Students at five Washington, D.C., public schools are taking part in a pilot dining program that they helped design with SodexoMagic, the joint venture between Magic Johnson Enterprises and Sodexo.
Thrive is a student-driven dining program that focuses on nutrition along with five additional aspects that affect quality of life: social interaction, personal growth, health and well-being, physical environment, recognition and ease and efficiency.
“We believe that healthy students are better learners,” says Robbi Stiell, vice president of community engagement at SodexoMagic. “Thrive provides a unique opportunity for us to collaborate with schools and students to create a comprehensive dining program that supports their overall well-being and academic success.”
In the process of developing Thrive over the last several years, SodexoMagic’s team visited K-12 schools in the district and conducted focus groups to solicit students’ input and determine their eating preferences. “We focused on different segments from populations across the district,” says Bricen Tate, senior marketing manager, Sodexo Schools. “We were able to identify their pain points and overdeliver on what students were looking for.”
Students’ priorities, he adds, included “more culturally relevant menu options, enhanced flavor profiles and a higher degree of customization.” They also craved “a warm and welcoming environment.”
SodexoMagic also factored in student dining trends, both current and projected.
Integrating the current eating habits of the system’s diverse population factored into the menu design as well. “We decided to capitalize on that,” Tate says. “We took into account the foods families eat at home and on the go.”
The team also did focus groups with tastings, paying attention not only to what students tried but what they didn’t finish.
Lunch menus for the March launch at several high schools, a hybrid school and an elementary school included dishes like chicken etouffee, mumbo tofu, jerk chicken quesadillas, green chili and corn pork stew, a Brazilian steak sandwich and Cameroon rice and beans.
Based on participation rates, the new menu was a hit: Average participation increased by at least 12 percent at the schools involved.
The program was promoted through signage, surveys, print and digital messaging. The prelaunch tastings also helped stir up interest in the new meal options. And Magic Kitchen, a monthly cooking class for D.C. schools’ students and their families, provided a hands-on introduction to some of the new menu items.
Surveys—both comment cards and QR code-driven versions—have also provided useful feedback as the program continues through the pilot.
Transitioning from the existing menu to the ethnically diverse Thrive version required some staff training. A SodexoMagic culinary lead visited the sites to make sure all team members learned how to prepare the dishes.
“The menu is built around rich flavors from across the world,” Tate explains. “So the Southeast Asian dishes were designed by a chef from Southeast Asia. The same with Latin America and other regions.” Authentic ingredients were used as much as possible.
So far, the existing equipment has been able to produce the new menu items, but SodexoMagic has made suggestions for possible additional equipment additions as the program rolls out.
SodexoMagic plans to introduce the Thrive platform at more than 200 additional schools by the beginning of the next school year. That will involve additional, location-based research to identify local tastes and personalize menus. “We know every school district and every school is different, so we want to make sure we cater the menu to the ethnographic results at other sites,” Tate says.
The initial research revealed one not-so-surprising fact: they like pizza. While that’s a hard act to follow, Thrive is designed to provide a compelling yet healthier alternative.
“We know pizza is a very popular dish and our students’ love for it isn’t going anywhere,” Tate says. “But watching them put down the pizza for the corn pork stew or jerk chicken quesadilla makes you feel like you’ve done something and made a change.”