You know your school food program is successful if…

Written by Milt Miller – Today in the school food arena, with all of its new rules, programs, and political views, there are virtually a million ways to show a program is successful. None of them define success as being self-sustainable financially, but a fiscally self-sustained program is deemed successful none the less. The whole successful program identification trend kind of reminds me of the old Jeff Foxworthy comedy routine, “You know you are a Redneck if…” At this holiday season, I would like to share my list of ways one can decipher if their food program is in fact a success.

You know your school food program is successful if: 

1. You have implemented all of the meal pattern requirements mandated by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

2. You have implemented the Smart Snacks in Schools regulations.

3. You have appropriately raised paid lunch prices as mandated by the Equity in School Lunch Act.

4. You do not deny any child a meal due to an exceptionally high unpaid lunch account.

5. You have implemented the Community Eligibility Provision allowing every child a free breakfast or lunch daily.

6. You have instituted a Weekend Back Pack program to insure low income children are receiving meals on days school is not in session.

7. You are currently planning and scheduling staff development and enrichment programs in compliance with the new Professional Standards for School Food Professionals policy.

8. You have instituted a Farm to School or Buy Local purchasing practice at least two days a week.

9. You have become a Summer Food Program sponsor.

10. Your meal participation exceeds the national average of 65%, even though it takes at least 82% to be fiscally sound.

11. You provide nutrition education in the classroom.

If you can answer yes to at least one or more of the above listed items, in the eyes of the White House, FRAC, FNS, and USDA your program is successful. The unfortunate part of this success is that many of you, after accomplishing these lofty feats cannot meet your fiscal responsibilities without help from your district’s General Fund. Nowhere in this formula for success is there a requirement that a program must be financially self-sustainable as most school food programs are supposed to be. Some of you are fortunate to be fiscally sound, but most are not. Some have left the NSLP and foregone reimbursement to serve their customers what they want and have willingly shouldered the extra financial burden. This to me is a noble act of true customer service. These programs have decided to shoulder a small loss of income to serve their students and insure they all receive the foods they want, than to shoulder a greater loss due to increased waste and decreased participation. In some cases leaving the NSLP was the right move and resulted in no loss at all or a small acceptable loss.

I am not saying that these lofty aforementioned success indicators are wrong and not needed. I wholeheartedly support them and believe they are much needed, but with some changes to insure financial sustainability and increased flexibility. In these times more and more school boards and administrators are looking at privatizing their food programs. Alas, even food management companies, with their food service and business expertise and enhanced purchasing power are struggling to keep the programs they manage in the black. These are the times of over regulated, underfunded, cost prohibitive, over politicized, and ever changing government school meal policies. Legislators need to understand that non-profit does not mean to lose money. Some of the largest and most successful non-profits make money or they would not be able to continue service at an acceptable level. Their growth and outreach would be catastrophically inhibited.

I am a proponent of quality, compliant, and financially sound school food programs. I view this industry as a much needed service to today’s students. To all of the dedicated school food professionals in this country, it is my fervent wish that during this holiday season our government leaders work diligently to enact revisions to current policies that provide adequate funding, increased flexibility, improved regulation, and financial stability to this great industry. Happy Holidays and a very prosperous New Year to all.

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; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com.

Healthy School Lunches During The Holidays

Healthy School Lunches: The Key to a Lifetime of Good Eating Habits – Even During the Holidays!

Eating healthy is a skill like any other. Children need to be taught healthy eating the same way they are taught to do math or ride a bike. After daily practice, it may become a habit, but it’s necessary to continue teaching healthy eating every day.

Some schools are slowly moving towards offering healthier options to students, but hot lunch options are not kids’ only food choices in school. Parents also play an important role in students’ healthy eating decisions.

Does eating healthy in school make a difference in kids’ lives long term? What can they learn in school about healthy habits? How can we help them practice healthy eating over the holidays?

Teaching Healthy Eating in Schools

It is often said that giving a child food will feed them for one day, but teaching them to find and make their own food will feed them for a lifetime. With the growing health crisis in the United States, it is more important than ever to make sure that our children understand how to make healthy decisions and listen to their bodies so that they can continue to do so.

There are several things that children can learn in school about staying healthy.

Eat Slowly – When children are given adequate time to eat their lunches, they can eat slowly and are more likely to feel when their body is full. Rushing through a meal can lead to overeating followed by a lethargic afternoon. It is important to offer children enough time to eat lunch during the day.

Choose Healthy Options – Schools are beginning to offer healthier options to students, but it is also important to teach kids how to select the healthy options, like fruits and vegetables. Often, deciding what to eat when they aren’t hungry, or pre-ordering lunch at the beginning of the day is not only cost effective for schools, but it leads to healthier choices for kids. It also teaches kids that selecting your foods when you aren’t hungry can lead to healthier decisions.

Eat Fresh & Local – Schools that have gardens can teach kids not only how to grow and maintain their own fresh, local foods, but they can educate students about the effects of their actions on the environment, and the effects that fresh, local foods have on people when they eat.

Maintaining Healthy Choices During the Holidays – If students have established these habits in school, they are likely to remember them over the holidays. As a parent, you can encourage your child to do things like shop after a meal, or select healthy options for holiday meals.

Do Longer Lunch Periods Benefit Students?

The United States has been trying to figure out how to improve its education system for years. Academics are being redesigned, and movements are fighting for art, music, and gym classes, and even recess. But, what about lunch periods?

When lunch periods are mentioned in schools, the debate usually centers around the nutrition value of the food offered. However, the length of the lunch period can also have an effect on student health and academics.

Why are Lunch Periods Shortened?

There are many reasons why schools offer shorter lunch periods. Some school districts push for a shorter school day that still fits in all the required academic time, so lunch is the first thing to go. Sometimes, administrators fear giving kids any free time, thinking that they’re more likely to get into trouble and face disciplinary action. Some schools are just overwhelmed with kids, and don’t have the space to keep all students at lunch for a long period of time because they have to rotate.

How Can Longer Lunch Periods Benefit Students?

Healthier Meals – One of the top reasons for allowing students to have a longer lunch period is that they can have healthier meals.

  • Often, food preparation takes longer for healthier meals, so when the staff has more time to prepare, the students can have healthier options.
  • When students have more time to eat, they are likely to eat more. That means that even if the students start with dessert, they’ll have time to eat all of their foods – including the fruits and vegetables. This is especially important in low income schools, where students depend on school lunches for up to half of their daily food.

Time to Relax – Rushing to eat is an unhealthy practice, and neither is a completely structured day with no down time.

  • Rushing to eat doesn’t give students time to recognize things like signs of fullness, or the way that certain foods make them feel. Eating slowly allows kids to learn how to eat what is good for them, and when to stop.
  • Attention spans are dropping among students, and short lunch periods may be a part of the problem. Allowing students to have some down time to relax, socialize, and stop worrying about academics is critical to their ability to focus in the afternoon – just like it is with adults. Although adults may worry about students getting into trouble with free time, many students use lunch to socialize, catch up on homework or get extra help from teachers.

Sustainability Trends in School Food Service

In many schools across the United States, from elementary through college, cafeterias are beginning to move towards providing healthier, sustainable options for students. Sustainable food is ethically responsible, minimizes the negative effects on the environment, prioritizes human health, and is produced from places that treat animals humanely and treat workers fairly.

The current generation of students cares about where their food comes from, and how it got to their plates – in other words, they care whether or not their food is sustainable. Kids are also craving more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and foods made from scratch instead of the highly processed foods that have been served in many cafeterias.

Schools that don’t provide sustainable food selections are running into problems – students don’t consider sustainability to be an option; it’s a necessity. High school students in Chicago are publicly protesting their current school lunch options, claiming that it is “unhealthy, unappetizing, and overly processed.” (WBEZ91.5)

So, what are successful schools doing to promote the sustainable food movement within school cafeterias? How are schools meeting the demands of students and their families? There are several things that schools are doing and can continue to do so that the foods kids are eating in school are good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

Taking Students’ Health into Consideration

There are some food preferences that students share at all ages like hand held foods, on-the-go options, made-to-order foods, and common staples, like fruits, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and salads. Taste preferences tend to differ depending on the age of the student; younger children prefer simpler foods and older ones enjoy more complex and diverse options.

Schools who support the sustainability movement understand these differences, and how to select food options based on student needs. For example, serving complex dishes to fourth graders would result in a lot more food waste, which is not sustainable, but college students are likely to appreciate it.

Reducing Kitchen Waste

There are a lot of ways to reduce the amount of waste that results from a school kitchen and cafeteria, from recycling and reusing materials and composting food waste to choosing more eco-friendly packaging and dish options. Many schools are choosing to get food locally, which minimizes the amount of packaging and padding required to transport it to the school, and ultimately, reduces waste.

Composting

Schools do tend to have some waste, but there is a sustainable way to deal with it. Composting takes sustainability one step further – it doesn’t end when the food is consumed. Children of all ages can learn to compost, from elementary through college. At the higher level, using compostable food packaging or other materials also reduces waste and adds to sustainability.

Compost can be reused as the process begins again – it can help fertilize landscaping, gardening and farming on school grounds.

Local Sourcing

Another way to promote sustainable food practices is to get food locally. Foods that travel the shortest distances have the least effect on the environment. It’s also easier to get local foods faster, which means that these foods are the freshest and are more likely to retain their health benefits by the time they’re served on a student’s plate.

School Gardens

One of the ultimate results of a more sustainable school food system, including compost as fertilizer, the most local sourcing possible, minimizing fuel and transportation costs, and using fresh, healthy, whole, foods, is that students and staff are taking things into their own hands, and growing their own sustainable foods. This can be a very cost effective option, and it can potentially fit the definition of sustainable food to a tee, depending on how the garden is cared for.

You can teach kids to eat just like you teach them to read

So says Karen Le Billon, in her book “French Kids Eat Everything.” She goes on to say, “The French believe—and have done scientific research—to prove you can teach your kids to eat just like you teach them to read,” she told Quartz. “Pediatricians give new parents detailed lists of what kids should be trying. Young children are expected to try pickled pig snouts. It’s soft, and healthy,” she said. “Taste training is part of the national curriculum and kids get tested in year four; they learn that science shows you need to try a new food many times before you like it. By the time kids get to school, stinky cheese is not going to scare anyone.”

Why am I talking about school lunches and eating habits in France, when this is America? Because popular opinion of late would have it, that kids in other countries, particularly France, are superior to American ones in many ways. I don’t buy that. There is no disputing that France and other countries have dramatically lower obesity rates than the United States, which they seem to accomplish by feeding their children Boeuf bourguignon and brie with a snack of bread and chocolate at 4pm every day.

The austere differences in school lunches provide some answers: French kids are given time to eat hot, four-course meals that include a wide range of cheeses and artisanal breads while New York City public schools kids race through versions of starch with cheese with an “eat your colors” campaign to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption. If France faces restrictions on how much ketchup can be served weekly, the US government has at various times tried to pass ketchup off as a vegetable.

In my opinion, no country’s children are superior over another’s. As for how they eat, that is a cultural issue. Europeans tend toward making eating a celebration of sorts. They take time to enjoy a meal with family or friends and to enjoy the fresh grown products of their local areas. Most products for these gatherings or dinners are home cooked with fresh products. The French have a word for food and company: “Commensality (la commensalité), which literally means ‘eating together in a group,” Le Billon writes. Americans have always viewed eating as a way to fuel the body to continue working. They never have taken the time to truly enjoy a meal. This trend dates back as far as America’s beginnings. Home cooking did prevail until the “Fast Food Boom” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when Americans could eat out quickly and affordably. Following on the heels of fast food came processed foods. Not quite as healthy for you, but good enough to fill you up quickly and cheaply. The obesity epidemic had begun in America.

As early as the mid 1960’s articles were appearing in magazines regarding the obesity epidemic in America. Less and less Americans were eating at home and those who were, were using pre-prepared canned or frozen products of less healthy qualities (processed foods). American life was becoming more sedentary, but we were still rushing through meals and overeating because of the rush. Some Americans were eating healthy, but this group came, as in today’s society, from upper-middle income and above. Every child wasn’t entitled to at least two healthy, government regulated meals at school, so this became America’s dining culture.

Children emulate their role models, so the fast food culture spread to our children. We literally taught them to eat just like we teach them to read. They eat and read what they are readily exposed to on a daily basis. American or French, or Asian, or any other child for that matter identifies and prefers the foods they have become accustomed to eating on a regular basis. Unlike the French, we do not start nutrition education with our children from birth. We now wait until they start school, have developed food preferences, and then depend on our schools to rectify an almost unsolvable situation. This, as we are starting to see is causing hardships on school food programs. Just because we try to force them to eat healthier doesn’t means they will. Comparisons of a weekly school menu in France with one in New York City, show that most American kids wouldn’t identify with or even try the French fare.

Here’s what French kids in Paris 17th arrondissement (link in French) ate this week, compared to kids in New York City:
 Day  Paris  New York City 
Monday Artisanal baguette, pork rib in dijon sauce, turkey ham, mashed potatoes, emmental cheese, apple Stuffed cheesy bread, marinara sauce, spinach
Tuesday Artisanal baguette, green salad, salmon spaghetti, yogurt with fruit, apple compote Mac & Cheese, toasted garlic dinner roll, Brooklyn baked beans
Wednesday Fresh bread, cucumber salad with cream fraiche, veal sauteed in olives and broccoli, goat cheese, gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramel Avi’s Burger-ito, baked french fries, kale salad
Thursday Artisanal baguette, tomato, onion and coriander salad, organic beef sauteed in its juice with delicate green beans in parsley, fromage à pâte molle, pear Chicken & broccoli, veggie fried rice, crispy egg roll with duck sauce, fresh apple
Friday Artisanal baguette, omelette with potatoes, salad of carrots, tomatoes and corn, fromage à pâte fraiche, apple crumble Pizza (garden veggie), Jamaican Patty, fresh tomato salad

Some American kids would identify with the French cuisine as they already eat some of these items at home, but they are in the minority. If our nation, like the French, started influencing the eating habits of children from birth and in the home, instead of after the fact in school, we may start to see a distinct change in the eating culture of Americans over time. After all, it took a long time for this culture to develop, it will take time to change it again.

This may appear to be a drastic and prescriptive approach, but no more than the HHFKA guidelines are in school dining. If we truly want to make a difference then we need to be all in, not just for 1/16th of a child’s daily food experience. Until we take major steps to change the culture, alas, the American version of “Commensality (la commensalité) will continue to be “Miller Time.”

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; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com

How to Control Unpaid Lunch Accounts

Written by Milt Miller – Unpaid school lunch accounts appear to be becoming the new school food crisis. Of late, everywhere I turn I see articles about the severity of unpaid lunch accounts in schools. How has this happened, and why was it allowed to happen, and what can we do about it, appear to be the major questions asked by school administrators and board of education members nationwide. The answers to these questions are; there have always been unpaid lunch accounts, they have been allowed to grow due to a reactive rather than a proactive approach to controlling them, and through a lack of clear charge policies. They can be controlled by developing clear charge policies and using the appropriate technology to be proactive in handling them.

Most schools make the same mistakes on controlling unpaid lunch accounts nationwide. They have no clearly communicated, state approved, realistic charge policies in place from the start. They have no standard operating procedures in place to proactively ensure that lunch accounts are kept up to date, as much as possible. They also fail to realize that there will always be some unpaid lunch accounts unless a hard line approach is adopted, and even then there will always be some bad debt. Here are some basics for controlling unpaid lunch accounts.

As more and more families become eligible for Free and Reduced Meals better recordkeeping is necessary. The largest creator of unpaid lunch accounts is the time between the expiration of last year’s benefits and the submission and approval of this year’s Free and Reduced Meal Application. The thirty (30) day overlap period from last school year’s entitlements and this year’s application submission is key to controlling unpaid accounts. With today’s technology when last year’s benefits expire and no application is submitted the student is immediately moved to the paid category and the meter starts running up unpaid lunch bills. Sending a notice that the child owes money will get you an application submitted but you will never see the money for the interim period! Be proactive run reports on expiring applications and contact parents before their entitlements run out. Run these report weekly from the end of the first week of classes until the thirtieth day of school and keep contacting parents to inform them they are about to lose their meal benefits. Involve your building principal, after all it effects their Title 1 moneys.

Set clear, state and board approved charge policies that follow the national guidelines for charged meals. This policy is hard for schools to find, being called “The Lost, Stolen, or Misused Ticket Policy”, with ticket meaning any form in which a school meal is paid for. Its actual name is, “FNS Instruction 765-7 to Section 245.8 of the National School Lunch Act.” This policy can keep schools from setting charge limits too high making it harder to collect larger unpaid accounts. It also provides you with a hard fast set of reference points to show to your board and administrators. If this policy is followed state approval is a definite. Once this policy is adopted it must be clearly communicated to all parents, students and employees. It also should be posted in all public areas of all schools and in a prominent place in each café’. All employees should be trained how to appropriately enforce this policy. Too many times school administrators end up on the wrong end of bad press, due to a lack of clear communication of the school charge policy and the lack of clear concise training on how to enforce it.

The proper handling of the two above mentioned keys to controlling unpaid lunch accounts will greatly decrease them in a relatively short time and provide a proactive rather than a reactive approach to controlling them. Give them a try and you will be pleased with the results.

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; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com