Facing the New Year’s School Cafeteria Challenges


Written by Milt Miller of Milton Miller Consulting

Happy New Year to all of you School Food Professionals. You have made the half way point in a very challenging school year. New and stiffer guidelines on grains (100% whole grain) and sodium, constant political posturing from both Congress and the White House, somewhat helpful changes in the new Ag. Appropriations Bill, and the new Smart Snacks in Schools Guidelines. Whew! Take a breath pat yourself and your staff on the back for navigating those murky waters and get ready for the last half of the year.

By now your staff has rested and back to work. Gone is the tension and morale issues caused by the buildup of excitement for some much needed time away and all of the tension brought on from the holidays. December and May are always the worst morale months for staffs, due to the build up from the opening until the holidays and the pressure of winding down and getting ready to close the year. I found those months the most challenging to keep everyone calm and motivated. Keep this issue in mind as you move into this second stage of the school year.

Moving forward into the New Year, is the time to start next school year’s preparation. What I mean is this, do not just sit back and slide through the remaining months of this school year. If you do you will be putting yourself and your program behind. Now is the time to start planning. Consider what new changes and trends are coming next year. Look at where your program fits into these new trends and changes. Where are you now and where do you need to go next to meet these changes and to embrace the new trends in school dining? Your staff has adjusted to the new issues from last year and is very capable of continuing to carry them out without hands on guidance. I am not saying that you no longer need to monitor what is going on in your operation, but if you have done your job and planned and trained well to this point, you have been afforded time to manage and direct for the future.

This is the time I tell my clients to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What menu items are just not working to drive participation?
  • What menu items are driving participation and show signs of continuing to do so?
  • What have students requested and how can we meet those requests?
  • What new products are available and how can we test them?
  • What are my end of year inventory goals and how do we effectively utilize products to reach them?
  • Have we utilized USDA Commodities effectively to this point?
  • Are projected costs tracking with actual cost and what must be done to maintain or improve them?
  • How do our student customers perceive our operation?
  • How can we create excitement in the program to carry over to next school year?
  • Are next year’s menus being developed?
  • Are we looking at what commodities we need to order in March or April for next year?

After considering all of these issues it is time to take action. The first step I would always take is what I call, “scheduling the fun.” I would contact my distributors and manufacturers and set up time for food shows or taste testing at several of my locations. This will provide you with plenty of time for advertising the shows to your students as well as securing a spot with the distributors and manufacturers to insure they have plenty of time to organize the event. I usually schedule these events for mid-May. These events, if handled correctly, will provide answers to multiple issues listed above, like:

  • What are the new items and trends?
  • What are students requesting?
  • How do our student customers perceive our operations?
  • How can we create excitement in the program to carry over to next school year?
  • Are next year’s menus being developed?

When scheduling these events don’t forget to include your produce vendors. This will allow your students to experience some new and different types of fruits and vegetables. It will also allow them to tell you which ones they will eat and want for next year.

This event will be exciting for your staff too, as it will provide them with new ideas and they will not have to worry about cooking or set-up as the manufacturers do the work. Also, if you structure the offerings properly you can provide every student with a free, reimbursable meal. I would always ask my distributors to provide any promotional signage and giveaways from the manufacturers for the students. One year, we gave away 3 iPods as grand prizes. Businesses in your area many times are willing to donate prizes too. This excitement will keep students talking about your program over the summer. This event can be as big and exciting as you choose to make it. The information you will obtain and the great PR for your program will be well worth the effort.

Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com.

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