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

The USDA and Child Hunger; An Unseen Issue with Serious Ramifications

Soon after Barack Obama was inaugurated, the poised influence of First Lady Michelle Obama brought awareness and immediacy to the domestic crisis of child hunger, and secondarily the issue of juvenile obesity due to poor nutrition.

A Bold New Initiative

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) was passed in a rare instance of abundant bipartisan support, granting school food authorities (SFAs) access to subsidized funding for nutritiously balanced school meals. These appropriations were designed to empower SFAs to feed children that were faced with economic hardship, living in abject poverty, or simply unaware that healthier meal options were available.

This invigorated a host of programs including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Special Milk Program for Children (SMPC), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) among others.

Snags in the Supply Chain

Although designed with noble intentions, it has proven to be a long administrative commute from Capitol Hill to the lunch line, and the HHFKA has seen its fair share of diversions, speed bumps, and full-on road blocks. Plainly put, implementation of the protocols defined by the HHFKA have at times been sporadic, sluggish and even downright neglectful – while requested funds keep flowing from the source to the destination. Furthermore, many students have boycotted the program, expressing distaste for the so-called healthier meals. In some instances “black markets” have sprung up to facilitate the fundamental desire for salt. There are no specific cases pending, but at a moment’s glance, it is clear that negligence, poor leadership, and even pilfering could very well be at work.

A Band-Aid on an Axe Wound

Without citing statistics or leveling any particular indictments, USDA officials at the Food and Nutrition Service published a proposed rule on March 29th, 2016 entitled Child Nutrition Program Integrity. The document was officially published by the National Archives and Records Administration and proposes that any SFA jeopardizing the integrity of a Child Nutrition Program be fined by the USDA. Although menial, penalties will be administered by the USDA at reimbursement rates of 1% to 10% of appropriated funds depending on the severity and frequency of violations. Conversely, in 2017 alone the monitoring of state agencies will cost an estimated $4.3 million and will cost taxpayers as much as $22.7 million after five years.

Electoral Implications

Historically, presidential candidates who have championed initiatives to feed poor people and advertise that they will bring the fight to the hunger problem have fared well in an election year. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhauer, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all championed programs similar to the HHFKA during their campaigns. Whether this was the deciding factor that got them into office is a moot point, it is interesting to consider how the current candidates might fare in the eyes of the public if this becomes a mainstream issue.

The current political culture of mudslinging and jockeying for the lead position has the nation transfixed on the home stretch towards the respective party nominations. Once the smoke clears and other concerns come into focus, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will bide well with this issue as they have both demonstrated great concern and initiative towards child hunger. The republican camp is a bit less unanimous. John Kasich takes a strong stance against hunger while Ted Cruz is rather vague on the issue. In typically outspoken form, Donald Trump blames the failure of programs like HHFKA on insider fraud.

The Future of Hunger

Although overshadowed by sensationalism, the issue of child hunger is grave. Many kids are not getting enough to eat in the so-called greatest nation on earth. It is a fact that malnourished children can not learn, grow, and thrive in the same way as those who get enough nutrition, which in turn indicates that failing to feed children today will lead to an inferior tomorrow for society as a whole. Once the national focus shifts to this issue, a clearer light can shine upon a realistic solution.