High school cafeteria’s face-lift increases participation

Creating a sense of community and making the dining area fun draws students into purchasing school meals.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

GREENVILLE, S.C.—Getting high school students to eat in school cafeterias is often a challenge. Many schools have open campuses, allowing students to leave school to pick up food—often at fast food joints. There’s also the “cool” factor. Many older students say buying school lunch isn’t the “in” thing to do, but at Greenville County Schools in South Carolina the foodservice department found that creating a community and giving the cafeterias a face-lift drew students back in and boosted revenue.

“Every district looks at the high school and knows that’s where your lowest participation will be,” says Eileen Staples, director of food and nutrition services. “You’ve pretty much got a captive audience at the elementary and middle schools. At the high schools we’re battling vending machines; we’re battling clubs. They are allowed, as long as they are outside the cafeteria doors, to sell whatever they want even though the regulation says you can’t do that.

“The other piece is that you want to develop a relationship,” she adds. “I didn’t think we had that relationship with our principals and our students.”

When Staples decided to take on high school participation a few years ago, Greenville was going through a growth spurt. The district either built or renovated 74 schools. In many cases, the kitchens were given an update with new equipment, which Staples says was a great start. The kitchen face-lift, however, didn’t make the dining environments enticing.

“We had two schools that had battleship gray walls,” Staples recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t think so. That’s not going to work.’” Staples worked with Marketing and Training Specialist Quentin Cavanagh to put out a bid for an outside company to come into Hillcrest High School to rid the cafeteria of its dreary walls.

“Hillcrest was our test site,” Staples says. “We thought, ‘If we spend the money, is this going to help increase participation?’”

One of the keys to getting the right décor and environment was involving students and the principal in the brainstorming process. That way a certain group of students already had buy-in and would be more willing to eat in the cafeteria, Staples says.

The principals also was excited about the project. “The principal jumped all over this,” Staples says. “He said, ‘You mean you’re going to pay to do this?’”

The foodservice department did pay for the project, which totaled $144,000.

Hillcrest’s mascot is the ram. Murals depicting rams were painted on the once-gray walls. In addition, the walls have been painted in colors and patterns so that very little of the gray color exists. Words such as “honor,” “tradition,” “loyalty,” and “pride,” are also scripted on the walls. Seating was also changed. Before the project, the tables were arranged in row after row of long rectangle yellow/gray tabletops. Now, the cafeteria has a variety of seating, including booths, high tops and rounds. The long rows of tables are gone. The tables and chairs are also in different colors.

The overall theme behind the project was to somewhat replicate what students see when dining outside of a school environment but also to create a sense of school community.

Staples says the $144,000 was paid back in two years through higher participation. In other schools that have had similar face-lifts, Staples says revenue has increased between 20% and 30%. “If you would have asked me six years ago if I would spend this kind of money I would probably have told you no,” Staples says. “It really has worked. It was well worth the investment.”

The 14 high schools have also seen a few other changes to help boost participation. The foodservice team is offering students additional—and healthier—choices. Another boost to sales was taking over the school stores in certain locations. In addition to selling school supplies, the stores sell items like sandwiches, salad and drinks a la carte.