What began more than 70 years ago as a hot lunch program for undernourished schoolchildren has evolved into a comprehensive effort to ensure that children have access to healthy nutrition throughout the day and year. The federal government provides reimbursements to School Food Authorities to encourage or assist schools in serving breakfasts, snacks during the day, after-school snacks, supper and summer meals in addition to lunches. Beyond the financial incentives these programs deliver to schools, they enhance learning by combating the damaging effects of food insecurity and poor nutrition.
Given these benefits, it’s clear to see why schools would be eager to expand into other dayparts. That’s easier said than done, of course. School foodservice managers must typically address a number of issues on the way to implementing a new service—whether it’s a reimbursed breakfast program or another meal program.
Although these issues may seem daunting, they can be overcome with effective strategic planning. In this article, we outline some of the challenges that may be encountered and offer suggestions for dealing with them. These insights can help you expand the reach of your nutrition programs and positively affect more students within your schools.
First, let’s look at a school district that faced many of these same issues when it set out to increase participation in its breakfast program. Florida’s Brevard Public Schools, which educates more than 70,000 students across 82 schools, offered breakfast at no cost in all their schools. But according to District Food & Nutrition Manager Dawn Menz, MS, RD, LD, SNS, “Overall breakfast participation was low compared to our total student population.”
That’s not a unique situation. Food Research & Action Center reports that 92.2 percent of schools serving lunch also serve breakfast. But the difference in the number of meals served in the two dayparts is dramatic: 5 billion lunches vs. 2.4 billion breakfasts, according to preliminary 2016 estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Under the direction of Kevin Thornton, Food Service Director, Menz and her team— including Dietitian Specialists Laurie Conlin, RD, LD and Jamie Lewis, RD, LD, along with several field operation supervisors—set out to determine the reason for the comparatively low breakfast participation. Their first step was to meet with cafeteria managers, school administrators and students to understand the possible barriers to eating breakfast. Their findings:
The team then brainstormed ideas to break down these barriers. A discussion with Emily Mark, RD, SNS KAE K12 Manager at The Kellogg Co., sparked an inspiration. “We came up with the idea of doing Breakfast Snack Packs—pre-assembled bags of two or three items including a grain/bread, juice/fruit and, for a third item, a string cheese,” Lewis says. These “grab-and-go” bags, which average $0.42 to $0.45 in cost, are quicker and more convenient for students than the standard breakfast offering.
That was only the first part of the equation. “We then purchased utility carts using grant funds to bring the Breakfast Snack Packs out to where the students were in the morning,” Conlin explains. “And we increased breakfast promotion through signage, morning announcements and a big push during National School Breakfast Week.”
The results were impressive: The number of elementary school breakfasts served increased by 8.8 percent between FY 2015, when the Breakfast Snack Packs were introduced, and FY 2016. Secondary school breakfasts increased by 14.5 percent, for an overall district increase of 10.5 percent.
The Brevard experience closely mirrors the task of launching a new daypart from scratch in that the food and nutrition team had to make the case for a pretty radical reinvention. You can follow the key steps they employed to support your expansion into other dayparts:
1. Get administration on board.
“You have to get buy-in from administration to make it work,” Menz says. Brevard County believes that breakfast is important because it fuels the brain and helps keep students awake, alert and ready to learn. Stressing these benefits can help get administration on board. Ultimately, success in one program, like the Breakfast Snack Packs, can lead to quicker support when implementing other programs down the road.
Research and data bolster your case. Identifying the barriers to breakfast participation and defining how utility carts would overcome those barriers helped the Brevard team get buy-in from school principals.
2. Apply for grants.
Grant money can help fund your expansion. School foodservice grants are available from a wide variety of entities, including national, state and local governments, businesses and foundations.
“We applied for Fuel Up to Play 60 grants from the Dairy Council of Florida to assist in paying for utility carts, insulated milk bags, promotional items and tablets for recording point of sale (POS) transactions,” Menz says.
3. Anticipate objections.
We don’t have the systems in place. You won’t be able to handle the increased workload. That’s not what I got hired for. It’s going to interrupt classroom time. You need to be prepared to counter these and other objections that may arise when you present your proposal.
“We knew there would be concerns about trash in the areas where we wanted to bring utility carts,” Lewis acknowledges. The team explained that new, strategically located trash cans—and the help of teachers/lunch monitors/maintenance staff—would ensure that waste wouldn’t get out of hand.
4. Reach out to vendors and brokers.
Your suppliers have a wealth of knowledge you can tap into for product advice, instructive program examples and industry contacts. Tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and see what solutions they have to offer—as Brevard did with Kellogg’s and mobile cart vendor Lakeside Manufacturing.
5. Develop a marketing plan.
Promotion is essential to increasing participation, whether it’s in a new daypart or an existing one. The Brevard team developed a marketing plan that included giveaways, newsletter blurbs and a kick-off party to raise excitement. They also continue to raise the bar on the program through new recipes, contests and cart designs.
6. Measure your progress.
You need to track participation, costs and other numbers in order to determine whether your program is working as intended—and to help justify further investments. Brevard’s double-digit increase in breakfasts shows that their changes were a success.
7. Put kids first.
The health and well-being of your students has to be the driving force of any change, Menz says. “We believe in nutrition and healthy eating, and that’s what guides us.”
Launching a new daypart will always be a challenge, but following these key steps will help you make the case for change—and position you for success.
Schools serve twice as many lunches as breakfasts and summer meals represent just a fraction of the lunch total, according USDA FY 2016 Preliminary Data. That means opportunity for school foodservice.
“We receive a lot of information about grants via email,” Menz says. Be sure you sign up for industry mailing lists. Google can also be a big help—as can checking the websites of USDA, Child Nutrition Outreach Program, Action For Healthy Kids and your state education agency.