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How to get the community involved in contract shopping

The director of DC Public Schools shares his tips for a meal program by the people, for the people.

After the foodservice manager for District of Columbia Public Schools announced it would not renew its contract after the school year, Rob Jaber, director of food and nutrition services, saw the chance to bring in the community to help shape school feeding. community graphic

“A school is part of the community,” Jaber says. “It belongs to the students, the faculty, administrators, parents, neighbors and many others. It is critical to engage in this process with as many stakeholders as possible, listen to them and incorporate their needs and wants.” For the next eight months, Jaber set out to do just that.

Engaging the community means going out into the community. Across three months, Jaber’s team set up meetings in every ward in the district to gather as much input as possible. “We said, 'What do you like? What don’t you like? What do you want to see in the future?'” Jaber says. The face-to-face interactions with the public gave DCPS’ foodservice a chance to incorporate the community’s ideas in the request for proposal, or RFP. More than that, though, the meetings sparked the opportunity to start much-needed conversations about student nutrition and to open a line of communication between the department and its constituents.

To capitalize on the momentum generated by the meetings, DCPS followed up with surveys. Questionnaires were delivered in newsletters and via an online education portal, and forwarded to the school’s community partners. The goal of the survey was to ask the community what works and what doesn’t work, so that it could be included in the RFP process. Participants answered questions about whether or not they thought the nutrition requirements were too strict and if students are satisfied with the offerings. From the responses, DCPS knew to include language in the RFP about serving a different vegetarian option each day, a mandate for student taste tests before implementing new menu items and a request for a student satisfaction plan, Jaber says.

The last way that Jaber was able to bring the community in was through the bidding contractors’ sample menus, served as a part of the proposal process. Each potential vender whipped up two hot and cold meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as a snack and a la carte item. Along with a panel of government officials, a selection of students were invited to vote on their favorite food from the menus.

“When it comes to the meal plan, students want to have some sort of say or control over what happens with it,” he says. “And for us, we’re taking that as part of the culture of our department. So being able to weave the satisfaction into the RFP is major for us.”

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