8 Steps to Lowering Unpaid Lunch Bills

Written by Milt Miller – As sure as death and taxes unpaid lunch bills will always exist in schools under the current systems. Of late these unpaid accounts are creating quite a stir in the media. Administrators are trying to get costs under control, but are looking like heartless uncaring individuals in the news. School food service professionals do care about feeding children first but also have to control costs in order to have a sustainable operation from which to feed them. Under the new guidelines schools that are at least 40% free lunch eligible based on direct certification may opt to employ the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to allow all students, enrolled in their districts, a free breakfast and lunch.  

This program has some bugs involving state and federal funding issues, but many have been resolved and others are being worked on. For schools that this program applies too and benefits, it is a great opportunity. The potential for eliminating paperwork and unpaid account balances is fantastic. Schools that qualify should definitely examine adopting this program. What about schools that do not qualify? They are still subject to the same problems they have had in the past, expired benefits, due to families not submitting a new Free and Reduced Lunch Application, resulting in unpaid balances and interruption of services. Bad press for denying students a school lunch for excessively low account balances follows on the heels of this situation.

Schools that do not qualify for CEP or those not wanting to implement it for other reasons, can employ any or all of these eight (8) steps to potentially lower and better manage unpaid lunch bills.

  1. Obtain information from your current Free and Reduced Lunch software showing whose meal benefits will expire in mid-October each year. This report should be updated and generated weekly from the beginning of the school year until the week before the cut-off in October. This will allow you to track the progress of your program to get these applications in on time.
  2. Communicate to parents and school principals who will lose benefits from failure to submit a new application weekly. Letting parents know they will lose benefits will cause a greater return earlier. Letting principals know and get an opportunity to assist with the calling of parents protects their Title 1 monies as well as grant and aid levels determined by F&R percentages.
  3. Calls weekly increase the chance of higher returns. The more you or your principals remind parents, the better chance of higher returns and less loss of benefits.  
  4. Send Free and Reduced Applications home with the students in danger of losing meal benefits after each call. Things get lost or miss placed easily. The more you keep the issue in front of families in danger of losing benefits the more it helps you.
  5. Offer special evenings to review and assist with the filling out and submitting applications. You will be surprised how this helps. People who have trouble reading and writing often fail to submit applications for just that reason.
  6. Use single family multiple child forms, but set the parameters of your software to show all enrolled student with a common address and phone number. This allows you to peer match. Many times low income parents do not list all of their children enrolled in the district. This will allow you to include these students living in that household and not listed on the application.
  7. Meet with parents of all students in feeder systems such as Head Start to explain and assist with the application process.  As Ben Franklin said,An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If you work with increasing communication at registration you increase participation in the long run.
  8. Constant communication and persistence lead to success. Keeping the issue in front of everybody insures greater returns and lower unpaid bills.

We have employed this system in several school districts and have witnessed the results to be Free and Reduced percentages in the beginning of the year to be closer to those at the end of the year, lower loss of meal benefits for students, higher levels of grants and aid all year long, and lower unpaid bill totals. These eight (8) simple steps have worked wonders in the schools we have used them in.

Milt Miller is Director 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.

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.

What Does the Government’s New Dietary Advice for Americans Mean for School Lunches?

Every five years, the U.S. government revises its dietary guidelines. Each update should reflect new developments in nutrition and science, and the guidelines are meant to help all Americans stay healthy – including schoolchildren.

The newest guidelines were released on January 7, 2016, and there are some notable differences from the old guidelines. The new guidelines place a limit on daily sugar intake – it should make up no more than 10 percent of daily calories. Currently, many Americans eat over 20 teaspoons of sugar in a day, which is almost twice what the new guidelines recommend for the average diet.

Because the guidelines tend to dictate what students are served at school, there will need to be some major changes – which could take years. Many schools have resisted the change toward healthier meals in the past, partly because of the cost, and partly because they say students won’t eat healthier foods.

Why School Foods Are So Sugary

There are several reasons why the limit on sugar intake will be such a big change for school meals.

Many schools serve overly processed meals, from sugary cereals and bars to pancake lunches with syrup. Not only are processed meals more affordable than fresh foods, but they tend to last longer in storage because they’re full of preservatives.

Kids like the taste of sugar – and they’re more likely to eat (and purchase) more food if it’s delicious, cheap, and doesn’t have the fiber to make them feel full.

When schools face tight budgets, it can be hard to make the change to foods that tend to have less added sugar, like foods based on whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

How Can Schools Enact Change?

In order to have healthy kids – who tend to do better in school – schools will need to make a change. It’s okay to start small.

Nearly half of sugars in the American diet come from beverages, from soda to juice. Simply offering things like regular milk or water instead of sugar filled drinks at school can cut a lot of sugar out of kids’ diets.

Prepackaged snacks or side dishes are another source of sugar, especially when they include sauces or dips. Offering whole fruits, like apples, bananas, pears, or oranges is a better option for kids.

Dairy can be another hidden source of sugar in school meals. Instead of flavored milk and sweetened yogurt, schools could limit students to regular milk and offer plain yogurt with fresh fruit.

Giving Free Meals to Hungry Students Can Get You Fired

Colorado and Idaho school districts have fired food service workers in the past year for providing a free meal to a hungry student. This is the case of Della Curry, the school lunch room manager who got fired by the Cherry Creek School District for giving free meals to students who couldn’t pay. Dalene Bowden, a cafeteria worker at Irving Middle School in Pocatello, Idaho, also stepped in for a 12-year-old student who didn’t qualify for a free meal and had no money to pay. A week later, Bowden was terminated from her position.

According to statistics, over 21 million children from low-income families qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch through the National School Lunch Program if their family’s income is 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Sadly, this means a matter of a few dollars can be the difference between getting lunch or not. In some public schools, students who don’t qualify for the low-cost or free lunches program are given a credit that ranges from $5 to $20 when they come to school without money for their meal. Other schools such as the Cherry Creek School District, provide hot meals to students the first three times they forget their lunch, and a small cheese sandwich and milk the fourth time.

As Curry herself noted, the so-called meal provides little nutrition to hungry students, and is not enough to satisfy growing kids and teens. Even worse, getting the cheese sandwich treatment is humiliating once the kids are old enough to understand its real meaning. Yet, many kids in schools across the nation are refused even these meals. “Cafeteria workers are told to throw out the child’s hot tray, leaving the student embarrassed and with nothing to eat,” states Bowden.

In a nationwide survey by No Hungry Child, a staggering 75% of educators noticed that their students came to school hungry, which greatly impacts their academic performance. Many teachers have paid for lunches for hungry children out of their own pocket.

But schools are within their legal rights to deny the students and hold their parents accountable, according to National Education Association. In one case, Willingboro Township Public Schools in New Jersey sent a notice to families threatening to dump students’ lunches in the trash if they were delinquent in payments. According to school food advocate Dana Woldow, this is one of the strictest policies in the nation, however, the consequences should be for the parent or guardian, and not for the kids.

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