National Dairy Council Listening Sessions at ANC: Breakfast, Lunch, and the New Meal Patterns

During the course of our week at ANC in Denver, the School Nutrition Foundation held a series of three listening sessions sponsored by the National Dairy Council. The purpose of the sessions was to engage directors and managers in a discussion about the regulation changes surrounding school breakfast that are scheduled for next year. By anticipating the impact on feeding programs now, and employing practices to stay “ahead of the curve,” the goal was to send managers and directors back to their districts with a list of strategies to help them strengthen their school breakfast programs.

In our sessions we discussed ideas for best practices and expansion of school breakfast programs. Our discussions also looked ahead to the implementation schedule for the new meal pattern requirements, to get an idea of where school nutrition professionals are in the transition process. Over the course of three sessions we explored ways in which school nutrition professionals are managing stakeholder engagement, how they are using assessment tools to measure progress and set new goals, and breakfast program best practices vis-à-vis operations, marketing, menuing, staff training, and equipment.

We heard from directors and managers working in districts of every size and socioeconomic makeup, and in schools large and small, disadvantaged and affluent we heard many of the same issues and concerns echoed. Here are a few of the biggest themes that emerged over the course of our three listening sessions.

Data Collection and Assessment

Different schools use different data collection and assessment tools, but when the data is collected and analyzed it can be useful for increasing participation in school meals. Tracking participation can help school foodservice identify students’ favorite menu items, and increase participation overall; it can also help identify menu items that are not as popular, and give foodservice the opportunity to replace it with something that the kids will like better, in turn increasing participation.

Breakfast Success Hinges on Flexibility

No two schools are the same, so if something—a delivery model, a menu item, a piece of equipment—doesn’t work for your school, find what works better. A recurring theme over the course of our three listening sessions was “change.” If something doesn’t work, change it to something that does; whether it’s serving lines vs. in-classroom breakfast, a menu item the kids don’t respond to, or a piece of outdated equipment, it’s important to be a flexible and creative problem solver.

Naturally data collection and assessment can help school foodservice professionals identify what aspects of their programs are working. If you are not collecting and analyzing data you are missing out on an opportunity to make your program more efficient, and increase participation.

Marketing is Key to Participation

Marketing your breakfast (or lunch) program is important to increase awareness, and thus participation. Do your students know when and where breakfast is served? If the program is universal, do the students know they can all eat breakfast at no cost? Are you listening to what the kids like, and choosing menu items accordingly?

In addition to increasing participation, a good marketing/public relations plan also lets you control the story about your school meals. Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter are great places to share information about your school food, with parents, teachers, students, and other school foodservice professionals.

Several managers and directors shared how instrumental school- or district-wide contests were in increasing participation in school breakfast; others touted the importance of student taste testing. Get the kids involved and you will get them eating breakfast at school.

The New Meal Pattern Regulations

In each of our three National Dairy Council listening sessions we discussed the upcoming meal pattern regulations, and where everyone was in terms of an implementation schedule. Some of our session attendees reported being out ahead of the regulations, already having implemented changes to meet the new meal patterns. Although everyone acknowledged that there would be challenges to meeting the new regulations, managers and directors expressed confidence in their ability to rise to the challenge.

You can find more coverage from ANC 2012 in Denver at Beyond Breakfast:

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