Tips to Increase School Meal Participation and Cut Costs

The panel recommended eating more whole foods, including fruits and vegetables.
The panel recommended eating more whole foods, including fruits and vegetables.

When it comes to running a successful school meal program, participation is key. You need a way to get students on board with your options in order to keep things running effectively. But how exactly do you encourage more signups? What could help you increase participation at your school? And when you don’t have a huge budget to work with, what are the most useful steps you can take? To help answer these questions, here’s a look at some of the top tips for increasing interest in your meal program while also decreasing costs.

  1. Provide More Options. Offering variety is crucial to drawing a larger number of students into your meal program. So rather than just offering one entrée each day, try to give more choices. You could add a salad bar and a sandwich station, or you might provide vegetarian options alongside meat-based meals each day — but make sure you think about the specific desires of the students at your school. Otherwise, adding new options or replacing old ones could backfire, like it did in Los Angeles in 2011. While nutritionists were pleased when a local school district switched to a healthier menu, students dropped participation by the thousands. So to be most effective, add options that appeal to the specific students you’re serving.
  2. Run Promotions. It’s a concept businesses use all the time — to boost interest, run promotions. With special events and deals, you have a way to drum up new attention for your meal program, as well as something to get students excited about. “Food services in high schools with open campuses must compete with commercial food services that make direct appeals to the students,” says a study from The National Food Service Management Institute. “Similar attention-getting activities may be needed for the school lunch program. Creating ‘advertisements’ for school food might be offered as a project … Having something special or different to publicize may be needed to attract the attention and generate interest among students.” So to create buzz about your meal program, make one day a week the day you offer special gluten-free muffins or one day a month a market day with loads of fresh produce available for students to buy. Run an international week with cuisines featured from around the world. Whatever the case, these unusual, scheduled events can be a great way to get students to buy school meals.
  3. Try Themed Days. From celebrity days (where a local talent joins the students for a meal) to Hawaiian days (the entire cafeteria takes on a luau theme) to special holiday parties, running theme days in your food program can get students talking. When done right, theme days can make eating in the cafeteria hip and cool, drawing more participants in the process.
  4. Take Advantage of Good Deals. Hear about a local school that’s renovating its cafeteria and selling good-condition equipment? Have a co-op in your area that provides quality food for lower prices? Take advantage of these budget-saving deals in order to improve operations overall. Not only will high-quality equipment and food enhance your offerings, but also, when you get these items at good prices, it will lower your costs, too.
  5. Improve Efficiency of Systems. Do your meal lines work as efficiently as possible? Does time get wasted while students wait in long lines before sitting down with their food? See how you can speed up service for greater efficiency and better student satisfaction. This will encourage more signups and make your systems more profitable in the process.
  6. Find Ways to Use Less. Follow the example of schools like Pomona College and get rid of trays in your meal program. Most students don’t mind the change and actually appreciate the push for less waste. Likewise, implement a recycling program that will lower waste disposal costs and benefit the environment.

There’s no doubt that finding a way to get more kids involved is one of the biggest challenges that school districts face today in their meal programs — and the same goes for colleges and universities! So with that in mind, use the tips above as a starting place for building more interest in and lowering costs of your school’s program.

About the author: Ezra Adler is the Ecommerce Marketing Director for Culinary Depot Inc., located in Monsey, NY. Many commercial kitchens use Culinary Depot restaurant equipment, including hospitals, schools, restaurants and more.

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