Building community support helps transform foodservice design projects into game-changing initiatives that can withstand the tests of time. In his latest blog post, consultant Greg Christian describes his approach to gaining community support at Nardin Academy.

After assessing the facilities, design, and equipment in the Nardin Academy cafeteria, the school’s leadership had a clear idea of what operational and design changes were necessary to start tackling its sustainability strategy.

In this instance, it made sense to use year one for staff training, developing a scratch-cooked menu, and laying the groundwork for waste reduction and other education initiatives. My work with Melanie Smythe of Candacity, LLC showed the school’s leaders how to band-aid the kitchen during this transition period before completely remodeling the foodservice operation. And, as a result of this transitional period, the school’s leaders would have a better idea of what they were remodeling and why.

Earning the support from those you intend to serve represents a key factor in updating any school foodservice program and this project is no exception. We spent the spring of 2013 working with students to gain their support, which would help Nardin get the green light from its board of directors to launch the new program. Our efforts during the spring also helped determine whether Nardin should continue to work with its current foodservice provider or become self-operated.

We had already conducted student tastings to show Nardin’s leaders the student body really would eat healthier food, but I continued to meet with principals, students, parents, and community organizations. Without sharing the vision, and giving people a chance to help create it, a project develops a top down mentality, which does not help its longevity. It is possible to improve upon the initial vision for a project but in order to sustain a new dream, a shared vision is necessary. Nardin’s stakeholders stepped up to help fuel and steer the ship.

Principals and teachers carry a school’s mission into the classroom. The more they contribute to the shared vision of the cafeteria the more legs it will have. They also have the power to stop the project from progressing. Teachers and principals are often the ones who carry out new policies. I’ve worked in schools where projects are forced upon this group without asking for any input from them. This can cause alienation and negativity—even if the policy is a good one.

An interesting question to ask this group is how big of a role schools should play in teaching kids about healthy food choices. Most say 80 percent of the responsibility falls to the parents and 20 percent to the schools. Considering the options made available to children away from home that is a tough job for any parent.

I also ask teachers and administrators if they personally eat the food the school serves. Unless the food is free, 20 percent of the teachers usually eat the food served in the cafeteria. The factor to note is how the students operate in the classroom after lunch periods. Teachers often say it is a battle to keep them awake.

When talking to the students it is more important to discuss the actual food, including: how often they eat in the cafeteria, the difference between how they eat at home and how they eat at school, and have them describe the one thing they would like to change about the cafeteria. This provides insight into creating the new program and menu, but these conversations also help engage students and allow them to voice their opinions about future changes.

One thing I did at Nardin was host a community dinner. Independent schools develop strong relationships with parents and the community, and it is often the parents who can really drive home innovative change. I asked the school to draw together a group of interested parents and business owners in the community. We had a dinner and shared the vision and strategic plan, including how to develop and implement a new food program in budget and what support the school would need later.

When parents hear about great locally sourced food being served in a zero-waste kitchen on real service ware with ties to the classroom, garden, and community they light up with questions and ideas. At this dinner the room caught fire. People approached the school offering support that Nardin had not explicitly requested. The school saw that its community would firmly stand behind the project and might even demand it.

Developing initial relationships with organizations and farms is equally important. Early partnerships can help shape out the vision and show an institution how many sustainable opportunities already surround them. This is also a great way to get people thinking about how a cafeteria program can be about more than food and build excitement around the new program.

Our model is about best serving everyone impacted by the food system and all the pieces that are entailed. It is important to not forget that part of this is in listening, engaging, and allowing all stakeholders to own a part of that conversation.