Several years ago, San Diego USD had a lunch participation problem in its 17 high schools. The reasons were not hard to figure: reimbursable meals were usually available only in the cafeteria located at the far end of campus.
Throw in the fact that there's only one 30-40-minute lunch period at each school to serve student populations ranging from 1,000 to 3,000, and it's no wonder only about a third of students bothered to get reimbursable lunches on an average day. On some campuses, that was closer to 10%.
Instead, students would either leave campus at lunch or patronize one of the antiquated snack carts that were selling a la carte items.
Today, however, school lunch participation has swelled by 50% or more thanks to a branded food cart-based system that gives students convenient access to reimbursable meals specifically designed to appeal to teenagers' tastes. The carts offer different food choices, from salad bars to grilled items like burgers and hot dogs, made right in front of the students.
And, students now can get through the lines quickly, thanks to a wireless payment system keyed to bar-coded student ID cards that quickly identify free/reduced meal eligibility and/or debit student lunch accounts.
The main challenge the SDUDS staff faced was the technical issue of the wireless infrastructure: determining the locations for wireless routers, electric service and data drops that would service the carts placed at critical points, as determined by lunchtime student traffic patterns.
The district worked with a chef consultant to develop recipes for the new menu, which were then taste-tested with students, a process that yielded a recipe database of 23 new selections.
To develop a branded look for marketing the program, it turned to the students themselves, specifically a marketing class at one of the high schools,which worked with an outside marketing firm to develop specific brand names and design logos for each.
They ultimately came up with SanDi Coast Café as the umbrella brand name for the new program. Under that are a number of sub brands to designate the different kinds of cuisine — Wok n Bowl (Asian), Hi-Tide Grill (grill), Riga Tony's (Italian), etc. — served at the carts.
The program was launched at the start of the 2009-10 school year and was an immediate success. In the first month of the experiment (September 2009), daily lunch counts jumped from 9,269 the previous September to 14,769. The next month, the count went from 10,904 to 16,857.
The numbers have held relatively steady. Over the Spring 2010 semester, reimbursable meal counts were up 45 percent over Spring 2009 (before SanDi Coast was launched). The October/November 2010 period this school year saw an additional four percent increase, thanks in part to a menu modified to incorporate some lessons from last year.