College and University

One Day. 1000 Students. Massive Feedback for One Co-Op.

May 07, 2018

One Day. 1000 Students. Massive Feedback for One Co-Op.

What do you get when you combine more than 1000 students with 92 foodservice vendors, 424 food products, 200 iPad Mini’s and a DJ?

A mountain of insights into what students want to see on their school menus—all gathered in a single day.

If that sounds incredible, welcome to northeast Tennessee, home of NETCO, a school foodservice cooperative founded in 1997, representing more than a dozen area school systems.

While many co-ops and school districts solicit student feedback, few do it with the scale and efficiency of NETCO.

“Our last event in October generated more than 13,000 individual product evaluations,” says NETCO CEO Trish Holt. “We get great information on how they feel about existing menu items, as well as new products coming out that are formulated for schools.”

How they do it

For NETCO, understanding their “customers’” preferences is as critical as it would be for any for-profit business. With a total food spend of $16.8 million per year, their member districts serve over 60,000 student meals per day.

The success of the annual tasting starts with attracting strong student participation from elementary, middle and high schools. Each district has a different way of deciding who gets to attend. Sometimes it’s a whole elementary school class. Sometimes it’s limited to students studying culinary arts.  Others are winners of essay contests.  Students must take time out from school and are transported by bus to Freedom Hall Civic Center in Johnson, Tennessee.

Before students hit the floor, each is given a color-coded wrist band that limits their initial tastings to a specific row of vendors. 

“Students are always going to gravitate to the ice cream,” say Holt.  “The wristbands ensure that we focus their attention more evenly across the products evaluated.”

After they complete their assigned row, students have the freedom to taste anything they wish.  As the kids pass judgement (grades include Awesome, Just OK, and No Thanks) their feedback is captured via iPad Mini’s (two per booth) using a custom app developed in conjunction with NutriSlice and SurveyGizmo.

Fun is the key

In addition to a full belly, students are treated to music, entertainment and games led by a local DJ. Throughout the day, the DJ conducts video interviews with students that are projected to the crowd via a jumbo-tron above the floor. Vendors get into the act with a booth decorating contest.

No surprise, the students and schools love the show.

“We’ve become a part of the culture of the schools. Even when there have been budget cutbacks, the schools still want to be part of the event,” says NETCO’s Karen McGahey.

Just when you think you know what students like…

For McGahey, the surprising things she learns through student feedback never stop coming.

“A few years ago, we thought we knew which items were too hot and spicy for elementary school kids.  When we tested them, we found students across all ages liked these items,” she says.  “In today’s world, we’ve decided the hotter, the better.”

French fries—always high on the list of students—draw particular scrutiny during the show.