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.