Researchers look for solutions in complex school foodservice system

By Jennifer Miller
October 25, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In public and private schools across the United States, foodservice directors have an important responsibility: feeding children each school day while meeting government guidelines with a finite number of dollars. Researchers at Penn State are working to better understand school foodservice operations, a daunting task.

Specifically, Amit Sharma, director of the Food Decisions Research Laboratory (FDRL) at Penn State, is studying how public and private school foodservice directors have navigated the option of outsourcing foodservices with the goal of analyzing varying levels of success.

“While foodservice programs are smaller pieces of schools’ budgets, they serve an important role, and the question that often comes up in schools is whether it is better to outsource foodservice or keep it within the schools,” Sharma said. “Understanding how this process works could help administrators make better decisions.”

More to the point, Sharma and his team of researchers want to better understand private school foodservice decisions compared to public schools. In public schools, stakeholders include not only students and their parents, but also state and federal governments, which provide foodservice funding. Conversely, private schools are not obligated to use government funding; therefore their main stakeholders are students and their parents.

“What we would like to know is how do foodservice directors operate efficiently and effectively to provide meals to students in terms of cost structure, given typical constraints? Within this educational space, without government reimbursement, how do private schools operate versus public schools?” Sharma said.

Sharma, associate professor of hospitality finance, is working with Sodexo — a global foodservice and facilities management company — to determine how industry can better meet the needs of the private-school market.

According to Sharma, despite the importance attributed to healthy eating in schools, there is still a considerable gap in an academic understanding of school foodservice operations. Empirically, too, the industry can value from such studies, which is why the FDRL is collaborating with Sodexo for the project.

The goal of this study is to understand how private schools leverage food services, how school facilities develop a competitive advantage and how transactional costs and benefits influence private schools’ decision to outsource.

Along the way, students assist Sharma with the research. Students gain a variety of skills, such as developing research questions and hypotheses and collecting data using methods like interviews and surveys.

“I believe involving undergraduate and graduate students with research projects that involve collaboration with industry stakeholders can provide invaluable experiences to the students,” Sharma said.

Yuxia Ouyang, a graduate student studying hospitality management, is working with Sharma in the FDRL. What she enjoys most about her role is the challenge of solving a real-life problem.

“To investigate the needs and priorities of private-school foodservice and facilities management, we are trying to understand relevant factors and help schools better manage outsourcing decisions, and at the same time provide suggestions for the industry to effectively serve the schools’ outsourcing needs,” Ouyang said.

The opportunity to conduct research prepares Ouyang for her career in multiple ways.

“I am working closely with the research team to understand how academic literature can provide us clues to answer our research questions, developing the protocol to conduct our research and collecting and analyzing data we need for this research project,” she said. “A special part of my work is to organize meetings, record work schedules and set timelines for ongoing activities. This role helps me to understand how to be a project manager and work with others to accomplish tasks.”

Evan Talbert, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, joined the research team as an undergraduate research assistant with support from the College of Health and Human Development Summer Undergraduate Research Grant Program.

As an undergraduate student, Talbert’s role was to assist Ouyang with research activities and communication with Sodexo. Soon, he will help the team conduct interviews, transcribe the discussions and arrange them logically so that the team can review these discussions.

“I never pictured myself doing research as an undergraduate student. This opportunity has opened my eyes to what kind of information industry leaders need access to in order to expand their business,” Talbert said. “What I enjoy most about this research is how we as a team are able to work together, even if it is during summer travel when some of us are halfway around the world. It really involves working as a team, and strong communication.”

Javid Baig, global senior vice president of strategy for Sodexo Schools Worldwide, appreciates the partnership with Penn State faculty and students. Baig is also a member of the Penn State School of Hospitality Management Industry Advisory Board.

“The Penn State School of Hospitality Management has been a great partner in helping Sodexo understand and analyze the foodservice industry in the K-12 school segment,” Baig said. “Their work ethic and professionalism give us the modeling and analysis to make informed decisions.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 28, 2016