Houston ISD: Forging a connection with student consumers

lunch lady breakfast man

Houston Independent School District is engaging diners with astronauts, football players—and nutrition for life.

At a glance

216,000—Students in 2016

280,000—Meals served daily

47M—Meals served annually: breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner (in 60 schools) and summer meals

$120M—Annual revenue

  • Received a glowing 2016 audit from the Texas Department of Agriculture Administrative Review, which complimented HISD’s food quality, presentation and engagement
  • Earned the 2015 Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry “Breakfast Champion Award”
  • Introduced 30 new food items to the 2015-2016 menu, including chicken tikka masala and breakfast sliders

Meet HISD

hisd nutrition services meal tray

At Houston Independent School District, the new menu reads like that of a highly eclectic brunch spot: carnitas soft tacos, beef sausage sandwich on a Hawaiian bun, chicken tikka masala, and harvest enchiladas.

But school meal selections shouldn’t come as a huge shock, given HISD’s foodservice goals. The seventh-largest district in the U.S. is focused on drawing kids into the cafeteria not only with intriguing meal choices, but also nutrition and activity programs involving astronauts, the Houston Texans NFL team, “lunch ladies” dressed up like superheroes, culinary taste-tests, the ability to vote for their favorite meals and more.

“It can be tough to get some of the students to [want to] dine with us, so we put a ton of energy into developing ways to engage them,” says HISD Nutrition Services Senior Administrator Audene Chung, who acts as the district’s foodservice director. “To be honest, we still struggle sometimes. Kids want to come to lunch and hang with their friends without thinking of much else. But when you put a chef walking around in a chef’s hat offering tastes of things the kids want to try, that builds a lot of excitement.”

The varied entree choices, for example, reflect the district’s diversity: HISD’s 216,000 students speak more than 100 languages at home, and about 76% of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged. Many HISD schools qualify for free meals for all students, which means every meal option is reimbursable through federal programs—an important distinction for Chung.

“It levels the playing field,” she says. “If you [receive a free or reduced lunch], you’re not in a different line from your friends. Everyone can try everything, which helps us encourage them to eat nutritious meals.”

Forging connections—creatively

nasa astronaut lunch room

But even free, inventive meals aren’t always enough to entice some students to pick school meals—or to drop the unhealthy snacks they may have brought from home. So when Nan Cramer joined HISD in 2013 as community outreach dietitian, she focused on connecting with students and their families, as well as partnering with local groups to inject excitement into the cafeteria.

In 2016 alone, HISD Nutrition Services hosted NASA astronaut Mike Fincke to celebrate National School Breakfast Week, held a Nutrition Ninja Warrior Competition with members of the Houston Texans NFL team, and introduced a slew of taste-testing events for students to vote for their favorite school meal.

“At the NASA event, one student in particular was so excited—he sat next to the astronaut and told him that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up,” Cramer says. “Then he told one of our staffers that this was the absolute best day of his life.”

But not all commentary is positive. “[Families] push us to go further,” says HISD Nutrition Director Jennifer Boesch. “With a population this large, you have a lot of different opinions, and sometimes you’re criticized because everyone wants their own specific wishes granted, or they think a food is odd. That’s a challenge for us—trying to make everyone happy. But we feel it’s our responsibility to expose children to nutritious foods they might not have at home.”

 

Finding the nutrition- flavor balance

back to school food tray student

HISD wants to continue making its meals more nutritious yet delicious, while making sure students are engaged and interested in the offerings. The team’s advice is simple: Want to know what your customers want? Just ask.

“You can create all of these new menu items, but you have to get the customer to pay attention,” explains Chung. So Nutrition Services worked to conduct extensive student surveys and events.

“If they weren’t dining with us, we asked: Where are you eating?” Chung says. “If they said a food truck or a convenience store or a Popeye’s, we tried to mock that in a healthy way. If they wanted more options at the snack bar, we gave them more.”

Boesch’s overall foodservice philosophy is equally simple. “We’re working with kids and food; it can’t get more fun than that,” she says. 

Meet the FSD: Audene Chung

hisd nutrition staff

(pictured center)

HISD Nutrition Services’ Senior Administrator 

What makes HISD excellent at engaging with students?

Providing a student with a healthy meal sets them up to succeed. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: you need food before you can learn and grow. We make sure being hungry isn’t an obstacle for any child.

But we also need these foods to be items that kids want to eat. I think it gets easy to become tied up in everything else—everything [in this field] is a project, so I understand that—but if you want the kids to be fed, you need to make sure they choose these foods.

What are your latest goals?

We’re still struggling with getting some kids into the dining room. So we need to bring the food to them. We’re working on “remote feeding,” bringing the food to the gym or courtyard or wherever they’re hanging out during lunch. We’re working with IT because it requires a mobile point-of-sale system.
 

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