THINKubatorA common problem facing all school nutrition professionals today is how to increase school lunch participation, and everyone is scratching their heads as to how to approach this conundrum. But to find new, fresh and fun solutions, it takes an innovative way to brainstorm ideas and attack the problem. Enter the “hackathon.”

Often hosted by a tech company or organization, a hackathon is a sprint-like event in which, often, computer programmers, graphic designers and others working in software development, collaborate for a short period of time on a project. No longer just a room full of geeks on computers, SNA’s annual 2020 School Nutrition Industry Conference (SNIC) in Palm Springs, Calif., was inspired by this approach to brainstorming and implemented their first-ever THINKubator, where teams worked together to hash out a solution to a shared problem. With the tagline “Think Outside the Lunchbox,” the THINKubator emphasized playful collaboration and freethinking—no computer hacking required.

Led by Jamie Murdock, Vice President of Sales at Experient, SNIC2020’s THINKubator brought together seven diverse teams each comprised of school nutrition operators, industry representatives and high school students from nearby Desert Sands Unified School District to collaborate on how to encourage more students to choose school lunch. Given the same set of parameters, each team discussed possible solutions. Each group’s diversity was key: It enabled the groups to share differing perspectives and learn new ideas.

THINKubator imageThe ideation process was “beautiful chaos.” There were spirited discussions and debates. Tables had small tinker toys to keep idle fingers busy and THINKubator mentors were walking around, jumping in on conversations. Once a final idea was chosen and finessed, each team had to create a two-minute presentation to give at an SNIC general session in front of three judges and a room full of more than 600 of their peers.

The audience loved the innovative brainstorming approach and the resulting ideas. Evaluation feedback was positive: “So much fun to watch and listen to their innovative idea as why and how they came up with them. Great teamwork and collaboration!” “Having students be part of the team added such a wonderful perspective.” “This was a great idea to showcase a new way to have a talk about needed changes in our programs.”

From facial recognition to jazzed-up mobile kiosks, the seven teams created show-stopping ideas. While some are more tangible and doable than others, each are unique. Click on each team below to learn more about their innovative solution and how it could boost school lunch participation.

Thank you to the THINKubator sponsors—American Egg Board, Cool School Café, General Mills Convenience & Foodservice, JTM Food Group, KeyImpact Sales & Systems, Premier, Inc. and Yangs 5th Taste

First Place: Disney Up the Queue
Second Place: Coolosks
Third Place: Culinary Nutrition Academy
Pimp Our Program (POP)
Digital Food Recognition
Food on the Move
School Grub

Disney Up the Queue – First Place

Meet the Team:
Tiffany McCleese, DTR, SNS, Child Nutrition Coordinator at West Clermont (Ohio) Local School District
Terry Charles, Child Nutrition Supervisor at St. John the Baptist Parish (La.) Public Schools
Krista Neal, SNS, Director at Stillwater (Okla.) Public Schools
Travis Menard, MS, LDN, RD, SNS, Regional Sales Manager at JTM Food Group
Melissa Larsen, Business Strategy at Cool School Café
Aiden H., Student
Max F., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
For avid theme park goers, it’s common to wait in line over 45 minutes for a three-minute ride. Despite the inconvenience, attendees always queue up and exercise patience—the few minutes of thrill is the big draw. And then they do it again, and again and again!

Inspired by this idea, the team harnessed the power of the theme park and asked themselves, “How can we apply this approach to the school cafeteria lunch line?” Lunch lines can be notoriously long and eat into a student’s seat time—the longer time spent in line, the less time spent eating and socializing. With a vastly improved line experience, students may find enjoyment in the process as they wait for their lunch.

Dubbed “Disney Up the Queue,” with the implementation of simple lights, music, signage, digital menu boards, sensory stations and other additions, the line experience could be enhanced. “This helps the kids enjoy the lunch line,” the team’s proposal states. “The line doesn’t seem so bad if it’s fun like a Disney queue. Improving the line experience is play!” The solution can fit any budget which makes it incredibly appealing for large and small operations. Rope lights cost a mere $10 and music can often be played using a school’s preexisting sound system, or speakers could be purchased.

Because of their practical, fun and approachable idea, this team won SNIC’s first-ever THINKubator challenge! And the reward for the winning team? Some really comfortable socks! Bombas Socks pledged to donate 1,500 pairs of their socks to the winning team’s charity of choice. The recipient was Galilee Center, a charity organization, based in the Coachella Valley, which provides food distribution to local families, services to farmworkers, aid for children and infants and other life-saving services. And, as an added bonus, each team member won books to inspire creativity and innovation.

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Coolosks – Second Place

Meet the Team:
José Quinones, Business Development at JTM Food Group
Chris Burkhardt, SNS, Executive Director at Cleveland (Ohio) Metropolitan School District
Katie Bethard, Director at Red River Parish (La.) Public Schools
Darla Lau, Site Supervisor at Reynolds (Ore.) School District 7
Faraby Reis, Education Director at KeyImpact Sales & Systems
Jason R., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
We see the trends: today’s students are choosing fast food meals over school-provided lunches. This dynamic can be changed when everyday school lunches are transformed into fantastic events.

Coolosks is a kiosk solution that puts emphasis on presentation and atmosphere, creating a more enticing and fun eating experience. Coolosks will rebrand the cafeteria experience. Through the use of social media and finely curated photos, meals will be successfully marketed to students. “This would rebrand and reboot the traditional school foodservice lines,” the proposal states. Emphasis will be placed on convenience and atmosphere. With these mobile stations, the “traditional line” will be a thing of the past and employees will be able to serve students faster.

And what’s the best place to see mouthwatering food images? Instagram and social media, of course! With the help of student ambassadors, they’ll use the latest in social media (Twitter, Instagram and TikTok) to target their peers with daily images and videos. Word of mouth is always a great way to increase participation and exposure!

Coolosks would implement a three-week cycle menu, compliant with current school meal rules and regulations. The goal would be to have six kiosks per school stationed around campus, and each would have their own unique personality and/or theme. Each Coolosk would have its own social media plan, and notes for any additional or special equipment. And before implementation, equipment and customer service training would be provided to staff. When the food looks delectable and diners are having fun and enjoying a meal, more students will want to eat lunch at school.

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Culinary Nutrition Academy – Third Place

Meet the Team:
Daniel Cappello, Director at Desert Sands USD (Calif.)
Kara Sample, SNS, Assistant Director at Greeley-Evans (Colo.) School District 6
Andrew Riedlin, Nutrition Services Coordinator at Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools
Emily Miramontes, SNS, Account Executive at General Mills Convenience & Foodservice
Shellie Robles, Director of Sales at Yangs 5th Taste
Jared P., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
Many school nutrition departments are implementing culinary programs or have partnered with teachers or vocational programs to give high school students hands-on culinary training in school kitchens. However, the Culinary Nutrition Academy (CNA) would go one step further. This training course and certificate program enables students and school nutrition operators to work together to not only provide students with culinary training, but also a voice into their school meals.

Student participation in the CNA transforms “students’ perceptions…and gets students engaged in child nutrition programs,” states the team’s proposal. The students will learn what happens behind the scenes in their school kitchen and be directly involved in the process of creating school meals. There are three benefits to the CNA: enhanced perception of school meals, increased lunch participation and the teaching of valuable culinary skills. CNA students later may act as ambassadors, touting the befits of the program and school meals. Through the acquired skills and knowledge, they will be able to “demonstrate a mastery of child nutrition.”

To ensure all students receive the same education regardless of where they live, a curriculum will be developed through SNA and the Department of Education. The curriculum will then be vetted and rolled out into participating districts. The implementation of one CNA curriculum ensures that all students across the country are on equal footing and are all learning the same important life skills.

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Pimp Our Program (POP)

Meet the Team:
Sara Gasiorowski, SNS, Child Nutrition Director at MSD of Wayne Township (Ind.)
David Hirst, Child Nutrition Director at Ascent Academies of Utah
Jasmine Scott, Senior Marketing Associate at General Mills Convenience & Foodservice
Maribel Alchin, Manager, School & College Marketing at American Egg Board
Robbie Scott, MS, Education Specialist CNP at Alabama State Department of Education
Chelsea Q., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
Marketing to students can be tricky and many school nutrition operators want (and need) more applicable resources. Blanketed materials won’t cut it when you’re trying to reach young children and teenagers—and engage school nutrition staff. But when you combine the expert knowledge of school nutrition operators, school chefs and marketing experts, targeted resources abound and the fun POPS.

Pimp Our Program, or POP, is an all-in-one plan in a box. This marketing training program targets key district stakeholders which represent diverse school nutrition programs across the nation. Rolled out at the local level through SNA state affiliates, the hands-on POP program will focus on three key components:

  • Improve student engagement and participation in school meal programs
  • Increase culinary skills training to enhance food quality and improve marketing skills for better communication to students
  • Improve work culture and employee morale in school kitchens“Train the trainer” sessions will also be available at SNA national conferences to help State

Affiliates become better acquainted with the POP marketing program. With more workplace pride and confidence in the products, school nutrition operators will be better able to meet the needs of their student customers, which will ultimately trickle down to their customers. When customer needs are met and reflected in their choices, participation will increase.

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Digital Food Recognition

Meet the Team:
Daniel Ellnor, CP-FS, SNS, Assistant Director at Jefferson County (Ken.) School District
Jeanne Pierce, SNS, Director at Exeter Region Cooperative (NH)
Kimberly Coleman, MPA, RD, Senior Consultant at inTEAM Associates, LLC
Cindy Husar-Marschke, Regional Director Sales at Yangs 5th Taste
Erick M., Student
Cristobal H., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
In order for a school to claim a reimbursable meal, a school nutrition employee must check every tray to ensure all components are present. And often in this same transaction, the same employee is also manning the register taking sales. This takes time for all parties (staff and students) and often ends in a bottlenecked line at the cafeteria’s point-of-sale system (POS). And the longer a student waits in the lunch line, the less time they have to eat and socialize.

By using the latest in technological advances—facial recognition, identification chips and data analysis, the lunch line can be revolutionized. Digital Food Recognition uses recognition software to identify the components of a reimbursable meal. As a student walks through the lunch line, overhead cameras will monitor and check the trays to ensure the meal is reimbursable. In addition to scanning each tray, a student’s ID chip will also be scanned, so the meal will be charged to the student’s account. Using today’s tech trends will make the POS system obsolete! This frees up a kitchen worker to focus on other tasks and lessens the pressure of the dreaded long lunch line.

And the implementation of tiny devices permeates into other aspects of school foodservice. Through data analysis, menu trends can be studied which helps improve forecasting and accuracy. By freeing up the cashier at the POS system, this new technology can make a significant impact on the labor market. But the best part? Students waltz through the line quickly and are able to get to their seat to fully enjoy their meal. The school nutrition department will be able to check kids out faster, which will entice more to come and eat!

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Food on the Move

Meet the Team:
Lori Adkins, SNS, Child Nutrition Consultant for Oakland (Mich.) Schools
Ina Olson, Supervisor at Falcon School District 49 (Colo.)
Peter Oshinski, SNS, Manager of Child Nutrition Operations at Hayward (Calif.) USD
Stacy Lofton, MS, RD, SNS, Director of FN Strategy at Premier Inc.
Christopher Haacke, Education Director-East at KeyImpact Sales & Systems
Kaitlyn S., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
During designated lunch periods, student must walk to the cafeteria for their meal. If coming from one wing of the school to another, this can take a lot of time. Combining this exodus with long wait times in the lunch line, can often result in a long, arduous process to get a meal, which ultimately cuts into the time needed to enjoy lunch with friends. What if, instead, the food was brought directly to the students?

Food on the Move “will get participation moving in the right direction.” By collaborating with students, meals can be provided anytime, anywhere and in any way. And with today’s student customers, customization is king. Students expect the same service in their school cafeterias as they do from their favorite restaurant chains.

Starting with a mobile app, a student can browse through the day’s menu selections and place an order. Orders will be sent to kitchen staff for creation and later delivered to serving stations, kiosks and classroom carts stationed throughout the school. Best of all, the students will decide where to pick up their lunches. They can determine which location is the most convenient for them that day. During the ordering process, they’ll select which location works best for them and the food will be delivered to that location. All the student has to do is walk on by to pick up lunch!

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School Grub Powered by Yelp

Meet the Team:
Billie Veach, Purchasing Coordinator and Products at Waukee (Iowa) Community School District
Omar Guevara-Soto, Assistant Director at Culinary & Wellness Services at Minneapolis (Minn.) Public Schools
Wade Glathar, Lead Director at Ascent Academies of Utah
Stephanie Earleywine, Business Strategy at Cool School Café
Malissa Marsden, SNS, Consultant at American Egg Board
Calvin M., Student

THINKubator imageThe Pitch:
Product, service, restaurant and other reviews are powerful influences. Before making decisions, customers often browse customer reviews to see just how good the product, service or restaurant is. These reviews come direct from other customers and provide a glimpse into the overall experience. Website and mobile app, Yelp, gives power back to each customer as their voices are collectively heard.

School nutrition departments could benefit from the same approach. Today’s students often feel left out of the school meal conversation. Like other customers, they have opinions and want their feedback both heard and acted upon. Through School Grub, a partnership with Yelp, the entire school foodservice industry will be able to work together to vastly improve a student’s cafeteria experience. Students are able to provide real-time feedback which can lead to future changes in their menu, dining experiences, cafeteria and more. “Establishing this platform will give a voice to students,” the team states. “Operators will have the ability to act on feedback. Food distributors and manufacturers may capture product feedback and Yelp will help them reach the new generation.”

The aggregated reviews act as a source of inspiration to both students and staff. Through the platform students can leave comments on the latest meal, request an additional condiment station, suggestion expansion of the existing menu or just “keep doing what you’re doing.” With feedback implementation and understanding that voices are fully heard, school lunch participation could grow.

There is also power in a bad review: According to a 2011 study from the Harvard Business School, a one-star Yelp review can lead to a 9% revenue increase for any business. The review provides exposure and customers want to experience it for themselves—they want to test the review.

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