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Four Tricks for Overcoming the New Year Participation Dip

Matthew Good, MS, RD, LD
In my years operating within the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, one thing I have come to expect each January is the lull in meal participation and sales that occurs in the first several weeks following the holiday break. Although my observation is entirely anecdotal, I have had this conversation with colleagues and many state similar occurrences.
It’s interesting to ponder the reasons for this revenue respite. It doesn’t appear to be tied to a household’s financial situation, as I’ve witnessed this even during the past two years when all students ate free. As a dietitian with clinical experience, I know that while it’s preferable to address the etiology of the problem at hand, sometimes we have to settle for treating the symptoms.

Adjust Your Cycle Menu

It may seem overly simplistic, but we need to get these kids back in the lunch line as fast as possible. One of the quickest ways to do so is to rearrange your cycle to start the new year by piling on your top-performing meals right away.

Host Student Advisory Meetings

As all school nutrition professionals know, there is a minimum requirement for conducting committee meetings to allow student input into the program. There’s no better time to check this off your list while simultaneously promoting engagement than to have one promptly as the new calendar year begins. What better way to get the students what they want than to directly ask them what that is?

Introduce New Items

While you have their attention during these student committee meetings, you could create excitement by taste-testing new menu items. For example, my account’s primary food vendor sends out frequent emails with new items that have become available through different companies. This is a great starting point to reach out and ask these companies for sample cases. In my experience, they are very generous in providing these.
Typically, your student advisory committees will be the same group of students with limited reach. Take your efforts further by preparing samples of the foods that have performed well with your committee and offering them to the student population as they stand in the lunch lines. Not only does this provide additional student feedback, but it will also draw attention to the lunch lines and drive traffic to your point-of-sale.

Target the Adults

Many schools fail to see the potential revenue production of adult sales in general, let alone during these slow participation weeks. This is a perfect opportunity to get faculty, staff, and administration engaged with your operation. Homemade soups are always a hit in these colder months. Customizable salads can piggyback the “New Year’s Resolution” diet trend that will inevitably be rearing its head again.
These are just a few of the tricks I’ve used in the past to offset these predicted slower weeks, and I’m sure many of you will deploy successful strategies of your own. As Julia Child once said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Let’s bring out the best in our people by allowing them to love the food they eat at school.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, why not take a moment to follow i3 Education on social? We strive to provide priceless content regarding K-12 nutrition program operation, and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Matthew is a private practice registered dietitian and freelance content provider for i3 Education, with over a decade of experience in K-12 nutrition.

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