2010-04-01 / Business Profiles

The fine art of feeding a crowd that keeps coming back for more

Special to Florida Weekly

Dawn Houser CINDY PIERCE / FLORIDA WEEKLY Dawn Houser CINDY PIERCE / FLORIDA WEEKLY Managing the logistics of 10,000 students for breakfast and 24,000 for lunch (in addition to teachers and administration) at 50 schools five days a week for nine months a year is a skill. Making money at it takes talent.

Dawn Houser, director of Nutrition Services for Collier County Public Schools, likes a challenge.

When she was promoted to director of food service for Brevard County schools, where she’d been a supervisor since 1984, the district was losing $250,000 a year and ranked dead last, 67th, by the Florida Department of Education. Within two years, she turned that around, without increasing meal prices, by fine-tuning everything from costs to work flow and marketing. Over time, steps such as setting up attractive food courts in high schools increased student participation. Equipment was replaced and work stations remodeled for higher efficiency. She started with a budget of $15 million. By the time she left 10 years later, that figure had increased to $27 million.

Different from the rest of a school district, which operates from a set budget, food service programs operate under the United States Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program guidelines and must earn their way. A federally assisted meal program, NSLP provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

Whereas public school funding is based on student enrollment, food service operations start each year with a budget based on projections. Ms. Houser’s department is reimbursed for sold meals and free and reduced meals. It receives some commodity foods based on the number of meals sold. Instead of getting a fixed budget from the state, Nutrition Services builds participation and manages food and labor cost.

Since starting at Collier County in June, Ms. Houser has overseen an initiative to provide more free lunches to students. Subsidized lunches previously cost 40 cents per student. As she explains, when the percentage of students qualifying for subsidized lunches increased from 54 to 57, management decided to act quickly.

“That’s a huge increase, and there’s a real need out there,” she says. “The thing is that when they don’t have the 40 cents, they just don’t eat. They stay away.

“We’ve contacted those parents and told them that their children can eat lunch at no charge if they qualify for reduced meals. We felt that if we could increase our participation and not lose any money doing it, we could offer that service to the students.”

Collier County Public Schools’ Department of Nutrition Services is a well-oiled machine. Food service personnel provide all of the meals, order food and work closely with students, teachers and even parents. A registered dietician creates the menu.

Working with managers, Ms. Houser is watching over the largest multi-unit food service operation in Collier County — and it operates in the black.

Ms. Houser has a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management from Penn State University and a master’s of public administration from the University of Central Florida. After Penn State, she went to work for the Department of the Army as a civilian club management intern. She was food and beverage manager at the Sanno Hotel in Tokyo for four years. She’s had more than 25 years experience in managing the logistics of large crowds in busy environments.

“I’m good at increasing participation and managing costs,” she says. “This year we’ve increased our revenue on a daily basis by $2,266.31.”

After 20 years at Brevard, and after winning coveted FAME food service awards — Gold Star Director of the Year in 2001 and Silver Leadership in 2002 — Ms. Houser decided to try consulting. Over the next five years, her food service consulting business took her all over the United States as she advised individual school districts, state associations, the USDA and the Department of Education.

Crisscrossing the country took a toll. “I’m over the travel,” she says. If all goes well, Collier County’s large school district, with its wide territory and diverse cultural mix with a variety of food preferences, should keep her challenged for a long time to come.

“There’s never a dull moment in this job,” she says. “It’s a challenge and it’s interesting. We’ve got to put food out there that the students enjoy and make sure it’s a pleasant dining experience.”

Ms. Houser was born in St. Petersburg and is happy to be back on Florida’s west coast. “I feel like I’ve come home,” she says. “There’s no place I’d rather be than Collier.” 

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