Here at Beyond Breakfast we love a good school food story, and we love a good, creative school food story even more! We recently sat down with Kern Halls, Area Manager of Orange County Public School Food & Nutrition Services, to discuss ways the OCPS district has engaged students in their food choices through creative initiatives like My Food Face—a sort of “internal Facebook” for students and their families—and the use of a food truck for school events and field trips. Many thanks to Kern for taking time out of his busy day to share the OCPS story with us.
Orange County Public Schools were a Breakfast-in-the-Classroom recipient last year.
Beyond Breakfast: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about My Food Face?
Kern Halls: MFF started a couple of years ago. We wanted something similar to Facebook as a way to reach students and parents, and a way for students to communicate with each other so we developed My Food Face. So our technology team led by Javier Vasquez, Area Manager of Orange County Public Schools got a group of students to create and develop the website. We have been using that as a way to put up videos and anything that’s going on within our district from a marketing standpoint. This year we started streaming live events, like Chefs Move to Schools and our annual food show. You can log on from home and see the events streaming live on our website. One of our big pushes going into the new school year is to get parents and students registered on the site, so we can continue to put information out there and inform the community about our program.
BB: As far as participation goes with My Food Face, is it mainly students involved?
KH: As far as the demographics go right now, My Food Face is geared toward our students. On the website we try to do a lot of student surveys to get focus group-type feedback from students, like: What did you eat for lunch today? How did it taste? How did it look? We are gearing it a lot toward students right now, but if mom, dad, grandma or grandpa wants to join we encourage that.
BB: How do you market My Food Face to students?
KH: I had to figure out a way to drive students to the site, so right now we release different marketing materials like posters and signage to the schools, and they have QR codes. A lot of the students have smart phones, and so they use the QR codes with their phones to go right to My Food Face. We’re working on linking the OCPS site to the My Food Face site, but right now QR codes and existing smart technology is what we are using.
BB: Tell us a little bit about OCPS’s food truck?
KH: Back in 2004 we had serious hurricanes going on in Florida, and our school board decided to purchase an emergency feeding vehicle—a food truck outfitted with cooking equipment and a generator. We were also using the truck for field trips to get all of the kids (free, reduced, paid) lunch when they were away from school. About a year ago I realized that food trucks were becoming a hot commodity, so I looked at that vehicle and wondered, “How else can we use this?” We wrapped the food truck with a really nice design and started selling different food items off of the truck; we were thinking, “Hey, let’s see how we can get some different and unique items geared to the students on here.” We had a big Chefs Move to Schools event back in February, so what we did was took some of the items from our chefs event and tailored them to go on the food truck. For example we have a Hawaiian burger that uses a sriracha and ketchup blend, a Buffalo chicken wrap, and beef and chicken quesadillas—unique items that weren’t on the current menu. So when a truck pulls up to a school, they don’t feature what’s on the day’s menu, but something a little different for our students to choose from. Another thing—the food truck is affordable. The highest price item on there is $3 for a reimbursable meal; the students get a fresh fruit, a veggie, milk—they get all of that in a unique and hip way.
BB: What can you tell us about your marketing strategy specific to breakfast-in-the-classroom?
KH: We found out sometimes when we say “breakfast-in-the-classroom” it kind of scares [stakeholders], so we put our own twist on it and call it “Breakfast for Achievers.” We have banners and yard signs that we put up to let students know that they can eat breakfast [at no cost]; parents who drop off their kids also see the signs. We created a video for breakfast-in-the-classroom as well. This has all worked really well, and we have seen a large increase in participation.
BB: How do you engage students in breakfast-in-the-classroom, and what is the student feedback on breakfast-in-the-classroom?
KH: Students are happy when they realize they can eat breakfast for free; they often have to rush out of the house without breakfast, or there is just no food at home to eat. They are happy that they can enjoy breakfast now, and they don’t have a headache and they can focus on their books, and getting their work done rather than being hungry. We always engage our students in the decision-making process. If we bring in a new product we conduct a taste test; if there is a new initiative we do focus groups to ask students what they want to see. It doesn’t make sense to just “do what Kern thinks”—I try to come up with great ideas, but at the end of the day if my customers don’t purchase the food or come to the cafeteria it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans! So we try to engage the students through focus groups and events. I go out there during lunch and talk to the students and get feedback from them so we can better improve ourselves [and our program].
BB: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about anything? Marketing or otherwise?
KH: I always like to tell people in other school districts that they don’t have to have that learning curve that we had—we are always open to sharing our ideas and concepts with anyone. One of the positive things from a marketing standpoint that we have found is a way to increase our food consumption. This year we have partnered with a local packer to start doing pre-packed fruits and vegetables to our students. We have seen our consumption go through the roof. I had schools where we were doing canned fruit or plain apples where we were doing maybe 50-60 per day, and now that we’re doing [pre-cut produce] we have over 800 students grabbing those items on a daily basis.
We came up with a salad bar concept as well. What we’ve done at elementary schools is have a sort of “choose your plate” with a base salad and pre-packaged toppings: chicken, cheese, fresh peppers. Traditionally the main concern with the salad bar is foreign objects and contamination, so everything we do is self-contained for our salad bar concept. Then we go to the secondary schools, where through feedback we learned they wanted something a little different. On the average day we were selling about 20-30 salads, now—on a good day—we’re doing about 100 salads a day. In secondary schools we’re taking the base salad adding chicken and cheese, and we have what are called “salad toppers.” We have three kinds of salad toppers: “Apples & More” is diced cinnamon apples; Southwestern is black beans and corn with tortillas; and a Veggie where we do a carrot, peas, and a crouton. The students grab what they want and go to the line, plus a milk or juice, and they have a reimbursable meal.