Five Questions for: Lora Gilbert
Recently, the food and nutrition department in the 172,000-student Orange County Public Schools in Florida received the Food and Nutrition Services Best Practice Award from the USDA. One of the main reasons the district was given the award was the department increased secondary lunch meal participation by 40%. Here, FSD talks with Lora Gilbert, food and nutrition director, about the award and changes in the department.
How did you increase secondary lunch meal participation by 40% in two years?
We went back to the basics and we got intensely focused on our customers. The very thing that we wanted was customer input. We did focus groups. We talked to parents, teachers and staff. We had an intense food show in 2006 and we would not let any of our vendors bring current items. During that show, the kids talked to the vendors and they voted on what they wanted to see new that year.
I think another thing we did in the second year of the change that really made a difference was that we put samples out for the students so they could taste what was on the menu that day or coming later that week.
Before, we were just asking for student input informally and we would eat with the students whenever we were in the schools. I think making the process formal and making the students aware that they had this kind of input on the menus was our best kind of marketing.
Student input was a big part of the participation increase. What did the students tell you they wanted to see on their menus? Was anything they said surprising?
I think the biggest thing that we learned was that you just can’t guess what these students are going to say. You can’t take them for granted. The thing that really surprised us was sometimes it was the length of the line that determined their menu choices or what line their friends were standing in. They weren’t necessarily getting what they wanted and they didn’t always know what was available. We really had to improve our customer service and put items at different places. So the pizza line used to go the fastest, but now we have a good assortment of foods in every line so they all move. We also did some marketing and signage so they would know what was available. We made a six-foot tall cutout of every schools’ mascot and we put the menu in a sleeve on the mascot every day so the students can see what we are serving. Now they can see everything at a glance.
What we also found out was that we don’t need so many items on the menu. The students have their favorites. We went down from 10 entrées a day to five. If you get it right, you don’t have to have a lot of variation. You want variation throughout the week, but you don’t have to have all that variation each day. The No. 1 item that our students bought the first year was Asian. We have continued to grow our Asian foods and now we are into Caribbean. They are really looking for authentic flavors.
They also told us they wanted the condiments, and I knew we were being a little stingy with those. Now, we offer larger portions of things like salad dressings.
This change started the year we were taking french fries off the menu and we knew that was going to be a problem. So we went to the high schools and said, “Look, we have to do this, what do you want instead?” We couldn’t believe it, but they said salads. We did a lot of research with the kids and found out that they don’t just want iceberg lettuce; they want a mixture of iceberg and romaine. They don’t like the big tomatoes sliced up; they like cherry tomatoes. We also asked them if they could have one vegetable mixed in what would it be and they said cucumbers.
How do you run your food show?
We are on our fourth show now. We tell the vendors to bring anything they think our students might be interested in, but if it’s something that we have seen before, we aren’t interested. The show is in the spring so that we have enough time to get the new menu items in. We do the show at a central location and we pay to bus the students in. We chose students from about four secondary schools, and this year we included some fifth graders from an elementary school. The first year we added 20 items and this year we are adding 22 new items. We’ve added things like Swedish meatballs, a steak and cheese sandwich and garlic mashed potatoes. We always have new items on our menus. We don’t set the menu a year in advance.
The vendors were actually surprised. At the end of the first food show, we said we want to partner with you to develop new products, but we want you to use our student opinions. Don’t come to us with something you think might go. Come to us and we’ll ask our students about what they think they want. The fact that the kids were interacting with the vendors was good.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during the process to revamp your menus according to the students’ likes and dislikes?
Do the focus groups. And you can’t have your managers do them; you need someone who is going to be objective. We did bring in a consultant to do some of the focus groups because we wanted that outside opinion about what they kids were telling us. The focus groups are usually 10 to 15 students.
You made some pretty big changes during a particularly difficult economic time. How were you able to balance everything?
I think the fact that it’s a hard economic time really played in our favor. Administrators and staff understood that we needed to get our participation up and we made it a burning desire to bring in the new customers. Everyone was onboard because of the economic times and because they really wanted to increase their participation at their school. They really do understand that the kids who eat breakfast or lunch do better in school.