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Marketing Students Help Local School District Take On Cafeteria Lunch Stigma

Class photoAs youngsters across the Lowcountry anxiously await winter break — and all of the tasty treats that often make their way home over the holidays — the students of Charleston County School District (CCSD) have made one thing clear, they’re not interested in the food at school.

Curious to uncover the cause and eager to offer a data-driven marketing solution, Marketing and Society students (pictured left) from the College of Charleston School of Business partnered with seven schools in the state’s second largest school district to increase cafeteria food consumption. This project is just one component of the MKTG 355 class, taught by professor of marketing Robert Pitts.

CCSD serves, on average, over 40,000 meals a day. And while breakfast and lunch participation among students is steadily on the rise, the district strives for full participation. With that goal in mind, CCSD enlisted the help of CofC’s ready-to-work business students.

“We don’t have a marketing department in nutrition services,” says Jeremy Tunstill, CCSD nutrition services supervisor. “But we do what marketing we can with what little time and resources we have.” Tunstill shares that he thought a collaboration would be a win-win — students get some marketing experience while the district receives marketing insights.

Tunstill says there were many challenges that made the promotion of school meals a daunting task. The biggest obstacle: Overcoming the age-old misconception — often perpetuated in media — that cafeteria cuisine is non nutritious and unappetizing. 

It is the same stigma that threw business administration major and senior MKTG 355 student Madison Lytle’s group for a loop when they first started the project.

“It is very hard to change someone’s perspective on something when there is a negative connotation behind it,” she says. “With such a negative stigma behind eating cafeteria lunches, the biggest challenge we faced was trying to come up with ways to persuade our audience — middle schoolers and high schoolers — to purchase school lunches.”

Keeping true to the School of Business’ priority to provide business students with experiential learning opportunities, the project gave these young marketers the opportunity to find solutions to real-world problems outside of the classroom.

Presentations

The MKTG 355 students used focus group findings and survey data to develop marketing plans for Academic Magnet High School, Burke High School, Charleston Math and Science, Moultrie Middle, School of the Arts, Simmons-Pinckney Middle and West Ashley Middle School.

Following the research phase, the student consultants identified the major causes of the anti-school-food sentiments. Some complaints, such as the limited time for lunch, could not be changed. However, certain gripes like students’ dislike for their food choices could be addressed by the district. 

Marketing plans were presented to CCSD officials, including Tunstill, as a final class project in early December. 

“I think it was a very challenging project,” says Pitts. “But the students were able to offer approaches, ideas and solutions that school nutrition professionals may not have otherwise considered.”

In addition to consulting projects such as this, the 300-level marketing course also addresses a variety of topics and case studies in the classroom.

From learning how to ‘nudge’ behaviors and change consumer actions to understanding how companies market to vulnerable consumers, the Marketing and Society students have a lot to digest in one semester. But they’ve proven time and again it’s an attainable feast, ergh...feat.

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