensils. Ensure the proper-sized ladle is used to serve soups and salad dressings.
  • Order individual servings of some items. Some Job Corps centers have found success with ordering single servings of some items such as juice, salad dressing and condiments. These items are portion controlled and, in some cases, may be less expensive.

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