The biggest participation challenge for K-12 foodservice operators is, of course, getting the kids to eat in the cafeteria. But there is another challenge a bit more under the radar: generating meal sales among adult staff.
At Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, all of the more than 24,000 adult district staff, including both teachers and administrators, have another option than going through the cafeteria line or even the teachers’ lounge: a takeout menu called the Signature Line that is designed specifically for adults and from which they can place a lunch order by 8:30 a.m. and have it delivered by 11:30 a.m.
The program’s set menu—it doesn’t change over the course of the year—consists of five sandwiches and five salads, with selections including items such as a Caesar chicken salad with a kale/romaine mix; a summer berry salad with spinach, red grape, sliced strawberries, blueberries, mandarin oranges and glazed walnuts; a chicken po’boy sandwich, a smoked turkey apple cheddar sandwich and a vegetarian ciabatta caprese sandwich.
The menu is so popular that when schools order catering from the foodservice department, they’ll often forego the standard catering menu and order off the Signature Line menu instead, says Rodney Taylor, director of food & nutrition services.
“They’ll just call in and say, ‘We have 50 people coming in, so we want 25 summer salads, 10 caprese sandwiches and so on,” he offers.
The program launched in the 2016-2017 school year and averaged 559 individual orders a day, not counting bulk catering orders, over the course of the year. At the start of the current school year, it was averaging over a thousand a day.
The items are produced in nine high school satellite kitchens scattered around the district that each serve a designated set of about 20 other nearby sites with bulk-produced breakfast and lunch meals for their cafeterias. When a Signature Line order is placed, it is forwarded to the production kitchen responsible for supplying that site, where the order is assembled and sent out along with that day’s regular fare. The staffer then picks it up in the cafeteria.
For the few administrative/office sites, the nearest production kitchen is responsible for them and the food is delivered to the front desk.
Each teacher and staffer has a debit account with the foodservice department, and that is the only form of payment the system accepts. Each item on the menu is priced at $6.50.
“I actually started this program back in California about 15 years ago,” says Taylor. “I had spent most of my time in the private sector and I thought school foodservice was suffering from poor perceptions, mainly from adults. We think kids don’t like it, but the message [is the same] from teachers, administrators and parents.”
To change that negative perception, Taylor hired a chef and asked him to develop a line of sandwiches and salads to be called Fresh Express in order to highlight the use of locally grown produce. The chef based the menu on what was popular among adults at notable commercial lunch spots like the Panera chain.
When Taylor moved to Virginia, he brought the idea with him and adapted it to regional tastes. He says the program’s value is more than just the increased cash sales from adults, though that is obviously welcome.
“It’s boosted sales from adults, but it also helped re-message what school foodservice is all about in Fairfax County,” he stresses.
He says the sight of adults eating meals served by the district rubs off on kids, and the Signature Line is just one strategy to encourage such messaging. Another is letting teachers eat for free from the salad bar over the first week of school to inspire participation at that station. Fairfax is in the process of installing salad bars in all of its 141 elementary schools—51 are expected to have them by the end of this school year and 31 will be added each year following until they all have them.
Taylor is also contemplating giving teachers a free lunch on Fridays if they sit and eat with the kids in the cafeteria.
“It’s all about adults modeling for children to change perceptions,” he says.