How to Work with School Food Service Providers from the experience of a Smarter Lunchrooms Technical Assistance Provider in Chicago Public Schools


There are two forms of school food dining operations across the United States: Self-Operated, and Food Service Providers. Self-Operated operations are run by the school or district. Therefore, there is much greater freedom in developing menus and designing and arranging the lunchroom. In this set-up, Smarter Lunchrooms Technical Assistance Providers can work with lunchroom professionals to create the most change school by school.

Food service providers make up about 20% of food service across the country. They are privately owned companies that are contracted by a district to do all of the menu development and lunchroom design. In this system, lunchroom professionals do not have any control of menu development or lunchroom design. The food service provider has departments devoted to each part of the lunchroom. Therefore, it is essential for the Smarter Lunchrooms Technical Assistance Provider to connect early on with all branches of the food service provider as making changes to the lunchroom will require cooperation from many departments both within the food service provider and at the district level.

What to do? A quick look:

  1. Connect early with company
  2. Create a team
  3. Set common goals and timelines
  4. Create institutional changes

Connect Early with the Company

The food service provider is your ally. Great relationships with lunchroom professionals is also needed, but nothing will change without the support of the company. If you are able to influence the company to make even a few changes to their Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) through collaborative and cooperative efforts, then you will have created an immense impact. Remember that these companies are massive and often feed thousands of students annually! Study everything this company does relating to school food in your district. See if they are running any special programs. Figure out what is important to the company and try to show them how your work will help their mission and bottom line.

Create a Team

When building a team, the more the merrier! Connect with the district’s health and wellness committee, teachers who are passionate about health promotion (PE, Health, Student Council, Marketing…), administrators (Principals and Assistant Principals), and recruit from the food service provider’s various branches (marketing, health and wellness).

Begin by explaining who you are and what you’re doing. It is useful to put together a short mission statement or elevator speech to introduce yourself, your initiatives, and those of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement. Explain that you are putting together a team devoted to improving the lunchroom environment to influence students to make healthier choices. Emphasize that each team member’s role is essential to the success of the program

Set Common Goals and Timelines

Communicate your goals and listen objectively to those of your team. Set timelines and periodic check-ins once mutual goals are established. Visit a wide array of schools that vary in enrolment, demographics, percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, and lunchroom design. Discovering the differences of each lunchroom will allow you to make specialized changes lunchroom by lunchroom.  Let the Lunchroom Manager, a representative from the wellness committee, and Principal or Assistant Principal know you will be coming and would like to meet with them and any other faculty members who are passionate about student health to talk about the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement and to fill out a Smarter Lunchrooms Scorecard. Fill out the scorecard as well as Smarter Lunchroom summary page on site with your team to facilitate a discussion about what the school is doing well as well as areas of opportunity.

After analyzing scorecards from a wide variety of schools, you will be able to recognize common strengths and areas of opportunity across the district as a whole. This information is invaluable to the food service provider with whom you are working as they are very interested in increasing sales. Show them how to make those sales come from the healthier items such as the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and healthier entrees!

SLM LogoCreate Institutional Changes

Follow the 4 Step Path to a Smarter Lunchroom  to review how this first round went and to make changes for future interventions. Once you are comfortable with a system and are confident positive changes are being made, push for institutional change. This is the ‘Prove it’ part of the four step path and can be down by sharing photos and scorecard data with stakeholders. This not only provides positive reinforcement to everyone involved but will also gain support to those who were originally skeptical. Feel free to boast your joint success, if you have the permission of your partners, by sharing your photos and findings with news and media sources.

Once you’ve seen the positive effects of Smarter Lunchrooms on student health, think of how amazing it would be if Smarter Lunchrooms principles were adopted in every school. It’s our job to make that happen so let’s work hard and get creative!


Lauren Gabuzzi, Cornell University, Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, Chicago