Tips for Increasing Student Participation in School Lunch

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The key to a successful school lunch program is student participation. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. You can design the most efficient, cost-effective school lunch program in the country and it won’t be successful if students don’t participate! The lack of student participation affects program costs since paid lunches won’t be helping to subsidize lunches for those students who can’t afford full price meals.

So what can you do to encourage student participation in your school lunch program? The three suggestions below might help.

Atmosphere Matters!

An inviting, comfortable atmosphere can make lunch more enticing and enjoyable. So can friendly staff who engage with the students in meaningful ways. Asking students for suggestions and listening to their responses can get them more invested in ‘their’ lunchrooms. If you adopt a student’s suggestion, make sure you give them credit for it. This will encourage more engagement with other students.

Engage students in decorating the cafeteria with their own artwork. Colorful posters listing the week’s ‘specials’ and photos of gorgeous fresh ingredients brighten the room and can get students thinking about eating lunch at school.

Allison Pyron was the School Nutrition Director at Haywood County Schools in Brownsville, Tennessee. Her school district’s meal participation rate is 80%! She runs special promotions to keep students engaged and interested in what’s going on in the lunchroom. How about an “Invite a grandparent to lunch” day?

Use social media to spread the word about how great your lunch program is. If you use fresh, locally grown ingredients, brag about it. Give your menu items enticing, restaurant-style names.

Get Students and Teachers Involved

Sara Simmerman of Huron Valley Schools suggests offering samples and doing taste testings with “I tried it” stickers as a reward for trying new foods. Adventurous eaters proudly walking around with bright, colorful stickers are great advertising for your school lunch program!

Simmerman also suggests creating special event menus to celebrate various holidays plus school-specific events like homecoming. This offers a perfect opportunity for introducing new foods alongside an already popular menu item.

She feels it’s best to serve small ‘tasting’ portions of any new foods and keep them separate from familiar menu items. Remind students that choosing to try a new food is a great adventure they can be proud of. Show that you’re proud of them, too!

Encouraging teachers to partake in school lunches sets a great example for students. Ask teachers for ideas on how to improve your foodservice and show your appreciation by treating them to a meal occasionally.

Reduce Wait Times

According to Chef Ponca, the Director of Child Nutrition for City Public Schools in Ponca City, Oklahoma, students don’t want to spend their valuable lunchtime waiting in line for food. Speeding up the process is essential in order to get students to eat school lunches.

It’s important to add new lines as needed to keep the lunch service quick and efficient. Asking students yes/no questions can also keep lines moving more quickly. He suggests creating prepackaged, reimbursable ‘grab and go’ meals. Attractively packaged salads, sandwiches, and wraps can be made fresh every day and kept in a merchandiser cooler for quick, convenient meal service. Keep other food items, such as enticing bowls of fresh fruit, nearby.

He also suggests providing some a la carte items for students who want to assemble their own special meal. However, pricing should be high for a la carte items in order to encourage more students to choose reimbursable meals.

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