Hidden Gold: Preparing Your School Food Program for the End of Year

As things start to wind down towards the end of the year, now is a great time to cut back on purchasing and utilize inventory.  Many times in the past, it has been my experience, that there is hidden gold buried in the freezer.  Some directors underutilize this treasure by simply listing it as “Cook’s Choice” on the menu. Others take the time to rework these items into exciting new entrees that meet the wants and expectations of their student customers. Lowering inventory not only allows you to save on purchasing, it allows you to consolidate foods from all over your district into one or several freezers and allows the others to be shut down for the summer. This results in a large savings on electric during the summer months.

Now is the time to take the suggestions from your student focus groups and look at how you can utilize this hidden gold to create excitement and new items that will be remembered over the off time. I worked with a school district during this period last year and through student comments and reworking inventory into new pizzas, sandwiches, and salads, was not only able to utilize inventory but also increased participation by 10%. At the beginning of this year participation and excitement had carried over the summer months and remained higher. The district was also able to take some freezers off line through the summer months which created a nice saving.

Utilizing this hidden treasure affords you the opportunity to find more suitable uses for products that did not work when you originally served them, and allows you to find ways to serve them as other products that your students have requested. A good equation to follow at this time of year is:      

Student Input + Outside the Box Thinking = Excitement and Increased Participation in Your Program!

Some will say this is too hard and time consuming, but if it was easy everyone would be doing it and that is what sets a great program apart for an average one!

Milt Miller is VP of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. 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.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

It’s time to invest in schools – and food service programs

More than half the schools in the United States are spending less per pupil this year than they were in 2008 when the last Great Recession hit. While there are many reasons for these spending cuts, the fact that the country as a whole is more than $46 billion behind in infrastructure support and improvement is hard to ignore.

As experts all over the country begin to discuss how important it is that we return to funding our children’s education, we also know that it’s important that we spend money more efficiently than we have in the past. Too many administrators still look at food service programs as a frustrating part of their day to day operations, instead of the exciting opportunity to influence our kids to make healthy lunch choices while providing the district with valuable data about what is and is not working in the school nutrition program.

Get teachers back to what they should be doing

Many teachers express frustration with the amount of paperwork they need to do around school lunches. Between placing lunch orders, communicating with parents about what their children should be getting, and trying to orchestrate the free and reduced meals programs, teachers have the right to be frustrated.

Whereas many lunch programs offer the ability for parents to pay ahead and online, MySchoolAccount also gives kids and parents the ability to pre-order their meals. This saves paperwork time for teachers, and helps kids make healthier choices.

Reduce waste by planning ahead

Schools provide meals to the vast majority of American kids during the school year. There is an obligation for schools to provide healthy choices to kids, but the struggle can be getting kids to choose healthier items.

Studies have shown, however, that when kids place their orders early in the day instead of needing to make a choice in the lunch line, they’re more likely to experiment with new foods, and are more likely to choose healthier options.

Let the food service program lead the charge in improving the school’s infrastructure

Schools that have happy, healthful, efficient nutrition programs have happier, more involved parents and healthier kids with fewer behavior problems. There’s a lot more about our schools that needs to be revamped and revitalized to get them back up to the standard our children deserve, but serving healthy meals without breaking the school’s budget is a great way to take a big step forward.

USDA to Fine School Food Programs for Non-Compliance: 5 Important Things to Remember

Written by Milt Miller – Over the past few weeks I’ve listened to the fears of food service professionals concerning news of plans the USDA and FNS have for punishing non-compliant school food programs with fines. The thought of these monetary punishments have many school food professionals worrying what other bad consequences can emerge from the loins of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

“First they punish us with un-wanted cost increases based on compliance, then increased waste involving mandatory fruits and vegetables, little or no additional moneys to cover the higher cost of compliance, decreased participation due to students not accepting the new changes, loss of ala carte’ sales from the Smart Snacks in Schools guidelines, and now fines imposed for non-compliance of these financial-sustainability crushing rules. What could be more unfair?”

I remember a story of just such acts from an uncaring and uncompromising king, which resulted in some rebellious individuals (later called patriots) throwing crates of tea into the Boston harbor. While these acts over the past several years appear as unfair as the Tea Act and the Stamp Act, I wouldn’t go tossing commodities overboard to draw government attention to my displeasure with current legislation. Petitions, compromise, or the threat of open revolt tends to accomplish as much with the current administration as it did with the court of King George.

Although many feel these acts infringe on school food operator’s inalienable rights of the sustainability of program life, the liberty to offer meals that do not needlessly increase waste, and the pursuit of student acceptable products, there are five (5) key points to remember before working one’s self into a lather.

1. Most of this is not new: Schools found to be out of compliance by a certain dollar amount (greater than $6,000 in PA) for improper Free and Reduced Application calculations and/or improper recognition of reimbursable meals were required to refund a certain amount of their federal reimbursements. This has been for at least the past fifteen (15) years. I know because I know operators who had to pay them back. If this practice continued to be an issue over the next few audits, without being corrected, USDA could require 1%-5% pay back of reimbursements for that school for the year. If after several reviews the issue was still not corrected it became an egregious miss conduct and the school could lose its sponsorship in the National School Lunch Program. This is the same or similar policy mentioned this time around. If it hasn’t hurt you up to this point you will be fine.

2. If you are not sure you are compliant seek help: Pre-audit assessments are available and are inexpensive to insure peace of mind and pin-point where you need to correct areas of your program. These assessments will show where your weak areas are and will give you the information necessary to correct them before crunch time. Accurate calculations of Free and Reduced Meal eligibility, accurate reporting of meal counts, accurate reimbursable meal identification, menu compliance, and accurate production records are the key areas to worry about. Make sure you understand what is involved in all of these areas and seek training for where you believe you are weak.

3. Use the audit findings as an opportunity to improve: USDA is not actively seeking to take money back. They are asking for a demonstration of “Good Faith” efforts to comply. Don’t define your program by a low audit finding, it is a lesson and a chance to improve, not a life sentence. In most cases your state auditor will work with you and provide information on how to fix the problem (Corrective Action). These situations, most times, are painless and point you toward the training or improved processes you need so you don’t lose money. If findings exceed the dollar parameters and you have to give some money back, again it happens and it’s not a life sentence. Fix the issues, seek necessary training, and make sure it never happens again. Call us we can and will help.

4. If you are concerned you will fail an audit badly, you will, because you know you aren’t in compliance: I have had operators tell me, I made it through so now I can relax and do what I want for the next two (2) years. Compliance is an ongoing thing. If you don’t follow through you will fail because you knowingly choose not to follow the rules. You can’t look the other way for two years and expect to be compliant when you want to, you have developed a non-compliance habit, which will rear its head at precisely the worst time. Insure your staff is trained and ready at all times. A staff left to run amok will perform badly at crunch time, out of habit and fear of making a mistake. Keep training and staff development at the forefront of your operational goals. If everyone knows they are doing the right thing and compliance is the norm you will be fine. If staff know they are doing things properly they usually perform better and don’t make silly mistakes. When they are ill prepared mistakes WILL happen. Count on it.

5. Perfect Practices and Preparation Produce Perfect Performance: Use all of your available tools to insure compliance. POS reports and records, production records, free and reduced software programs, meal identification training for your staff, and finally and most important know the rules and follow them. Seek the knowledge and training necessary to optimize the use of all of your tools. There are specialists available, in all of these areas, to provide you with the knowledge and training necessary to succeed. Several times during the year audit you program for compliance. Take what you find, develop strategies to eliminate weak areas, and provide the necessary training. Sometimes a second set of fresh eyes helps to find opportunities for improvement you may take for granted. Seek help. Support is a great tool if used effectively. Set up a support system for your program for constant program growth.

The school food version of the Intolerable Acts of 2010 show no signs of going away any time soon. You are not being set-up to fail by some government ploy to take back their money. Agree or disagree as you see fit, but complying and succeeding is really your only choice for program financial stability. Know the rules and follow them and your audit experience will be a good one. Actively seek the knowledge and support to insure growth. If you don’t fear the audit you have already passed.

Milt Miller is VP of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. 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.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

The USDA and Child Hunger; An Unseen Issue with Serious Ramifications

Soon after Barack Obama was inaugurated, the poised influence of First Lady Michelle Obama brought awareness and immediacy to the domestic crisis of child hunger, and secondarily the issue of juvenile obesity due to poor nutrition.

A Bold New Initiative

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) was passed in a rare instance of abundant bipartisan support, granting school food authorities (SFAs) access to subsidized funding for nutritiously balanced school meals. These appropriations were designed to empower SFAs to feed children that were faced with economic hardship, living in abject poverty, or simply unaware that healthier meal options were available.

This invigorated a host of programs including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Special Milk Program for Children (SMPC), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) among others.

Snags in the Supply Chain

Although designed with noble intentions, it has proven to be a long administrative commute from Capitol Hill to the lunch line, and the HHFKA has seen its fair share of diversions, speed bumps, and full-on road blocks. Plainly put, implementation of the protocols defined by the HHFKA have at times been sporadic, sluggish and even downright neglectful – while requested funds keep flowing from the source to the destination. Furthermore, many students have boycotted the program, expressing distaste for the so-called healthier meals. In some instances “black markets” have sprung up to facilitate the fundamental desire for salt. There are no specific cases pending, but at a moment’s glance, it is clear that negligence, poor leadership, and even pilfering could very well be at work.

A Band-Aid on an Axe Wound

Without citing statistics or leveling any particular indictments, USDA officials at the Food and Nutrition Service published a proposed rule on March 29th, 2016 entitled Child Nutrition Program Integrity. The document was officially published by the National Archives and Records Administration and proposes that any SFA jeopardizing the integrity of a Child Nutrition Program be fined by the USDA. Although menial, penalties will be administered by the USDA at reimbursement rates of 1% to 10% of appropriated funds depending on the severity and frequency of violations. Conversely, in 2017 alone the monitoring of state agencies will cost an estimated $4.3 million and will cost taxpayers as much as $22.7 million after five years.

Electoral Implications

Historically, presidential candidates who have championed initiatives to feed poor people and advertise that they will bring the fight to the hunger problem have fared well in an election year. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhauer, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all championed programs similar to the HHFKA during their campaigns. Whether this was the deciding factor that got them into office is a moot point, it is interesting to consider how the current candidates might fare in the eyes of the public if this becomes a mainstream issue.

The current political culture of mudslinging and jockeying for the lead position has the nation transfixed on the home stretch towards the respective party nominations. Once the smoke clears and other concerns come into focus, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will bide well with this issue as they have both demonstrated great concern and initiative towards child hunger. The republican camp is a bit less unanimous. John Kasich takes a strong stance against hunger while Ted Cruz is rather vague on the issue. In typically outspoken form, Donald Trump blames the failure of programs like HHFKA on insider fraud.

The Future of Hunger

Although overshadowed by sensationalism, the issue of child hunger is grave. Many kids are not getting enough to eat in the so-called greatest nation on earth. It is a fact that malnourished children can not learn, grow, and thrive in the same way as those who get enough nutrition, which in turn indicates that failing to feed children today will lead to an inferior tomorrow for society as a whole. Once the national focus shifts to this issue, a clearer light can shine upon a realistic solution.