“I don’t want to eat in the cafeteria. All they serve is raisins.”

These are actual words that Deborah Seelinger of the Minnesota Parent Teacher Association heard from her son – thus developing what we’ll call the “Raisin Theory.” Surely that’s not true, though – right?

School meals are required by law to be healthy and balanced. School nutrition professionals work tirelessly to develop menus that are not only nutritious, but also delicious. They also work to improve their student’s perceptions of the foods they serve. But when parents hear comments like this, their perceptions may become skewed as well. Sure, parents can certainly check what’s on the menu at their child’s school, but how are they to know the quality? Since they are often the ones footing their student’s lunch bill, misconceptions of the foods offered can lead to a decrease in participation in your child nutrition program.

Seelinger as well as Sherri Knutson, the Student Nutrition Services Coordinator at Rochester Public Schools (MN), presented “Not Your Parents Lunchroom” at the 2017 Minnesota School Nutrition Association Annual Conference in Duluth. This presentation discussed how their organizations joined forces to bring even more awareness to the great things the school foodservice program was doing, and more peace of mind to parents. Read on for four key strategies for debunking the raisin theory and raising awareness for your program by engaging parents.

1. Utilize Your State or Local PTA for Healthy Fundraising

As we all know, PTA stands for Parent Teacher Association – and parents and teachers can be two of your biggest cheerleaders when it comes to encouraging students to eat in the cafeteria. Each state utilizes a PTA (or PTSA – Parents, Teachers and Students) to be a “powerful voice for children, a relevant resource for parents, and a strong advocate for public education.” (Hawaii State PTSA).

To provide activities and resources for schools, many PTAs help to host fundraising activities. In 2016, Minnesota PTA received a Healthy School Meals grant, and agreed to “provide guidance and promotion of healthier school fundraisers.” Fundraising is important for every school, and sure, you could sell chocolates, cookie dough and flavored popcorn like every other school fundraiser. But PTAs and PTSAs care about encouraging students to lead a healthy and active lifestyle, much like you do in your child nutrition program!

In most cases, it won’t be difficult to encourage the PTA to select a healthy fundraiser, like one that centers around a physical activity. The school could host an alumni versus current student sports tournament, a fun run or even a car wash to raise money. You could also promote a fundraiser  to sell non-food items (plants, candles, cookbooks) or healthier options (fruit baskets, farmers markets). For more alternative fundraising ideas, check out this link. You can also check out more healthy fundraising ideas from YouCaring in the image below.

To see how you can get involved and share your healthy fundraiser ideas with your state or local PTA, please visit the PTA website. And even if you don’t live in Minnesota, you can utilize the Minnesota PTA as a resource. You can reach this organization at mnpta@mnpta.org or 1-800-672-0993.

2. Invite Parents to Eat During Conferences

“Meet the Teacher” conferences: we know them well! Students bring their parents to the schools to get acquainted with their teachers, navigate their way around the school, learn about new programs and electives, and pick up their school supply lists. Parents are already coming up to the school to learn more – why not teach them about your child nutrition program as well?

This year, members of the Minnesota PTA received a “seat at the table” at Kellogg Middle School. Through funding from the Healthy School Meals Grant, 375 free supper meals were served to parents, students and staff at one of the school’s conferences. This was an excellent opportunity for Kellogg’s Student Nutrition Services team to showcase to the parents the tasty and healthy food that is served to their students throughout the school year.

The PTA teamed up with Kellogg Middle’s Student Nutrition Services, Public Health and Fuel Up to Play 60 groups to pull off this successful event. Together, these organizations compiled information on Free and Reduced priced lunch, Smart Snack guidelines and other important nutrition information to put into a folder to give out to parents at the conference (pictured below).

If you’re interested in generating a buzz for your child nutrition program at an upcoming school conference, consider these tips:

  • Make a “join us for a free family meal” flyer. Share the flyer on your nutrition program’s website or social media accounts. Not great with graphic design? Not to worry – applications like Canva make creating posters and flyers easy! (To start designing, create a free login with Canva. Click here to access their templates for posters and flyers.) You can also speak with your administrators or school communications team to place an advertisement for the family feeding in your school’s e-newsletter. It definitely helps to spread the word!
  • Serve food that regularly makes its way onto your serving lines. Don’t roll out the red carpet for these parents – show them exactly what you serve their kiddos, and why they love it!
  • Provide attendees with a folder that contains necessary info about your program. Include information about your local wellness program, any other programs you participate in (Fuel Up to Play 60, Farm to School, summer feeding) and other important nutrition info. You may even ask your students – special education classes, sports teams, band kids – to help you print and stuff the materials.
  • Hold a raffle with some sort of healthy item. It can be a fruit basket, cooking utensils, a recipe book, or even a “gift card” applied to their students’ balance in the cafeteria! This will raise money for your operations and also show the attendees your commitment to health.
  • Invite local organizations to join in on the fun. You can reach out to gyms, recreation centers, community sports leagues and more to set up a booth or table to show how students from your school can get involved with their organizations. If you serve farm to school foods in your lines, you could even invite the farmer himself/herself to show and talk about the food he/she grows. The more cheerleaders for your program, the better!

3. Know the Difference Between Informed, Involved & Engaged

Seelinger and Knutson emphasized the importance of knowing the difference between being informed, being involved and being engaged. Informed parties tell and share info, but there is no feedback. Involved parties provide feedback but only in one direction (ex: the parents to the district). Engaged parties are regularly involved in two-way communication, as questions and feedback can move both directions. There are a few things your district can do to encourage parents to get engaged.

Social Media

It’s important to engage parents – and students – throughout every phase of child nutrition: the planning, the serving, and even the evaluating. Social media is a great way to engage both students and parents. As we learned in this Marketing to Generation Z eBook, it’s one platform where we can reach both groups. Post photos of your foods, share updates about exciting new programs or ideas you’re bringing, and don’t forget to ask questions and pay attention to the way your audience responds.

Market Research

Student input groups, focus groups and even taste testing are great ways to engage your students in their child nutrition program. Knutson suggests even testing out potential menu items at your summer feeding sites to see how well they are received. If received well, hooray – you can serve them during the school year! If they don’t go over great, at least you didn’t buy enough to feed the whole school – lesson learned!


Student surveys or polls are also great ways to engage your students. But with free apps like SchoolCafé, you can engage both students and parents with the poll feature. Ask SchoolCafé users to share their thoughts: What pizza would you like to see in the cafeteria? Turkey or ham for Thanksgiving? Chicken nuggets or chicken strips? Using this app (pictured below) allows school nutrition programs to send out polls to find out what their students really want.

When you receive the poll/survey info, don’t forget the final (arguably the most important) step in the process for bringing ideas to life: reviewing and following up. When you effectively implement this step of the process, you are letting your customers know that you value them, and that their voices were heard.

4. Consider a Healthy Classroom Catering Program

Many of you who follow PrimeroEdge on Facebook seemed to like this photo we shared.  It highlights Rochester Public School’s commitment to nutrition (in and out of the cafeteria) by offering a healthy classroom catering program. Rather than making parents feel obligated to bake or purchase snacks to bring in for classroom celebrations – which, let’s face it, are usually not the most health-conscious choices – this catering service prepares and delivers healthy snacks for the celebrations. With homemade snacks like fresh fruit pizza and fresh veggies, or kid favorites like Go-Gurt and popcorn, these items provide a nutritious alternative to celebrate the special day. Parents will be delighted to have your help in making the celebration special – and will have peace of mind in knowing that the snacks are healthy!

This program would definitely require some startup funding, planning and proper manpower to get it up and running. But just think about the extra revenue – and that warm, fuzzy feeling you’d get from knowing you’re providing healthy options to your students all the time! Information about your healthy catering initiative could also go in the folder you hand out during your family meal at the back to school conference! For more information or advice on how to get a healthy catering service up and running, please contact Rochester Public Schools Student Nutrition Services at (507) 328-4218.

So there you have it: four ways to engage parents (and students!), raise awareness for your program and bring more students into your cafeterias. By collaborating with your PTA, inviting parents to the table, utilizing social media, market research and surveys, and providing a healthy classroom catering program – you can debunk the Raisin Theory. Use these opportunities to let your district’s parents – and their students – know that you serve much more than just raisins!