Ask the Experts

Written by Milt Miller – Every school food program comes complete with its own set of experts. That’s right you guessed it, ask your student customers what they think of their current lunch program and what they want for lunch. This exercise is not for the faint of heart or those who do not want to hear the truth. Student focus groups are brutally honest and to the point, but with the right group of students they are the best thing that can happen for fixing your program and getting students back to the lunch table.

A program we worked with was experiencing drops in participation at their elementary schools. More students were bringing packed lunches from home than ever before. Participation had dropped by 15%. We went to the experts and they told us how to fix the program. When asked, students told us they did not always like the main lunch items and they packed on the days they did not like the choices. We looked at what they were bringing from home and realized they brought “Lunchables” or PBJs most days they packed. We put our heads together and came up with a grab and go lunch, which fit the HHFKA guidelines, and provided choices for students that they could count on consistently. By the end of the first week we had increased lunch participation by 15% and by the end of the second week 20%. The students liked the fact they had consistent choices along with the main lunches.

We had a similar experience with a high school program where participation had dropped off considerably. Again we spoke with the students and they told us the lunch lines were too long and they would rather pack as it provided them more time to eat lunch. After giving the situation some thought we developed a grab and go area where students could quickly grab a packaged or box lunch and immediately go to the cashier with little wait time. Within a few weeks participation had increased 10% and the students were thrilled someone had taken their comments seriously. Customers love to see their suggestions come to fruition and they will definitely support their own ideas.

Recently a Food Service Director contacted me about a drop in female participation in her high school. Many girls were packing lunches in designer lunch bags and not eating school lunch. I suggested she speak with the girls and ask why. Their response was they thought the bags were cool and they liked carrying them. It was sort of a status symbol. I suggested she find out what they packed in their designer bags and ask if she could pack the lunches for them using their bags. After completing the research, she developed a menu the girls liked that provided several choices. She designated a cooler in the lunch room to store the lunches and encouraged the girls to pre-order, pre-pay, and pick up their lunches when they came to the cafeteria. As of last week she told me the pre-order per-pay system was working and 25 students were ordering from the cafeteria again. Many of the items provided for them to choose from were already on the menu daily. Salad, wraps, fruit and yogurt parfaits etc…

The point of this article is, in the face of declining participation it is easy to blame guidelines, but if you ask your customers what they need to see for them to participate they will provide you with the answer. In many cases the big question is, are you open minded enough to listen and then respond? If the answer is yes your cafeteria table will fill up and participation will not be a problem. If you seek the answer from the experts they will provide it.

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 www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

4 Steps for Marketing Next School Year’s Food Program

Written by Milt Miller – Menus are ready and meet the guidelines. Employee trainings and meetings are scheduled and planned. Free and Reduced Meal Applications and instructions are at the printer. The first week’s food orders are ready to go. Student accounts are ready to be added, purged, and rolled forward in the POS. Inventories have been taken, extended, and ready for next year. Staff recall notices are ready to be sent and their schedules are ready to post. Policy changes and the first month’s menus are ready to be sent to parents. Preventative maintenance projects are completed. Wow, you are thinking, “I’m good, I’m ready to go and its only July!” The real question is, are you really ready?

Most school food directors would say yes. Many would tell you that this process is automatic and they can do it in their sleep. Some would already be on a secluded beach somewhere relaxing. Some however, would be planning ways to get their customers excited and ready to jump back into the world of school food. These few would be those with the most consistently successful programs. Too many times we get caught up in the ongoing struggle to be compliant and forget the customer has been away and has most likely forgotten us. While compliance is required, without customers it is relatively meaningless. The most compliant, organized, and prepared operation without customer interest and participation, is nothing more than an empty shell.

Let’s face facts, students take time to shake off the haze of summer fun and get back into the structure of another school year. They aren’t looking forward to returning to the world of rules, regulations, and academia. They walk through the doors, on the first day, like the zombies from the “Living Dead” and remain in that state for at least two weeks after Labor Day. The real question is; can your program wait to see any real growth in participation until October? Your marketing strategies, developed and acted on before opening day could just be the spark necessary to turn the zombies to human form again!

Marketing is one of the most overlooked areas in school food. As operators we get so caught up in the rules we forget who we are there to serve. People like to feel part of things. They like to be kept informed and in the know. They are drawn by excitement. Students are people, though we sometimes forget that and treat them like sheep that need to be prodded and herded, with little or no regard to their needs and expectations. Its hard to be young and excitable. We forget this too often as we become adults. Being forced to follow rules and perform all day is bad enough, but when your only oasis in this sea of forced servitude (the school café’) is also filled with more rules and regulations, why participate? Many times we as operators treat our student customers like mushrooms. We keep them in the dark, on what great things we are doing, and expect them to happily eat whatever we tell them to eat. Would that excite you?

Marketing is the sizzle that sells the steak, the excitement that fills the room, and the concepts that meet their needs and keep them coming back again and again. Too often we overlook its importance and then wonder why our program is losing money. Developing and implementing an effective marketing strategy can be accomplished by following several steps. Below are my key steps to effective marketing.

  1. Promote when it is needed not just to say you did something. Use your monthly POS sales reports to determine patterns of low or slow participation. These times are usually from the end of August to October, from November to January, and the last week of May through the last day of the school year. Plan promotions and special days during these slow times to create excitement and generate participation.
  2. Don’t Keep it to yourself, let customers know what you have planned in advance. Develop your plans then let your customers know what you are doing. Reach students through the medias they use, email, texts, social media, and signs in areas they frequent. Send flyers home to parents, post events on your website, and text a list of special event to parents also. Send flyers to teachers, administrators, and board members, add these promotions to your board reports or request time at a board meeting to discuss them. Let everyone who is touched by your program know the exciting new things you are doing. Create excitement by letting everyone know.
  3. You can’t be great on your own, involve your staff. Share these marketing ideas with your staff and get them excited that something new is happening. The worst thing is to have a great promotion that staff members can’t enjoy with your customers. Think of a restaurant you have gone to and inquired about one of their special promotions, only to find your server knew nothing about it and didn’t suggest or inform you of what was being promoted. What a letdown. This happens with many school food promotions also. If your staff isn’t excited your customers won’t be either.
  4. Vendors and manufacturers make great partners. Involve the companies you work with, they bring added excitement to the mix. Ask for small prizes, posters or decorations that promote the products or the events. Most companies have these types of items built into their marketing budgets, so utilize them. Invite manufacturer and vendor representatives to be part of the promotion. The more new faces and bells and whistles, the greater the excitement. Remember, the more advanced notice and planning time you give your vendors the more they can and will help. Don’t wait until a week before the event to ask.

Utilizing these simple steps, you can develop and implement an effective marketing plan to bolster excitement and participation in your program. Take a little more time before heading out for a well-deserved break. You will be glad you did.

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 www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

You can teach kids to eat just like you teach them to read

So says Karen Le Billon, in her book “French Kids Eat Everything.” She goes on to say, “The French believe—and have done scientific research—to prove you can teach your kids to eat just like you teach them to read,” she told Quartz. “Pediatricians give new parents detailed lists of what kids should be trying. Young children are expected to try pickled pig snouts. It’s soft, and healthy,” she said. “Taste training is part of the national curriculum and kids get tested in year four; they learn that science shows you need to try a new food many times before you like it. By the time kids get to school, stinky cheese is not going to scare anyone.”

Why am I talking about school lunches and eating habits in France, when this is America? Because popular opinion of late would have it, that kids in other countries, particularly France, are superior to American ones in many ways. I don’t buy that. There is no disputing that France and other countries have dramatically lower obesity rates than the United States, which they seem to accomplish by feeding their children Boeuf bourguignon and brie with a snack of bread and chocolate at 4pm every day.

The austere differences in school lunches provide some answers: French kids are given time to eat hot, four-course meals that include a wide range of cheeses and artisanal breads while New York City public schools kids race through versions of starch with cheese with an “eat your colors” campaign to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption. If France faces restrictions on how much ketchup can be served weekly, the US government has at various times tried to pass ketchup off as a vegetable.

In my opinion, no country’s children are superior over another’s. As for how they eat, that is a cultural issue. Europeans tend toward making eating a celebration of sorts. They take time to enjoy a meal with family or friends and to enjoy the fresh grown products of their local areas. Most products for these gatherings or dinners are home cooked with fresh products. The French have a word for food and company: “Commensality (la commensalité), which literally means ‘eating together in a group,” Le Billon writes. Americans have always viewed eating as a way to fuel the body to continue working. They never have taken the time to truly enjoy a meal. This trend dates back as far as America’s beginnings. Home cooking did prevail until the “Fast Food Boom” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when Americans could eat out quickly and affordably. Following on the heels of fast food came processed foods. Not quite as healthy for you, but good enough to fill you up quickly and cheaply. The obesity epidemic had begun in America.

As early as the mid 1960’s articles were appearing in magazines regarding the obesity epidemic in America. Less and less Americans were eating at home and those who were, were using pre-prepared canned or frozen products of less healthy qualities (processed foods). American life was becoming more sedentary, but we were still rushing through meals and overeating because of the rush. Some Americans were eating healthy, but this group came, as in today’s society, from upper-middle income and above. Every child wasn’t entitled to at least two healthy, government regulated meals at school, so this became America’s dining culture.

Children emulate their role models, so the fast food culture spread to our children. We literally taught them to eat just like we teach them to read. They eat and read what they are readily exposed to on a daily basis. American or French, or Asian, or any other child for that matter identifies and prefers the foods they have become accustomed to eating on a regular basis. Unlike the French, we do not start nutrition education with our children from birth. We now wait until they start school, have developed food preferences, and then depend on our schools to rectify an almost unsolvable situation. This, as we are starting to see is causing hardships on school food programs. Just because we try to force them to eat healthier doesn’t means they will. Comparisons of a weekly school menu in France with one in New York City, show that most American kids wouldn’t identify with or even try the French fare.

Here’s what French kids in Paris 17th arrondissement (link in French) ate this week, compared to kids in New York City:
 Day  Paris  New York City 
Monday Artisanal baguette, pork rib in dijon sauce, turkey ham, mashed potatoes, emmental cheese, apple Stuffed cheesy bread, marinara sauce, spinach
Tuesday Artisanal baguette, green salad, salmon spaghetti, yogurt with fruit, apple compote Mac & Cheese, toasted garlic dinner roll, Brooklyn baked beans
Wednesday Fresh bread, cucumber salad with cream fraiche, veal sauteed in olives and broccoli, goat cheese, gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramel Avi’s Burger-ito, baked french fries, kale salad
Thursday Artisanal baguette, tomato, onion and coriander salad, organic beef sauteed in its juice with delicate green beans in parsley, fromage à pâte molle, pear Chicken & broccoli, veggie fried rice, crispy egg roll with duck sauce, fresh apple
Friday Artisanal baguette, omelette with potatoes, salad of carrots, tomatoes and corn, fromage à pâte fraiche, apple crumble Pizza (garden veggie), Jamaican Patty, fresh tomato salad

Some American kids would identify with the French cuisine as they already eat some of these items at home, but they are in the minority. If our nation, like the French, started influencing the eating habits of children from birth and in the home, instead of after the fact in school, we may start to see a distinct change in the eating culture of Americans over time. After all, it took a long time for this culture to develop, it will take time to change it again.

This may appear to be a drastic and prescriptive approach, but no more than the HHFKA guidelines are in school dining. If we truly want to make a difference then we need to be all in, not just for 1/16th of a child’s daily food experience. Until we take major steps to change the culture, alas, the American version of “Commensality (la commensalité) will continue to be “Miller Time.”

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

The Sugar Debate: FDA Says No More Than 50 Grams of Added Sugar Daily

The sugar debate has been going on for a while now: how much sugar is too much? The Food and Drug Administration  has issued their opinion: Americans should not consume more than 50 grams of sugar per day, assuming the average diet is around 2,000 calories. That means that up to 10 percent of calories can come from sugar in a healthy diet.

Currently, Americans consume around 14 percent of calories from sugar, so the change may not be excessive. Fifty grams, or the recommended maximum, is equal to around 12.5 teaspoons, or the amount of sugar in one 12 ounce can of Coca Cola.

Consuming excessive amounts of sugar has been shown to increase chances of certain illnesses, like Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. It can also lead to obesity, and it can affect things like energy levels and attention spans, especially when children are taught that eating a lot of sugar is okay early in life.

What Is Added Sugar?

The difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar can be stated simply; naturally occurring sugar is found in whole, unprocessed foods like milk, fruits, vegetables, and grains, and added sugar is put into processed foods when they are made, or processed.

The FDA has placed a limit on the amount of added sugar recommended for Americans, but currently, food labels don’t differentiate between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. The FDA says that it would like to change labeling requirements so that the kinds of sugar can be easily differentiated, but the changes haven’t been instituted yet.

Hidden Sources of Sugar

Do you know how much sugar you’re consuming daily? A lot of sugar that Americans consume is hidden, sometimes in foods that are thought of as ‘healthy’, like fruit flavored yogurt.

Some of the most common sources of hidden sugars in the United States include the following.

  • Sweetened beverages, including soft drinks
  • Condiments, like ketchup, pasta sauce, and salad dressing
  • Snack foods
  • Fat-free and low-fat foods

Some of the most common places that added sugars hide are in artificial sweeteners, like sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup. Sugars can be listed in nutrition facts as one of around 30 different things, so changes to labeling requirements may help consumers to make better decisions.

Overall, it’s up to consumers to make healthy and informed decisions regarding their own diets. The best way to avoid added sugars is to eat more whole, unprocessed foods.