Susan Davis Gryder 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Famous American showman P.T. Barnum said it best: “Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!” This is true for show biz, certainly, but could it also be valid for school nutrition? After all, school meal programs need to increase student participation and acceptance, particularly as new regulations and comprehensive school health initiatives require changes to menus. To be successful in today’s competitive marketplace with many options vying for student interest, you need to follow the lead of commercial foodservice and retail operations. Creativity is a must. Following are descriptions of 10 innovative approaches to inspire your next effort.Ranging from activities that are time and resource intensive to those that capitalize on a spontaneous opportunity, these best practices show what a tremendous impact marketing can have on your bottom line. Show Some Character Debbie Zemanek may just be a born promoter; everywhere she looks, she sees opportunities to market her school nutrition program—and sneak in a little nutrition education, too. Her passion and prowess began a decade ago, recalls Zemanek, who is child nutrition director for Conroe Independent School District, about 40 miles outside of Houston, when she attended a marketing class as part of a business management program. “The class didn’t have anything do to with school food service,” she recounts, “but one of the things talked about was marketing to children.” Zemanek decided to apply some of the marketing principles she learned to her own operation, in an effort to encourage participation and underscore good nutrition concepts. She began reviewing a list of target words her instructor had provided, and noticed that the only word that was listed for both boys and girls Was “power.” She began using that as a theme to make associative connections: Kids get energy to learn from eating the food they get at school. Food is fuel. Kids get their fuel in the cafeteria. The cafeteria is the Power Station! And just like that, Zemanek had a branding concept for her school nutrition program. Development of a Power Station logo was the next task on the list. Using primary colors that appeal to kids, Zemanek worked with an artistically inclined colleague, playing with various designs until they settled on a starburst symbol.Using their own creativity to devise the name, colors (red, yellow, blue) and general design, Zemanek and her partner saved a lot of money by then being able to take a “somewhat recognizable” piece to a professional graphic artist for fine tuning. Today, the Power Station logo appears throughout Conroe cafeterias on signage, staff uniforms, packaging and more. Just as such Branding concepts work in commercial food service, the school nutrition Power Station brand generates interest and enthusiasm among student customers, reports Zemanek. “They identify [the cafeteria] as the Power Station and will talk about it like that: ‘I’m eating at the Power Station today,’ or ‘I wonder what the Power Station is serving.’ Children are very in tune with branding, even more so than adults.” (The Power Station logo and other brand concepts can be viewed at http:// childnutrition.conroeisd.net.) Building on her successful logo and the branding concepts learned in her marketing class, Zemanek returned to the drawing board the following year to develop cartoon-type mascots to augment the Power Station theme. “I learned in my class that children respond to animals—they make them laugh and feel safe and comfortable,” she explains. “I thought, ‘OK, how can I apply this to school nutrition?’ I decided to create a vehicle I could use with the younger kids for nutrition education and make it fun for them.” One challenge was to identify an animal she could use throughout the district; one that did not already have a presence at individual schools. “I needed to fi nd an animal that no one had already used as a mascot; we have 52 schools in our district—and believe it or not, no one had used an armadillo!” Zemanek chose this beloved Texas symbol to create two characters, Pete and Penny, who were later joined by a lizard pal named Pepe. Soon, Pete and Penny’s antics were being featured on elementary school menus, as well as on the school nutrition pages of the district’s website. The characters proved so popular that when Zemanek stopped distributing paper menus, transitioning exclusively to an online version, she used the money she saved in printing and postage to pay a professional animator to create Pete-and-Penny-themed website art and even incorporate music to the site. Each year, Pete and Penny enjoy a different adventure. In 2010-11, they appeared playing musical instruments, for a year-long “Jammin’ With Pete and Penny” theme. This led Zemanek to coordinate a song-writing contest for students that fall. Children were asked to write lyrics focused on good nutrition for the Power Station characters, with the winner’s song being put to Music, recorded and featured on the district’s website. The promotion was wildly popular, generating approximately 100 entries, which were judged by a panel that had various backgrounds in music. “The activity allowed students to use their creativity while thinking about good nutrition,” notes Zemanek. This year, the cartoon pair encourages kids to “Start Your Engines for Healthy Eating,” with race car themes on each menu and engine noise on the site’s homepage. And in Spring 2012, Zemanek says, Pete and Penny are going to chef’s school. This new theme will complement her department’s shift toward more scratch cooking and away from an emphasis on packaged menu items. Employees who complete a three-month culinary training course and pass the accompanying tests will earn the right to wear a chef’s coat in the kitchen—one emblazoned with Pete and Penny (in elementary schools) or the Power Station logo (in secondary schools). Zemanek hopes that a little Pete-and-Penny branding power will help create acceptance of her new menu items among students. “We have to sell the kids on this,” she emphasizes. “A lot of times they turn up their noses if they aren’t used to seeing an item [on the menus of] fastfood restaurants.” One recipe that will be added to the menus is a savory cake made with carrots and black-eyed peas. “I know darn well I couldn’t give that thing away,” Zemanek concedes. But she hopes that by promoting it now, students will be more apt to accept it when it is added to the menu cycle. Commercial foodservice operations and retailers have been under fire in recent years for some aggressive marketing tactics. But Zemanek believes that marketing to kids isn’t an inherently negative strategy. “You can market for the right reasons!” she asserts. “We’ve promoted fresh fruits and vegetables with Pete and Penny, and our consumption of them has gone up.” Be a Good Sport Throughout North Carolina, sports—and sports celebrities— are a common obsession, one that can engage residents of all ages, who follow any number of high-profile college basketball teams, professional football, basketball and hockey teams and a lengthy list of Minor League baseball teams. This fact hasn’t escaped the attention of Jim Hill, SNS, child nutrition director of Jackson County Schools, who has turned ardent interest in local, college and professional sports into successful promotional opportunities for his school meals operation. Throughout his school nutrition career, Hill has sought ways to get sports stars into cafeterias—and not just in North Carolina. The connection between athletics and nutrition is strong, Hill notes, so it’s a natural fit. “When I was a director down in Florida,” he recalls, “there were a lot of retired sports figures around. During National School Lunch Week, I appealed to them to come to the schools and talk to kids about good nutrition.” Hill doesn’t hesitate to use any network connections he can find to make such opportunities a reality. For example, Jim Youngblood, a former player of the Los Angeles Rams football team, was the brother of a cafeteria employee. He agreed to spend an entire day visiting the cafeteria and talking to kids about nutrition. And even without a personal connection to tap, Hill has been successful in convincing local sports figures to lend their time. “I approached the Orlando Solar Bears hockey team,” he recollects. “Their players were young—18 to 21 years old—and they came to the cafeteria and served lunch on the line in their pads and uniforms. The kids went crazy!” In his current position in Jackson County, Hill has been able to capitalize on the deep love North Carolinians have for college basketball to successfully promote salads made with hydroponic lettuce grown in the district’s agricultural department. The association came about through a fl ash of inspiration: When University of North Carolina’s legendary head basketball coach Roy Williams made a scouting visit to one of the district’s high schools last year, Hill took advantage of a meet-and-greet opportunity to tell him about the Mustang Salads (named for the school mascot) served in the cafeteria. Williams subsequently posed for a photo and endorsed the salads by writing a note that said, “Best wishes to the cafeteria staff—Keep selling those Mustang Salads!” Hill jumped on leveraging this endorsement, using it to promote the salads and subsequently increasing sales and participation with simple advertising at the point of sale. He estimates a 25% increase in the demand for the salads as a result. “This whole project branded the salad,” he reports, “and now they are a very cool thing to eat!” Indeed, the Salads—and the endorsement—have been shared with elementary school students touring the high school’s hydroponics project. “We’re working on educating our future high school students,” he notes. Hill encourages his colleagues in other districts to reach out to sports fi gures in their own communities. “Any sports figure, whether it’s a coach or a player, knows how important nutrition is for growth and development, and will be very receptive,” he insists. “I’ve never had one say ‘no’” when asked to support the mission of the school meal operation.” Hill also recommends approaching retired sports figures, as well as local teams and active players.“One good place to start is the Chamber of Commerce; they will know the retirees in the area,” Hill notes. “And coaches in the schools, who often know local sports figures, are another good source to make contacts.” Recruit for Your Team Karen Green, director of Thomas County School District in Thomasville, Ga., is of the firm belief that when it comes to growing healthy kids, “We’re all in this together.” An enthusiastic proponent of school breakfast, Green looks to other departments in her small, rural school district to help support and promote her breakfast program. “I believe wholeheartedly that child nutrition is an important part of the education process. I really like to build relationships with other departments,” she notes. When she first began promoting breakfast in the classroom service back in 2002, Green worked with a media production teacher in one of the elementary schools to produce, film and edit a commercial about the new program. The commercial starred the school’s cafeteria team dressed in pajamas and wearing curlers to play sleepy, early-morning versions of themselves! The commercial aired in classrooms during the morning announcement period. Green reports that the endeavor was a success. “It went over really well; it made the kids look at the manager and employee in a different light—and opened the door for conversations about breakfast.” On the heels of this success, Green turned to another district colleague. “The transportation director is here in our central office, and I had an idea to promote school breakfast to kids while they are on the school bus,” she recounts. Green and her transportation counterpart agreed on a large magnet that communicated the school breakfast slogan: Thomas County Smart Start to Your Day: Eat School Breakfast. Green didn’t stop there—she recruited the bus drivers Themselves to help promote the initiative. “I prepared talking points for the drivers,” she says. “They were so excited to be included in something! The drivers reminded the kids not to forget to eat school breakfast, and they felt special to be included with the school nutrition program as part of the child’s educational process.” Green’s creative approaches paid off. “When we first started breakfast in the classroom,” she says, “participation was only 30%. It doubled in its first year and is now at 80%.” Want to reach out to other district staff for support? Green recommends identifying those who seem to be proactive and responsive. “If there’s a teacher in the school that’s [already] a proponent of school nutrition,” she notes, “that one spark, in one school, gets everything started. The word will get out how well-organized and effective the effort is, and other schools will call you and ask to do it, too.” Release Your Creativity! Need more ideas to start thinking out of the box about inventive ways to build participation and attract loyal customers? Compiled from nominations to recent award competitions, following are seven more brief summaries of inspired projects that you can attempt to adapt or replicate— or use to jumpstart your creative energies. Tap the Potential of Peer Power. Lynne Duda, nutrition services director, Willamina (Ore.) School District, recognizes that young children find role models in older siblings and neighbors. She coordinated a number of activities that pair high school students with their elementary school counterparts, including a periodic Sports Friday promotion, in which high school athletes, wearing their jerseys, eat lunch with elementary students, highlighting healthy food choices.especially those linked to athletic success. Start Early. Each year in the Roswell (N.M.) Independent School District, Foodservice Director Lyman Graham partners with kindergarten teachers on an innovative promotion. The teachers read to the children the story about the Gingerbread Boy, and with dough provided by Graham, the class makes individual gingerbread boy Cookies—and collaborates together on making a larger one, who subsequently “escapes” and “leads” the youngsters on a merry chase around their brand-new school setting. This engaging activity helps to create loyal cafeteria customers right from the beginning. (And Graham estimates that over the years, he’s helped to make enough gingerbread boys to populate an entire school!) Impress the Teachers. Debra Works, manager at Benton Elementary in Maine School Administrative District #49, Waterville, Maine, wanted to reach out to teachers and other school staff, recognizing that their support is critical to getting students to buy in to the school meal program. To this end, Works established a “Teachers Café” in an empty classroom. The Café serves soups, fresh-baked goods, sandwiches, snacks and a salad bar in a pleasant, quiet, seasonally decorated area. The initiative was so successful that the revenues the Café generates allowed Works to hire an additional staff person to run that operation. Build on Traditional Promotions. National School Breakfast Week (NSBW) is just one of many regular promotional occasions that you can use to attract positive attention to your program. In Yuma, Ariz., Crane Elementary School District Director Jane Johnson capitalized on NSBW to reach a broader audience: parents. At one of the district’s middle schools, she organized a grab ‘n’ go breakfast program, providing all parents who dropped their children off at school with a free sack breakfast—right at the curb! If younger siblings were in the car, they received breakfast, as well. The special promotion reached parents representing half of the school’s enrollment, and the positive feedback has prompted Johnson to expand the promotion to other schools for NSBW 2012. Solicit Opinions—and Act on Them. When Linda Stoll, MPH, SNS, was named the new executive director for JeffCo (Colo.) School District, she was given a mandate from the Board of Education: become more responsive to student and parent expectations. Grant money funded extensive focus groups, and among the feedback was a request by secondary students for more meal customization. Stoll responded, establishing five themed areas for individualized menus: a build-your-own-burrito line, an Asian bowl line, a burger bar, a pasta bar and a “coney” (aka hot dog) bar.These preparation/serving lines are featured in every secondary school three days a week, and despite two price increases in two years, the schools continue to see a 25% participation spike on the days when the “bars” are open.The labor required to staff the bars is supplied by school clubs that contract with Stoll’s department to provide Student workers as a way to raise club funds. Involve the Students. Sandy Ford, SNS, director of food and nutrition, Manatee County (Fla.) School District, and SNA president-elect, knows that students are more invested when they have a legitimate stake in an aspect of the program. That understanding has led to Student-planned Menu Days, which are scheduled each month throughout the district. Individual managers work with different classes in their schools to plan the menu for the identified day. The class picks a favorite entrée, fruit and vegetable, as well as a favorite treat (selecting among ice cream, cookie or brownie). Reward Good Behaviors. When students in the El Monte City (Calif.) Unified School District are “Caught Eating Healthy,” they are eligible for a special prize. Designated school staff members visit the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch supplied with paper certificates that can be awarded to students who are observed eating healthy foods. Students may be eligible for a drawing for an individual prize, like a bicycle or other reward donated by community organizations, or the classroom with the most certificates may receive a healthy party. The popular and successful campaign is coordinated by Director of Nutrition Services Robert Lewis, and it engages both the students and the community in supporting healthy eating and lifestyle choices—all in the cafeteria. It’s up to You As these stories show, there are all sorts of ways to promote and market your school meals operation. Start by reviewing your personal strengths—are you creative? Resourceful? A people person? Do you have outside interests or connections that could help create excitement about school nutrition? And if these aren’t strengths that you bring to the table, how about other members of your team? Together, your special skills and talents become the jumping-off point for an exciting promotional program to educate, excite and increase cafeteria participation. Our Expertise + Your Passion = Marketing Success Marketing efforts to build cafeteria participation should go hand in hand with marketing campaigns to improve public awareness of school meal programs. The success of one goal has an undeniable impact on the success of the other. As you continue to develop fun promotions and make operational changes designed to attract new customers, are you making use of the resources available through SNA? Start with Tray Talk, SNA’s progressive public relations campaign. Critics of school meal programs tend to be vocal and visible—which means that is exactly what you need to be to ensure the real story of school nutrition in your community is being heard. The ultimate goal of the TrayTalk campaign? To increase participation in school meals. That’s your goal, too. At the heart of the Tray Talk initiative is TrayTalk.org, a website that features school nutrition success stories gathered from across the nation—and that communicates the professionalism and dedication of school nutrition staff. Features on the site emphasize a spirit of collaboration, demonstrating that SNA, schools and industry are all working together to continue to improve school meals. While the website is designed to impart a broad message, SNA members also can access a wide number of helpful materials found on the Tray Talk Resource page, www.schoolnutrition.org/traytalk. These can support your efforts to change negative stereotypes and build support in your own community; you will find PowerPoint presentations; talking points on such hot topics as school milk, food safety and processed foods; media outreach tips; sample letters to the editor/parents; banners and logos for district websites; flyers and brochures; and a downloadable video presentation In addition to Tray Talk, be sure you also check out the online Marketing 101 class, www.schoolnutrition.org/marketing101. Unless you consider yourself a bonafide master marketer, it’s likely that you will find this a great introduction to—or refresher of—important marketing principles. SNA’s Social School Lunch: A How-to Guide on Social Media also will help you leverage important new technologies to influence opinion and share information. And each year, toolkits are developed to help you maximize the marketing opportunities inherent in National School Lunch and Breakfast Weeks. Also, don’t forget that the editors of School Nutrition compile the annual online Promotional Calendar, which offers celebration dates, fast facts and promotional activity ideas that can be implemented throughout the entire school year. You can find all of these helpful materials via the “Resource Center” tab at SchoolNutrition.org. Click on “Promoting Your Program” to access.
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