Three Million Meals: A Look at the HSE Food Services Department


As a part of the HSEngaged group, we had the opportunity to learn about the Hamilton Southeastern Schools Food Services Department. This is one of many departments within HSE that is part of the infrastructure that supports educating our kids during the week and more.

The following information is from my notes from the presentation and includes some of the insights learned. The nutrition and food services group includes Andria Ray, the Director, and a staff of 219 people working across the 22 schools within HSE.

Andria Ray oversees the accounting, budgeting, HR tasks, handling federal requirements (making sure district meets them), and much more. The staff includes a cafeteria manager at each school that manage daily cafeteria responsibilities. Most managers have bachelor’s degrees and come from other professional careers. They are a diverse group.

The district food services department works with a budget of around $7 million. They provide about 19,000 meals a day, which equates to roughly 95,000 per week or over 3 million meals in a school year. It requires about 1,207 hours of work per day to feed the students breakfast and lunch.

The Food and Menus

There are federal guidelines that the food services department is required to follow. These dictate things such as:

  • Calories
  • Vegetable sub group requirements
  • Sodium restrictions
  • Whole grain requirements
  • Smart Snack guidelines – This is ala cart items. Items have to meet requirements to be able to be served. Requirements vary by grade levels.

If these guidelines are not met, then they risk federal funding being taken away.

One topic that people are often curious about is how menus are developed. How do they develop the school menu?

  • They start by look at what is selling – review the numbers
  • They also look at new products that are coming
  • They then have recipe committee meetings
  • They do trials of new products / menu ideas. These are usually in the Spring (April time frame)
  • After trials and reviews, they finalize a menu for the next year.

Supplying the food is not a small thing. Most schools get one primary delivery a week, some get two for total of about 95 per week. This equates to about 3,642 deliveries a year. Examples of what the schools get includes about 7,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, which are served daily. That’s over a million pounds (1,260,000) served yearly. They also distribute approximately 950 gallons of milk to kids daily.

Special Needs

There are some kids that can’t eat certain foods. The HSE Food Services team handles over 2,900 accommodations every day for kids with special needs. The needs include things like celiac, lactose intolerance, diabetes, and nut allergies. In these cases, items will generally be substituted. Due to federal regulations, specific items have to be considered in order to meet federal requirements.

Kids that have restrictions are generally listed in the computer system. Because it is in the system, the cashiers can watch trays to make sure a child doesn’t have something they shouldn’t have. Some things such as a dairy (different from lactose intolerance) allergy might require the parents to work with the school if there isn’t a direct substitution.

Challenges for School Nutrition

There are a few challenges that the nutrition and food services group are dealing with currently. There are currently 35 open positions. While parents can be used to help kids in the cafeteria, they can’t help “in the back” or work with food. In order to be allowed to go in the back, there is training required and a requirement for them to then be paid.

There has also been an issue with the supply chain. This was a big issue this past year and is still an issue. The food services teams knows how to deal with the issues, but it has impacted the menus and causes adjustments to have to be made to what is served. There are times when expected food items are not delivered, so they have to adjust. They’ve also had to reduce the number of offerings. There has been slight improvements to the food supplies. It was stated that there is a food service video online talking about the shortages.

The Design of a School Kitchen and Serving Lines

The design of school kitchens and serving lines was also mentioned. Serving line and kitchen design is a combination effort. The functioning of school kitchens has changed over the years. Old buildings have large freezers and small coolers. New buildings flip this because they tend to use more fresh food. This is a result of doing more batch cooking. Batch cooking means things are cooked and served fresh. This requires the right equipment. Ultimately, the equipment in schools needs to support menu, storage needs, food prep and flow, batch cooking process.

Serving line have also evolved. One thing that has changed is the use of a “Smarter Lunchroom Concept”. This puts fruits and vegetables first. Kids go through the meal line and pick what they want (self-serve). It has been learned that kids are more likely to take fruits and vegetables if they are presented first.

Other things that are done in our schools include fixing (batch cooking) and serving most food as needed rather than having it sit on a serving line. This helps to prevent food from going stale. Another change at many of the HSE schools is that they have a “merchandiser” at the end of the line where water and other things can be picked up. This replaces the old “stainless steel milk coolers”.

At Cumberland Elementary School, they have a kiosk cashier stand that is separate from the food line. Kids can line up at the kiosks after going through the line. When one cashier kiosk line gets full, kids can go to the next.

Catering Services

The food services department is self-supporting in that they need to cover their costs. As such, they have looked at way to add additional revenue into what they do. This includes adding catering services. This is an area that is newer and is expected to expand and grow. They recently catered the HSE Foundation Game Day.

The catering services also includes being able to give staff options and such. This is an expanding are. They can provide these services to PTOs and others as well. Catering has done up to 200 people.

Other Related Topics

A number of questions were asked related to food services. These hit on several topics.

What happens to food that isn’t being eaten? What happens to ‘trashed’ food? Does it go to farms? Some schools have programs to capture unopened food. Trashed food doesn’t go to farms. The pandemic has impacted this as well.

Does food services work with the Snack Attack program? This program is outside of food services. HSE doesn’t rise to the level of complexity to offer a summer feed or snack attack program because you must have certain percentages of “need” at district level. The level of low-income families needs to be 40% community wide. We are about 16% (which is higher than we were pre-pandemic). As a corporation, HSE doesn’t qualify for the government assistance to do programs like Snack Attack.

The cafeterias have a lot of cardboard waste and such that could be recycled. Does the district have a recycle program? They had a program pre-pandemic. There are a lot of logistics involved in recycling. At this time, they have gone with a “green” program where they use things like composable trays and straws.

It was asked if they had considered vegan and vegetarian option for the high schools. It was acknowledged that there is an interest in such offerings, and they need to look at these for next year.

It was asked if virtual learning days from the pandemic helped save the district money since food services weren’t needed? It was stated that this year there have not really been unexpected virtual days. Last year it cost the district due to the number of days. The servings dropped to about 10%. The waiver this year for all kids to get free meals have helped. The district normally receives 32 cents for a regular meal. For a free student they receive over $4, so the free meals for all kids has really helped.


Serving over 3 million meals a year is a staggering number. Even with staffing being short, the nutrition and food services team continues to work hard to make sure the kids are fed and ready to get back to learning. It is no small task, but they continue to make it happen each day.

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