Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, January 2019

When Springfield opens its new $21 million school culinary and nutrition center this month to offer healthier options to its students, it will be the first city in the nation to use federal food service funds in a unique city-school partnership.

The city bonded $14 million for rehabilitation of the warehouse used by its food service vendor. In return, the school district will pay the city rent for 20 years using U.S. Department of Agriculture food service funds, eventually paying off the cost of the facility.

“The timing was perfect,” said T.J. Plante, the city’s chief administrative and financial officer. “We talked with the mayor [Domenic Sarno] and superintendent [Daniel Warwick] about the center creating jobs, getting fresh food to the kids, avoiding us shipping food to Rhode Island (for processing) and then bringing it back to Springfield. It made a whole lot of sense to us.”

Pat Roach, chief financial and operations officer for Springfield Public Schools, said that when the lease on the rundown warehouse was nearing its end five years ago, he and Plante began looking for a new building. Around the same time, Springfield had begun a new school breakfast program, through which students are provided breakfast in their classrooms, rather than the cafeteria. Participation in breakfast jumped from 25 percent to more than 80 percent, Roach said.

“However, all the products were like pre-packaged muffins and breakfast sandwiches that you’re microwaving,” he said. “We came up with the brain child, ‘Why aren’t we making this stuff ourselves? And we’re looking for a warehouse, too. Let’s make a central kitchen as part of the warehouse.’”

Roach eventually approached the USDA with a request to use food service funds to purchase a building or undertake renovations.

“The USDA told us absolutely not,” he said. “They took over a year to respond and said they didn’t want to open a can of worms.”

After continued advocacy by the school district and city, however, eventually the USDA approved the idea of the city bonding and paying for the construction, with the school district using the food service funds to pay rent until the borrowing is paid off.

“I sat down with T.J. and said, ‘We did all the math. Our program can sustain it. Are you willing to bond for it?’” Roach said.

The district also has universal free lunch, so between the two programs, the district has enough in food service funding to support operations and pay for the cost of the borrowing for the new center, Plante said.

The city also structured its debt well, he said, with enough coming off the books to allow the city to borrow for the construction.

In a statement, Mayor Sarno called the program “another Springfield first.”

“This is another unique public/private collaborative approach,” he said, “that not only enhances healthy food aspects for our students, but just as important, creates training and job opportunities for Springfield residents.”

Roach said that Sodexo, the food service vendor, added 40 jobs in the past year to expand Breakfast in the Classroom, and the culinary and nutrition center will create career paths to higher-level jobs for its workers.

“Sodexo hires over 80 percent from Springfield, so these jobs are going to our residents, who are parents of kids, neighbors of kids,” he said. “So from an economic development standpoint it’s amazing.”

The new culinary and nutrition center will be phased in over the next six months – adding the currently outsourced bakery, vegetable processing, and other tasks – until it’s fully operational at the start of the next school year.

For more information, contact Pat Roach, chief financial and operations officer for Springfield Public Schools, at 413-787-7100, ext. 55299.

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