5 Reflections on Another School Year’s Closing

June has arrived and with it comes the end of another school year. For students, it is a time for fun and relaxation. For school food service professionals, it is a time to review, re-evaluate, and re-tool for next year. For me, it has been a year of discovery. This year has presented me the opportunity to discover several self-evident truths, within our industry, that if over looked, as they often are, cause food programs to fail. I have seen the same recurring sequences of events at many school food programs we visited this year. All are deep in red ink, with no idea how they got there. Administrators, boards, and food service directors are all asking each other the same question, why isn’t this working, we have done everything we were supposed to? We have instituted the new guidelines and we are compliant. We have joined a purchasing consortium and have great pricing. We have upgraded our equipment and remodeled our cafes, why are we still seeing six figure losses? Perhaps your answer lies buried in the self-evident truths we discovered over and over this year. Hopefully, your answer lies in the paragraphs below.

1. New Products Don’t Fit in Old Packaging
Changing tastes and trends require re-thinking how products must be presented to meet student needs and expectations. Yesterday’s sandwich is today’s wrap or flatbread. Yesterday’s sit down meal is today’s grab n go breakfast or lunch. Cultures and times have changed and many school food operators have failed to keep pace, with these changes. New healthier whole grain products require different methods of preparation and handling to produce acceptable results. Programs who fail to make the leap to meeting today’s student expectations, soon find their participation has dwindled.

2. A House Out of Plumb Will Soon Fall Down
All things shift over time. Needs change and what once was a necessity is now a stumbling block. Structures sag, frameworks bend, and sand shifts. Labor contracts, job descriptions, and labor models are much the same, as they are the frame work of the operation. Over time operational needs change and costs increase. Many operations, we visited this year had a labor model from another age when more actual hands on cooking was required. Most of their staff worked 6-7.5 hours per day, received full benefits and retirement, and followed job descriptions that were no longer relevant to the work being performed. Time had moved on, needs had changed, costs increased, but the framework remained the same and was showing signs of wear from the shifting demands placed on it. This was resulting in low productivity, a lack of understanding of the necessary work expected, and astronomical labor costs. Staff had no real understanding of what was expected of them, levels of service had declined, and labor costs, in many cases were above 65%. When asked why workers were performing tasks in a specific manner the answer was consistent from administrators, food service directors, and staff, “that is how we have always done it.” If this sounds like your operation and you do not have an HR professional on staff, seek help from an HR consultant soon. This can be the cause of huge losses for your organization unless they are fixed.

3. Computer Software and Calculators Only Work if You Know What Information You Want
Visiting school food operations throughout the year, we found most if not all, equipped with great Point of Sale (POS), Free and Reduced Eligibility tracking, and accounting software. Operators had their numbers at their fingertips. The major

issue here was that most of these high-tech operators didn’t know basic numbers that are crucial to the success and sustainability of their programs. They knew their participation numbers, labor percentage, food cost, Free and Reduced Meal percentage, and their food cost percentage. These are great things to know when you understand how these numbers relate to the success or failure of your program’s sustainability, but these numbers don’t tell you why you are losing money. Even knowing the minimum price increase required (by the use of state and federally supplied calculators) to maintain compliance with the Equity in School Lunch Act, was a number known to most of these operators. When asked if this increase was enough to cover their costs and keep them self-sustaining most replied, “It’s the amount we are required to increase prices so it must be.” Armed with all of this data and still no answers, what a shame. When asked what their average spend per student per day for labor and their average spend per student per day on food and supplies might be all replied they had no idea. Asked what the average student spend per day was in their operations all again had no idea. Once we showed these operators that the sum of spend per student per day on labor and food subtracted from student spend per day was the true indicator of how the program was doing it brought clarity to all of the other numbers they had at their fingertips. In most cases student spend per day exceeded the sum of the cost numbers by at least $1.00 per student per day. In these cases, if I were the operator, I would hope to sell no lunches each day because each sale was costing my program money! Understanding these three simple numbers can save a program. If this sounds like you, obtain these numbers and use them to manage all of the others. If you are in need of assistance call me, I will be happy to help.

4. An Unfriendly and Uninviting House is Always Empty
“If I cook it they will come”, is a philosophy long dead. It died somewhere in the 1950’s with the emergence of “Fast Food”, the two (2) income family, and increased choices. School Food has lagged behind this culture shift for well over fifty (50) years. Many operators and their staff still expect to treat their customers like mushrooms, “keep students in the dark and feed them whatever the operator wants them to have.” These are marketing and customer service issues and need to be incorporated into daily operating procedures. If student customers don’t know the great things we are doing for them why would they visit us? If when they do visit they are treated like inmates rather than invited guests, why would they return again? In every school operation we visited this year marketing and customer service were lacking. Participation covers a multitude of sins, but lack of participation is a sin. Where does your operation fit into this picture? Think about it and take the appropriate actions. Again, seek help if you need it don’t wait.

5. Knowledge is Power, Providing Needed Knowledge is Life Saving
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This is much like saying, “Food Safety Training is politically correct, but enhanced cooking skills and improved customer service will save your program.” The safest food in the world if poorly prepared and served in an uninviting, unfriendly manner will never be eaten or enjoyed. With the opportunities provided by the Professional Standards for School Food Professionals guidelines, many times we repeat the same training over and over because we are accustomed to it and it is required to be reviewed each year. In every operation we visited HACCP manuals and ServeSafe certifications were plainly visible and current. All operations had food handling, service delivery model, and customer service issues. Food Safety is crucial, but review means review, not dwell on. Other skills drive participation and self-sustainability, maybe dwell on these a bit until they become second nature? Look carefully as you plan next year’s training, being safe but empty is not in your program’s best interests.

Reflecting on the past school year as we race through June and into July, I am amazed at the common issues we have found in the schools we visited. Many of these programs were plagued by several if not all of them. I liken the struggle for self-sustainability in school food to the struggle for independence of the original thirteen (13) colonies. All of them were plagued by the same abuses of power by a tyrannical king, while all school food is plagued by the struggles to stay in the black. Like the Founding Fathers in their struggles, we found the above truths to be self-evident in ours. What do you think? Happy Independence Day and best wishes for a successful new school year.

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.