When marketing meals, K-12 schools think outside the lunch box

By Lynn Freehill-Maye September 4, 2018

Productive partnerships

Plenty of districts capitalize on National School Lunch and National School Breakfast weeks as a launch pad for promotional events. In Prince William County, Ronk’s team came up with the idea to hold a National School Lunch Week Chant Challenge two years ago. Students submitted two-minute videos promoting school lunch or nutrition with cheers and rhymes. The district was amazed that a third of its schools participated, including many high schools. The winner at each level was given a giant check for $500 that the school could spend on wellness programs, such as gardens or a rock wall.

When Ronk delivered the check to the winning high school, she was blown away by the enthusiasm—and still gets goosebumps remembering it. Cafeteria staff were featured in the winning video, and they stepped out to be recognized at the awards presentation, too.

“It’s easy to get the little kids more excited about being in the cafeteria, but [at the high school], they went crazy,” Ronk says. “The walls were shaking. We had the cafeteria staff walk out. I think the staff had no idea how their students thought about them. I was really touched by it. Our ladies were, too.”

Partnerships with local restaurants, culinary competitions and even a food festival round out the special events in Greenville. Cafeteria Takeovers began at the district in 2016 as collaborations with some of the higher-end local restaurants where students aspire to eat. Chefs work with cafeteria staff on the entire menu, including dishes like a whole-hog barbecue or certified Angus beef short rib sliders with truffle fries. To stoke foodservice career ambitions, the program has also held culinary competitions since 2015. Teams of four high schoolers spend two weeks perfecting their recipes before having a live cook-off. The winners get their recipe on a school menu.

And Euphoria Greenville, a four-day food, wine and music festival that regularly draws Michelin-starred chefs, gives the Greenville school food program more visibility. During the festival’s Sunday brunch events, which bring in around a dozen of the nation’s best pit masters, Urban arranges for four kids to prepare food on stage in front of almost 400 people as part of a kids’ cooking competition.

“It’s the coolest collaboration,” he says. “Everything drives participation in one way or another. Through our pop-up events and competitions, we get different press and different publicity. We show that we’re committed to providing the greatest school food possible.”

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