How to Promote School Lunch Improvements

An Interview with Communications Consultant Andy Goodman on how to advise schools to better communicate improvements made in school food to parents and students.

How to Promote School Lunch Improvements

Building on What You Believe In

Andy Goodman is a communications consultant based in Los Angeles, California. His firm, a goodman, helps public interest groups, foundations, and progressive businesses communicate more effectively through print, broadcast media, and the Internet. Prior to forming a goodman, he founded and ran the American Comedy Network, wrote and produced for television, and served as President of the Environmental Media Association (EMA). He is the author of Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes.

Center for Ecoliteracy: Many school districts are hoping to improve school meal services by offering meals prepared from fresh, organic or sustainably grown ingredients, purchased from local farms. How would you advise them to communicate to students and parents about these improvements?

Andy Goodman: We want to help them position that offer in the best way, so that they don’t step into any potholes. I can’t give anybody specific advice about the best way to proceed until they’ve done some preliminary research. You can’t devise a campaign before you’ve found out about the attitudes, language, beliefs, and behaviors of the people you’re trying to reach.

First you have to sit down with groups of students and groups of parents and ask very basic questions to get a much clearer idea of what their attitudes and beliefs are, what they’re looking for from school lunches, what language they use around food, and how they react to the terms that we would use.

I think we know intuitively that we don’t want to be coming at them with fancy language like “sustainable” this or “organic” that, language that they may not understand or that carries baggage for them.

So you ask them, “What terms do you use to describe food that you like?” If you ask, “What’s your favorite food?” and they say “Cheeseburger,” then ask “Why?” Get them talking about what they like about food, that descriptive language, so that you can use those very same words to describe the food that you’re planning to serve. Sometimes, you’ll have to drill down a little bit. For example, if they say that they enjoy what is served at the “food court,” you need to pursue that answer all the way to what it really means, which might be “multi-ethnic, multi-choice.” They may be asking for something that they don’t know how to ask for. You need to get behind the answers to understand what they are really looking for. Do parents really want their kids to get more vitamins, more iron? Or are they really saying that they want their kids to be healthy?

Their level of understanding about food and nutrition will determine where you go from there. A lot is going to depend on what the parents and kids tell you. You may have to phase some things in slowly, if you’re working in an environment where there’s tremendous ignorance, or just deeply ingrained bad habits. If you try to move too quickly to a fully healthy diet, people might reject it simply because they’re just not ready.

CEL: Kids have their own language for talking with each other. How can we get that kind of honesty in the focus group?

AG: That’s a very good question. The research process is fraught with pitfalls where people give you the answer they think you want you to hear, and then do the complete opposite. I’ll give you an example. A department of health was researching an anti-smoking campaign for teens, and hired an ad agency to help. The agency knew that if they put kids in a focus group around a table with fluorescent lighting and adults asking questions, the kids would tell them what they wanted to hear, not what the kids really thought. So the agency hired teenagers, gave them video cameras, and said, “Find kids who are in line at a movie, or at a mall, or just killing time. Explain that you’re collecting opinions about smoking for a project. Ask them some questions.” It was kids asking kids in their own relaxed environment, where they felt a level of privacy and confidence. The answers they got from the kids were extremely candid. That’s where they got their themes for talking to kids about not smoking.

There’s a great focus group story from Sony. Boom boxes used to all be black, but Sony thought, “Let’s introduce some new colors.” So they brought in these ”typical teenagers” to talk about boom boxes. They showed the kids some boom boxes in yellow, green and red, etc., and said, “What do you think of these new colors?” And the kids said, “Wow! New colors! Exciting!” After they asked the kids for their opinions, they let each kid choose a boom box to take home with them as a thank you gift for coming. They had a whole lineup of boom boxes in every color set out, and every kid chose black. The researcher said, “That’s where we learned that the answers you get on the survey may not be consistent with what kids really think.”

CEL: In addition to peer-to-peer questioning, what other ways can interviewers elicit authentic opinions from students?

AG: Let’s say I’m one kid interviewing another kid. The conversation goes like this:

– Tell me your three favorite things to eat.

– Pizza, cheeseburgers, hot dogs.

– Why do you like pizza?

– It’s greasy. It’s cheesy. It tastes good.

– Why do you like cheeseburgers?

– They taste good.

– Why do you like hot dogs?

– They taste good.

They probably won’t be any more eloquent than that. So I ask them, “Tell me something that your parents made you eat that you were surprised that you liked.” Or, “Tell me about something that someone told you was good for you that actually tasted good.” I try to get them talking about something that they tried that was different, that wasn’t a hamburger or a cheeseburger or a hot dog, and that actually tasted pretty good. That kind of question will start to elicit from them some different things to eat, and maybe some different reasons for why things taste good.

CEL: What about exploring messages that reach parents?

AG: The same process goes for parents. If you can create an environment where they don’t feel as though they’re talking to researchers or outsiders, but talking amongst themselves, you’ll get more candid interest there as well.

Try to find some setting such as a dinner party where, on a peer- to-peer basis, the host could pass around a simple survey and say, “I’m doing some research and I need to get 20 friends to talk to me about the foods they like. Could you fill this out for me?” The questionnaire asks questions such as, “Tell me about your last five dinners. Tell me what you ate. Tell me about your last five lunches. Put a check if you prepared it yourself or someone prepared it for you.” It can be fairly tame. See if you can prompt some conversation around that. In a professional focus group setting, the gathering would be taped to listen to afterward.

CEL: How would you select the parents?

AG: You have to find people who are hubs, who have a lot of people around them, so that if they have a dinner party, they can get 15 to 20 people around the table. With some thought, you’ll know who the leaders are in the community. I know there are just certain parents at my daughter’s school who would be right for this. I think you probably know the same thing in your children’s schools.

You want to ask some financial questions, obviously. You also want to ask questions like, “If you wanted your kid to have a balanced diet, give me five lunches that you’d say, ‘Good, they’re getting what they need.’ ”That will also test levels of knowledge, which will be helpful. You want to get their perceptions about what tastes good and what doesn’t taste good. You can be even more directive like, “Have you ever had any organic food? How did it taste?” If you find that parents have the same preconceptions as the kids, it’s important to recognize that parent opinion will reinforce the kids’ reservations about the food. It’s something you’ll need to address in the marketing program.

You can ask, “When you were growing up, what kind of food did you have in your house?”, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?”, “Tell me some things you cook for your kids.” If they think you’re looking for answers that spell a balanced diet, then they’ll tailor what they tell you about what they cook. But if instead you are asking about what they enjoy cooking, and it adds up to a very imbalanced diet, you need to know that, because that’s the world these kids live in.

Once you’ve interviewed the kids and their parents, and heard their language and their attitudes, assumptions, likes and dislikes, and so on, then it’s your task to come up with messages that speak their language and encourage what they’re hopeful about and speak to what they’re concerned about.

CEL: How might that work to promote fresh, healthy food in the school lunch?

AG: First of all, I don’t know to what degree lunch is about food, and it’s dangerous to assume. Look at who’s successful. Look at McDonald’s and their slogans. It’s all about the experience. There’s almost nothing about the food. Burger King will try to sell you on flame broiling, but for a lot of these places the food is considered interchangeable. So you also need to find out from your audience how much lunch is about the experience of lunch, about where they sit, who they sit with, and what’s going on. Maybe the food is incidental. If that’s the case, then your task isn’t about marketing the food as much as creating an environment where great things are happening.

CEL: How much of marketing is really removing barriers—mental barriers or cultural barriers or something that blocks someone from really wanting to do something?

AG: The question I always ask in a marketing effort is, “Is this a matter of taking something that people believe in and building on it? Or is it taking something that they’re concerned about and overcoming it?” It varies from instance to instance.

Take taste, for example. Taste-testing is an important part of the research. If the food doesn’t taste good to the kids, that’s a barrier. I’m assuming that the food you pick will taste good. If the kids say the food tastes great, that becomes part of your campaign. But what if they basically tell you, “Yeah, the new items are fine. They’re a lot like the old items”? If you find that out, then I think the message to your planning team is not to make a big deal about rolling it out. Just phase it in, and don’t call attention to it. That will only get people thinking about it.

CEL: What about the price of the meal?

AG: I’d want to know what price is a deal breaker for families. If they say, “Look, I can’t give my kid $3.50 a day, five days a week for lunch, no matter what you’re serving,” you have to deal with that somehow.

CEL: Often, only the poorest children eat the school lunch, and not even as many as qualify for it. This condition is linked to the poor quality of the food, and also the stigma associated with the free lunch. How can schools improve the program for kids that need the free lunch program and also attract more full-pay kids to the service?

AG: We have to do things in the launch that make a fresh impression . . . that make lunch fun, cool, and their own thing. But probably no matter how good it is, most campaigns work better with a phase-in where people have a chance to put their toe in and experiment a little before they’re fully committed. For example, if you substitute a healthy burrito for an unhealthy burrito that’s already on the menu, and no one complains, you’re fine. If you can do it without a lot of hoopla, even better, because if the foods have the same name and the same kind of look, then maybe the answer is “Don’t make a big deal about it.”

CEL: Assuming that you’re figuring out what your message is, and the words in which to express it, how do you decide what medium to use to deliver that message?

AG: As part of your research, you ask parents, for instance, where they get their information about what’s happening at school. “From my kid, from the neighborhood, from the flyer that comes home, from the bulletin board.” Then you just get your message into that flow. The same thing with kids: When something’s happening at school, how do you find out about it? “An announcement over the loudspeaker. It’s on the blackboard. I’m handed something. I hear it from friends.” We may have assumptions about how information is transferred, but let’s hear what works for them. I think a good general rule is, don’t assume anything. Find a way to ask and get an honest answer.

It’s the same thing with choosing your spokespersons. Who do parents and kids believe? You ask, “Where do you get information that you trust most about the school?” or “Whose advice about the school do you rely on?”

I think all of this comes down to being a student of human nature, and knowing what kind of circumstances permit a person to speak most honestly. The task is to create those circumstances, using your own common sense and whatever tools you have. Ask questions in the most neutral sort of way in order to get really honest answers. Parents and kids will tell you what to do in your campaign. They’ll give you the answers, if they get the chance to do it candidly.