5 Questions With…Stephen Menyhart, Boulder Valley School District

5 Questions With…Stephen Menyhart

Stephen Menyhart, director of food services for Boulder Valley School District, talks with us about his district’s extensive locally sourced food program and how it’s helped to not only create awareness and engagement with students, but supports a community and alleviates supply chain issues as well.

Stephen manages 58 schools within 500 square miles in Boulder. Starting as a district manager seven years ago, he worked under Chef Ann Cooper, one of his mentors. Stephen brings a diverse background in school nutrition. He’s worked for the City of Chicago Public Schools, which is a large district with over 600 schools, as well as a network of charter schools, and a small school with a strong environmental focus and 100% organic food program before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, to earn a degree in culinary arts and culinary nutrition from Johnson and Wales University. While doing his dietetic internship, Stephen worked as the director of foodservices for a suburb outside of Boston with an incredible food culture. Additionally, Stephen has earned his school nutrition specialist accreditation through the School Nutrition Association (SNA), along with being a preceptor through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 7 to 10 dietetic interns each year.

You have a substantial locally sourced food program. How did the program come about?

Our program is relationship-based. It was Chef Ann Cooper’s fundamental belief that we should create local networks for food and agricultural products. It makes sense that when you need something, you need a vendor to be flexible, engaged, and to work with you in terms of students’ tastes and recipe formulations. 

BVSD’s local purchasing program has 11 local farms we work with regularly. Products range from agricultural, meat, protein-based, and dairy, along with local producers who make prepared products. If there’s a higher quality product  than what we can produce available, and at a lower cost, accounting for labor plus food costs, then we buy it.    

The USDA provides allowances to make local procurement and locality a part of consideration in purchasing products. This is huge because it allows us a little bit of leeway on costs.

How do you establish your relationships with the local vendors? 

We buy direct as much as possible. We start with a questionnaire and then visit with them, and they visit our culinary center and engage with our students. It’s a true relationship. We talk about what’s possible and make sure it’s a good fit before establishing a relationship. Once the relationship is established, we meet with the farmers in February and March as they’re planning their crop rotations and cycles for the following year. We tell them what we need. Our procurement manager has also fostered and cultivated these relationships and creates a detailed spreadsheet of our anticipated needs and quantities.  

We have some farmers who can give us all the volume we need and others who offer more of a specialty small buy. For example: We recently had a farmer contact us who had an extra pallet of orange glow watermelon, which is like a neon orange watermelon variety. He doesn’t have any refrigeration on the farm, but we have a large refrigeration storage facility. We bought them the same day and featured them on our Colorado Proud menu the following week. 

The flexibility that we have, the ability to buy small and large amounts, and the open communication between us and the farmers are really the most important factors. 

How much of your food supply is locally sourced?  

It fluctuates year to year and season to season, but last year we bought roughly $850,000 worth of product in the state of Colorado, out of a $4 million food  budget — or about 21%.

In terms of local meat procurement within the state of Colorado, we have a medium to large beef producer out of Greeley, an hour away. They give us fresh hamburger patties. We get 10,000 to 12,000 burgers at a time, and we serve them often the next day or two days.  

I think the chicken market is an interesting story regarding the supply chain. We get our chicken from Commerce City, and we hand bread every piece of chicken. Right now, no one can get their hands on chicken patties or chicken nuggets in the quantities they need because everyone’s after the same product.  

Utilizing RFPs, we get our dairy from Royal Crest in Longmont, 20 minutes away from us, and fruit and vegetables, like peaches, pears, and apples, from Western Slope. We write specific RFPs for specific products, which helps us get the highest quality vendors possible.  

We also purchase premade items when it makes sense. For example, we buy tamales from La Casita and pot stickers from Sisters’ Pantry, who removed sesame for us as it will likely be the ninth major allergen on the food allergen listWe’ve been able to retain our relationships with our vendors thanks to a continued give-and-take partnership. 

You just opened a new state-of-the-art culinary center. How is this helping you to manage costs? 

The culinary center opened during the summer of 2020. Central warehousing and central production help to manage labor and costs from a production standpoint, and then we source it out to the 58 schools within the district. The culinary center allows much higher volume scale efficiency and food safety. 

Participation is up in school breakfast and lunch. Do you see that trend continuing? 

I think healthy school meals should be a fundamental right for students. Many families don’t qualify for free and reduced meals, and yet don’t make enough money to buy school meals or don’t have a lot of extra time to prepare a healthy, appetizing lunch at home every day. We’ve provided a great service this year, and families are so appreciative. They’re thankful that we’re offering high-quality meals at no cost. Many tell us their kids come home and they say the best part of their day was lunch. It’s an investment in our nation’s future.

Do you have a locally sourced food program or are ready to start one? Contact us to learn how we can support you in managing your food and nutrition program.