Increasing Participation in School Meals

My child has just started attending a public school in a district that has had about as many food service contractors as it has had superintendents. Currently, Sodexo holds the contract and last week, I met with their representatives, our cafeteria manager, the school principal and another mom to talk about what we could do to help market school meals.

At our school, only about 28% of our students qualify for free and reduced price meals under the National School Lunch Act. So few students eat school meals that our cafeteria team was reduced by one. That makes it even harder for our manager to prepare the fresh, homemade dishes on the menu. That’s right. Homemade. At our school, we are lucky to have very few packaged items on the menu. (We recently asked that Super Doughnuts be taken off the menu and they were, thankfully!)

For the meeting, I prepared a short list of things we can do to market our cafeteria’s offerings. We divided the list into two parts — what can be done now, with little or no money, and what we want to do in the fall when school starts again. Here is the list:

Phase 1: Spring 2010

1. Meet with cafeteria staff and principal to find out what we can do to help. (Check!)

2. Create a parent and student survey to find out if there is a negative perception of our cafeteria food. The survey should find out what drives the decision to eat in the cafeteria or not. Is it culture or religion? Allergies? Vegetarian/vegan diets? Food quality issues relating to organics, hormones, humane treatment of animals?

3. Make sure parents know that good food is being served at school. (At breakfast, for instance, there is almost always a choice of oatmeal, cream of wheat or grits. Our cafeteria manager serves fresh fruit and vegetables as often as possible, and takes care to make sure the food isn’t overcooked.) We agreed to start sending fliers home weekly, each one communicating a few short facts about our school’s cafeteria. Topics include free breakfast for everyone, applying for free/reduced price meals, paying outstanding credits (currently $5000!), nutrition concepts and more.

4. Make sure that  parents know of any changes to the menu, which is printed monthly for the entire district, but is subject to change.

5. Form a Student Nutrition Advisory Council (SNAC). The students will act as ambassadors to the cafeteria, giving the cafeteria a fun name and creating a nice looking menu. On sample days, they can wear chef’s hats and serve their friends a new food to try.

6. Get everyone on the same page. Teachers can be very influential, and should be discouraged from making negative comments about school meals. Talking to students about healthy choices is one thing, making blanket statements is quite another.

7. Make a list of how food is used in the classroom and after school programs, specifically snack-making and cooking lessons. Are the lessons covering nutrition, food literacy and food marketing concepts as well? Research nutrition education programs for Fall 2010.

8. Our students currently eat lunch in their classrooms, which has virtually eliminated discipline problems, but they still line up to get their trays from the cafeteria, then carry their food back to their rooms, some of which are two floors up! Our principal has been trying to get carts so meals can be delivered to the classrooms (and served family style). Before the next week was out, our Sodexo reps had delivered the carts we needed!

Stage 2: Fall 2010

This spring and at the beginning of the school year, put plans in place for the following events:

1. Regular samplings of fresh fruits and vegetable that are typically served in the cafeteria. The samples will be offered to all students, whether they eat school meals or packed lunches.

2. Invite parents to eat breakfast and lunch on a regular basis.

3. Hold a food/health fair: coordinate it with a garden harvest, sample fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy menu items, parent chefs will demonstrate recipes or lead hands-on cooking lessons.

4. Hold a commodity cook-off in the spirit of Iron Chef. Invite cafeteria staff, parents, local chefs to participate, consider making it a fundraiser to pay for serving equipment, etc.

The cafeteria team was grateful for the help, and we learned that more fresh fruits and vegetables were coming from the USDA, that salads would be on the menu every day for the next week, and that Sodexo could help secure grant funding for our SNAC committee.

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