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High schoolers respond to district’s invitation: “Let’s do lunch”

Sponsor: Sodexo

Sodexo helps Fairfield-Suisun USD boost participation in reimbursable meals.

Given the difficulties in today’s economy, school food service programs expect to see more applications for free and reduced-price meals. The Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in northern California is up to the challenge.

“We’ve been expanding our system over the years, so we’re ready for it,” says Anita Holquist, food service director for the 23,000-student district.

"Sodexo has a good program to market reimbursable meals. That has helped increase participation in free and reduced-price meals."

In its nine-year partnership with Sodexo, Inc., a leader in school food service, Fairfield-Suisun USD has benefited from the company’s national food contracts, nutrition education programs, menu planning and customized marketing programs—which include age-appropriate d?cor, staff training and special events.

Working with Sodexo, the district has made great strides in increasing the number of students opting for reimbursable meals, the free and reducedprice meals for lower income students.

As in most school districts, participation in the Fairfield-Suisun’s reimbursable meal program declined in high school, where socially conscience teens felt the stigma of standing in line for a subsidized meal while paying students had a variety of a la carte options. However, that has changed in recent years, as Sodexo helped the district make dramatic enhancements to the food service program. Quality and efficiency have continued to improve throughout the district, but the three high schools saw the largest increase in meal participation.

“Sodexo has a good program to market reimbursable meals,” Holquist says. “That has helped increase participation in free and reduced-price meals as well as paid meals.”

In the high schools, the number of reimbursable lunches served grew 557 percent in nine years, from 61,000 in the 1999-2000 school year to 282,342 in 2006-07 and 400,883 in 2007-08.

Several factors drove the transformation at the high schools. One was the decision in 2001 to close campuses, so students can’t leave for lunch. To accommodate more students on campus for lunch, the high schools added food-court style stations. “We put the food where the kids were hanging out,” Holquist says. With multiple locations, lunch lines were shorter.

The district also expanded the use of computerized point-of-service stations, long part of the elementary school food service, to the middle schools and high schools. As part of its contract, Sodexo provides investment funding in the form of a no-interest loan to the school district, which helped pay for the computers.

Even students who don’t qualify for subsidized meals can use their student ID as a prepaid meal card. “The stigma is gone because we scan your student ID whether you are paying for lunch or not,” Holquist says. “Students discovered that when the money is on your account you can get your food and go a lot faster.”

Another significant move took place last year, as California’s “School Junk Food Ban” took effect. The law, which imposes the most rigorous nutrition standards in the country, sets limits on portion size and fat and sugar content for all foods sold on campus. The law forced the district to rethink how it markets its meals. “Some of the a la carte foods didn’t meet the new, stringent guidelines,” Holquist says. “So we decided to only offer reimbursable meals.”

Eliminating restaurant vendors that sold pizza and other ? la carte meals, the food service program had to prepare many more meals in-house and add more point-of-service terminals so reimbursable meals could be sold at every food station. The transition went smoothly, and acceptance has been great. The high quality reimbursable meals meant that students didn’t miss the a la carte offerings.

“My goal was always 10,000 lunches,” Holquist says. “My goal now is 15,000. And we’re ready for it.”