Sounding Board: Dethroning the lunch lady

When the ingredients in school lunches are the same as those in pet food, there is a problem. Will retailers seize the opportunity to step in with nutritious and convenient options?

By Len Lewis

What’s the difference between school lunch and pet food? Apparently not much and the gap is getting narrower. This is an opportunity for retailers to step up to the plate—literally.

As we approach that time of year when children sulk and parents celebrate summer’s end, the question that often preys on parental psyches is what to do for lunch.

That can of pet food or directions to the nearest fast food eatery might be healthier than sending kids to lunch lady land, given drastic budget cuts for school lunch and the propensity of some Washington lawmakers to save their jobs and crop subsidies at the expense of child nutrition. Moreover, the USDA, responsible for providing schools with good food, is also charged with helping companies sell surplus commodities. Does anyone not see a conflict of interest?

But shortcomings are nothing new. Who doesn’t remember lunches of  “mystery meat” or that perennial favorite, creamed chipped beef on toast. I can’t mention its other name here but would be happy to share it in e-mail.

Some progress has been made thanks to heightened publicity over child obesity and constant haranguing by nutritionists who warned of a health crisis long before the First Lady started doing photo ops in the White House vegetable patch and hobnobbing with celebrity chefs.

However, between 2001 and 2009, the government bought 77 million pounds of “spent hen meat” for school lunches. Responsible food manufacturers and fast food chains stopped using it years ago. With all due respect to my 14-year-old Lab/Shepherd mix, Casey, children deserve better than a commodity used primarily for dog food and fertilizer.

I wouldn’t suggest getting involved in school foodservice programs. The business belongs to companies that have learned to deal with permanent indigestion from an absurd regulatory environment and margins thinner than cold cuts. USDA guidelines fix ingredients costs at about $1 per meal. Not exactly a Happy Meal in any sense.

However, the lunch business overall, which is something of a black hole in supermarket merchandising, is worthy of further exploration. It’s a little like “green” retailing. It’s the right thing to do, but there is also a strong business case for increased sales, profits and customer loyalty.

As always, the first thing to do is ask customers what they want—in this case moms or dads and the kids that either trade away their lunches or toss them into the trash. Kids have very definite opinions and chances are if they don’t eat it at home they won’t eat it at school.

Create a promotion or contest to get lunchbox ideas right from the source. There’s the obvious answer from the PB&J crowd. But you might be surprised at what kids would like to see and their level of interest in healthy, good tasting foods. I’ve seen this in action at high schools in Virginia, North Carolina and Illinois where students opted for salad bars instead of fried foods swimming in grease. You can see the same trend among younger students. But choices are being reduced by a budgetary tug-of-war and how many healthier options will remain is anyone’s guess.

The next step might be pre-made brown bag lunches or reasonably priced grab-and-go items that parents can pick up as they shop or on their way home from work. The possibilities are endless—sliced vegetables with dressing, salads, small appetizers, sandwiches made with traditional sliced bread as well as tortillas, hot dog or hamburger buns, fruit salads, non-bellybusting snacks and even small entrées for kids with access to microwaves.

At the very least, create school lunch sections in the store or use an endcap for items that parents can easily pick up. If you take the guesswork out of the lunch equation, you are making things that much simpler for your customers who might reward you with greater loyalty when it comes to regular grocery shopping. Besides, getting them in the store to pick up school lunches doesn’t mean that’s the only thing they will buy. It is a potential revenue stream that can’t be ignored.

We’ve come a long way since the days of bread and butter sandwiches and lima beans in the cafeteria. But the nation’s supermarkets can do it better and in the process become heroes to beleaguered parents. Casey agrees!

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

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