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Turning the Tables


The Plain Local School District got an early start on transitioning to healthier foods three years ago when it decided to join the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program. Joining the program gave the district tangible goals and encouraged district and school staff to begin a complete overhaul of the food and beverage items they were selling to students through vending machines and a la carte lines (items sold separately in the cafeteria). The following year, when Ohio passed Senate Bill 210, nutritional guidelines for competitive foods (food sold outside of the federally reimbursed school meal program) in schools based on the Alliance’s nutritional guidelines, Plain Local was already in compliance.

Food Service Director Jennifer Rex said that when she started this job five years ago, Plain Local was selling the entire reimbursable school lunch to only 25 percent of students while 89 percent of students were buying something from the cafeteria. “We realized that we had a huge gap in full meal vs. a la carte participation and we knew that changing those a la carte items could really affect our bottom line,” said Rex. Although they were nervous when they decided to stop selling big cookies and pretzels with cheese, they hoped that the change would drive more students back to the school meal for which the federal government reimburses costs. It did and now the high school meal participation rate is close to 60 percent (that is without any significant changes to the number of students eligible for the free and reduced lunch).

So while revenue decreased from the a la carte stream, the school made it up with the increase in federally reimbursed meal participation. And, as Rex explains, that is a better place to be as a food service department because those funds coming in every month are more stable and kids are eating more fruits and vegetables instead of a tray full of snacks.

For the past three years all of the snack foods sold in Plain Local have met the Alliance’s guidelines and Rex said that it does provide additional revenue. Students enjoy the baked chips, approved cookies, frozen yogurt and bottled water. Even after the school made the switch to healthier snacks Rex started receiving phone calls from parents questioning why students were still allowed to buy unlimited amounts of healthier snacks. Rex went to the schools to observe purchasing behavior and realized that there was still a need to limit snack purchases, especially in the middle schools where she found that students were buying five bags of baked chips instead of eating a balanced meal. The principals agreed and they decided to limit a la carte purchases to two items per meal which has also helped drive participation in the school lunch program.

Jennifer’s Recipe for Success:

  • Start now and be ahead of the game! New rules on competitive foods are coming and this is your chance to implement and refine the changes and process before it is required.
  • Take advantage of the Alliance’s Product Navigator and Calculator. These tools make it easy to find products that are compliant. Show every school and PTO how to use these and set the expectation that they will.
  • Focus on driving participation in your school meal program and don’t worry about a la carte sales. This will ensure long-term, consistent revenue and a robust food service program!


Before Roger Kipp took over as the Food Service Director for Norwood City Schools in Ohio the department had been losing between $80,000-250,000 a year for the past eight years. That was happening on a steady diet of French fries, burgers, and pizza. Upon his arrival, Kipp was determined to turn those numbers around while transforming the cafeteria into a health promoting place to eat and relax. As Kipp likes to say, “We went for the whole enchilada.”

First on his list was eliminating the “Snack Shack” from the high school. This was where students could go during the school day to purchase soda, candy, sweet tea, and other snack foods. Although these items did bring in revenue, Kipp said it was a net loss for the food service department as school meal participation was lower. The additional sales from the Snack Shack were not enough to overcome the loss in funds from the federal government through the free and reduced school meal program. 

Today, in place of the Snack Shack, there is a student spirit store and a planetarium store that are only allowed to sell food and beverages that meet the Competitive Food and Beverages Guidelines created by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. As Kipp added approved products, fruits and vegetables to the high school a la carte line, he began to remove items that did not meet the Guidelines. Kipp rearranged the cafeteria, removing all vending machines and replacing them with a grab ‘n’ go area where students can choose from wraps, salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits and compliant beverages. Another area of the room now has a salad bar with a staff member supervising. Students can purchase items a la carte but they can also select items to make a reimbursable school meal. Kipp explains that in addition to giving students more healthy options, they now have “multiple ways for kids to grab a lunch that qualifies for free and reduced lunch without making them stick out like a sore thumb.”

In order to smoothly roll out the changes, Kipp created a student culinary council, made up of 20 students from 7th-12th grade (the middle and high schools share a building). Kipp approached the administration and told the members that he wanted help selecting 20 students that were “leaders in their own peer groups. I didn’t want all honor roll students or all athletes, I wanted a diverse mix. I bring in vendors to talk to the students. I want them to understand why we use certain foods, what a commodity is, how we price food, etc. And I want them to know what career opportunities are out there in food service. We let them try new products and they survey them. Then the bell rings and they go back to their peer groups and help spread the excitement for the new food items.”

After Kipp’s first year at the helm his department came out in the black and now, three years later, he is on target to finish with a $30,000 surplus. It doesn’t get more delicious than that.

Roger’s Recipe for Success:

  • Form Student Culinary Council to make decisions and spread the word among peers.
  • Simplify school store – changed from teacher buying items at big box stores like Sam’s Club or Costco to one vending machine where (compliant) products are delivered. This remains profitable and the teacher is happy with less work.
  • Offer unlimited fruit and vegetable bar. This helps bulk up school meal and empowers students to customize their meals.