School Nutrition Association May 2015 : Page 18

Tasting is Believing

By Patricia L. Fitzgerald

Students and other stakeholders will gain a new appreciation for your menu offerings when given the chance to sample options in advance. A community food show may be your best venue for changing skeptical mindsets.

GIVEN THE SOCIAL MEDIA TRACTION enjoyed by faked photos of thoroughly unappetizing school lunch trays, it’s likely that Jane and John Q. Public have the very lowest expectations of the menu items and ingredients used to prepare school meals, presuming that menus are cobbled together by inattentive, uncaring employees using inferior products available at rock-bottom prices. Of course, we know the truth! Building a nutritious and delicious lunch tray is as much an art as it is a science. But you can talk yourself blue in the face, because the child nutrition stakeholders in your community won’t be compelled by anything less than a firsthand, first-class tasting experience. The best way to reach the most customers—and others with a vested interest in your offerings—is to host a community food show.

Model approaches for providing food sampling opportunities to K-12 school meal customers fall along a wide spectrum. From “Flavor Council” meetings with small groups of engaged students to massive community-wide events that are open to all, there’s no one “right” method. Plus, a tactic used to great success a few years ago may not be the right choice today, given changes in personnel, budgets, priorities and even the engagement level, attitudes and demographics of the community. Conversely, today might be the perfect time to try something that didn’t seem appropriate a few years back or to resurrect an event or program once put to rest.

For this article, School Nutrition…well, sampled…food show approaches conducted by three different school districts, ranging in size from small to large to very large. Consider the details highlighted in these pages just a…well, taste…of the many models that K-12 school meal programs find successful. If you’re a food show novice, you’re sure to gain some inspiration to plan some type of event in SY 2015-16. If you’re a seasoned veteran, you might identify a few fresh ideas to help streamline or innovate (or both!) your own efforts.


If there’s one commonality to all
types of food sampling events, it’s that they take work. Lots of work. So, the pay-off has to be really worth the time and effort invested. Serena Suthers, SNS, school food and nutrition services director, Prince William County (Va.) Public Schools, has been overseeing a community food show for 25 years, and she doesn’t mince words: “I can’t tell you that it’s not
a lot of work,” she warns. “But it’s an opportunity to get all
of our customers involved in our program. There are always people out there who think they can do it better. This gives us a chance to defuse a lot of negativity.”

Jennifer (J.C.) Smith, area manager for marketing and special projects, Food and Nutrition Services, for Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools (OCPS), explains that her operation has a policy that every
product served in the school meals program must be tested by at least 100 students and earn an 80% or higher approval rating. The food show was a natural way to consolidate this effort and streamline costs, efficiencies and results.

OCPS organizes an invitation-only event it holds in rented space with vendor-sponsored tables. Prince William County, on the other hand, hosts its food show inhouse, doing all prep and service; the community at large is invited, but reservations are required. In South Dakota’s Brandon Valley School District, food sampling is a participation driver for a school-based community health
fair. Let’s take a closer look at how each of these districts coordinate their events.

Orange County Public Schools, Orlando, Fla.

For nearly a decade, Orange County Public Schools, Orlando, Fla.,
has hosted a well-publicized food show, now featuring some 200 different products sampled by an invited group of 300-400 students. Serving 191,000 students across 184 schools, OCPS is the 10th-largest school district in the country. Jennifer (J.C.) Smith, area manager for marketing and special projects, joined the Food and Nutrition Services team in 2013, inheriting this popular event and seeking, with the assistance of Julie Leschinski, event and catering coordinator, to improve on its success each year since.

The 2015 “Best Bites” show featured 52 table displays; each table was permitted to show no more than four individual products. “Without the restriction, kids would get overwhelmed and they wouldn’t be honest,” notes Smith. Failure to meet nutrition standards is the only hard-and-fast disqualifier for potential products. “We do ask for products that can mix with a concept; marinara sauce shown with a breadstick works better than marinara sauce by itself,” she says, adding, “This year, we also asked for stand-alone Smart Snacks solutions.”

The event is held offsite; for several years it was held at a centrally located church, but in order to gain participation by other parts of the district, Smith and Leschinski identified new locations. This year it was held at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. More details about the OCPS “Best Bites 2015” food show follow:

■ Smith involves a focus group of kids to help come up with a new name and theme concept for each year’s food show. In 2013, it was “Know Food, Know Fun,” (with the added word play using the “know/no” homonym).

■ Site scouting for the March event begins the previous September, with a rental contract being signed in October and details sent to interested vendors by November/December.

■ Vendors are invited to participate and pay a $500 fee that helps to offset the operating costs of the event.

■ The event is held at a rented facility in one of the district’s defined geographic regions. Selected schools in that area are invited to choose individual students (and chaperones) to attend the event, held during school hours (10:45 a.m.-1:00 p.m.) and conducted as a field trip, with school bus transportation paid for by the Food and Nutrition Services team. In 2015, 11 schools participated, with roughly 20-25 students selected from each site. Representatives from the elementary schools were drawn from the second, third and fourth grades.

■ “Since we help with school stores [and other food-based points of sale], we invited the administration from every school in the district,” says Smith, also extending a welcome to active PTAs, board members, the superintendent, community leaders, those with a special interest in foodservice and representatives from other school districts seeking to learn from the OCPS model.

■ Vendors can bring any equipment that helps them serve their food: smoothie machines, heat lamps, pizza machines, etc. “We provide tables and tablecloths and the ability to cook,” Smith notes. Vendors are put into a cooking rotation to reduce the chaos in the facility’s prep area. A school nutrition team member makes sure that all vendors are following HACCP and other food safety protocols.

■ Upon check-in at the facility, students are divided into groups and given a color-coded wristband, as well as a white T-shirt featuring the year’s logo. (Next year, says Smith, she may switch to color-coding the T-shirts, instead.) Each group is directed to a corresponding area of the exhibit space to circulate among a cluster of vendor stations. Each group has students from all grade levels represented.

■ To collect student feedback on menu items, technology from NutriSlice is loaded onto iPad Minis® that are rented by the district from the Florida Department of Agriculture and placed at each station. In 2014, of 144 products shown, 122 passed the approval test. “The use of the technology for the surveys is wonderful to download and get fast results,” says Smith, conceding a few glitches with getting the students to use the tool consistently. “Next year, we may do a hybrid, with paper testing and technology.”

■ All members of the Food and Nutrition Services senior management team—roughly 25 people—are involved on the day of the event, assisting with media release forms, permission slips, check-ins and the like. Many other team members are invited to participate as guests. Throughout the planning stages, the work is shouldered primarily by Smith and Leschinski, along with staffers charged with regular menu planning, nutrition and culinary responsibilities.

■ In addition to the food stations, areas for students to hydrate or “just sit down if they hit the food coma wall,” are established.

Prince William County Schools, Manassas, Va.

Outside of Washington, D.C., Prince William County Schools, Manassas, Va.,
is the fourth-largest school district in the metropolitan area and second-largest in Virginia. Some 87,000 students attend 94 schools. School Food and Nutrition Services Director Serena Suthers, SNS, who’s been with the district for 38 years, says an annual food show is just one of many tactics she and her team use to develop the best possible menu mix—one that complies with regulations and entices and satisfies students. “We have brokers visiting us all year; we’re constantly testing products and recipes,” she notes. Indeed, her event small taste-tests for classrooms or groups, but strictly with students. “We decided to do a more division-wide event,” Suthers explains. “We knew we could get some good publicity.”

Products sampled at the event are all selected by Suthers and her team in advance, and they are prepared and presented at the show by school nutrition staff, not brokers or manufacturers’ representatives. Mindful that menu items are components of an entire meal, Suthers prefers to highlight new products as part of recipes or pairings and not just as singular prepackaged items. Also, “You don’t want parents to see 10 different breaded chicken patties in a row,” she explains. “You don’t want them to think that you aren’t incorporating fruits and vegetables.” An employee recipe contest conducted prior to the annual show allows the team to begin exploring the versatility of potential menu items.

Suthers will request certain products in specific categories, usually tied to regulatory changes. “One year we had a lot of whole-grain items. Another year was a focus on different color vegetables. This year, there were more lower-sodium items,” she explains. “In January, we send our vendors a note, encouraging them to schedule time [to show off new products to our team in advance of the show.] We do a lot
of tasting in January and February.” Any item included in the food show is vetted through an initial screening to ensure it will work with the meal pattern and the budget. Some specific details about the event, coordinated by Suthers and Katrine Rose, RD, SNS, administrative coordinator for nutrition, follow:

■ The food show is held at a large high school on one date in two separate, hour-long, evening time slots (6-7 p.m., 7-8 p.m.).

■ The entire community, all ages, is welcome to attend, but space is limited and reservations are taken on a first-come, first-served basis. The aim is for 500 attendees at each time slot. “We do overbook, like the hotels,” Suthers admits, noting that they actually take the first 1,200 names they get. “We’ve learned over time that there is a certain no-show ratio.”

■ Some members of the community get personal invites, particularly those parents who have lodged complaints and are tracked by Suthers’ team in an “opportunity log.” This is a chance, she says, to “show you appreciate them as a customer.” Indeed, the event has many repeat customers, she notes, as new parents with youngsters come year after year as their family expands. In addition, several school board members usually attend, as well as the superintendent and some of the principals.

■ Upon entering the show area, attendees are given one of three color-coded response sheets: elementary, middle/high and adult (see page 22 for an example). “We ask them to rate each item,” she notes. “We started with a more complex rating system, but now it’s a simple ‘yes/no.’” The forms are scannable—a nice switch from the hand-counting job her team formerly performed. Only a small percentage of attendees fail to turn in an evaluation form, although some rate only the items that they really like, reports Suthers.

■ Approximately 50 Prince William County nutrition services employees will work the event, prepping items and staffing eight separate serving lines.

■ In 2015, 34 menu items/recipes were shown. Of those, Suthers expects that roughly 15 will pass the feedback test. “There are always some surprises; maybe we liked the item, but the kids didn’t.” While adult opinions are important, the Nutrition Services team does give more weight to the response sheets from the students.

■ The approach of the Prince William County event involves labor, production and food costs that come out of Suthers’ department budget. “But it’s so worth it,” she notes. “Putting a food product on your menu that nobody likes is a tremendous cost!”

Brandon Valley School District, Brandon, S.D.

Brandon Valley School District, Brandon S.D., serves 3,000 students, making it the fifth-largest district in the state. Six schools are far-flung across 128 square miles. Child Nutrition Director Gay Anderson, SNS, has vast experience working with brokers and manufacturers to provide group sampling events for different audiences, including other directors, as well as students and the community at large. In 2006, she was approached by school board members about creating an event to support the overall goals of the district’s then-new wellness policy (initially mandated by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004). The school district-sponsored Brandon Valley Community Health Fair was born.

The event features many traditional aspects of a community health fair, including health screenings, hands-on learning activities and fitness stations. But it also became a place for Anderson’s primary food suppliers to reach a large audience with samples of their latest offerings. “Everyone in the community is invited, from ages 0 to 100,” says Anderson. “The first year, we had a little more than 800 attendees. But in recent years, it’s been as high as 2,200 participants.” In fact, the once-annual event is now scheduled every other year, because its popularity and scope (featuring some 60 different vendors/stations) were simply too much for Anderson and her organizing team to coordinate on top of their “regular” jobs.

Held at the district’s high school after the last bell, the 4-hour event (3-7 p.m.) attracts students and their families. “The food sampling is definitely a participation driver for the kids,” reports Anderson. But it also has resonance with the parents, giving them “that a-ha moment” about the healthy and delicious foods being served in her school meals program. “Parents come up to us and say, “Is this really
school food?!” Here is a brief overview related to Brandon Valley’s event:

■ The Community Health Fair is held in March, to coincide with National Nutrition Month.

■ Anderson’s primary supplier, dairy and four brokers participate at a total of six booths.

■ Some current menu items may be showcased, “but brokers want to get their products out there,” Anderson says. What’s presented is usually a blend of some direction from her (“I’m starting a second-chance breakfast program, how can you help me out on that?”) and items they want feedback on, she notes.

■ The food vendors use the school kitchen to prep items. Since the event starts immediately after school, it can mean the kitchen gets a little chaotic with vendors trying not to get underfoot of the cafeteria staff. Communication is critical, says Anderson. “If I know what they’re planning to bring and what they need, then we can work it out.”

■ Anderson does not use any formal methodology for collecting customer feedback on the new products. She relies on the vendors to provide an honest assessment of what they heard in real-time. “They’ll report back even if items fail; it doesn’t help them to try to convince us to menu an item that’s not going to work.”


A food show for your
school meals program undoubtedly will be different, reflecting your specific needs and limitations. But consider some final words of advice that are applicable to all approaches. Good communication is key.
It’s essential in both planning and execution in regard to everything,
from the basic logistics to avoiding catastrophe (OCPS includes a food allergy disclaimer in its student permission slips). It’s never too early to start planning.
Although the hard-core planning for her March food show doesn’t begin until January, Suthers says, “I’m thinking about it all year long. I’ll look at Pinterest and see a new recipe and any time I get an idea, I stick it in my food show file.”

Finally, manage expectations.
“It’s always important to share your expectations with your brokers,” says Anderson. “We need to make sure we are all on the same page looking at what is right for the clientele we serve.” Going off track, she warns, jeopardizes the intent of the event, its ultimate success and its durability over time. More explicitly, Suthers advises against “an event that’s all processed items—or that
will be what the community will think of your program,” she notes. “You want to have a product mix that reflects the right message.”

Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition. Photos courtesy of Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools, with the exception of images on pages 23 and 24, from Prince William County (Va.) Schools. Survey tools provided by Prince William County and Prince George’s County (Md.) Schools.


Visit snmagazinebonuscontent for details about how Brandon Valley’s Gay Anderson hosted a mini food show for other school districts in South Dakota. In this rural state, some participants traveled more than 150 miles to attend. Also, discover more reflections from all three highlighted districts about coping with unexpected food show curveballs.

Read the full article at

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