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This Cafeteria is more Data Driven and Personalized than you Think

I recently spent a day working in one of my middle school cafeterias. I stole this idea from Joe Sanfelippo who is a superintendent in Wisconsin. Joe and I were at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch together for SuperCUE last year. He said he randomly selects a few employees each year and does their job for the whole day. I loved the idea and thought I would give it a try in my district. Who knew one of my first experiences would be in a middle school cafeteria.

First off, it's important to note the advice I received from my wife. She said, "you better not mess around and think this is going to be a full-day photo shoot!" While we did take a few pictures, I worked a full shift from 6:45 am to 3:15 pm. I called my boss for the day before my shift and she shared that the start time was 6:45 am. You better believe I was in the cafeteria by 6:42 am. Working the full day allowed me the opportunity to participate in preparing or serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Working throughout the day, in various capacities, I had several "ah ha" moments. First off, I was amazed at how many of the cafeteria workers knew the students on a first name basis. This was evident at breakfast where I was assigned to work the register. We greeted each student with a smile and had a brief exchange of small talk as students rapidly keyed in their lunch numbers on electronic pads. All in all, we served 373 students at breakfast. I was touched by the power of those brief and positive encounters between students and staff. In some ways, I realized that the cafeteria staff is making contact with more students daily than any other staff of the campus (and they know what they like to eat - that's pretty personalized)

Next, it was food prep time. I was surprised by the amount of time staff had to prepare for lunch. The majority of the workers arrived at 10:00. All food prep needed to be completed by the first lunch at 11:15. While preparing food with my new colleagues, we had brief conversations about the food choices and quantities for the day. I was surprised to learn that students' food choices change by season and weather. When it's summer and warm outside, more salads and fresh fruits and vegetables are consumed. Conversely, when it's winter and cold, the students crave heated selections and what we used to call "comfort food." I'll also note that food is prepared in this kitchen with love and orchestra-like precision. Each worker knew their role but also functioned together like a well-oiled machine.

At the conclusion of each meal, items left behind were counted and workers also took note of the items that students selected first. This attention to detail helped them to prepare the right amount of meals the next day and make those subtle adjustments to product availability. I couldn't help but think this was exactly like formative assessment. I was told the "name of the game" is to create a menu with healthy food choices the students will eat and reduce waste to the greatest extent possible. On this day, students had a total of 12 choices for lunch. In the interest of time, I won't detail the entire menu. Here's a few highlights: fresh salad, fresh cut cucumber and Tajin seasoning (prepared by yours truly) yogurt, fresh fruit cup, and of course PIZZA.

At the first lunch, I continued to run the register. In a former life, I was a bank teller. But nothing prepares one to work a register where you are serving 700 customers in a span of 20 minutes. This was crazy! Even though the students were punching in their lunch numbers at lightening speed, I still had to pay attention and verify each point of sale. I was reminded by the Director of Food Services that we serve about 16,000 meals a day district wide. Whew!!

At the second lunch, my role changed. This time I was responsible for ensuring each student who left the service line had selected at least one protein and two fruits. With a total of 12 choices, the combinations were dizzying. That was, by far, the most difficult job of the day.

After the second lunch and the remaining item counts were taken, it was time for the service team to take a break and eat. On this day, there was a little celebration. This was clearly a time to build and reinforce positive relationships among the staff. They chatted, ate, and shared stories about their own children and families. What a wonderful team! Not long after the break, the majority of the staff was at the end of their shift.

Next, I helped prepare for supper. The last meal of the day. After the setup was complete, I was back on the register. For some students, this was my third point of contact. By this time, they were getting curious. Was I the new guy? I was surprised by how many students smiled or shared a quick word with me as they punched in their numbers, made their selections, and scampered off to eat lunch.

I'm not sure about you, but I never really stopped to think about personal food choice. I was raised on PBJs, BBQ chips, twinkies, and a soda rolled up in aluminum foil to keep it cold. Sadly, I still love those items. Today's students are making healthier food choices. We served many vegetarians and a handful of vegans during my day in the cafeteria. Staff was also really tuned into what meal combinations students wanted most.

There you have it-my day in the cafeteria. If you are a teacher or a principal, I would ask you to consider this question. Is your classroom as data driven and personalized as this middle school cafeteria? Do your students have choices in the way they receive instruction? Are you making daily adjustments to ensure more instruction is consumed than tossed out?

By the way, I did complete my ServSafe certificate for California before working in the cafeteria.

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As I read your article of your exsperience inside the life of the cafeteria workers. I was touched of how you realized what classified workers do on a daily bases. I have great respect of what you are doing to see personally on what goes on behind the scenes. As you continue to work in different classified jobs, I hope this will give you a better understanding of the classified staff throughout the district of Val Verde USD under your leadership.




Way to go Superintendent!!! Your experience today reminds me of of the show called "Undercover Boss" excepting they knew who you were. That's what great leaders do. Now you have a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a cafeteria worker: more than just handing out food.


Ha ha...this is great. way to go MR MCCORMICK! I had to read this (even though I'm in the middle of conferences). I can't wait for the day when you get to be a TK teacher for the day! I think it's awesome that you ended up in food services because they have a big job and they do such a great job. Lots of little hungry mouths to feed. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

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