School meals’ image problem

Published in FSD Update

Operators cross market segments to learn about their future customers.

It’s a wrap on day one of MenuDirections 2014. Conferences are always a great place to network and meet new people. It’s also great for sharing your successes—and struggles—and getting some valuable advice from fellow directors. What makes MenuDirections so special is it’s for all market segments, from schools and hospitals, to colleges and B&I. What stood out for me on day one of the conference was how little other segments know about the challenges that child nutrition directors are facing.

School meals have an image problem. They’ve been the butt of jokes for decades; the stereotypical lunch lady is a hard image to shake; and most people have no clue about what it takes to run a school meal program.

I had the pleasure of eating dinner last night with Joanne Kinsey, director at Chesapeake schools in Virginia. Joanne was explaining her job to our dinner table, which included several operators from the college market. They had no idea that Joanne produced her meals for $2.47 (including food, labor and indirect costs, among other line items) and that she had to meet incredibly strict nutritional standards. That’s not to say that these directors previously thought Joanne’s job was a cakewalk; they just had no idea how little money and how stringent the federal guidelines were for child nutrition programs.

After about a 20-minute conversation at the table, I feel confident in saying those college directors walked away with a newfound appreciation for Joanne and her fellow child nutrition directors.

At another conversation last night, Justin Gillette, of Atlanta Public Schools, shared his journey into school meals. Justin is a newbie to the industry, having spent a little more than a year in school meals after transitioning from campus services with Sodexo. Justin shared his training program with a table composed mainly of college and healthcare operators. Justin’s program includes some of the same exercises you’ll see in culinary schools. Yes, lunch ladies know how to do more than open boxes.

On the one hand you have Joanne, who has spent the last 37 years in child nutrition, who was trying to educate fellow non-commercial directors about the challenges of her job. On the other, you have great innovation and ideas coming from a newcomer to the same market. But all too often, people, both inside and outside the industry, only hear the negative of school meal program.

That’s a shame. Joanne’s and Justin’s customers will be the customers in your college dining halls, B&I cafés and hospital beds in the years to come. What Joanne and Justin feed and teach them will be a good part of their culinary foundation. It’s time for everyone in the industry to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing K-12 directors.

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