Customization seems to be one of the hot trends in school foodservice today. It’s certainly been embraced by the Wayne Central School District in New York State, where a build-your-own concept called My Way Café, introduced three years ago, has been a popular alternative for the district’s middle and high school students. The concept has allowed participation levels to remain steady despite enrollment declines and the impact of Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requirements that reportedly reduced meal count numbers at many other districts.
My Way Café encompasses a rotating series of menu concepts, from tacos and noodle bowls to burgers and mac and cheese, in which students can customize components to their liking. It is available every day at the high school and twice a week in the middle school.
Plenty of choices, especially on the fresh produce side, make My Way Café popular with middle and high school students at Wayne Central Schools.
The concepts are not on any strict rotation, says Nique Wilson, the district’s foodservice director. She says popularity and cost are considered when deciding which concept gets deployed—only one is available on each day My Way Café is offered.
“I kind of play with it in terms of what the students’ favorites are,” she offers. “Obviously, the mac and cheese bar is definitely one of their favorites, but it’s one of the higher cost entrees that we offer, so I do limit that as well as our baked potato bar, another costly one, to a monthly [offering].”
By contrast, the build-your-own sub/wrap/salad bar is typically offered three times a week at the high school “because it has the most acceptability and students can choose different items to make with wraps the most popular at this point.”
Since the district remains a participant in the National School Lunch Program and must therefore abide by federal school meal regulations on reimbursable meal composition, the available choices all fulfill requirements for meal composition and nutritional content.
For example, the mac and cheese is a whole-grain and reduced sodium product, and Wilson is quick to credit her district vendors for developing products that help her program meet requirements while still appealing to student tastes.
“We control the meat/meat alternate so that we know we’re giving the correct component [as well as] the whole-grain component for the two-grain requirement,” Wilson explains. “We control those numbers and portion sizes.”
As an example, she says students can top the mac and cheese with a variety of proteins such as Buffalo or regular diced chicken, reduced sodium chorizo sausage or turkey bacon bits, but these are dispensed by the cafeteria line staffer in the proper portion.
“We put those products on and then the students have toppings they can choose [such as] corn, broccoli, diced tomato, jalapeno pepper and Chinese noodles.”
In addition, the customizable entrees are paired with two different vegetables each day to fulfill federal fruit and vegetable offering requirements.
Students lend a hand to shuck fresh local corn as a fun communal and educational activity.
The sub sandwich bar lets students start with a base and then add certain toppings “just like a Subway line.” The options are heavy on fresh fruits and veggies to encourage consumption while providing choice.
The My Way Café program has not only boosted satisfaction and maintained participation but also reduced waste, Wilson adds. “If students are allowed to choose what they like in terms of vegetables and fruits, they tend to take what they want instead of being forced to take it, so they’re going to eat it” rather than throwing it away.
As an example, broccoli consumption has doubled as a result of the program, she notes proudly.
On tap for deployment later this year is a waffle bar. “Students love breakfast for lunch,” Wilson observes. “I’m always looking for new trends.”
Not everything deployed on the My Way Café line has panned out, Wilson admits. A pasta bar concept “did OK but we didn’t see the numbers we normally see on My Way Cafe, so that’s one we won’t keep in the rotation, though we might throw it in once or twice over the [rest of] school year.”
A fair proportion of the fresh produce served in the district cafeterias comes from local growers through a food hub located “right across the street,” Wilson says. “I began working closely with them about four years ago to source as many local products—mostly fruits and vegetables—as I can.”
The hub simplifies the logistics by aggregating from various smaller farms, packaging the product in practical quantities, providing extra storage and making deliveries simpler. They are also increasingly doing more processing, such as individually quick-freezing locally grown corn.
Some processing is also done by students as a communal activity. For example, they recently shucked over 700 ears of corn and picked Brussels sprouts off the stems.
Wilson’s department serves about 1,500 meals a day at four locations for the 2,500-student district. At the high school, the My Way Café occupies two of the four serving lines with the other two offering alternatives like pizza, chicken patties, Cuban sandwiches and yogurt parfaits.
“Students have a lot of choice here, and that’s the key,” Wilson says.