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  • Writer's pictureKelly E. Middleton

Food Service Challenge: Know Your Customers!

Kids have a lot of different preferences today versus 20 years ago. Food service simply cannot serve the same staple cafeteria foods they've always served and get away with it anymore. Young people today want, and sometimes need, a more complex menu. Meals sensitive to food allergies and vegan or vegetarian dishes ("Meatless Monday") must be incorporated into menu planning. Students want their food to be organic, farm-raised, antibiotic free, hormone free, locally sourced and fresh not frozen.

As school leader, we need to stay current with these changes in dietary needs and desires. We need to think of foods not typically associated with public school food service like fish tacos with chili lime salsa, chicken teriyaki over whole grain rice, shellfish stew and flourless black bean avocado brownies, to name a few from one school lunch menu resource on The Daily Meal.

Thinking outside the box with menu items will be a positive surprise for your students, causing them to get excited about lunch. They may even look forward to the coming week's menus, so be sure to share them on the school's website and social media pages. Garnering enthusiasm for the school lunch program is a huge boost to student morale and has a positive effect on school culture.

But it's not enough to just get creative with menus. In order to truly give great customer service in food service, we need to give students what they want, not what we think they want. To do this, we need to get feedback from them about the school meals.

I like to incorporate several different ways of getting feedback. I mentioned several of these in an earlier post, but I'd like to share a few food-service specific means of finding out what our customers want.

Paper surveys can be a simple, easy way to get feedback on meals. Keeping a standardized form in the lunchroom (perhaps near the trash/recycling receptacles) can give the students an opportunity to reflect on each meal right after they've finished eating. An end of the week survey, asking students to rate or rank the meals they ate that week, can work too. Remember to tally the results regularly and incorporate these results into food service staff meetings.

Those leaders who are tech-savvy (or who want to be!) can take advantage of all the online resources. What better way to reach students when they are not at school? Using the school website or social media accounts to survey students or let them vote on past and future meal offerings is a great way to get that info you cannot get in the lunchroom. It's also another way your school can build relationships with students with whom you otherwise wouldn't get to interact.

Speaking of building relationships with students, one of the best ways I've found to do that while also getting intel on what they want in the lunchroom is through focus groups. If you've read any of my books, you know I have a regular group of students I meet with called "Kelly's Kids." They are my eyes and ears at the school. If something we are serving in the cafeteria is a swing and a miss, they let me know about it. Offering this type of candid environment for students to share their opinions is absolutely priceless. I'm also able to pick their brains on any ideas they may have for food service changes. Getting this immediate, honest feedback allows us to sometimes get information it may take a while to get if students aren't volunteering their opinions via other means. If you don't already have a regular student focus group, I highly recommend it.

Whether you choose to use surveys, focus groups or simply listening when students make suggestions, getting to know your students' food preferences will show that you care about their dining experience. Be sure to follow, through. Nothing is worse than filling out surveys only to find that no change happens. We need to be willing to make change if we begin such an initiative. But I believe the payoff is well worth the time we put in!

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