In business, the old joke about customer expectations goes something like this: Want price, quality and service? Pick any two…
In school foodservice, the joke's on directors, and it doesn't involve much choice: Want to menu something? Well, make sure the kids will eat it, the feds will allow it and you can afford it. And you can't pick just two. You have to have all three.
That's mighty tough math, and it's getting tougher all the time as costs rise while reimbursements don't, as nutrition content mandates get ever more restrictive and as QSR savvy kids get ever more picky.
It's no wonder many school dining operations struggle to maintain participation levels, especially at the secondary level, where students have more ways than ever to get around even the strictest restrictions. Yet, participation is a critical variable in the financial calculus as school foodservice programs strive to fulfill their mission of providing nutritious, quality meals to their young customers.
As price increases become harder to justify and the prospect of significant increases in federal reimbursement rates dim in the face of record budget deficits, higher customer counts represent the most promising avenue for generating more revenue (assuming you at least break even on the meals).
But participation is affected by a host of factors not under the direct control of directors: nutritional mandates, labor contracts, class schedules, bid requirements, etc., etc., etc.
Nevertheless, there are school dining operations that are succeeding in managing the seemingly contradictory limitations imposed by finances, legalities and customer demands. In the following pages, we profile three that have succeeded in raising participation significantly through a variety of strategies.
At Hernando County (FL) Schools both breakfast and lunch counts have rocketed up after the district decided to hone in on identifying the most appealing menu items and emphasizing those at mealtimes.
At Linn Mar (IA) Community Schools, a second cafeteria reserved for juniors and seniors has boosted upperclassman participation significantly despite an open campus.
And in the Chilton (WI) Public School District, they get almost 75% lunch participation with their themed food bars and emphasis on fresh local produce available daily on the lunch line.