retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

"Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron: Proven Technology.  Innovative Thinking.  Intelligent Solutions for Fresh.

Content Guy's Note: "Fresh Talk" is an MNB feature that alternates on Wednesdays with "Kate's Take."  It will examine all aspects of "fresh," in both the broadest and most focused meaning of that term (depending on the whims of the columnist). "Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron...which you can learn more about here…but which has no input into the subjects covered or responsibility for the attitudes taken.

This is a lesson in how to get 'em while they're young…

The Wall Street Journal has a story about how "school cafeterias, long run by no-frills lunch ladies, are turning to fancier chefs and culinary-school graduates to improve their food. While some districts have employed professionally trained cooks for years, the introduction of tougher nutrition rules in 2012 is making them more of a necessity as students shun wholesome dishes and cafeteria revenues fall, schools say."

The scenario that precipitated the story took place in California's Santa Clarita Valley school system, where they "lost $250,000 in cafeteria sales last year when students rejected healthier fare designed to meet new federal nutrition standards … The new standards, pushed by first lady Michelle Obama, require schools to provide a greater amount of fruit, vegetables and whole grains at breakfast and lunch. In the two years since the standards took effect, the number of students participating in the lunch programs dropped by an average of 1.4 million a day, the largest decline in more than 30 years, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data … Under the original rules, the cost of complying with the guidelines was expected to triple this year, to $1.2 billion, according to USDA estimates. Some stricter standards for this year are still in place, such as a requirement that schools offer twice as much fruit at breakfast."

Now, I've made my feelings about school-served meals pretty plain over the years. "Slop," if I'm not mistaken, has been the term I've employed more often than not. And I've long argued that one of the problems with making these programs work better is that they are often seen in a vacuum. Sure, the meals ought to be better. But these same schools ought to be teaching kinds about nutrition. Ought to be teaching cooking. (A return to Home Ec, anyone?) Ought to be offering 21st century gym classes. In the broadest terms, educating kids about things that matter and that will have sustainable impact.

I've always believed that as a matter of good public policy, if schools are going to serve food, it ought to be healthy, nutritious food. There's two reasons. One, childhood obesity has been cited by many experts as being a matter of national security, and it strikes me as entirely appropriate to use school meal programs as a place to address the issue. Two, there is an economic issue … since tax dollars (which is to say, citizen dollars) are used to underwrite school lunch programs, it seems sensible to spend the money on fresh, healthy food, not slop.

It is a matter of getting the most bang for your buck.

Now, I would also argue that it makes sense for the fresh, healthy food to be edible. Even, dare I say, delicious. So it makes sense to invest in better people who know how to make better food.

That's a matter of smart category management.

In Santa Clarita Valley, the Journal writes, they hired Brittany Young, a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu. "To make the lower-fat, reduced-sodium fare more appealing, (she) is employing restaurant-style techniques. She moved popcorn chicken out of a steamy wax bag and into an open boat serving platter. She told kitchen staff to wipe down serving bowls so chow mein noodles don’t hang over the side … Ms. Young plans to add a new item to the school menu in January, a chicken quesadilla that scored high marks with student taste testers."

It is a matter of smart merchandising and smart marketing.

Like in a great food store, what really matters is finding ways to identify great products that will have strong and relevant appeal, and then offering them in a way that appeals to the target customer. Like in a great food store, it is about not always aiming for the lowest common denominator.

(Of course, politics being what it is, rather than figure out a way to make school meal programs better, the folks in Washington have decided to water down the standards … likely at the behest of lobbyists. The Journal notes that the new "federal funding bill passed by Congress and expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama weakens the nutrition rules. It proposes freezing limits on sodium that were supposed get tougher over time, and allows states in certain circumstances to waive a requirement for the use of whole grains." What this has to do with the federal budget is anybody's guess, but as I say, that's politics. And in DC, aiming for the lowest common denominator is pretty much the national pastime.)

The most bang for your buck. Smart category management. Smart merchandising and marketing. And targeting the customers with appealing, relevant, fresh foods.

To do anything less is to squander opportunity.

Some retailers, of course, already are doing this. But for some, maybe it's time to go back to school.