It seems that the idea of an executive chef for Lodi Unified School District has stirred the pot a little. Bad puns aside, at last count there was an editorial, a letter to the editor, a guest column, and 36 blog posts, so I think it is only appropriate that we clear up a few things on this subject.
Hiring an "executive chef" was not an item that was being considered by the board at the March 27 meeting; it was part of a report brought to us by our Food Services Department. LUSD departments occasionally report to the board about successes and challenges in their specialty area. They also suggest ways to improve the performance of that department. Warren Sun, the head of Food Services, was doing exactly that.
The idea of an "executive chef" was not up for vote or debate. It was simply part of a report. Board members asked Mr. Sun about his report and proposal and then thanked him of the excellent job he has done managing the Food Services Division.
Having said that, the question still remains: Why would anyone bring the idea of an executive chef to the school board? Like everyone else, when I first saw this on the report, I cringed at the mere thought. I didn't care how much money we have, I did not want to establish a position for an executive chef!
As it turns out, as I looked at our situation and then dug a little deeper into the report, I better understood Mr. Sun's proposal.
The Food Services budget in LUSD is about $15 million a year. About $11 million is from the federal government, about $1 million is from the state, and the other $3 million comes from student purchases. We serve more than 5.4 million meals a year at 48 sites throughout our roughly 350 square mile area. Seventy-one percent of our 28,000-plus student body eats lunch at our facilities daily, and about half that number eats breakfast.
Our Food Services Division is not a small operation.
Mr. Sun has done an excellent job managing his division. He has been able to control cost, increase the use of our facilities, and provide more nutritious meals by, among other things, using fewer prepared and packaged meals and moving more towards site preparation. Our Food Services Division has been able to realize significant savings and produce higher quality meals while staying under budget. Though his efforts, we have a significant reserve in our Food Services budget.
In his letter to the editor, Mr. Weber seemed to believe that this money could be used for other education-related expenses. The same view was shared by some of the bloggers who commented as well.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Those funds can only be used by the Food Services Division. We cannot use them to lower class sizes, buy classroom supplies, or for any use other than food services.
That is NOT to say that we should be any less vigilant about ensuring the money is used wisely, but we need to remember that these funds are specifically for producing nutritious and appealing meals for our students. That is where the proposal for the executive chef comes in (I still cringe every time I have to use that title).
Mr. Sun's proposal is to add an executive chef with a salary of $81,000 per year. When combined with benefits, the personnel cost of the position would be about $100,000 annually. The other $32,000 mentioned was for position-related expenses such as supplies and technical support.
Still, $100,000 is a lot of money — but if you look at the qualifications and the job description, it starts to be a little more palatable (pun intended).
Mr. Sun wrote in his proposal that the successful candidate for the position would have a four-year degree in business, nutrition, hospitality or a related field and have two years of culinary school. In addition, the candidate would have five years work experience in the culinary arts field at the executive chef level.
The executive chef will have many duties, including developing healthy, appealing menus that meet the new lower sodium requirements from the federal government that will soon take effect. These new requirements will necessitate the further movement away from pre-packaged, prepared meals.
In addition to developing the menus and working with suppliers, the executive chef would also train and monitor the 36 food preparation sites within the district. Another part of the job would be to become involved in the education of students through our own Culinary Academy at McNair High School and assist in the development of nutrition curriculum for our health classes. There are other duties as well, but space here is limited.
I completely understand why people are concerned about a report of spending $132,000 of taxpayer money on an executive chef. But if you look closely at what Mr. Sun is proposing, you can see that his intent is to use the money to improve the quality of food and education for our students, while meeting the stringent new federal requirements.
It's money we have; it's money that has to be spent in the food services area. I just wish that we had called it something besides an executive chef. "Master cook" maybe?
George Neely, a former military officer and Lodi Unified teacher, is a member of the Lodi Unified School District board of trustees.