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.
“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.”
Because of these concerns, the department formed focus groups with high school students to find out what they were looking for in a school foodservice program. From that information new products were developed.
At the high schools many students would purchase à la carte items instead of the reimbursable meal. Petill says the primary reasons for this were because there was a stigma attached to purchasing a school meal and the students were more interested in socializing with friends during the lunch period.
“One of the worst things I’ve seen in school foodservice is that you have to go to the cafeteria,” Petill says. “It’s got that stigma of who wants to go to the cafeteria because it isn’t any fun and it’s a place where kids used to go who were poor.” The district’s free and reduced percentage is around 60%, and Petill says that the perception among students was the only ones purchasing a complete reimbursable meal were the students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Because of this perception, Petill says many students did not participate in the school meal program.
To counteract this stigma, Petill knew he had to make the program fun. The first step was to create a brand. Petill asked high school graphics classes to help develop a name and logo for the new program. They came up with the SanDi Coast Café. Under the brand, there are six concepts: SanDi Fresh Bistro (sandwiches and salads), Wok n’ Bowl (Asian entrées like teriyaki chicken), Riga Tony’s (Italian favorites like pizza and ravioli), Baja Beach (Southwestern cuisine), Surf Side Classics (hamburgers and Buffalo chicken sandwiches) and Hi-Tide Grill (grilled chicken sandwiches and chicken fajitas).
A new menu was only the beginning of the SanDi Coast program. The real draw, according to Petill, was bringing food to the students. After receiving money from a city bond, the department built carts. At each high school there are about 12 carts, each with two points of service, scattered around campus. “The kids have 30 minutes for lunch and 90% of that time they want to spend socializing,” Petill says. “Food was always a back burner if we couldn’t make the program fun and exciting, and that’s what we’ve done with the carts. You have to have a draw besides the food because it has to be a place where they want to go hang out.”
All meals from the carts are reimbursable; most à la carte items have been eliminated. “We put the meals in black bowls,” Petill says. “We try to emulate what they are seeing in malls. The kids told us that they like the bowls because they can socialize when they are holding the bowl. When you give them a tray they have to go and sit down somewhere to eat.”
Petill says students still eat in the cafeterias because there is a salad bar in every cafeteria. Since starting the SanDi Coast Café program last fall, sales have quadrupled. “At the first board meeting in September, they always have a couple of students from the high schools,” Petill says. “The board asks them, how was your first week of school. It was amazing that they said the food is just unbelievably better. Never before had the board or superintendent heard students talk about eating school lunch instead of curriculum or athletics.”
“We’ve only scratched the surface of the food,” Petill says. “I’ve got a chef who is helping us make the menu fresher and better.” The next step is to replace the carts with kiosks. The kiosks will be mini buildings where students can go through lines and select meals for purchase.
Challenging the norm: “I’ve been frustrated by how long it takes to make changes,” Petill says. “Part of that is bureaucracy and getting approvals. We get $4 million a year from the USDA to spend on commodity products. That is a lot of relief for us. The question becomes, what are those products we are being offered and are they the healthy products? A lot of them are, but some of them aren’t. I want fresh fruits and vegetables, not canned, and from local farmers. I’m not condemning the USDA; I just want to see change. In order for change to happen, all of the stakeholders involved have to change.”
Another change Petill would like to see is an increase in the income eligibility for military families to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Petill and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis are working on a bill to be introduced to the U.S. House that would accomplish that.
Rowlands from auxiliary services sums Petill up this way: “Gary is always looking at what’s the next big thing and how we can keep that success growing and rolling. He is so engaging, so dedicated and so outgoing. He’s always looking out for what’s best for the kids.”