The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

School Cafeteria Ambassadors

School Cafeteria Ambassadors

Health and Wellness

December 25, 2011

Guest Columnist, Frank DiPasquale, Chief Executive Officer, School Nutrition Association

Every day, students make decisions about whether to eat a school meal, whether to choose a healthy extra or snack and even (if they’re old enough) whether to enter the cafeteria at all. This is why school nutrition professionals invest time and energy in the menu mix, the cafeteria environment, promotional activities and customer service.

Of course, these are fairly standard strategies toward building a customer-driven operation. But one way that the school nutrition team goes further than many other foodservice segments is in building relationships with their customers – and in doing so, gaining powerful partners.

School-age children arguably are the single-most peer-influenced demographic in society. Kids like what their friends like, what the cool kids like, what the bigger kids like. That’s why many school nutrition operators recruit student “ambassadors” to join advisory groups and apply their peer power in support of school meals – and healthy dietary choices. Such groups also serve as a vital source of feedback about the operation.

One successful elementary school student group, the aptly named Food Dudes, is supervised by Mary Lee Martines, cafeteria manager for the small, rural Forest City (Pa.) Regional School District. In 2011, Martines and the Food Dudes worked together to inaugurate a universal breakfast promotion. The kids did most of the “advertising,” decorating bulletin boards, creating posters and visiting classrooms, performing a skit they wrote themselves.

In addition, the Food Dudes provide assistance in the development of individual menu items. For example, Martines cited a Hamburger Helper®-type dish that she wanted to improve. During biweekly Food Dudes meetings, she explained the necessary ingredient and nutrition components, letting the children taste the revised recipe and offer opinions and suggestions for change. At the end of the process, which took a few weeks, the Food Dudes gave it their endorsement, and renamed it “Meat-A-Roni.” It’s now a popular item on the menu cycle, thanks in no small part to the peer influence of the Food Dudes.

The ways that school nutrition operations partner with student advisory groups are limited only by time and imagination. Other successful activities include:

  • staffing booths/tables at back-to-school night events and school fairs;
  • contributing a regular column or special articles to the school newspaper;
  • making weekly announcements on the public address system;
  • participating in kitchen tours;
  • visits by older students to the classrooms or lunch periods of younger students to promote school menu items and good nutrition; and
  • food drives and other charitable outreach efforts.

Is the time worth the effort? You bet! At Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, Mass., Director of Foodservices Mary Leslie knows that her program faces an uphill battle for participation. Not only does it have a low rate of students eligible for free/reduced-price meals, but students also have the option of driving offsite to get lunch. Nevertheless, the school cafeteria competes successfully with area fastfood restaurants and other competition – since forming a student advisory group, participation has been on the rise; the cafeteria regularly serves 70% of the enrollment.

Mary Lee Martines is tickled by the success of her student group: “I see a different attitude [toward the cafeteria] in the kids who participate in the Food Dudes – and in some of their friends. Now they want to come in; they want to know what’s in the food. And they pass the information along; they go home and tell their parents, who begin to think differently about the cafeteria too.”

To learn more about innovative school cafeteria practices across the country,