Gary Petill: California Cool

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Change isn’t just a slogan for Gary Petill, director of food and nutrition services at 132,000-student San Diego Unified School District. After 23 years in the hotel industry, Petill joined SDUSD in 2002, and since then he has made significant changes. He created new programs at both the elementary and high school levels, started a breakfast in the classroom component and plans to eliminate all processed foods during the next three years.

“I was able to focus on a whole different challenge, which was how do you change school food,” Petill says about his move into the non-commercial industry. “I knew nothing about school foodservice, which I’m glad I didn’t. I think a lot of times when people know too much about the way school food is, it’s more difficult for them to change. I don’t look at the negative. I look at ‘how do we get there.’ I need a solution. I don’t need to know why it won’t work.”

This can-do attitude isn’t lost on Petill’s colleagues.

Gary Petill, FSD of the Month, child eating lunch“He’s just unstoppable,” says Joanne Tucker, foodservice marketing coordinator. “He doesn’t let things get him down or stop him from trying. It’s always about finding solutions.”

Drew Rolands, executive director of auxiliary services, says, “His strongest attribute is he’s such a likeable guy. He’s always positive. He’s trying really hard to be the leader of our own food revolution here.”

Kid’s Choice Café: That food revolution started in the elementary schools. “I was shocked when I first came to school foodservice,” Petill says. “Everybody got the same entrée. All the side dishes were just ladled on the plate. The attitude was really hard for me to understand coming out of a customer service industry. It was almost the ‘here it is kid, take it or leave it’ attitude. It wasn’t that the people were negative; it was just the way school food was being handled at the time. It’s not just here. It’s in a lot of places.”

Petill says the cafeterias were barren and unattractive and that the students were not excited about the foodservice program. The first step in the renovation was putting salad bars in each of the 132 elementary schools. Petill strives to put as much fresh produce on the salad bars as possible, but he supplements the fresh with canned fruits and vegetables to save on costs.

A marketing program was also developed. The elementary meal program was named the Kid’s Choice Café and a logo with the tag line “It’s cool to eat at school” was created. Each school has life-size graphics of fruits and vegetables and the school’s mascot to brighten the cafeteria.

After the marketing program and salad bars were introduced, Petill added choices and switched to self-service. Instead of only one daily entrée, students now have four selections, including a vegetarian option.

“Our participation increased 160%,” Petill says. “We had a lot of pushback from principals, teachers and parents. They thought there was no way the children would be able to get through the lunch lines to pick an entrée, make their own salad, sit down, eat and make it back to class on time. It’s amazing what young children can do if you show them the way.”

Petill not only wanted to increase lunch participation but breakfast participation as well. In 2006, a breakfast in the classroom program was piloted in one elementary school. Now there are 47 elementary schools that offer the program. “We were at 27% breakfast participation prior to starting breakfast in the classroom,” Petill says. “Now in those schools with the program, participation is at 97%. We are feeding 27,000 children a day with the program.”

Meeting customer expectations: After the success of the Kid’s Choice Café, Petill focused on the high schools. “Our elementary programs were more than 85% in participation, but when you got to the high schools we were somewhere near 30%,” Petill says. “You’re talking about one out of every three kids eating with you, so what are the other kids doing? Are they bringing food? Are they not eating at all? Are they sharing a bag of potato chips from somewhere? Our concern was that we were not only not reaching them but also that we weren’t giving the kids what they wanted.”

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