School nutrition directors share tips to increase participation, cut costs

Cut costs and increase participation. It’s a surefire way to run a successful school meals program. FSD talked with directors to find out how they’ve accomplished these two goals in the past year.

Haywood County Schools

At this 3,400-student school district in Brownsville, Tenn., Allison Pyron, school nutrition director, has achieved a district meal participation rate of 80%. She says offering new items and using new preparation techniques has contributed to her high participation rate. Having friendly cafeteria staff also helps, she adds.

Pyron also says promotions have encouraged students to purchase school meals. This spring a farmers’ market was implemented. Elementary students purchase tickets with which they can buy fruits and vegetables to take home. In addition, once a week the department has special treat days when “treat” items like a reduced-fat, reduced-sugar cookie are served with the meal.

Other theme days include read a book, a quarterly book review when people dress up as the book’s characters, and field day, when a sack lunch is offered.

One of the innovative ways Pyron has cut costs is taking advantage of surplus items. For example, last year she acquired equipment from a local community college that was renovating its facility.

Salida Union School District

For this California school district, cutting costs meant purchasing more effectively. Billy Reid, director of child nutrition services for the district, says he joined a state co-op and uses as many USDA commodities as possible to keep costs down. He also is looking into recycling. “We pay a considerable amount for waste disposal,” Reid says. “I am in the process of putting in a system that will eliminate my waste by 90%. This equates to a 90% reduction in my waste disposal bill and then I generate revenue from the recycling.”

Reid says giving students more choices is the best way to increase participation. “Giving students choices helps maintain the participation and lends itself to continued growth. We do a lot of scratch cooking. For those children who may not care for the hot entrée choice on any given day we have a fresh-made sandwich option, a fresh-made salad option or even a yogurt, fruit and graham cracker option. The methods used to increase participation will vary from district to district and will depend on the free and reduced percentage. Districts with a lower percentage almost become like restaurants and would need to appeal to the demographic makeup of their district accordingly.”

Reid says another participation boost occurred after the district received designation from the HealthierUS Schools Challenge. He says that award gave the school meals program more credibility and acceptance in the community, which led to an increase in participation.

New Britain Public Schools

This school district in Connecticut started an after-school dinner program at the high school in October to increase the number of students the department reaches on a daily basis. The meals are available to any student participating in an after-school educational program. The foodservice program at New Britain Public Schools is managed by Whitsons School Nutrition. So far the program has served more than 4,000 meals.

“The program is becoming very successful and is a great outlet for children to receive a warm and nutritious meal after school,” Jeff Taddeo, food service director for Whitsons at the district, said in a press release.

The meals, which are offered for free, are a way to improve the students’ nutrition and encourage healthy dining choices, Whitsons says.

Paradise Valley Unified School District

At this district outside Phoenix, Kathy Glindmeier, director of nutrition and wellness, increased participation by speeding up service lines. “We installed an upgraded software system that  allows us to serve students faster and more efficiently,” she says.

Glindmeier agrees with Reid about cost-cutting measures. She also joined a co-op and implemented a program to identify and eliminate food waste.