By Jennifer Armstrong, National Program Director for K-12 Schools
One of the things I enjoy most about my work in the K-12 segment is seeing how school foodservice evolves to keep up with different food trends. I spend a lot of time at national conferences learning about changing nutritional requirements, kid-favorite ingredients, foodservice equipment and more. But no matter where I go, it seems the main topic of discussion is centered on the same principle: increasing participation.
Build-your-own stations are a solution that’s floated pretty regularly. They create an experience and engage students by giving them the opportunity to have some control over what’s on their plate. That’s very appealing to them, as they’re used to the build-your-own concept in popular restaurants, such as Subway and Chipotle.
Most schools have a salad bar, but the options for customization are really endless. From mac and cheese to chicken wings and ground turkey tacos, foods of all kinds can be personalized with fun flavors and ingredients students love. I’ve even seen milk bars where kids can select the flavor and temperature of their beverage. This customization is great for catering to not only different tastes but also food allergies, as these foods are easy to avoid.
While build-your-own stations are a great way to get kids involved, they do present a few obstacles for K-12 operators, such as portion control, cleanup and cross contamination. It can be difficult to keep track of how many toppings or ingredients students are adding, and younger students tend to make a bit of a mess with scoops and spoons. This can make it difficult to remain allergy friendly in a student body full of individual needs. Space can also be a concern, as the setup tends to require its own separate area in the cafeteria.
As this cafeteria feature continues to grow and become more popular in schools across the country, I have full confidence that there will be solutions to these challenges. It might take some trial and creativity, but in the end, perfecting a build-your-own station could be K-12 operators’ key to keeping kids happy while addressing issues like nutritional requirements and participation.