5 low-cost changes that helped a K-12 district boost participation fast

By 
Dana Moran, Managing Editor

hhs grand reopening

When Kelly Schlein, nutrition services director for Richmond County School System, joined the district at the start of the 2015-16 school year, she faced an unappealing landscape. Communication between staff and students at the Augusta, Ga., school district was poor, uniforms consisted of hospital scrubs and cafeterias “looked like a prison cell,” she says.

“I was like, well, this is not a fun place to be,” she says. Schlein and her staff, who, like her, were hired in the past two years, wanted to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Read on about a few stealable, cost-effective changes they made to boost student satisfaction.

1. Look for outside inspiration

hhs top it off bar

Drawing ideas from local restaurants and what students like to eat on weekends—Schlein mentioned Chick-fil-A numerous times—the team started with three of the district’s high schools, revamping the cafeterias over the course of three months.

While two locations only reopened March 6 (the third is set for early April), participation has risen by up to 20%, Schlein says. 

2. Meet kids where they are with texting

vip student texting card

Richmond’s new text alert program allows students to opt in for up to eight monthly messages about menu specials, promotions, contests for gift cards and more. One hundred people signed up on the first day, Schlein says, and many students respond back to texts with excitement. “When I can text something personal and get that feedback from them, it’s invaluable,” she says.

3. Train for customer service to boost in-person engagement

school nutrition champions

When Richmond’s consultant joined the project, he met with students and asked if they knew any of the foodservice staff members by name. “They couldn’t name any staff members, but the staffers could name all the students,” Schlein says. “So that was a huge disconnect.”

Through customer service training, managers were taught to walk around to tables and ask students how they enjoyed their meals, and received laminated cards with prompts for greeting students in the morning. “You’re watching them develop relationships right before your eyes,” Schlein says. To make it easy for students to learn names, each staff member now wears a name badge that includes his or her hometown.

But customer service development didn’t end with just one training; Schlein says it’s a focus of monthly manager meetings, which include handouts and role-play scenarios. “A lot of our folks are new, and don’t necessarily come to us with foodservice experience,” she says. “You can’t expect them to succeed without the tools.”

4. Get creative with carts to overcome short lunch periods

hhs grab go cart

With just 20 minutes to eat, Richmond students “don’t want to spend a lot of time in line,” Schlein says. A pilot program underway at four high schools (including the three that were renovated) is testing grab-and-go carts with warm and cold capacities, which Schlein says have “shortened the long lunch lines tremendously.” The carts are mobile and can be wheeled into the gym, and Schlein plans to use them for breakfast during the upcoming school year as well.

Also in the interest of reducing lines, the foodservice department introduced a “top it off” bar cart, where students can find condiments and spice blends without having to track them down from a staff member.

5. A little visual pop makes a big difference

before after cafeteria

Like almost any revamp, Richmond’s cafeteria remodels included fresh paint, new branding, more uniform seating areas and chef coats to replace those old hospital scrubs. But Schlein wanted to extend those changes to packaging, plasticware, trays and dishware as well, and replaced them with all-black items. “[The color] looks so enticing compared to institutional white,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it—it was just pennies to do.”

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