By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD 2017-05-01 18:32:07
Seven smart solutions for doing a bang-up job with your back-to-school (#B2S) promotions. Every school year has a certain rhythm, with similar dates on the calendar and regularly defined holidays. If you are reading this article when it is published in May (or soon after in June), you are probably focused on wrapping up SY 2016-17, rolling out summer meals and, with any luck, planning some real vacation time with your family. The back-to-school daze likely seems months, or at least several weeks, away. But, as all savvy school nutrition operators know, back-to-school can sneak up on you quicker than hungry ants at a summer picnic. Before you know it, food orders are due and team training is the day after tomorrow. You’re juggling many challenges related to staffing up and opening schools for the new year. Despite all your best intentions, you simply don’t have the time or focus to dream up inventive, playful promotions to welcome students to the cafeteria and spotlight your program to other community stakeholders. That’s why I love that School Nutrition is focused on this topic this month. Now is the smart time to plan a new-to-your-district back-to-school event! You want at least one that will get all your customers—students, family and staff—excited about your new offerings, special activities and limited-time-offers (LTOs). A B2S LTO—there’s a bright idea right there. (And the very name will resonate with many of your abbreviation-focused Generation Z customers.) Create a new item or give a new name or simple ingredient twist to a regular item and offer it as a back-to-school special for a limited time, say, the first two weeks of school. This is a way to attract potential new customers into your cafeteria early and often. For example, offering the honestly named “Forgot-My-Lunch Salad” in your grab ‘n’ go section might be just the ticket to a new sale in a middle or high school. (And my apologies for forgetting the district that introduced me to this one!) In this article, I’ve compiled seven more ways to do a bang-up job with back-to-school promotions. Some are super simple and cost almost nothing to implement; others will require some thinking ahead, plus a few resources. All, except where otherwise noted, are “real-life” examples, being put into practice by real directors and managers in real districts like yours. But before I get to the specific ideas, here’s my advice on how to use this article to your best advantage: » Scan through the suggestions quickly, highlighting those that sound like they might work with the specific needs, constraints and opportunities of your school site(s). » Get together with two or three of your staff members for a brainstorm on the ideas you highlighted. Which ones seem most intriguing to the group? Which seem most likely for you to accomplish? What do you need to do to take the next step? #1 START BACK-TO-SCHOOL MARKETING BEFORE CLASSES END IN THE SPRING At Billerica (Mass.) Public Schools, Director April Laskey, SNS, hosts a complimentary school lunch now for outgoing 8th-graders who will be incoming freshman at Billerica Memorial High School (BMHS) in the fall. The event has become part of an annual field trip and tour, which is led by designated “high school peer leaders.” According to Laskey, “A lunch period is set aside for the 8th-graders to look around and ‘shop’ all of the lunch choices and service lines while the peer leaders answer questions, give menu suggestions, hand out samples and let them know that when they arrive in the fall, they will love eating at BMHS!” Introductory meals offered in spring or late summer can be effective for any group of students that is moving into a new cafeteria or meal service, including kindergartners moving into a full day of classes and elementary students moving up to middle/junior high school. Don’t get stuck on offering lunch; a complimentary breakfast for students (and possibly parents) could be a great option. #2 PARTNER WITH PARENT ORGANIZATIONS FOR BACK-TO-SCHOOL EVENTS In Roanoke County, Va., Manager Lynne Bowles has partnered with the Masons Cove Elementary School PTA in pursuit of a win-win goal: “I teamed up with our PTA for back-to-school night,” recounts Bowles. “The theme was ‘BEE part of the PTA and BEE part of the nutrition program.’ I talked about our meals programs and how offer vs. serve works. Any family that put $10 or more on their child’s meal account received a stress-relief BEE toy.” At Maine’s Winslow Elementary School, PTO President Jenn Tyler is a big fan of the annual free-to-parents Pancake Breakfast event at which area families can learn about the PTO and school meal programs. Tyler’s enthusiasm extends to promoting good nutrition. “When I joined the PTO, I suggested that we offer mashed berries as an alternative to traditional syrup,” she remarks. “I’m glad to say that we go through more berries than syrup at our event!” (Don’t forget, a half-cup of those Maine berries can also count as a fruit on the student’s reimbursable breakfast!) From the Conrad Weiser Area School District in Pennsylvania, East Elementary Cafeteria Manager Carrie Ann Brightbill reports similar activities. “Every year, our school invites all of the new kindergarten classes, along with their parents, to enjoy lunch in the cafeteria,” Brightbill notes. “Our principal speaks about our nutrition program and all it has to offer. This gives parents and kindergartners a chance to ask questions and check things out. Our 2016 introductory meal included pizza from a local family owned business that meets all school nutrition guidelines.” #3 SHOWCASE LOCAL FOODS IN BACK-TO-SCHOOL MENUS Erin Primer, director of food-services, San Luis Coastal (Calif.) Unified School District, is a passionate believer in the value of local foods. She suggests that back-to-school meals are the perfect time to showcase the bountiful goodies from “your backyard,” so to speak. “Going local is good for our economy, good for our environment and good for our kids!” declares Primer. “In California, we have an abundance of local produce—broccoli, cabbage, carrots, apples, berries, citrus and more— local grains like faro and barley, local proteins like fish and, of course, our milk is local, too.” Primer believes that back-to-school menus are a can’t-miss opportunity to let your customers know how fresh your meals are—and let other stakeholders recognize how you support local agriculture. #4 BE AN IMPORTANT PLAYER IN BACK-TO-SCHOOL NIGHT EVENTS Most school districts have some type of back-to-school night event for families. In Martin County (Fla.) Schools, Port Salerno Elementary School Manager Cathy Uzar uses back-to-school open house events to promote programs, products and cafeteria managers. “We let students and parents sample some of our products,” Uzar reveals, adding, “We also post a biography of each school’s Food and Nutrition manager, and we showcase our HealthierUS School Challenge Awards.” Debbie Karns-Rodewald, CN technician, Victoria Falls Elementary School, in Washington’s Sumner School District, has visions for taking this tactic one step further. “We have an open house event in every school prior to the first day of school. I would love to see the kitchens set up like a normal school day, for parents to see what we serve and taste a sample, too.” #5 ENGAGE STUDENTS IN A BACK-TO-SCHOOL WELLNESS PLEDGE Having students make pledges to engage in positive behaviors is an integral part of many school-based intervention programs. And what better time to make such resolutions than the new year? The new school year, that is! I have seen crowded pledge banners at several Fuel Up to Play 60 (FUTP60) celebrations, such as student summits and kickoff events. FUTP60 even offers a downloadable pledge sheet where students can identify their personal goals (http://tinyurl.com/SNMag-FUTP60Pledge). Amanda Venezia, SNS, director of Dining Services at Londonderry (N.H.) School District is a fan of these types of pledges, especially at middle schools, where one good habit—eating school breakfast—typically drops off. “At Londonderry Middle School, students signed our pledge to eat breakfast—at home or at school—in order to fuel their bodies and empower their minds,” says Venezia. “At the pledge signing event, we also sampled the very yummy Blueberry Soup recipe from the Vermont FEED New School Cuisine Cookbook as an out-of-the-box, local breakfast treat.” The full cookbook is available for free download at http://tinyurl.com/SNMag-B2SRecipeIdea. #6 APPLY YOUR NSLW/NSBW CREATIVITY TO BACK-TO-SCHOOL CELEBRATIONS Every year, I see the creativity of school nutrition programs go into overdrive during October’s National School Lunch Week (NSLW) and March’s National School Breakfast Week (NSBW) events. Take a quick look back at your recent promotional celebrations to discover tactics that you used that could be put to work for back-to-school. For example, combine a clever #hashtag (your district may already have one in mind for welcoming students to the new year) with a fun photo booth and a delicious limited-time-offer menu item. I see a winning promotion in your back-to-school future! For NSBW, Caitlin Lazarski, SNS, from Newburgh Enlarged City (N.Y.) School District invited two high school students to dress up as TV action heroes The Flash and Supergirl and visit with elementary students, promoting the importance of eating school breakfast. “High school students can be role models and superheroes for younger students any time of the year, including back-to-school,” suggests Lazarski. And, speaking of dressing up, I think that there is plenty of room for the old-fashioned sandwich board to make a comeback and help promote back-to-school meals. Remember when these “walking billboards” were common? The school nutrition team at Eastlawn Elementary School in Pascagoula, Miss., is famous for alerting students to new challenges through a variety of eye-catching means. Team member Carla Bardwell wore a sandwich board in the parent/bus drop-off area near the school entrance. The front of her sign read, “EAT BREAKFAST Then Change the World,” while the back noted, “Don’t Forget BREAKFAST is Always FREE” (see picture above). This is pop-up marketing at its very best! Talk to your art department now and perhaps you could have some creative signage waiting for you when back-to-school rolls around. #7 OFFER ADMINISTRATORS AND/OR TEACHERS A FREE BACK-TO-SCHOOL LUNCH COUPON The final idea I collected is from the super star marketing team at Loudoun County (Va.) School Nutrition Services. I know SN already approves of this tactic, as it was featured in the new “Things We Love” column in the November 2016 issue. Give the educators in your school or district a free lunch coupon in their own back-to-school materials. You may gain some new adult customers, especially if you have some super convenient, super delicious grab ‘n’ go items for them. At the very least, when teachers and staff eat a lunch with you, they get a firsthand taste of what their students can enjoy every day in the cafeteria. SEEK OUT INSPIRATION Those are just seven savvy solutions for doing a first-class job with #B2S promotions—not my ideas, but real-world suggestions from your peers in the field. Still hungry for more? Here are three more places where I would head to discover a treasure trove of back-to-school resources: » School Nutrition magazine archives: This is not the first article to be written in this award-winning magazine about back-to-school promotions. You can thumb through your hard copies for great ideas or search online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/archives, which will give you access to the digital edition and its searchable archives. » USDA Team Nutrition Back-to-School Resources: Team Nutrition features multiple suggestions for using its downloadable resources to reach families with information about nutrition and physical activity. Find links to these free resources at www.fns.usda.gov/tn/team-nutrition-back-school-resources. » USDA Team Nutrition Popular Events Idea Booklet: This popular USDA resource isn’t focused on back-to-school per se, but it has dozens of ideas that can be easily adapted to any time of year. It also features strategies for making creative connections with many stakeholder groups. Check it out at www.fns.usda.gov/team-nutrition-popular-events-idea-booklet. Don’t let time slip away from you. Start thinking about how you can encourage kids to be regular cafeteria customers in SY 2017-18. Don’t just put out the welcome mat—roll out that red carpet! Dayle Hayes is a school nutrition and social media consultant based in Billings, Mont. She maintains several social media channels under the School Meals That Rock brand. You can reach her at EatWellatSchool@gmail.com.
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