Five Questions for: Mary Palen

Mary Palen, Five Questions, Wilmington Public SchoolsMary Palen, administrator of foodservices at
Wilmington (Mass.) Public Schools, started student focus groups three years ago
when she took over the district's foodservice program. Palen, like many school
foodservice directors, says that gaining student feedback is paramount to
increasing participation and trust in the school foodservice program. She says
that, often, students ask for simple requests like a new barbecue sauce.

What is the best way to get student feedback about the
district's foodservice program?

 I have found having a student committee is
the best way to gain students input into the program. Students speak to
other students and can share their ideas as well as representing others.

How do you use student focus groups to gain feedback?

 I use the feedback
in two ways; I make changes based on their suggestions whenever possible. 
When it is not possible, I educate them so they understand why it is not
possible. For example, maybe students ask why we do not serve sirloin
steak on the menu. I ask them if they ever eat out to dinner, do they read
the menu, and then I ask, "Have you ever seen a menu where a steak dinner only
costs $2.00?" This makes sense and then they understand the limitations, due to
cost, that often reflect in a school lunch program.

How often do your focus groups meet and how are the
students selected to be in the group?

I meet formally
with my High School Lunch Advisory committee four times a year, after school
for an hour. I informally sit with all students from all grades during
lunch and ask general questions to gain feedback. The high school students
are often recommended by the high school principal.  The support of the
administration is key for a successful program.

What
is one thing that you have changed because of information you learned from a
student focus group?

One thing I
changed this year due to feedback was we added fresh fruit salad to the salad
bar. We also changed the location of where we keep straws. We also
changed the spaghetti sauce we were using. In the past we have changed the
barbecue sauce we used and added calzones monthly. Sometimes it is a
very simple request.

What is the best way to make students comfortable with sharing their opinions
during a focus group?

I usually offer
the students a snack, as they are hungry by the end of the day. Sometimes
I have them try a new product and get feedback. I will ask the students
questions like, did they try this or that or did they hear any feedback on that
particular menu item, etc. Once they start discussing things it opens
other discussions. I have found that the administration usually suggests
students that are very well-rounded and tend to be extroverts rather than
introverts.

 

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
coffee shop trailor graphic

A familiar face is coming to the roads of Rutgers University this fall: the Starbucks mermaid. The New Brunswick, N.J.-based school is testing a Starbucks truck throughout the upcoming semester, NJ.com reports . The company began testing trucks on college campuses in 2014, and now has mobile locations at Arizona State University, James Madison University in Virginia, East Carolina University in North Carolina and Sacramento State in California.

The trucks will serve the full lineup of Starbucks beverages that’s available at the outlet’s brick-and-mortar location at Rutgers,...

Industry News & Opinion

A study from Virginia Tech has found a connection between school meal participation and obesity in students. From data that predates the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act , the findings raise questions over whether nutrition standards go far enough.

The research evaluated data from 1998 to 2007, comparing first through eighth grade students who partook in free and reduced-price lunch and those who qualified but opted out. Wen You, associate professor in the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech, says she expected to validate theories that increased breakfast...

Industry News & Opinion

Buffalo Public Schools is turning to local chefs and a little competition to help create new menu items, the Buffalo News reports .

In October, local chefs will compete against each other and a team of seven to 10 students led by chef Bobby Anderson, a former contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen,” to create lunch recipes that comply with USDA nutritional requirements and use seasonal produce sourced locally.

“This Chef Challenge is another way to engage our youth in a fun, friendly competition with local area chefs who can help create appealing recipes that will be incorporated...

Industry News & Opinion

After being sued by the Services Employees International Union over its decision to change vendors from Sodexo to Morrison, the foodservice arm at Mayo Clinic continues to face backlash from staff.

Foodservice employees at the Rochester, Minn., hospital last week handed over a petition 1,200 signatures deep asking that they remain with their current employer, Fox 9 reports .

While a Mayo Clinic spokesperson said that staff will be given similar positions and pay rates under Morrison, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota—the union representing much of the hospital’s foodservice staff—...

FSD Resources