Start the New School Year by Reaching Out to Your Students

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 Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. 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

30 Tasks for School Food Service Professionals to Start the New School Year

August will soon be grinding to a close. Students are preparing to return to school. Moms are doing their last minute school shopping. Sounds like summer is over and life is returning to the norm. Are you ready? For school food service professionals, both old and new, these are the days that never seem to have enough hours in them. So much to do so little time. All necessary information seems to come in the final hour as everyone rushes to get ready to start. I used to call this time the “Run for October”, as things do not slow down from August 15th to October 15th, or thirty (30) days after the first day of school. This is the time of year when great preparation makes all the difference. If you prepared last year at closing for this year’s opening you are ahead of the game. If not, here is a simple check list that may help you to get ready.

  1. Menus ready, utilizing holdover inventory and USDA commodities, as well as being checked for compliance with all HHFKA guidelines and guideline changes for this year.

  2. Menus posted on school websites and in local news media to give students and parents ample time to review them.

  3. Free and Reduced Meal Applications ready with instructions and sent via mail if applicable. They should be starting to return slowly at this point.

  4. A la carte menus and products compliant with the new Smart Snacks in Schools guidelines.

  5. Parent information packets outlining policy changes, price changes, and program changes for the upcoming year sent or made available to all parents via mail, email or social media.

  6. Staff meetings and open up production times planned and ready.

  7. Return to work notices sent to staff including menus, policy changes, guideline changes, meeting agendas, staffing changes, and meeting and start date information.

  8. First week’s orders for food and supplies, or pre-orders made at the end of last year reviewed and sent to distributors for delivery.

  9. POS, free and reduced meal software, and computer equipment updated. Students rolled forward to the next grade levels. New students and enrolls added to the systems. Computers and networks checked and running properly.

  10. POS software updated with new menu items and price changes.

  11. Price and menu changes communicated to staff, parents, and students.

  12. Direct certification letters sent to all eligible families directing them to not fill out free and reduced meal applications and to contact the food service office with any discrepancies such as children in their house holds not listed on their notifications.

  13. Direct certified students updated in F&R and POS software.

  14. All equipment checked and preventative maintenance checks completed. (Especially refrigeration)

  15. Staff training and opening meetings completed.

  16. All staff returning to their regularly scheduled positions to ready the kitchens and dining areas and to receive deliveries.

  17. All required signage posted prominently in all operations.

  18. All food and supplies received, inspected, and stored properly.

  19. Beginning inventory physical counts taken, recorded, and compared with closing inventory values from last year end.

  20. Necessary preparation and production assigned and completed for first day menu.

  21. First day for teacher’s coffee breaks and administrative catering planned setup and delivered.

  22. MSDS files updated and posted in each kitchen.

  23. HACCP plans revised, reviewed with staff, and posted in all appropriate areas.

  24. Temperature charts posted in each appropriate area.

  25. Thermometers calibrated and available in all areas.

  26. T-Sticks (temperature control strips for dishwashers and ware washing) available in appropriate areas.

  27. All policies and job descriptions reviewed and posted on employee bulletin boards.

  28. Final managers meeting to review all open up issues and to insure readiness.

  29. Final review of POS keyboards and to issue operating cash banks if applicable.

  30. Final meetings with staff before each meal period. Open the doors!

I may have overlooked a few details, but for the most part if all of these items are completed, you are ready to go. Please remember that things will go wrong with even the best laid plans, but you now can be proactive rather than reactive. Take a deep breath, pat your staff on the back, and start your first day. Please don’t relax to long as things will not slow down or settle in for at least another 30 days. If you are a CEP district your free and reduced work is completed, but you still have a considerable amount of work left to do.

I hope you have found this check list helpful. It never ceases to amaze me just how hard getting things reopened can be. No matter how long you have been doing it, it still requires much planning and hard work. Good luck and have a great year!

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. 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