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.