Think Outside the Box When Marketing Your School Food Program

Written by Milt Miller – More and more school districts across the country, both managed and self-operating, are reporting declines in lunch sales due to the HHFKA guidelines. In reviewing the menus posted on these school’s websites, one quickly sees that though the guidelines have changed, their selections of entrees have changed very little (with the exception of adding beans and colored vegetables in a way their students do not understand). In replacing acceptable products with their healthier whole grain and low sodium alternatives, they have traded meeting the guidelines with serving products foreign to their customers’ taste profiles. A pizza with whole grain crust is a completely different creature than the old white flour pizza of the past. A salad made with romaine or spinach is quite different than the one made with iceberg lettuce. In trying to meet regulations, some school food operations have just substituted the new healthier replacement products for the tried and true products students understand and have eaten for years without considering the differences in taste profiles and textures.

Without investigation, the results of this change have produced less than stellar numbers in participation. In low income schools especially, operators are finding it hard to even give the food away. Waste is high and participation has declined even with students who qualify for a free or reduced meal. Most of these operators have the same reason for the drop in participation and the increase in waste: “the HHFKA guidelines”. Other reasons include: “the kids don’t like the new offerings”, “they don’t like whole grains”, “they won’t eat the fruits and vegetables being forced on them”, and the number one reason heard most, “The students don’t get as much food with the HHFKA guidelines.” My question when I read these statements is, how have other schools shown an increase in participation and decrease in waste using the same set of rules and products?

The answer to these problems as I see it? Marketing. Successful program directors educate their patrons, survey them about what they want from their food program, listen to what their student customers say, include them in shaping their program, and most importantly make their operations exciting for their customers. Think about it; children are nothing more than small adults that lack experience, but are being shaped by what they experience. How would adults react to being told what they could and could not eat and what they had to take in order to have a proper lunch? How many children see their parents eat balanced meals on a regular basis? How many families exist on convenience food high in fat and sodium in today’s two income households? To force people to act in a manner abnormal to them without answering the “why” question and showing them the benefit to doing so is setting up for failure. Educating students on the benefits of making healthy choices is key to initial acceptance. Taking this further by looking at their current eating habits and food trends aimed at their market is crucial to having a successful program. This is still America and we teach our children that they have the right to make choices. As food service professionals, we have the ability to shape those choices by providing acceptable products to our customers. If we don’t try to give our customers what they want and expect, we will lose them. Many school food programs have neglected to do this and are paying the price with large deficits.

When asked if they went out in the community and looked at what their patrons were eating outside the school, most of the operators experiencing problems now answer “no”. Most successful operators answered “yes” and said they found a way to offer these same products using healthier ingredients. Most programs have student advisory groups that give them insights into the wants of their customers. Successful programs actually listen to them and make them feel like wanted members of the program instead of outsiders. Operators who are visible, approachable, and open to their customers have a higher success rate than those who are not. Operators who take the time and effort to make school lunch exciting and students feel welcome have higher participation than those who don’t.

In most areas where I’ve had the opportunity to work with schools who sought to fix their participation issues, marketing their program was the key issue. You can’t force anyone to eat something they do not want without the use of force. Since force feeding is not an option, perhaps it is time for operators to expand their comfort zones to get out and see what their patrons want. I read the other day a school food professional said, “You can’t go by what the students say about their lunch program because they don’t give you honest answers.” This made me wonder if the answers were not honest or just not what someone wanted to hear. This was also a program experiencing a major drop in participation and thus, revenue.

To sum it all up, it’s time for school food operators to listen and think outside the box on how to deliver a product that their patrons want while staying within the HHFKA guidelines. These guidelines show no sign of going away soon so it’s time to find ways to make them work for your program. The revenues depend on it.

 

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.