Cafeteria starts initiatives to increase participation

Since the district’s switch to Nutri-Serve Food Management as its food provider at the beginning of the school year, cafeteria management has made several attempts to address issues in the cafeteria and further involve the student body.

“From last year to this year, I’ve noticed significant changes in the variety of services and menus the cafeteria offers,” said Ayesha Qureshi ’17. “For students [who] constantly buy food at break, the time they spend every day at the cafeteria is a significant part of their high school experience, so any changes that are made will play a role in many students’ lives.”

The first issue addressed by Food Service Director Joel Rosa this year was training for staff to increase positive cooperation and communication. “I’m really proud of building the team, building the morale within the district … next year [students will] be able to see a lot more because of how happy the employees are,” he said. “The leads also have an important role … they naturally come up with their own ideas. I empower them … [by giving] them the problem and some tools so they can find a solution.”

Rosa named PHS chef Ray Liscik as an integral part of the process, and Liscik also emphasized the importance of collaboration and the training process. “We have a guide, so we teach [cafeteria workers] and generally photoshop it so they have something as a reference point, so it looks the same consistently,” he said. “We train them to do their job, and … then what we try to do is get them all trained to do someone else’s job.”

The length of time it took for most students to get their lunches was another concern. “Part of my goals was trying to fix the ongoing problems they had last year with the lunch lines, where no one wanted to come down to eat because it would take forever,” Rosa said. “In the beginning of the year, it took almost 40 minutes to get through, and now people finish in ten.”

A defined entry path for students was implemented in the cafeteria this year, so that students would have to pass by the hot food options and two registers. “It’s a win-win type thing … controlling theft, having an easy flow … that makes a big difference,” Rosa said. “[At the] beginning of the year, it just took too long, and other students were frustrated with other students cutting the line. Now our participation level is higher, I see more teachers, more staff involved … lines are going faster.”

However, some students find that the new line system has restricted students rather than reduced lunch lines. “The new lunch line makes the cafeteria more squished, where students have to push back and forth in between the lines in order to get to their food. It can definitely be changed,” said Jonathan Chao ’17. “I don’t think a crowded area is where students want to be, and it deters many students from wanting to go. Instead, if menus are put around the school, they might be more inclined to go the cafeteria on a specific day and others wouldn’t have to wait in the lunch line going to the hot food area.”

According to Rosa, students who view hot food options may choose eating cafeteria food as a healthy alternative to other choices. “Definitely an important part of what I do is trying to provide healthy choices for the students and helping them make better choices as well, not only that, but maintaining the school budget,” Rosa said.

Although the Food Services Department is constantly looking to improve its quality and offerings, changes in the cafeteria are limited due to the cafeteria’s budget. “Sometimes I have to steer away from what I do with the nutritious side just to build the participation and slowly guide into the whole healthy way of eating,” Rosa said.

Nevertheless, the cafeteria’s initiative to offer fresher choices has led to soups and hummus being made every day. In addition, food options such as pizza toppings are being diversified. “I just like to see us stay with a progressive menu,” Liscik said.

This June, in an effort to attract more visitors, the cafeteria’s schedule was headlined by an international food week from June 8 until June 12, showcasing different cuisines from different countries and continents.

Rosa and Sheng Gao ’16 have been collaborating throughout this school year on a variety of cafeteria-related projects, but this was the first weeklong program that took place. “Princeton High School is filled with a variety of different students,” Rosa said. “[International Food Week] will call people to come down to the cafeteria and see what’s down there.”

Although the cafeteria has served meals such as nachos grande, chicken teriyaki, and chicken fajitas, Rosa said that International Food Week was different. “[In school lunches], sometimes you have that Spanish food—but it still has that Americanized way of making it,” he said. “This [is a] more of an authentic way of making food, something that’s never been done at these schools before.”

Gao came to Rosa with several ideas over the course of the school year, starting in September, when he brought the idea to Rosa of a new way of organizing the line system in the cafeteria to expedite the purchasing process. “He wanted to help the students organize themselves better, so he gave some ideas on how we [could switch] the lines around,” Rosa said. “I got the board at Valley Road to help us purchase the stanchions.”

Gao presented the idea of International Food Week to Rosa because of what he saw as a gap between students’ tastes and the food served by the cafeteria. “I moved to the United States [during my] sophomore year, and some of my friends—they are Chinese—don’t like the cafeteria’s food,” he said.

Each day of International Food Week had a different theme. The cafeteria served Italian pasta puttanesca on Monday, Chinese chicken and broccoli on Tuesday, Greek moussaka on Wednesday, Mexican enchiladas on Thursday, and Polish kielbasa and potatoes on Friday. In addition, the cafeteria offered free samples that corresponded to each day’s theme, such as edamame—soybeans found in pods—on Tuesday.

However, according to Liscik, the free samples did not drastically increase the amount of student participation. “I know [the cafeteria] made over 300 samples [on Monday], so there was quite a bit to give out,” he said. “But I know … 300 kids [didn’t] come through here.”

With an increase in the number of visitors to the cafeteria, students found it more difficult to get their lunch. “PHS is very diverse, and there are students from all different countries. People want to eat different kinds of foods, but it’s going to be hard for the cafeteria to implement this new idea,” Chao said. “This crowds up the lunch lines and when other kids see the huge lunch line they’re not going to want to go.”

Nevertheless, the collaboration between Gao and Rosa is a small view into the expanded communication between the Food Services Department and students—for example, Rosa has also been meeting regularly with Youth Advisory Committees to talk about school lunch food. “[A] portion of the YAC meeting is [the students] giving me feedback [and] criticism [about] how we can prepare our food better, customer service, [and] what we can offer the students at Princeton that we are not offering now.”

In the future, Rosa welcomes further student perspective and input to create a better cafeteria experience for the students. “We’re here for [the student body]; if we haven’t gotten the message across correctly about what it wants, [I hope students] reach out to me and feel comfortable [doing so],” he said. “In the future, I want to offer so much more; there is no [limiting] level.”

“There are still many aspects of and issues with our cafeteria that should be addressed,” Qureshi said. “Creating an informal partnership between the student body and management is important because it would welcome the exchange of ideas and improve the overall cafeteria experience for everyone.”

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