Meal or No Meal

As you brace for opening day of the new school year, ask yourself how much potential revenue you lose each year due to misidentification of reimbursable meals. This is one of the greatest areas of revenue loss for school food programs. Regulations and final rules on reimbursable meals have been like a moving target since 2010. It is easy to understand that staff may be struggling with understanding what makes up a reimbursable breakfast or lunch. Throw in OVS (Offer vs. Served) and the confusion doubles. Most school food staffs I come in contact with, are confused by all of the changes and are reluctant to show what they know or don’t know about meal identification. They are unsure due to all of the changes and don’t want to appear lacking in knowledge on this topic.

When I get food service staff to open up and we start to discuss what the components and make up of a reimbursable breakfast or lunch are, they reveal what confuses them on how to recognize a meal. They usually know that five (5) components make up a lunch. Breakfast is usually a bit shaky, only having four (4) components, two (2) of which being bread, and a meat/meat alternative may substitute for one of the breads. This is certainly a source of confusion, but after some explanation they get how it works. Then comes OVS, and they give me usually what sounds like two baseball scores. Breakfast sounds like it’s the fourth inning, three to one (4th/3-1), and lunch is the fifth inning three to two (5th/3-2).

At breakfast the servers usually know that they have to offer four (4) items made up of three components (bread/grains, fruit/vegetables, milk). They also know that a student must take at least three (3) items to qualify as a reimbursable breakfast, with the student able to choose which items they wish to refuse. Throw in that bread counts as two (2) items and one item that must be chosen is a fruit or vegetable and the confusion begins. For lunch they understand that five (5) items must be offered, but you would be surprised how many can’t name these items. The fact that at lunch bread only counts as one item, not two, and a meat/meat alternative is a mandatory offering, not like at breakfast, is another stumbling block. The mandatory fruit and vegetable requirement is equally confusing. Servers know that a student may choose which two items they wish to refuse, but most have no clue why, and many still view fruit and vegetables as one component, which adds to the confusion. The true meaning and purpose of OVS usually escapes food service staff completely and to many, the old myth that milk is mandatory is still very much alive in how they handle OVS.

At this juncture in our conversation, I usually turn the discussion to what training and information they have received on meal identification thus far. I must say the answers I get in return to my question is shocking in many cases. In a previous article, I had mentioned a child’s game called “Whisper down the Alley (Lane),” where a sentence is whispered from one person to another, until it is revealed at the end with the last person repeating what they heard. As is human nature, as each person whispers to the next they inject their own interpretation to what they thought they heard. What results in the final message is nothing like the original at all and its meaning and intent is totally corrupted. In many instances, school food employees are expected and saddled with the task of training new employees one on one. Each “old” employee teaches the “new” employee what knowledge is necessary to be successful as a “Lunch Lady.” Most formal training sessions in many school food operations concerned Food Safety and HACCP in the past. Meal identification was left to the staff to teach new arrivals to the team. In many school dining programs I have visited this is generally the case. Surely, somewhere

in the past, a manager or director had discussed what makes up a meal and OVS, but they deemed it simple enough to let this training issue fall to their staff members to impart to new hires. Sound like “Whisper down the Alley?”

The true purpose of the guidelines for the composition of a reimbursable meal is to insure a student receives a balanced, nutritious meal. Breakfast must consist of four(4) offered items, two (2) bread items or a bread and a meat/meat alternative item, a fruit or vegetable item, and a dairy item (usually) milk. Under OVS for breakfast, all four (4) items must be offered for a single unit price. A student may choose three (3) or all four (4) items for the same unit price to make a reimbursable breakfast. One of the three items chosen must be a . cup of fruit or vegetable. The student may decide which item to refuse. For lunch basically the same applies, but now five (5) items must be offered: bread or grains, meat or protein, fruit, vegetable, and dairy (usually) milk. Under OVS all five (5) items must be offered for a single unit price. A student may take three (3), four (4), or all five (5) items to make a reimbursable lunch, for the same single unit price. One of the Items chosen must be a . cup of fruit or vegetable to qualify the meal as reimbursable. The student may choose which two (2) items to refuse. This is a great deal of important information to be left to “Whisper down the Alley.” It is easy to see that without constant reminding and review how this could easily become twisted and corrupt information in a short period of time. Without a strong understanding of these guidelines, staff members cannot effectively explain why or how this system benefits their student customers, and misidentification hurts important revenues. Not to mention, it can cause embarrassing issues at audit time.

The point of my sharing this with you is simple. This is a major area of concern in most school food operations. It effects both revenues and effective customer service. It has gone unnoticed in many operations for many years and has effected the revenues of many programs in an adverse manner. By focusing on the “Big Picture,” directors and managers errantly assume that this is something everyone knows and understands. Perhaps by osmosis. Now the new rules on Professional Standards for School Food Professionals is forcing us to look at these issues and hopefully correct them. Effective staff development is crucial to successful operations. For those of you who say they don’t have the time to conduct such training, I ask, can you afford not to? The entire process necessary to alleviate and add clarity to this issue takes fifteen (15) minutes of conversation to establish what they know, ten (10) minutes of explanation, and fifteen (15) minutes of reinforcement. You can make it longer if you have the time, but it only take forty-five (45) minutes to an hour to get them comfortable. Trained and developed staffs are worth their weight in gold to your operation. Make the time to solidify and upgrade their knowledge in areas like this before the new school year begins. You will be glad you did.

Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at;

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