Fight or Flight When Your Customers Complain

In the last few months, social media feeds and news stories have been highlighting student and parent complaints about the quality of school meals. In addition to the daily struggles school nutrition departments are experiencing, this is one more thing added to their day. Often the one negative comment or feedback overshadows all the success and positives. It is hard to remember the complaint as being just one part of the big picture or the puzzle.

Should you take these complaints seriously and do you have to react or respond? Absolutely, and let me explain my reasoning below. I will also share some tips on how to resolve these issues.

School nutrition professionals know how hard they work each day and what it takes to pull off meal service with the current constraints of supply chain, worker shortages, short mealtimes and at times challenging customers. It is understandable that being defensive may be your initial reaction. Remember though that your mission is to serve healthy and appealing meals so that you have satisfied and returning customers. Also, some complaints have merit. It is essential to have a plan in place to deal with student, staff or parent complaints regarding your meal service.

Action Plan for dealing with complaints in person:

  • Staff should make sure the student, teacher or parent feels heard
  • Be patient and let them speak without interruption

Action Plan for dealing with social media complaints:

  • Reach out to the person and ask them to contact you

Recently my 6 year came home from school and I asked her how was lunch today. She was excited for lunch because it was a fruit and yogurt parfait. As a vegetarian, she always gets excited when she can eat school lunch with her friends. Today she said her first bite was delicious. Then, she said, ” Mom they must have run out of yogurt because the rest of my parfait was milk!” This special had been offered all week. It is possible this parfait had not been made fresh that morning. As we know yogurt and fruit will separate into a liquid when kept in the fridge and needs to be remixed or thrown away depending on when it was prepared. The school foodservice professionals at her school took one look at her parfait, apologized, and got her a new one. In this example it was easy for them to see the issue and quickly rectify the situation. In the end making a hungry 6 year very happy with her lunch.

Another example of a student complaint from a different district recently was caused by menu changes due to shortages. A middle school student complained to his mother that he was only given a milk, yogurt and crackers for lunch and he was very hungry when he came home. Instead of reaching out to the school nutrition department, the mother vented on social media. She was concerned that her child was being underfed and her tax dollars were being wasted. Yes, the milk, crackers and yogurt is what the student selected but he left out the multiple offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables that he

Not all situations are this simple. We have seen and heard about students around the country posting their meals to social media. Many of these posts are negative in nature.

As school nutrition professionals we can empathize with the everyday struggles and challenges in school nutrition. Many of these are not new and you have been dealing with for many years. The increase of exposure from social media and the general misunderstanding of how school nutrition programs operate have increased in recent years.

Here are some tips that you can implement with limited time and resources to educate your community:

  • School Nutrition Social Media: post a picture each day of your beautiful and complete tray highlighting the meals being served that day. Weaver Union SD posts on social media each day to communicate with parents the meals being served.
  • Post your menus and highlight things like made from scratch, locally sourced, unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Once a month highlight a different school nutrition staff member in a get-to-know-our-team post.
  • Involve your school teachers and administration

Turning a negative into a positive

Most people not involved in school nutrition do not understand all the working pieces that goes into these programs. It is easy to become frustrated when people outside the field have comments or suggestions. Try sharing with your community stakeholders what it takes to run school nutrition programs including: regulations, procurement, staffing, student preferences and the effect of the supply chain. In many instances this may help to gain more support for your team and your mission of serving kids each day!