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  • Writer's pictureKelly E. Middleton

Food Service For the Win: How a Cafeteria Renovation Transformed Our School Culture

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”

-- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Newport Independent Schools in Kentucky is an urban school district on the border of Cincinnati, Ohio with a 92% free lunch population. For many of our students, cafeteria meals served in our schools are the only hot nutritious meals they will receive each day. Any cafeteria manager or food service director will tell you they serve more food on Mondays and the days following a long break than on any regular Tuesday-Friday. Why? Because many children typically go to bed hungry and do not receive sufficient food at home over the weekends and on long breaks.

This realization hit me one night when I could not figure out why our basketball team was not playing up to their normal ability. They seemed slow and even out of shape. After an inquiry, my gut instincts ended up being painfully correct. Several of the star players confided that they were just hungry. We would later put in a program that fed our athletes before games and, like many schools, we had already incorporated the backpack program for needy elementary school students to take food home on the weekends. However, we had forgotten about our hungry high school and middle school students. Eventually, we were able to add a meal at the end of each school day for all children to eat before they left school.

During my time as superintendent of Newport public schools, I wanted our students to have the very best cafeteria facilities and food we could give them. I wanted to make our 7-12 high school cafeteria a safe haven for public school students where they had plenty of food choices, music, TV, caring adults and great customer service. I did not want it to look like a normal school cafeteria but rather a nice restaurant, a place where many of our students rarely have an opportunity to enjoy a meal.

I thought back many years ago to a previous district where I was assistant superintendent. I had the opportunity to make the cafeteria a special place for students. We had to use and thus transform a pre-existing cafeteria, but it still worked. Even then, I noticed it helped to change the entire culture of this particular school. While this district was nowhere near the poverty level of my current district, I knew that changing the cafeteria could make the school a “merrier place.”

With this memory in mind, a few years back, we decided we wanted to allot a part of our school’s facility budget to build up our food service program and, frankly, our cafeterias desperately needed an upgrade. I gathered a group of students together I called “Kelly’s Kids” and we set out to build a very special cafeteria together.

I first asked them to dream about a place where students did not complain about school food -- a place that actually got them excited. I asked them to write down every crazy suggestion to improve meal time. In the meantime, I was calling all over the country to look for the best school cafeterias. Eventually, I would organize field trips with these students to see what the best cafeterias looked like, smelled like and tasted like. At the same time, I was working with the board of education, architects, the food service director, cafeteria managers, food service staff, principals, the facility director and the finance director. We wanted everyone to have the same vision. This was a major undertaking that required a lot of support from various groups, but we felt that it would pay off. After all, “people support what they help create.”

I would be remiss if I did not thank our board of education and all the leaders including the student leaders who made this all possible. I invite you to look through the images below to see the final product of our school-wide cafeteria collaboration.

In some of the photos look for:

· Various seating arrangements

· Color schemes

· Motivational quotes

· Cell phone and computer charging stations

· Various furniture styles

· Restaurant seating

· Restaurant trash cans

· TVs and monitors

· Outdoor seating with greenery

· Stereo sound capabilities both inside the cafeteria and in the outdoor space

What the photos cannot show:

· Uniforms for cooks and the manager wearing a tag on her shirt so students know who to go to with their cafeteria concerns

· Counselors, school leaders and teachers eating in the cafeteria with students during breakfast and lunch

· Students hanging out in the cafeteria before school and after school because they love this space

· Staff having their meals paid by administration if they eat with our students

· Three or four breakfast choices each day and eight to ten lunch choices each day, including a full salad bar

· Restaurant-style restrooms

· Cafeteria staff trained to talk with students as they go through the lines

· Vegan and other health-conscious choices

· Food sampling of new cafeteria food

· Cafeteria social media accounts for students to learn about and engage with food service

· Clean tables, chairs and floor

· Party-like atmosphere

· Very few disciplines ever occurring during meal time

· Improved culture throughout the school

I believe that these last two items were hugely impacted by our cafeteria renovation and food service department overhaul. I also believe that better-behaved students and a more positive overall school culture are two key building blocks to a successful customer service program in public schools and an essential part of any successful public school system. My forthcoming book, Feed Our Students Well: 18 Customer Service Concepts for Public School Food Service delves into this topic and gives many helpful tips for school leaders looking to improve food service via their customer service practices.

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