Operations

8 ideas to improve your school nutrition program

Take a look at some best practices shared at the School Nutrition Industry Conference last week.
A student holds a lunch tray full of food in the cafeteria.
Photo: Shutterstock

This school year continues to be a challenging one, and school nutrition teams have responded with innovative ways to give their programs a boost. Operators were able to share some of those ideas at the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) School Nutrition Industry Conference last week. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Set up a local farmer map

At Naugatuck Public Schools in Naugatuck, Conn., Food Service Director Kate Murphy uses a map displayed in the cafeteria to show students where the ingredients used in school meals are sourced.

She pins one end of a string to the school district’s location on the map and the other to the location of the farms, helping students visualize how far their food has traveled.

2. Post QR codes in the cafeteria

At Flour Bluff Independent School District in Corpus Christi, Texas, Registered Dietician and School Nutrition Coordinator Brittany Garcia increased the number of students who follow the nutrition team’s Snapchat and TikTok accounts by posting the QR code for their profiles in the cafeteria.

“I actually printed [QR codes] off and laminated them and put them into campuses that students were allowed to have their cell phones at lunchtime, and that’s how I got a lot of following that way from the kids,” she says.

3. Take a team mental health day

Mental health continues to be important, especially as the pandemic hangs on. To make sure school nutrition staff were taking a break, Harrison County Schools in Clarksburg, W.Va., used one of its professional learning days as a relaxation day for the team.

“Instead of the typical training, we had all the schools come up with some kind of fun, recreational activity,” says School Nutrition Director and SNA Vice President Chris Derico.

Employees participated in bowling, painting and more.

4. Raise funds with a farmers market

When brainstorming ways to fund a new hydroponic garden, Murphy came up with the idea to host a student-run farmers market.

Murphy worked with local producers to source items for the market and had older students help younger ones with shopping for items and checking out. She now hosts two to three markets per year and works with district principals to put the money to good use.

“I work with the principals and ask them if there's something that they would like to do with the funds we raise, and I usually ask them if they could use it to help start garden programs in their schools,” she says.

5. Make social look professional

Garcia suggests working with your district’s design department to create a logo for your nutrition team that you can use on social media. The design department can also be a great resource for creating graphics to complement your photos, she says, and operators should see if their district has access to free photo editing or design programs.

“Social media is visual media,” she says. “If you're going to showcase your food, it has to be good quality pictures, otherwise you're going to be doing more harm than good for your nutrition program.”

6. Use students’ senses

When having students participate in farm-to-school activities, try to include steps that enable them to have a full sensory experience.

During a demonstration where students make pickles, for example, Murphy makes sure to give the students a chance to smell the vinegar and the pickling spice. 

“I walk around and I have every student smell the pickling spice, and I ask them to try and identify what spices make it up,” she says.

7. Communicate now for next year

While it can be hard to plan in these times, start having discussions with manufacturers and distributors now to learn how they see the next school year panning out, says Derico. He recommends asking questions such as what products they think will be available and what type of cycle menu would work best.  

“Just have that communication so that [you’re] working on this together,” he says. “I compare it to, we're in the same boat and sinking a little bit and how can we help each other to make sure we don't go completely down.”

8. Get employees involved with social

Social media can also be a great way to engage employees. Garcia created a recurring social media series called Teammate Tuesdays, where she interviews different staff members. On other days, she’ll ask employees working the cafeteria line to pick a song to use in a video showing what’s being served that day.

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