Hemingford: Better Food, Same Cost

Earlier we reported on the Hemingford, Nebraska, public schools transition from a “warm and serve” kitchen to a “made from scratch” operation. The spark for the move came when school nurse Judy Stewart was teaching the nutrition section of her health class.

The change has been a big hit at the school. It may surprise you to learn that Judy’s pretty sure it will have a positive return on the balance sheet as well.

According to Judy, overtime hours in the kitchen have been lessened. She believes when the final financial statements for kitchen operations come in, labor and food costs will be virtually the same as before the transition, if not less.

“It’s amazing to me what our kitchen staff can do, how they can plan, make and serve such great lunches. And it gives me great satisfaction to see how much they enjoy their work and how much pride they have in seeing the enjoyment the students get from their efforts.”

The numbers of students eating the school’s lunch offerings are way up, which also helps with the financial outlook. “The students just love it,” added Judy. “We sourced fresh watermelon from across the border in Colorado, and we served it from the beginning of school until into October. Students still ask me now, in March, when we’re going to have watermelon again.”

Judy and the kitchen staff learned there are cost savings in procuring food for a made-from-scratch kitchen. Food purchased through USDA, meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, etc., include processing charges if they are prepared for a “warm and serve” kitchen. But they are less expensive, considerably less expensive, when purchased in less processed forms for and prepared at the school.

“Plus, USDA has hundreds of made from scratch recipes for school kitchens, most of which require little adaptation and are thoroughly enjoyed by the students,” said Stewart. The entire school has gotten behind the effort. When the school procured fresh, local sweet corn the student council pitched in and helped husk the corn, and the kitchen staff put on a big sweet corn feed.

“The Superintendent eats lunch in the cafeteria most days, and the students see that too, they know how important this transition has been and the support that the school has shown in making it happen,” Judy offered. “And the coaches and athletes have also shown appreciation for having more enjoyable, nutritious lunches available.”

While Judy and the kitchen staff would never claim or seek credit for the performance of students and athletes or anything else beyond what happens in the kitchen and lunchroom, when the Hemingford football team won the 2014 Nebraska Division I football championship, it is a safe bet they felt some pride in knowing that they were able to contribute in their own way.

Hemingford purchased a steer that will be slaughtered at KDK meats in Bridgeport, Nebraska, providing an opportunity for fresh meat. Having several ranchers on the school board helped make this Farm to School purchase a reality. And Denny Hogeland of KDK meats has been an enthusiastic partner in this effort, with other ideas for the future, such as arranging the donation of cattle shown through 4-H at the Box Butte County Fair.

The cattle are always auctioned off after the fair, and often purchased by local businesses to help raise money for 4-H. Hogeland would like to see that charitable effort continue by donating cattle to the school to provide beef to the school lunch program.

At the Center for Rural Affairs, we take great pride in our Farm to School work, which is nation-leading in its focus on rural and small-town schools. In particular, we believe that Farm to School success in smaller schools, where available staff and financial resources are more limited than in larger, urban schools, demonstrates the viability of these efforts everywhere. 

Hemingford, perhaps as much as any community, proves that a small-town school with desire, imagination, and innovative spirit can offer a first-class school lunch with fresh, local, and made-from-scratch offerings that students truly enjoy. Congratulations to the students, staff, and administration of Hemingford Public Schools, and happy eating.