Start the New Year by Reaching Out to Your Students

Scheduling lunch after recess was found to boost children's vegetable and fruit intake.
Scheduling lunch after recess was found to boost children's vegetable and fruit intake.

Written by Milt Miller – Most school food programs are underachievers when it comes to student participation. The participation issue is a many faceted issue; one in which most schools blame their underachieving on the new rules and regulations. Many believe their students have lost faith in school meals due to the prescriptive nature of the new guidelines. Many say the kids don’t like being told what they must eat and don’t like the new healthy offerings.

In order to move forward we have to ponder, if the students are saying this, what are they really saying? Are we as directors and school food professionals really hearing them correctly? Or are we hearing something entirely different and easier for us to swallow? Are we really listening? Most times the difference between mediocre participation and great participation is found to be in the translation of what we really hear our customers saying.

I just finished reading an article about the 2015 School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania Director of the year Jillian Meloy. Jillian is the Food Service Director at Greater Latrobe School District in PA. This woman is really hearing what her students are saying and she is responding. When I read this article I knew what my next article would report. Great participation is directly proportional to the effort taken to listen and understand what customers are truly saying, and responding to those requests. 

“Your clients are the kids,” Meloy said. “They really have a voice in what they want to eat, what they like, what they don’t like.” “It’s really showing them what a balanced meal is. If the students take every single component, it’s a pretty meal, and it’s very, very balanced.” Jillian keeps track of what fast-food and chain restaurants are serving as a way to see what foods are being marketed to students and what they want to eat. She uses that information to develop meals that are appealing while being healthy. “I watch what they’re eating. I see what they’re putting in their grocery carts at Wal-Mart. That type of stuff helps me see what the kids really like to eat,” Meloy said.

What do her peers say about her? “She just doesn’t stay stagnant. She’s out there reaching out to the families of her district and different community groups.” Meloy works with a group of students to get feedback on what meals are popular and what should be changed. She also organizes samples of new menu items to get feedback on whether they should be added to the menu. That feedback will continue to be important as more regulations are passed on to school districts. Meloy said, “The next challenge is reducing levels of sodium in meals while still making them appealing.” As Jillian continues to adapt meals and encourage healthy eating habits among students, she hopes that her efforts impact what foods they eat throughout their lives. “You’re really making a difference, because they’re still growing,” she said.

Wow, congratulations Jillian on a job well done! How many of us are really listening to what our student customers are saying? How many of us take the time to look at what they are eating outside the school café”? This is a new year and at this time of year we are starting to look at next school year and plan our approach to winding down the old year. Why not take this as an opportunity to make a commitment to reaching out to our student clients and truly listening and looking at what they are really telling us?

How many of us are developing menu items based on current trends, not just using new products to produce the same old tired menu items? How many are effectively using student focus groups and not just going through the motions to say we have one? How many are reaching out to parents and community organizations to share what we are doing in our café’s? Are we providing our staffs the opportunity to tell us what students are really saying?

As this New Year dawns, let’s take the opportunity to make the remainder of this year and all of next, all about reaching out to our customers and meeting their needs. I guarantee your participation will increase and so will your revenues. If you are having trouble thinking of ways to do this, contact me. I promise I will listen and share some ideas based on what you are telling me. Let’s make this year the year of the customer!

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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