Part 1: Q&A with Marlon Gordon, Founder and CEO of NxtGen Innovators

There’s no doubt that times are considerably less certain than they used to be. Non-commercial foodservice professionals -- across corporate dining, K-12, higher education, and healthcare -- are facing incredible challenges, yet at the same time, immense opportunities. K-12 foodservice professionals in particular, have introduced many innovative programs to provide healthy meals to kids and families during the COVID-19 school closures. And, as they prepare for kids to come back to school in the Fall, their creativity and ingenuity will continue to be tested.

Our K-12 foodservice providers are faced with an inevitable “new normal” once schools reopen, and must navigate newly introduced scenarios for social distancing, stricter food-handling requirements and classroom meals.

In this 3-part series, we’ll be taking highlights from our K-12 Foodservice in a COVID-19 World webinar where we talk with three dining experts to learn about what operational, workforce and menu changes are here to stay, and how to start preparing now in order to thrive in this new normal.

Marlon-Gordon_blogTo kick off the series, we’ll be featuring Marlon Gordon, Founder and CEO of NxtGen Innovators, a network of solutions serving professionals within school foodservice. He is also Co-Owner & Co-Host of First Taste TV, and has been in school nutrition for the better part of a decade. Marlon shares his plans and recommendations for how to prepare and operate K-12 foodservice once schools reopen.

Mike: So much of COVID-19 has been about playing defense, responding and making plans as the pandemic has spread throughout the world. What have you seen operators and industry experts do thus far, to take the reins back and play offense?

Marlon: I’ve seen a lot of great innovations on the technology front, given the sudden move to working remotely. Associations like the Indiana School Nutrition Association are getting ready to roll out training on how to use Google Suite now that all of our school districts are doing remote meetings. I am also seeing districts looking for new technology solutions for taking pre-orders for lunches, so that they can track how many students are picking up meals, and how many meals need to be prepared. Overall, people are on the hunt for innovative solutions right now.

Mike: In your perspective and experience, what positives have been spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Marlon: The positive that excites me the most is that COVID-19 has given child nutrition a platform to stand on. For so many years, people have looked down at school food, but now everyone is looking up to us. Professionals in child nutrition have become first responders and have been out there working when a lot of people can't work. We have an opportunity to show that off a bit, and we get to show our level of passion, care and desire to ensure that no child goes hungry. I'm also excited for the fact that we have the opportunity to shape our new normal in a way that is best for our children.

Mike: There are some new scenarios and service models being discussed right now for K-12 foodservice, including staggered lunches, hotspot delivery locations, alternate attendance days, and in-classroom lunches. Are there others that you are hearing about? Which of these scenarios gets you most excited?

Marlon: I am exploring using food trucks to deliver meals to students. I will also say that in-classroom dining gives us another opportunity to go where our students are. We now have the ability to be in the classroom, which can help increase participation in meal programs. If your district isn't doing that, now is a really good time to consider a program like in-classroom lunches, because that will allow us to be where our customers are, which is something we couldn’t previously do.

Mike: As we are all pushed into this COVID-19 world, what role do you see technology playing in K-12 foodservice?

Marlon: I think technology is going to play a huge role. Students are going to be ordering meals using mobile phones and computers, and more often the meals are going to be picked up at contactless pick up stations, so notifications are going to be big. School districts are now also going to expect their vendors to step up and provide better technologies and better software that can do more for them. I'm optimistic and extremely excited to see how technology will help aid child nutrition.

Mike: What expectations are parents and students going to have for foodservice when they return to school?

Marlon: I think parents and students are going to expect to continue to receive a high level of customer service. We were already seeing trends where students are used to placing orders at restaurants and being served. They’re used to not having to wait in lines, they just want to place an order and go pick it up right away, or have their meal delivered to them. I think that they're going to expect to see more of that in their school environment. But I also think they're going to expect to continue to receive high quality foods.

Mike: One of the overarching themes of our conversation has been that school nutrition has been thrust to the forefront with COVID-19. As a first responder, there's been so much good momentum and goodwill created within the communities in which we serve. We have a lot of positive momentum and are a stable force in a child's educational experience every day. Is there anything else that you would add to that?

Marlon: My children are super excited whenever the lunch bus drives by. Every day, they get to run out, grab their meal, come back in to eat and it gives them a sense of normalcy. That feeling is something that I'm very thankful for. I'm also thankful for everything that child nutrition providers have done. They have a sheer passion and will to make sure that kids get fed and I’m so thankful for everything that they do.

Mike: What one thing do you hope every operator is doing right now to prepare for the Fall?

Marlon: I hope they are planning accordingly. We don't know exactly what the Fall is going to bring, and what challenges we will face. The operators need to focus on coming up with multiple plans with contingency plans on top of that, that will allow them to be agile. We need to be willing to grow and evolve and adapt whenever needed.

Mike: Any closing comments?

Marlon: COVID-19 isn't a perfect scenario, but it represents an opportunity. This pandemic has become a way for child nutrition to continue to move forward and to show the world what we’re made of. Now is the time for us to be innovative, to think outside the box and grow.

Continue Reading: K-12 Foodservice: Preparing for Classroom Meals Part 2: Q&A with Tracie Suter