Kelly Schein fell in love with school nutrition during her dietetic internship, so when a position as school nutrition director of Richmond County Schools (Ga.) opened up, she jumped at the opportunity and applied.
“It’s home, and it’s where my heart’s at,” she said. “Almost two years—two years in July.”
Although she and her team started out fairly “green”, she calls them a “dream team” now.
“We were all fairly new, having pretty much started within the last two years,” she chuckled. “We’re all fairly young, and innovative. I remember we sat down in my office, and I had this vision of where we were and where we were going—everything from training to customer service to food quality to professionalism. We had this vision, but we didn’t have time to execute it.”
Schein and her team were bursting with ideas and excitement, but didn’t know what to do to get to that “next step.” Finally, Schein says, she heard a speaker at a GSNA that changed everything.
“Once I heard Kern [Halls] speak I said, ‘That’s what we’re looking for!’,” she recalled.
Kern Halls and his team run Ingenious Culinary Concepts, a K-12 foodservice consultancy specializing in school nutrition marketing and training. Prior to that, Halls worked for Orange County Public Schools Food & Nutrition services where he helped revolutionize the program with his ingenious culinary concepts. (You can read our 2012 interview with then-OCPS Area Supervisor Kern Halls here.)
Halls understood her issues from the get-go, says Schein; when it came to grabbing the students’ attention, the white cinder block walls and stainless steel of the cafeteria could not compete.
“The whole reason we got started with Kern was because our cafeterias were not modernized,” she explained. “We’re competing with restaurants and we needed to up our game.”
Kern helped Schein and her staff make a host of changes; creative tweaks designed to address student engagement and staff morale.
“With Kern’s help we came up with a motto and a logo, to brand our program,” said Schein. “We’ve got focus groups and student advocates, we test constantly now. Before we didn’t have much of a relationship with our students—well, Chik-Fil-A does! They know your name, they clean your table, and we needed to bridge that gap. Kern helped us do that.”
Other changes included new wall graphics from Atlanta graphic designer Mark Wilson, revamped menus with fewer, more popular items, including ‘grab-and-go’ options, and changing from white to black trays so food ‘pops’ with visual appeal.
Another change Halls recommended was giving the school nutrition staff a bit of a style makeover, outfitting everyone with chef jackets and pants – the jackets are embroidered with their logo – and name tags, and switching from hair nets to baseball caps. Not only did the uniform change increase morale, it also commanded greater respect and attention from students—a win-win.
“One we discovered when we met with our target group is they didn’t know any of our staff’s names!” laughed Schein. “Our staff knew our students’ names, but they didn’t know ours. Kern said, ‘I’ll give anyone $20 who can tell me a staff member’s name’ and the students couldn’t name one single person. That was eye-opening—we see these students every day, but they don’t know us.”
Bringing in an outside consultant didn’t just give Schein and her staff a fresh perspective on existing processes, it also helped bring an air of professionalism to her school nutrition department.
“When you bring in someone from the outside, it’s a whole different ballgame,” she said. “The administrators have embraced him and his ideas, and we’ve taken on a whole other identity just by hiring a consultant. It shows our dedication, our willingness to invest. I want to change the entire outlook of our program. Breakfast is the next mountain to climb.”
Richmond County Schools are CEP district-wide, and Schein is operating breakfast, lunch, afterschool snacks, and recently implemented supper at four schools. She wants to keep implementing innovative solutions to feed students, including implementing breakfast-in-the-classroom, and even taking lunch service mobile to capture students who prefer to spend their lunch period outdoors.
“At West Side High School I wasn’t reaching 200 students out in the courtyard,” recalled Schein. “I asked them what we could do to get them to eat, and they told me to bring the food out there so that’s what I intend to do. There was an easy solution—I just had to ask!”
Another effective engagement tool Schein learned from Halls was the appointment of Student Champions—creating focus groups to gather immediate feedback, and connect school nutrition staff with students on a daily basis. This includes meetings, smartphone apps, and t-shirts—all designed to help engage students and create buzz around school meals.
Schein acknowledged that it was a lot of hard work, but says her staff rose to the occasion and the student response made it all worth it.
“The managers went around to tables and spoke to students about the new menu, and we got a round of applause,” she said. “The hair on my arms stands up just talking about it! Yesterday we served 150 more at both schools than we normally do with just a few, easy changes.
“We have a camaraderie now that I don’t think we had,” Schein continued. “Since we partnered with Kern, it’s been a breath of fresh air. The sky is the limit.”