While political experts are always interesting, and the expected norm for the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) Annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC), one of the most enlightening sessions at LAC 2016 was a panel of a different type of experts – students. Three high schoolers and four middle schoolers, along with their student government sponsors, gave up their Sunday morning to educate school nutrition industry members on the ways of the cafeteria world.

Sean Leer, CEO of Gold Star Foods Inc., did an outstanding job moderating the session ensuring that the students felt comfortable and all had an opportunity to weigh in on the wide range of questions from the audience. For their part, the student panelists, ranging from 6th to 12th graders, were refreshingly honest (even when they recognized that their position may not be popular with the audience).

As an industry session, most operators would have missed out on this gem of a learning opportunity, so I want to share the four most important take-aways from this session, including the surprise topic that came up after the break.


Marketing Your Menu

Although the students didn’t plan on talking about marketing and didn’t use the term explicitly, they certainly called into question recent marketing “wisdom.” As an industry, we have tried to jazz up menu item names for the past several years to create more appeal, with the idea that plain names don’t sound as enticing. I never questioned this point of view since personally I would rather select “fresh, steamed broccoli” than “broccoli.”

Unwittingly, a junior on the panel pointed out that we may have taken clever marketing names a bit too far and are now, in fact, confusing students. She read from next week’s lunch menu, noting that on Friday “Japanese Cherry Blossom Chicken” will be served, and that she had no idea what that even means. For the record, plenty of folks in the audience knew exactly what product/dish she was talking about. This same student further illustrated her point by counting three different names for pizza. She implored the audience to “just call it pizza.”

As you can imagine, this was a bit of an eye-opener for the crowd and immediately had folks wondering if brand names were important to this consumer group. The panel pretty much unanimously agreed that they could not care less what brand the pizza is as long as it looks and tastes good. In other words, no need to menu it as “such-and-such brand pizza,” just keep it simple.


Flavor Diversity

Our student experts also surprised us with their adventurous spirits in the realm of food. These young “foodies” noted that they enjoy popular ethnic cuisines like Mexican and Italian, as well as some that are a bit more daring such as Thai. In fact, most indicated that they appreciate spicy food and would love to have hot sauce and other seasoning add-ons available in the lunch line. We now have it on good authority that to a young palette, raw broccoli is quite tasty with sriracha sauce. It is only fair to note that the students also flat-out asked for salt to add to their food. (Please keep this point in mind when you read about the surprise topic below.)

In addition to savoring diverse foods, the students said they would like to see more vegetarian selections. And no, adults, another type of salad doesn’t count. Vegetarian students often only have a salad-type option which frequently comes with dairy-based ranch dressing. So in addition to something besides salads, different dressings should be available. Considering the more refined taste buds our panel described, vinaigrette might be a valid alternative. Even the students who were not vegetarians seemed to indicate that they would not have a problem trying vegetarian entrees.


Surprise, Surprise: The “Black Market”

How many times has your daughter, niece, granddaughter, etc., amazed you with her understanding of technology at a really young age? I am sure you have thought at least once, “How does she know that? When I was her age I didn’t know half as much!” Well, the industry members in this special session learned that students today aren’t just techy – they are also business-minded problem solvers!

In the previous take-away, I mentioned that the students want to add salt to their meals. You and I both know regulations prohibit us from providing salt shakers. Where there is a demand, there are young capitalists ready to supply. And thus the “Black Market” for salt, candy, chips, and even pop-tarts, was born. Our experts told us all about the sophisticated businesses that cropped up to fill the void that regulations created when salt was reduced and vending machines got on the health kick. Some student entrepreneurs apparently even buy in bulk to increase their margins.

These young business people listen to their consumers as is evidenced by stocking the types of Pop-Tarts and chips that other students request. The most successful ones run a slick loan program charging a quarter each day you forget to bring them money. They even pass their business down to younger students when they graduate. These business gurus do all of this while avoiding school official detection since they risk being suspended for their activities.


Want Better Student Engagement? Just ASK!

When asked for advice on how to engage students and gather their feedback, the answer was super simple: just ask. The panel said that emailing a short survey is likely the best way to get opinions. Of course, as members of student government, they also suggested introducing new foods to the student government first and letting them be your advocates.

Our student panel also made it pretty clear that they didn’t really feel like they had much of a voice when it came to school meals. Part of this feeling of disengagement stems from not understanding the regulations surrounding their cafeterias. If we don’t educate students on the process, it may seem like their particular school cafeteria manager is making decisions based on a whim. The more we can let students in on the “whys” of what we do, the more they will feel like they have the right information to make better decisions and, in turn, will become more engaged in the process.


Final Thoughts

All in all, the students and the industry attendees enjoyed the atmosphere of sharing and learning. I think I speak for the entire audience when I say that we were impressed with our student experts’ composure, forthrightness, and positive outlooks. We left the session with not only a greater understanding of our end-consumer, but also a tremendous sense of hope for the future and pride in what we do and who we serve.

As industry members, we often don’t get to interact directly with students. Thank you SNA and Sean for providing this tremendous opportunity! I truly hope student panels become a standard session offered at every conference.

P.S. There was no way to detail all of the topics covered in one article. If you are curious about a particular area of conversation, please ask in the comments.