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3 takeaways from the NRA Show's Noncommercial Conference

The inaugural event brought tips from top operators in education and healthcare.

As the hubbub of activity continued on the main show floor Monday at Chicago's McCormick Place, foodservice operators from hospitals, colleges, universities and beyond came together for the National Restaurant Association Show’s first-ever Noncommercial Conference, a daylong convention-within-a-convention. While the conference, hosted by Mary Angela Miller, administrative director of Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, was targeted mainly at operators in healthcare and education, directors across noncommercial can benefit from the tips and trends shared. Below are some highlights from the event.

1. Operators can act as community leaders in small regions

community graphic

While the University of Montana’s Farm to College Program has spent $11 million with local farms since it launched in 2004, Mark LoParco, director of UM Dining, also is proud of his department’s smaller partnerships throughout the state. LoParco has worked with members of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, a collective of 30 to 40 producers, to co-purchase equipment for their facilities and keep building on the availability of local food.

2. Diners need to be able to identify their food

mother son pointing food

“The days of casseroles are gone,” Jeff Denton, director of child nutrition programs at Ponca City Public Schools in Oklahoma, said Monday. Customers need to be able to identify what they’re eating—both to make sure their meals are meeting nutritional requirements in a school setting, and to ensure they’re taking foods they’ll actually enjoy. That’s part of why customization stations have become such an important part of Denton’s foodservice—diners can readily and enthusiastically choose the produce and proteins going into dishes like noodle bowls, salads and pizzas.

3. Think beyond your operation to get food trucks rolling—and keep them on the road

woman food truck

In 2010, only about 15 percent of high school students in the Boulder Valley School District were utilizing its foodservice; they are allowed to go off campus for lunch, Ann Cooper, director of food services, said Monday. With a donation from the local Whole Foods operation, she and chef Brandy Dreibelbis were able to purchase a food truck on Craigslist, already set up with much of the equipment they needed. Whole Foods also designed and applied branding for the truck, which carried over to BVSD food services’ website and social media accounts.

But the truck isn’t just used for high school feeding, Cooper said. The Boulder Valley food truck makes appearances at yoga festivals, triathlons and other community events. Proceeds from these catering jobs go straight back into the foodservice budget, she said, and the truck isn’t limited in the work it can accept because of its connections to the district.

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