The assessment process is an important part of the breakfast-in-the-classroom journey. Every school is unique, with a different set of needs based on factors like enrollment, school size and layout, equipment needs, and of course, stakeholder engagement. We sat down with Nadine Doetterl, SNS of NMD School Food Service, who has extensive experience implementing breakfast-in-the-classroom, to discuss the assessment process and stakeholder engagement for breakfast-in-the-classroom programs.
Nadine, tell us about what happens at the beginning of the assessment process—when you enter a school, where do you start?
When we first get to a school our first step is to gather the stakeholders [school administrators, principals, teachers, para-educators, custodians, school foodservice] because we need to have an understanding of where each of the stakeholders is in the process—not everyone is always on the same philosophical page. We have a meeting to take a view of the landscape, find out where everybody is; once we’ve gotten through that process we spend a great deal of time with the food service director and his or her staff.
What do you work on with school foodservice staff?
During site visits we are working on menu plans and working through problem-solving. Often times when you get to a building you’ll stand in the middle of the cafeteria—or whatever space they are serving meals from—and go, “Hmmm, okay, how is this going to work if we move breakfast away from the cafeteria to someplace else, whether it’s grab-and-go in the hallway or breakfast-in-the-classroom? What’s the best way we can accomplish this?” As you move about the building and assess obstacles, sometimes something will hit you right away and you’ll realize that one area would make a great staging area or another could be used as storage space. Sometimes it takes a little bit more digging, with other people on the food service staff, to figure out what is going to be a good option for that particular building to reach the goal of getting breakfast into the classroom for the kids.
I also encourage food service directors to have stakeholders tour the building, too—a member of the custodial team, a member of the administration—because they are going to be aware of nuances that the school foodservice director may not be aware of themselves. If everyone has a little input, everyone feels better about the process. Once we have taken the lay of the land from both a philosophical and literal standpoint, we go back and start working on how to get past any obstacles that have come up, and what we are going to do to create a menu and delivery plan that meets and overcomes these obstacles. We identify the resources—be they personnel, equipment, or marketing—that we will need to accomplish the project, and we determine who will be responsible for taking on each piece as we go along.
How do you communicate effectively with staff to address their concerns, and get them engaged in breakfast-in-the-classroom?
While it’s not always available due to geography, a school visit is helpful. Taking a custodian or a teacher into a district where the breakfast-in-the-classroom process is working, and having them interact with teachers or custodians who may have been like them at the beginning of the process—not particularly ‘on-board’ or convinced, with concerns about instructional time or pests or clean-up—bringing them into that situation and having them interact with those who have “been there, done that” is very helpful.
Another thing I try to communicate is this: “You have to look at the big picture.” Sometimes what I say isn’t necessarily popular, but when you look at school foodservice as a business program, one that is trying to bring revenue into the foodservice program—and by extension, the district as a whole—I try to get stakeholders to see themselves as someone who can help with that. I ask them to think about how wonderful it would be if they could say, “I helped bring revenue to the school and the district, because I was open to changing what we do on a daily basis.” Explaining that revenue flow coming in is not just to the school foodservice program, but the entire district, is an effective tool for helping get people on board.
Can you give us a real-life example of how a school visit was used as an effective stakeholder engagement exercise?
About a year ago I was working with a district that had breakfast-in-the-classroom in a number of buildings, and whose goal was successful implementation of breakfast-in-the-classroom across all classrooms; all grades, in every building in the city. They were going to do it in all of their remaining elementary buildings, and offer it to all other grade levels—probably 27 buildings, at the time—so the foodservice director held a symposium in one of her BIC buildings. She was looking to gain support from those stakeholders who didn’t yet have breakfast-in-the-classroom in their buildings, and who had questions about it. [Check out video of breakfast-in-the-classroom from that district.]
The symposium started at 6:30 a.m., and the school foodservice director invited teachers, administrators, parent advocates, and directors of other districts who perhaps didn’t have experience with breakfast-in-the-classroom. She invited everyone to do a mini-workshop, and then to watch the process of breakfast-in-the-classroom in that building. This school building was one on multiple levels, one that didn’t have a great loading dock, and only had one elevator, and had an open-classroom concept! There were a number of different logistical challenges that she was able to showcase in regards to how they overcame the obstacles presented. It was a great way to facilitate learning for a number of people. Just by chance I ended up walking with a fourth-grade teacher from another building that didn’t have breakfast-in-the-classroom. She had come because she was convinced that there was no way to get this to work in her classroom. By the time the morning was over she was like, “You know what? I can see that the kids don’t really make a huge mess, and that cleanup is not difficult. I am going back to my building with a different perspective than I came with.” And that was huge!
Another time, I had a school foodservice director who wanted breakfast-in-the-classroom but she was having a hard time in her own head in terms of the logistics about how it was going to work. I brought her to a school district where they do breakfast-in-the-classroom on all grade levels. We took her to two different buildings in the district, one of which had the cafeteria in the basement, but had several elevators. She was able to watch the staff in the morning as they delivered breakfast to the classrooms, and then she watched the process in reverse, where staff retrieved the bags, did the inventory, and did all the counts and then repacked them for the following day. This district was lucky enough to have a staging area to keep things pre-done the day before, for the next day. When this school foodservice director was able to see the process for herself she was able to imagine it working within her own district, and returned on a more comfortable footing than when she left. Seeing is believing, so whenever you can get someone to a district where they can see it with their own eyes, it’s definitely a positive experience.
How can a school visit help overcome a specific operational obstacle?
One example is from Orange County, Florida. Once they did their initial buy-in for Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom last year, they decided to do a traditional breakfast-in-the-classroom in a middle school with 900 kids. I went down to give them a hand on opening day. For a number of logistical reasons they were having a problem with keeping milk at-temperature, so that when they came back to the cafeteria they had to dump it all; we needed a way around that. The solution we ended up coming up with was to wrap the milk in pre-frozen ice sheets. The concern about temperature came because they were taking the milk from inside to outside [during the delivery process]. By wrapping the milk in an “ice blanket,” it allowed them to get the milk back to the cafeteria in a temperature range that still allowed them to use it for lunch.
Once you gather stakeholders and get people on board, how do you maintain a team approach? How do you keep stakeholders engaged and committed?
It takes work, and it takes work specifically by the foodservice department. They have to step up and take the lead on communication. I always say communication and knowledge are key, and without sharing those things you lose stakeholder input; stakeholders stop feeling like they are part of the process. Set up a monthly meeting with stakeholders to communicate problems and challenges, and ask them if they have encountered any new obstacles. Ask stakeholders if there is anything they think should be done differently [after implementation]. Send out a newsletter or internal email, thanking stakeholders for their support, and include information about participation; highlight someone on the staff who has done something to encourage breakfast-in-the-classroom. You are keeping a sense of continuity, and you’re keeping stakeholders involved on an ownership kind of level.
Keeping communication lines open both ways is the best way to keep things going, and the school foodservice director definitely has to be the facilitator of that process.