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.

5 Reflections on Another School Year’s Closing

June has arrived and with it comes the end of another school year. For students, it is a time for fun and relaxation. For school food service professionals, it is a time to review, re-evaluate, and re-tool for next year. For me, it has been a year of discovery. This year has presented me the opportunity to discover several self-evident truths, within our industry, that if over looked, as they often are, cause food programs to fail. I have seen the same recurring sequences of events at many school food programs we visited this year. All are deep in red ink, with no idea how they got there. Administrators, boards, and food service directors are all asking each other the same question, why isn’t this working, we have done everything we were supposed to? We have instituted the new guidelines and we are compliant. We have joined a purchasing consortium and have great pricing. We have upgraded our equipment and remodeled our cafes, why are we still seeing six figure losses? Perhaps your answer lies buried in the self-evident truths we discovered over and over this year. Hopefully, your answer lies in the paragraphs below.

1. New Products Don’t Fit in Old Packaging
Changing tastes and trends require re-thinking how products must be presented to meet student needs and expectations. Yesterday’s sandwich is today’s wrap or flatbread. Yesterday’s sit down meal is today’s grab n go breakfast or lunch. Cultures and times have changed and many school food operators have failed to keep pace, with these changes. New healthier whole grain products require different methods of preparation and handling to produce acceptable results. Programs who fail to make the leap to meeting today’s student expectations, soon find their participation has dwindled.

2. A House Out of Plumb Will Soon Fall Down
All things shift over time. Needs change and what once was a necessity is now a stumbling block. Structures sag, frameworks bend, and sand shifts. Labor contracts, job descriptions, and labor models are much the same, as they are the frame work of the operation. Over time operational needs change and costs increase. Many operations, we visited this year had a labor model from another age when more actual hands on cooking was required. Most of their staff worked 6-7.5 hours per day, received full benefits and retirement, and followed job descriptions that were no longer relevant to the work being performed. Time had moved on, needs had changed, costs increased, but the framework remained the same and was showing signs of wear from the shifting demands placed on it. This was resulting in low productivity, a lack of understanding of the necessary work expected, and astronomical labor costs. Staff had no real understanding of what was expected of them, levels of service had declined, and labor costs, in many cases were above 65%. When asked why workers were performing tasks in a specific manner the answer was consistent from administrators, food service directors, and staff, “that is how we have always done it.” If this sounds like your operation and you do not have an HR professional on staff, seek help from an HR consultant soon. This can be the cause of huge losses for your organization unless they are fixed.

3. Computer Software and Calculators Only Work if You Know What Information You Want
Visiting school food operations throughout the year, we found most if not all, equipped with great Point of Sale (POS), Free and Reduced Eligibility tracking, and accounting software. Operators had their numbers at their fingertips. The major

issue here was that most of these high-tech operators didn’t know basic numbers that are crucial to the success and sustainability of their programs. They knew their participation numbers, labor percentage, food cost, Free and Reduced Meal percentage, and their food cost percentage. These are great things to know when you understand how these numbers relate to the success or failure of your program’s sustainability, but these numbers don’t tell you why you are losing money. Even knowing the minimum price increase required (by the use of state and federally supplied calculators) to maintain compliance with the Equity in School Lunch Act, was a number known to most of these operators. When asked if this increase was enough to cover their costs and keep them self-sustaining most replied, “It’s the amount we are required to increase prices so it must be.” Armed with all of this data and still no answers, what a shame. When asked what their average spend per student per day for labor and their average spend per student per day on food and supplies might be all replied they had no idea. Asked what the average student spend per day was in their operations all again had no idea. Once we showed these operators that the sum of spend per student per day on labor and food subtracted from student spend per day was the true indicator of how the program was doing it brought clarity to all of the other numbers they had at their fingertips. In most cases student spend per day exceeded the sum of the cost numbers by at least $1.00 per student per day. In these cases, if I were the operator, I would hope to sell no lunches each day because each sale was costing my program money! Understanding these three simple numbers can save a program. If this sounds like you, obtain these numbers and use them to manage all of the others. If you are in need of assistance call me, I will be happy to help.

4. An Unfriendly and Uninviting House is Always Empty
“If I cook it they will come”, is a philosophy long dead. It died somewhere in the 1950’s with the emergence of “Fast Food”, the two (2) income family, and increased choices. School Food has lagged behind this culture shift for well over fifty (50) years. Many operators and their staff still expect to treat their customers like mushrooms, “keep students in the dark and feed them whatever the operator wants them to have.” These are marketing and customer service issues and need to be incorporated into daily operating procedures. If student customers don’t know the great things we are doing for them why would they visit us? If when they do visit they are treated like inmates rather than invited guests, why would they return again? In every school operation we visited this year marketing and customer service were lacking. Participation covers a multitude of sins, but lack of participation is a sin. Where does your operation fit into this picture? Think about it and take the appropriate actions. Again, seek help if you need it don’t wait.

5. Knowledge is Power, Providing Needed Knowledge is Life Saving
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This is much like saying, “Food Safety Training is politically correct, but enhanced cooking skills and improved customer service will save your program.” The safest food in the world if poorly prepared and served in an uninviting, unfriendly manner will never be eaten or enjoyed. With the opportunities provided by the Professional Standards for School Food Professionals guidelines, many times we repeat the same training over and over because we are accustomed to it and it is required to be reviewed each year. In every operation we visited HACCP manuals and ServeSafe certifications were plainly visible and current. All operations had food handling, service delivery model, and customer service issues. Food Safety is crucial, but review means review, not dwell on. Other skills drive participation and self-sustainability, maybe dwell on these a bit until they become second nature? Look carefully as you plan next year’s training, being safe but empty is not in your program’s best interests.

Reflecting on the past school year as we race through June and into July, I am amazed at the common issues we have found in the schools we visited. Many of these programs were plagued by several if not all of them. I liken the struggle for self-sustainability in school food to the struggle for independence of the original thirteen (13) colonies. All of them were plagued by the same abuses of power by a tyrannical king, while all school food is plagued by the struggles to stay in the black. Like the Founding Fathers in their struggles, we found the above truths to be self-evident in ours. What do you think? Happy Independence Day and best wishes for a successful new school year.

Milt Miller is VP 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.

It’s time to invest in schools – and food service programs

More than half the schools in the United States are spending less per pupil this year than they were in 2008 when the last Great Recession hit. While there are many reasons for these spending cuts, the fact that the country as a whole is more than $46 billion behind in infrastructure support and improvement is hard to ignore.

As experts all over the country begin to discuss how important it is that we return to funding our children’s education, we also know that it’s important that we spend money more efficiently than we have in the past. Too many administrators still look at food service programs as a frustrating part of their day to day operations, instead of the exciting opportunity to influence our kids to make healthy lunch choices while providing the district with valuable data about what is and is not working in the school nutrition program.

Get teachers back to what they should be doing

Many teachers express frustration with the amount of paperwork they need to do around school lunches. Between placing lunch orders, communicating with parents about what their children should be getting, and trying to orchestrate the free and reduced meals programs, teachers have the right to be frustrated.

Whereas many lunch programs offer the ability for parents to pay ahead and online, MySchoolAccount also gives kids and parents the ability to pre-order their meals. This saves paperwork time for teachers, and helps kids make healthier choices.

Reduce waste by planning ahead

Schools provide meals to the vast majority of American kids during the school year. There is an obligation for schools to provide healthy choices to kids, but the struggle can be getting kids to choose healthier items.

Studies have shown, however, that when kids place their orders early in the day instead of needing to make a choice in the lunch line, they’re more likely to experiment with new foods, and are more likely to choose healthier options.

Let the food service program lead the charge in improving the school’s infrastructure

Schools that have happy, healthful, efficient nutrition programs have happier, more involved parents and healthier kids with fewer behavior problems. There’s a lot more about our schools that needs to be revamped and revitalized to get them back up to the standard our children deserve, but serving healthy meals without breaking the school’s budget is a great way to take a big step forward.

National School Breakfast Week: March 7-11, 2016

Breakfast is widely known as the most important meal of the day, and National School Breakfast Week is here to encourage kids to enjoy breakfast every day! The week long celebration of breakfast began in 1989. This year’s theme is “Wake up to School Breakfast.” This week, schools across the country are putting their breakfast programs on display to show students and their families that school lunches are for everyone, because they are both healthy and affordable.

There are tons of ways to get your students – and their families – excited about school breakfasts. Have you planned a celebration for this week? Letting teachers and students know that National School Breakfast Week 2016 has arrived is the first step.

Breakfast Facts for National School Breakfast Week

Teachers can remind students of a few important breakfast related facts! They may have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but do they understand why?

Eating A Healthy Breakfast Increases Attention & Memory

Students who eat breakfast daily have been proven to have better memory and a longer attention span than those who don’t. In addition, the quality of the food has been shown to affect cognition, according to The Wellness Impact Report, 2013. The research showed that students who eat breakfast that lacks nutritional value are more likely to miss school, show signs of hunger before lunch, and have psycho social issues in school.

Healthy Breakfasts Boost Performance in School

A second study called Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis, 2013, showed that eating school breakfast has an effect on a student’s performance. In the study, students who ate school breakfast attended 1.5 more days of school each year, on average, than those who did not. Eating school breakfasts also led to higher standardized math test scores.

Breakfast Makes a Better Overall Student

Schools function the best when all students arrive on time, every day, pay attention, and are able to understand the material. Of course, this is not the case in any school, but according to Breakfast for Learning, 2014, students who ate school breakfast showed improvement in all areas.

Students who participated in school breakfast programs had better attendance records, lower rates of tardiness, fewer behavior issues, and they earned higher test scores on standardized tests.

School Breakfast Is for Everyone

One of the benefits of school breakfast programs is that they are there for every student, and often, low-income students can receive free or discounted meals. That means that even if there is no food at home, a student can still reap all of the benefits of a healthy breakfast, every day.

According to the Impact of School Breakfast on Children’s Health & Learning, 2008, a school’s breakfast program can make a significant difference in the life of a child, especially a low-income child. Because a healthy breakfast helps increase memory and attention span, it helps to improve the learning capabilities and cognitive abilities of children. When comparing low-income children who eat school breakfast and those who do not, those who had breakfast had better attendance, higher energy levels, were more alert in school, had better memories, and scored higher on things like math and reading.

School Breakfasts Over Breakfast at Home

Often, eating breakfast at school instead of at home can help students show up to school and be there on time for several reasons. First, they have fewer things to do at home, so they can get ready faster. Second, if a child is hungry and knows that the school provides a healthy meal, they are motivated to work with a parent to get there. Taking time to eat together before school starts can help students bond with one another and have some time to wake up and get ready for the day.

Lunch Time, not Crunch Time: Tips to Increase the Speed of School Lunch Lines

Is your goal to cut down the time it takes to pay for lunches served in your school cafeteria? Faster lunch lines have become a priority for schools as they contend with overcrowding and shorter lunch periods to increase class time and boost students’ scores.

Schools also face pressure to incorporate more fresh produce into their lunch menu. This makes faster lunch lines vital, especially because sometimes, eating fresh, healthy foods takes longer than eating prepackaged or processed foods that are ready to eat. Chewing an apple, for example, takes much longer than slurping down sugary applesauce.

Faster cafeteria lines promote healthy lunch choices, especially when kids know they have the time to finish the food they purchase. Longer lunch lines, in contrast, leave little time for eating and seem to be an ideal way to mint lifelong customers for the fast-food industry.

There are many ways to use technology to increase the speed of the cafeteria lunch line, like adding the schools lunch menu online for parents to pre-order a student’s lunch, or using a hand-held point of sale (POS) unit. Collecting, tracking, and using the appropriate data with the right online system can make a huge difference.

Flexible POS

A flexible School Payment software and a cafeteria Point-of-Sale (POS) system eliminates the need for ticket and cash systems, allowing lunch lines to move more quickly while freeing up time for staff to focus on other pressing tasks.

Accepting payments through an online School Payment Software system can increase the speed of school lunch lines drastically. Allowing parents and schools to manage students’ school lunch accounts online means students don’t slow down the line paying with cash. Parents can make secure deposits, pre-order meals, and pay school fees all through an online school payment software system.

Using a hand-held POS unit, designed specifically for cafeterias, has everything needed to quickly get students, employees or customers through cafeteria lines.

Allows for centralized reporting.

Keeping all cafeteria data in a centralized system allows food service managers to better manage their food service operations. With access to a centralized system of lunch data, schools can better prepare for food allergies, identify food preferences, and find healthy alternatives that kids will eat.

Patterns in lunch consumption can also help schools spot trends and preferences, which leads to more informed decisions regarding child behavior, academic performance, and more.

Increase Revenues.

When students don’t have to deal with cash or ordering at lunch time, the lunch line moves faster and more students are served. The greater the number of students served, the higher the revenue for the school.

Increase Reimbursements and Cash Flow.

Whether students receive a subsidized lunch or pay for their lunch, a system that tracks lunch data allows schools to better manage the reimbursements and reduce the number of unpaid lunch accounts.

Reduces waste.

With more accurate tracking of sales, schools get better inventory controls which minimizes waste and gives them more accurate data to reduce food waste and spoilage.

 

Our School Lunch Software and portable POS unit provides everything a school needs to quickly get students through cafeteria lines. For pricing or more details, call 1 (800) 425-1425 or email us at sales@foodserve.com.

What Does the Government’s New Dietary Advice for Americans Mean for School Lunches?

Every five years, the U.S. government revises its dietary guidelines. Each update should reflect new developments in nutrition and science, and the guidelines are meant to help all Americans stay healthy – including schoolchildren.

The newest guidelines were released on January 7, 2016, and there are some notable differences from the old guidelines. The new guidelines place a limit on daily sugar intake – it should make up no more than 10 percent of daily calories. Currently, many Americans eat over 20 teaspoons of sugar in a day, which is almost twice what the new guidelines recommend for the average diet.

Because the guidelines tend to dictate what students are served at school, there will need to be some major changes – which could take years. Many schools have resisted the change toward healthier meals in the past, partly because of the cost, and partly because they say students won’t eat healthier foods.

Why School Foods Are So Sugary

There are several reasons why the limit on sugar intake will be such a big change for school meals.

Many schools serve overly processed meals, from sugary cereals and bars to pancake lunches with syrup. Not only are processed meals more affordable than fresh foods, but they tend to last longer in storage because they’re full of preservatives.

Kids like the taste of sugar – and they’re more likely to eat (and purchase) more food if it’s delicious, cheap, and doesn’t have the fiber to make them feel full.

When schools face tight budgets, it can be hard to make the change to foods that tend to have less added sugar, like foods based on whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

How Can Schools Enact Change?

In order to have healthy kids – who tend to do better in school – schools will need to make a change. It’s okay to start small.

Nearly half of sugars in the American diet come from beverages, from soda to juice. Simply offering things like regular milk or water instead of sugar filled drinks at school can cut a lot of sugar out of kids’ diets.

Prepackaged snacks or side dishes are another source of sugar, especially when they include sauces or dips. Offering whole fruits, like apples, bananas, pears, or oranges is a better option for kids.

Dairy can be another hidden source of sugar in school meals. Instead of flavored milk and sweetened yogurt, schools could limit students to regular milk and offer plain yogurt with fresh fruit.

Sustainability Trends in School Food Service

In many schools across the United States, from elementary through college, cafeterias are beginning to move towards providing healthier, sustainable options for students. Sustainable food is ethically responsible, minimizes the negative effects on the environment, prioritizes human health, and is produced from places that treat animals humanely and treat workers fairly.

The current generation of students cares about where their food comes from, and how it got to their plates – in other words, they care whether or not their food is sustainable. Kids are also craving more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and foods made from scratch instead of the highly processed foods that have been served in many cafeterias.

Schools that don’t provide sustainable food selections are running into problems – students don’t consider sustainability to be an option; it’s a necessity. High school students in Chicago are publicly protesting their current school lunch options, claiming that it is “unhealthy, unappetizing, and overly processed.” (WBEZ91.5)

So, what are successful schools doing to promote the sustainable food movement within school cafeterias? How are schools meeting the demands of students and their families? There are several things that schools are doing and can continue to do so that the foods kids are eating in school are good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

Taking Students’ Health into Consideration

There are some food preferences that students share at all ages like hand held foods, on-the-go options, made-to-order foods, and common staples, like fruits, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and salads. Taste preferences tend to differ depending on the age of the student; younger children prefer simpler foods and older ones enjoy more complex and diverse options.

Schools who support the sustainability movement understand these differences, and how to select food options based on student needs. For example, serving complex dishes to fourth graders would result in a lot more food waste, which is not sustainable, but college students are likely to appreciate it.

Reducing Kitchen Waste

There are a lot of ways to reduce the amount of waste that results from a school kitchen and cafeteria, from recycling and reusing materials and composting food waste to choosing more eco-friendly packaging and dish options. Many schools are choosing to get food locally, which minimizes the amount of packaging and padding required to transport it to the school, and ultimately, reduces waste.

Composting

Schools do tend to have some waste, but there is a sustainable way to deal with it. Composting takes sustainability one step further – it doesn’t end when the food is consumed. Children of all ages can learn to compost, from elementary through college. At the higher level, using compostable food packaging or other materials also reduces waste and adds to sustainability.

Compost can be reused as the process begins again – it can help fertilize landscaping, gardening and farming on school grounds.

Local Sourcing

Another way to promote sustainable food practices is to get food locally. Foods that travel the shortest distances have the least effect on the environment. It’s also easier to get local foods faster, which means that these foods are the freshest and are more likely to retain their health benefits by the time they’re served on a student’s plate.

School Gardens

One of the ultimate results of a more sustainable school food system, including compost as fertilizer, the most local sourcing possible, minimizing fuel and transportation costs, and using fresh, healthy, whole, foods, is that students and staff are taking things into their own hands, and growing their own sustainable foods. This can be a very cost effective option, and it can potentially fit the definition of sustainable food to a tee, depending on how the garden is cared for.

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.