WCSD turns around cafeteria balance

Paula Bailey (center) receives her certificate as a Wildcat Warrior from Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Tom Wilson and district treasurer Norma Walker. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

In the seven years Paula Bailey has been child nutrition director, the Watson Chapel School District has seen a big turnaround in its balance for its Food Services department.

The district finished the 2022-23 school year with a balance of $371,083.37 -- so much, in fact, that the Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education has informed the WCSD it would have to spend some of that money because the amount is above its three-month operating budget.

Bailey was honored as a Wildcat Warrior among district faculty in November for her efforts in stabilizing the district's Food Services department. Watson Chapel Food Services faced a negative balance of $330,000 when Bailey started in 2016, but the department is operating in the black for the second year in a row, she said.

"I strongly feel we would have made it in the black by 2019 if it not had been for covid," Bailey told the board during Monday's board meeting.

One way Bailey has improved the department's bottom line has been to invest in Smart Mouth Pizza. The district purchased the program, which offers personal pan pizzas, to meet school lunch guidelines for $31,323 in January, but it was geared toward helping the WCSD net a 5% increase in lunch participation, which was estimated at 50 meals per day.

That would result in an estimated $94,500 net profit increase, Bailey told the school board in January.

"About 70% of the lunches provided to students are from the pizza line," Bailey wrote in an Oct. 30 letter updating the board on her department. "While we focused on pizzas, we are about to start offering hot sandwiches via this program as well."

Bailey told the board that the cafeteria produces 250-260 pizzas per day and, starting Wednesday, will present hot sandwiches.

The WCSD has provided 3,276 meals to No Kid Hungry and Rayo del Sol through Smart Mouth's program to provide one meal for every 10 pizzas the district serves.

Now, with the surplus, Bailey's department has ordered new ovens for the high school cafeteria, replacing those that are at least 20 years old.

"It's going to help us with production for our students and with safety as well, having new equipment," Bailey said.

The WCSD also has received $20,000 from the Local Foods for Schools Grant through the Division and is purchasing ground beef from Natural State Beef, according to Bailey. The district is also introducing a fruit or vegetable of the month, and for November it is sweet potatoes.

Apples -- a variety of them -- were the fruit of the month for October. Brussels sprouts will be the veggie of the month for December.

Board members also approved KHall & Sons as a contracted vendor for WC Food Services, which allows the district to receive a wider variety of products, according to Bailey.

"For example, for National Apple Month (October), we brought in honey crisp, Fuji and Pink Lady apples, which we could not purchase from our other vendors," Bailey said. "For November, we have ordered Arkansas Black Apples via KHall, which once again would not be available from the other vendors."

Wednesday: More notes from the WCSD board.