Forty years ago, The Nutrition Group began as a relatively small company that provided meals for summer camps, senior congregate dining programs and a few school districts in Pennsylvania. Today, the $123 million company provides on-site meal services to approximately 180 school districts, charter schools and private schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan and is branching out to other states.
The company has a presence in New Jersey and Florida, and plans to expand in those areas. It’s a competitive market”, says COO Jerry Moore. The education marketplace makes up about 80 percent of the business for The Nutrition Group, a regional foodservice company that frequently bids against national firms for school contracts, Moore says.
“With our team approach we’re more successful,” says Pam Harney, director of business development. “We focus on building partnerships with potential clients rather than impose a corporate presence. We listen to their needs and develop a plan.”
“What is interesting about our industry is that all foodservice management companies are required by government regulations to provide school districts with a definitive host of services, but we stand out as a leader,” says Joan Wagner, marketing coordinator. “I know that every day as a company we go above and beyond what is required by regulation. Our approach to each district is to listen to what their challenges are and draw on our expertise to overcome their challenges. Our continued steady growth is evidence that our approach is successful.”
“The upcoming expansion plans are exciting and challenging,” Moore says. “A lot of things need to happen to get the job done. By making communication and training a top priority we are able to ensure that our employees are knowledgeable in state regulations and company procedures.” In addition, the company must meet the dietary guidelines set forth in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.
The school cafeteria has changed significantly from 20 years ago when students had limited meal choices. “Today’s students have many more choices,” Moore says.
Today’s typical school lunch includes a selection of at least four or five entrees, though many offer 10 to 15 choices and include fresh fruit and vegetables as well as specialty food bars that offer items such as potatoes and tacos, he says. The Nutrition Group relies on a team of buyers, chefs, dietitians, operations specialists, foodservice directors and cafeteria staff to prepare the meals for the schools they serve.
“Competition plays a major role in being able to offer choices that students want,” Wagner says. “By increasing the number of students participating in school meals, we help districts build a successful foodservice program.”
The company has a strong marketshare in Pennsylvania, where approximately 250 of the state’s 500 school districts contract with food management companies. The Nutrition Group manages 158 of those districts while competitors collectively manage the rest, Wagner says.
Government mandates led to sweeping changes in cafeteria offerings. The 2006 Wellness Initiative mandated by the USDA set limits on serving sizes, sugars and fats that are served in the school lunches, Wagner says.
“As a company, we chose to take a leadership role and draw on our greatest resource – our people – to stay ahead of the mandates,” Wagner recalls. “We encourage all of our on-site managers to be available in the cafeterias every day to talk to students and hear their opinions on what they would like to see offered on the serving lines. We know that the students have a choice, so we work to offer them the foods they like, as well as create new and exciting combinations while still fitting within the guidelines.”
The company also created programs such as Wellness Wednesday and concepts including Take Nutrition Global that meet the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act guidelines and “get students excited about what’s offered in the cafeterias,” Wagner says.
“We stay on top of the trends,” Moore says, adding that offering popular menu choices translates into less waste. In fact, the food service director at each school tracks “the foods that are eaten and not eaten” to help create future menu offerings, Moore says. Members of the school’s youth and parent advisory councils also recommend food choices, and sample trays are provided at open houses to gauge popularity, he says.
The Nutrition Group’s significant growth over a short period of time has led the company to restructure by adding more levels of support, Moore says. “Right now, we’re in a period of transition,” he says. “We have promoted from within to build a solid foundation of corporate support for on-site managers and clients. Additionally, we’ve hired more than 170 individuals. We are excited about those changes because we know that new people bring new ideas.”
Although school service represents a majority of The Nutrition Group’s business, the company also owns commissaries in York and Ford City, Pa., as well as Youngstown, Ohio. It leases five others that are used to prepare meals for Head Start, daycare, senior congregate dining, youth/afterschool programs, correctional facilities, drug and alcohol programs and charter schools, many which do not have on-site kitchens for meal preparation. “Though the commissary makes up about 20 percent of the company’s business, we have experienced many new opportunities for growth in this area as well,” Moore says.