Data driven: How District of Columbia Public Schools used research to revamp its supper program

kids eating lunch

In Washington, D.C., as in many urban school districts, the differences in students’ backgrounds are stark: 77% of students are economically disadvantaged, while many of the remaining 23% could be considered affluent.

“We struggle with equity, which directly translates into an achievement gap,” says Rob Jaber, director of food and nutrition services for District of Columbia Public Schools. “Our students need to be prepared for learning, and if some of them aren’t getting three meals, they don’t even have that basic fundamental energy to get through the day.”

Jaber and his team hated the idea of some children eating lunch at school, going home and not eating again until their school breakfast the next morning. So after Jaber took on his current role in 2012, he set to work revamping the after-school supper program.

The supper program Jaber inherited began in 2010 and was implemented across a few of the highest-need schools in the district. But it just wasn’t working. Read on to see what he and his team did next.  

Photos courtesy of District of Columbia Public Schools

Getting started

lunch tray

“We got a lot of feedback right away that this program wasn’t being implemented effectively,” Jaber says. “And then we observed the problems at work: There was a lot of waste. Students would take the meal, not consume all the components and toss the leftovers in the trash.”

So Jaber and the foodservice team conducted several site observations and surveys, using the feedback as motivation for reinventing the program. They challenged their vendors to develop hot-meal options with more variety. From an operational standpoint, they freed up the after-school program coordinator by taking the responsibility of feeding students off their plate, allowing them to focus solely on the program activities.

The supper program now serves an average of 8,000 students daily, with some of the diners participating in after-school clubs or sports, and others coming solely for supper. The menu now includes hot meals such as a turkey burger served with sweet potato wedges and an apple, or soba noodle chicken salad with sides of ginger-dressed cabbage and grilled peaches.

“Supper is just one component of what we do, but the benefits are twofold: It helps our students stay nourished throughout the day, and it also keeps them in a safe place,” Jaber says. “We’re trying to do our part to get students on a more equal footing.”

Using data

data

That mission of equity fuels not only the supper program, but also DCPS’ foodservice as a whole—and it’s why Jaber is committed to an objective, data-based approach.

“When I took over the district in 2012, the first thing I wanted to do was implement consistency of service and food across schools,” Jaber says. “Some schools had numerous complaints about food quality, or menus not matching up. … The child with allergies who went in planning to have the salad that day didn’t have that option. Then other schools had very few complaints. That had to change.”

But with 113 schools across the district, interpretations of vague descriptors such as “good service” and “cleanliness” would vary too widely.

So Jaber implemented three core processes to solicit data on the success of DCPS foodservice:

  • Principal and administrator surveys.
  • Monthly operations site reviews to observe factors such as food safety and staff friendliness (operations that receive a score below 80% must submit an improvement plan).
  • Taste tests conducted with students (items generally must receive a 75% approval rate before being placed on the menu).

“It’s taking the subjectivity out of foodservice,” Jaber explains. “Everyone can be a food or hospitality critic, but this is clinical: ‘Is there debris? Check Yes or No.’ We don’t want to be operating by opinion, or by varying standards across the district.”

“It’s about getting everyone aligned on the same tangible goals, so there’s no confusion about how we define success,” says food and nutrition specialist Jasmine Illa, who is also part of the team that analyzes the data and sets strategy at DCPS.

The team firmly believes that “When we measure, that’s when we can improve,” Illa adds. “It’s a constant conversation, so there’s no, ‘Oh, I thought we fixed that problem months ago.’

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Going beyond the numbers

pasta

The data-based approach is key to DCPS foodservice, and Jaber says other operators can implement a similar process through three main steps.

First, focus on “accurately measuring the textbook fundamentals,” such as temperature logs and production records, before expanding to scoring factors such as staff friendliness. Second, analyze the data and set thresholds for districtwide standards to ensure consistency. Finally, the payoff: Create an environment where people aren’t afraid to take accountability or initiate or listen to tough talk when it’s needed.

“When you manage managers who manage managers who manage people, something can get lost in the chain of command,” Jaber says. “It’s important for me to communicate those expectations and to physically be out there at the operation sites, keeping that conversation going.”

That constant conversation—including data collection, analysis, and a focus on improvement—requires diligence and determination. But in the DCPS foodservice team’s view, the district’s children deserve nothing less.                                                             

“When you’re tackling a huge issue like the achievement gap, everyone in the district has an important part to play, including foodservice,” Illa says. “It truly takes a village to create that change.”

 

Meet the FSD: Rob Jaber

rob jaber

Director of Food and Nutrition Services, District of Columbia Public Schools

Q: What’s the key to your team’s success?

A: Our team takes initiative. We’re truly excited about what we do, and we have a deep passion for serving our students. Everyone is willing to take on a new challenge to support our larger mission.

Q: What’s the key to your organization’s culture?

A: We acknowledge and celebrate when we do things well, but we’re also willing to admit when we don’t. By measuring and monitoring constantly, we’re able to stay very attuned to what’s going on and where we can improve. People are willing to put in that effort because we’re proud of our brand, of D.C. Public Schools. We know we make a difference in kids’ lives.


At a glance: District of Columbia Public Schools 

  • Number of schools in the district: 113
  • Amount of students at an economic disadvantage: 77%
  • Annual foodservice budget: Over $30 million
  • Number of meals served annually, including breakfast, lunch and supper: 9 million
  • Average daily suppers served through an after-school program: 8,000

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