Ask the Experts

Written by Milt Miller – Every school food program comes complete with its own set of experts. That’s right you guessed it, ask your student customers what they think of their current lunch program and what they want for lunch. This exercise is not for the faint of heart or those who do not want to hear the truth. Student focus groups are brutally honest and to the point, but with the right group of students they are the best thing that can happen for fixing your program and getting students back to the lunch table.

A program we worked with was experiencing drops in participation at their elementary schools. More students were bringing packed lunches from home than ever before. Participation had dropped by 15%. We went to the experts and they told us how to fix the program. When asked, students told us they did not always like the main lunch items and they packed on the days they did not like the choices. We looked at what they were bringing from home and realized they brought “Lunchables” or PBJs most days they packed. We put our heads together and came up with a grab and go lunch, which fit the HHFKA guidelines, and provided choices for students that they could count on consistently. By the end of the first week we had increased lunch participation by 15% and by the end of the second week 20%. The students liked the fact they had consistent choices along with the main lunches.

We had a similar experience with a high school program where participation had dropped off considerably. Again we spoke with the students and they told us the lunch lines were too long and they would rather pack as it provided them more time to eat lunch. After giving the situation some thought we developed a grab and go area where students could quickly grab a packaged or box lunch and immediately go to the cashier with little wait time. Within a few weeks participation had increased 10% and the students were thrilled someone had taken their comments seriously. Customers love to see their suggestions come to fruition and they will definitely support their own ideas.

Recently a Food Service Director contacted me about a drop in female participation in her high school. Many girls were packing lunches in designer lunch bags and not eating school lunch. I suggested she speak with the girls and ask why. Their response was they thought the bags were cool and they liked carrying them. It was sort of a status symbol. I suggested she find out what they packed in their designer bags and ask if she could pack the lunches for them using their bags. After completing the research, she developed a menu the girls liked that provided several choices. She designated a cooler in the lunch room to store the lunches and encouraged the girls to pre-order, pre-pay, and pick up their lunches when they came to the cafeteria. As of last week she told me the pre-order per-pay system was working and 25 students were ordering from the cafeteria again. Many of the items provided for them to choose from were already on the menu daily. Salad, wraps, fruit and yogurt parfaits etc…

The point of this article is, in the face of declining participation it is easy to blame guidelines, but if you ask your customers what they need to see for them to participate they will provide you with the answer. In many cases the big question is, are you open minded enough to listen and then respond? If the answer is yes your cafeteria table will fill up and participation will not be a problem. If you seek the answer from the experts they will provide it.

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.

Why Opening Day of School Can Become a Nightmare

Written by Milt Miller – The time has come for school to begin and opening day for the food program is here. My days are filled with travel and training. As I talk with cafeteria staffs around the country, I here many say opening day is always a disaster. Many say it is the most dreaded day of the year and the following week is much the same. Listening to them talk, I always make it a point to ask why they feel this way. Most have the same issues year after year, until they believe it is just the nature of the business.

When asked what they would do to improve openings, most tell me you can’t really fix anything it is just how it goes every year. Most have the same common recurring issues that no one seems to look at with anything other than acceptance that this is just how things are. Their major complaints are usually, not enough time to get set up and prepared, food items needed are not delivered or are “stocked- out” at the distributor, too much time spent on training and not enough on set-up, information overload, necessary information unavailable, necessary food for first day menus not received in time to prepare properly, and finally half of the equipment is not functioning properly. This all usually results in poor customer service, surly staff members, and disappointed patrons.

All of these issues boil down to one thing, poor planning. Planning that should be done all year leading up to crunch time is done in one or two months. Directors tell me that they are too busy to plan at the end of the year because they are closing down. They are too busy to plan during the year because they are busy making sure everything is running correctly. Others can’t plan during the Summer months due to Summer Feeding, or they only have a ten-month contract and are off for the Summer.

I guess, when I was directing a school food program, like many of the successful directors out there, I was just stupid and took planning seriously. Planning is like having a family, if you wait until you are ready or the time is right it never happens. The birth of my daughter showed me I really wasn’t ready, but more planning for how to raise her and meet her needs was necessary. I had the same type of obligation to her as I had to my employees and customers. I was obligated to meet their needs and expectations as well and that involved making time to plan, looking at problems and finding ways to alleviate them.

Listening to staff members at each training I conduct, I see several reasons why opening day is a disaster. Talking to directors of successful programs, I also see similar thinking in solving these issues. Below are several things to consider for next year, to improve opening day.

1. Look at the time available to you and use it wisely. Most school staffs are on a 184-186-day work year contractually. Most school years are 180 days on average. Use the extra days for proper close down, open up, and training. Conduct training at the end, beginning, and during the year to allow more time at the beginning of the year for set up and preparation. A proper close down facilitates a smoother open up. Use the extra days to your benefit. Letting staff finish the last day and walk out the door for the Summer is nice but not always good for the operation.

2. Plan menus for next year at the end of the previous year. If menus and order guides are set when you leave, the first week’s orders can be placed giving the distributor a heads-up and lessening or eliminating “stocked-outs.” Have food deliveries arrive during prep and set up days planned for your staff. Good planning leads to great execution. If staff is not hurried through key duties and have been given the proper tools and knowledge to do their jobs, you have time to be a manager not a babysitter.

3. You can’t fit ten pounds of stuff in a one-pound bag. Covering one-years’ worth of information in one day is foolish and ineffective. Opening week training should be kept for information necessary to open the establishment, not to make up for necessary CEU’s for your audit. Too much information confuses the issues, muddies the waters, and takes precious time from necessary duties. Not to mention, it is not effective, because they are thinking about what they have to do not what you are teaching.

4. Test your equipment well before you have to use it. Every piece of equipment should be turned on checked and tested before use. Preferably in time enough to get it fixed before you need to use it. POS Systems and computer systems should be up-dated, tested and ready for use before opening day. Oven, grills, pizza ovens, and refrigeration should be tested calibrated and ready to go before staff has to use them.

5. You can’t sell from an empty cart. Have your first week’s orders delivered in time to react to “stocked outs” and prepared for first week service. If they come that day you are at the mercy of fate. Avoid this at all costs. Running around trying to figure out what to serve at the last minute is counterproductive and frustrating to staff and customers. It makes you look foolish.

6. “Non Profit” is a Tax Status, not a Budgeting Technique. Have your Direct Certifications and new Free and Reduced Meal Applications under control. Start in July to work towards this. The biggest creator of bad debt is out of control inaccurate lunch accounts. Have Charge Policies approved, posted, and understood by staff from the start not after they are out of control.

These are just a few of the most common problems that cause opening day disasters. If you have not considered these things before, perhaps you would benefit by thinking about them for next year. Many successful directors do. Many unsuccessful directors don’t. Which one do you want to be?

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.

4 Steps for Marketing Next School Year’s Food Program

Written by Milt Miller – Menus are ready and meet the guidelines. Employee trainings and meetings are scheduled and planned. Free and Reduced Meal Applications and instructions are at the printer. The first week’s food orders are ready to go. Student accounts are ready to be added, purged, and rolled forward in the POS. Inventories have been taken, extended, and ready for next year. Staff recall notices are ready to be sent and their schedules are ready to post. Policy changes and the first month’s menus are ready to be sent to parents. Preventative maintenance projects are completed. Wow, you are thinking, “I’m good, I’m ready to go and its only July!” The real question is, are you really ready?

Most school food directors would say yes. Many would tell you that this process is automatic and they can do it in their sleep. Some would already be on a secluded beach somewhere relaxing. Some however, would be planning ways to get their customers excited and ready to jump back into the world of school food. These few would be those with the most consistently successful programs. Too many times we get caught up in the ongoing struggle to be compliant and forget the customer has been away and has most likely forgotten us. While compliance is required, without customers it is relatively meaningless. The most compliant, organized, and prepared operation without customer interest and participation, is nothing more than an empty shell.

Let’s face facts, students take time to shake off the haze of summer fun and get back into the structure of another school year. They aren’t looking forward to returning to the world of rules, regulations, and academia. They walk through the doors, on the first day, like the zombies from the “Living Dead” and remain in that state for at least two weeks after Labor Day. The real question is; can your program wait to see any real growth in participation until October? Your marketing strategies, developed and acted on before opening day could just be the spark necessary to turn the zombies to human form again!

Marketing is one of the most overlooked areas in school food. As operators we get so caught up in the rules we forget who we are there to serve. People like to feel part of things. They like to be kept informed and in the know. They are drawn by excitement. Students are people, though we sometimes forget that and treat them like sheep that need to be prodded and herded, with little or no regard to their needs and expectations. Its hard to be young and excitable. We forget this too often as we become adults. Being forced to follow rules and perform all day is bad enough, but when your only oasis in this sea of forced servitude (the school café’) is also filled with more rules and regulations, why participate? Many times we as operators treat our student customers like mushrooms. We keep them in the dark, on what great things we are doing, and expect them to happily eat whatever we tell them to eat. Would that excite you?

Marketing is the sizzle that sells the steak, the excitement that fills the room, and the concepts that meet their needs and keep them coming back again and again. Too often we overlook its importance and then wonder why our program is losing money. Developing and implementing an effective marketing strategy can be accomplished by following several steps. Below are my key steps to effective marketing.

  1. Promote when it is needed not just to say you did something. Use your monthly POS sales reports to determine patterns of low or slow participation. These times are usually from the end of August to October, from November to January, and the last week of May through the last day of the school year. Plan promotions and special days during these slow times to create excitement and generate participation.
  2. Don’t Keep it to yourself, let customers know what you have planned in advance. Develop your plans then let your customers know what you are doing. Reach students through the medias they use, email, texts, social media, and signs in areas they frequent. Send flyers home to parents, post events on your website, and text a list of special event to parents also. Send flyers to teachers, administrators, and board members, add these promotions to your board reports or request time at a board meeting to discuss them. Let everyone who is touched by your program know the exciting new things you are doing. Create excitement by letting everyone know.
  3. You can’t be great on your own, involve your staff. Share these marketing ideas with your staff and get them excited that something new is happening. The worst thing is to have a great promotion that staff members can’t enjoy with your customers. Think of a restaurant you have gone to and inquired about one of their special promotions, only to find your server knew nothing about it and didn’t suggest or inform you of what was being promoted. What a letdown. This happens with many school food promotions also. If your staff isn’t excited your customers won’t be either.
  4. Vendors and manufacturers make great partners. Involve the companies you work with, they bring added excitement to the mix. Ask for small prizes, posters or decorations that promote the products or the events. Most companies have these types of items built into their marketing budgets, so utilize them. Invite manufacturer and vendor representatives to be part of the promotion. The more new faces and bells and whistles, the greater the excitement. Remember, the more advanced notice and planning time you give your vendors the more they can and will help. Don’t wait until a week before the event to ask.

Utilizing these simple steps, you can develop and implement an effective marketing plan to bolster excitement and participation in your program. Take a little more time before heading out for a well-deserved break. You will be glad you did.

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.

15 Components of School Food Customer Service

Written by Milt Miller – “One Million Students Nationwide have Stopped Eating School Lunch”, “Students Have Meals Taken From Them Due to Low Lunch Account Balances”, “New Food Guidelines Cause Increased Waste and Costs”, “Students Refuse to Eat New School Lunches”, “Open Campus Policy Destroying School Lunch Program”, and my personal favorite, “We’re from the Government and We’re here to Help”. Headlines, articles, and blogs like these have littered the media giving school lunch a black eye in the minds of their patrons. All of these writings outline what students won’t do or how poorly the implementation of policy has been, but none say what anyone is doing to find out what students want and how those desires can fit within the rules. A lack of Customer Service stands out in all of these articles, what happened to the age old cliché “the customer is always right?

Customer Service: the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services. This has become a lost art in today’s society. Companies who understand customer service are the most successful and are usually in business for many years. It isn’t only the product quality or ambience of the operation, it’s the feeling people get when they believe they have made the right decision and their expectations have been fulfilled. Customer service is very hard to do and takes a major commitment. If it was easy every business would be successful. All of the above articles tell what the students, parents and program administrators do not want, while never asking what they want that will make them support the school lunch program.

Let’s break Customer Service down to its basic parts and see if what we are currently doing fits the definition.

  1. Communicate policies, procedures, products, program ideologies, and guidelines to students, parents, administrators, and the community.
  2. Utilize all resources necessary to understand patron needs and expectations.
  3. Select products and service models geared to meet those needs and expectations.
  4. Today is the time to start moving towards meeting patron expectations. Yesterday’s opportunities are gone.
  5. Operate within current rules, guidelines, and costs to meet patron expectations.
  6. Manage costs through improved purchasing, portion control, and USDA commodity utilization to provide the best affordable products your patrons want.
  7. Educate students, administrators, parents, and the community why your service benefits them.
  8. Respect your patrons as your most prized asset. Without them you have no program.
  9. Support you customer by assisting them in preparing forms crucial to insuring your continued service before that service is interrupted.
  10. Educate and re-educate patrons and staff on why you do what you do and how it benefits them. Strive to make all policies and procedures clear.
  11. Remember without customers you cannot succeed. They are your most prized asset.
  12. Voice your ideologies of good customer service to your staff until they become their own.
  13. Initiate new and creative ideas to meet patron expectations within current guidelines.
  14. Create excitement to make your program something patrons want to be part of.
  15. Educate, this has been listed three times as I believe it is the most important aspect. People fear what they do not understand. If your customers do not understand your program it looses its effectiveness.

While I agree the new guideline have been handled poorly with little end user consideration, I firmly believe its intent is for the good of all. Rather than thrash about and dwell on the bad, let’s look at how with a little more effort we can successfully serve our customers.

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.

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.

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.

Think Outside the Box When Marketing Your School Food Program

Written by Milt Miller – More and more school districts across the country, both managed and self-operating, are reporting declines in lunch sales due to the HHFKA guidelines. In reviewing the menus posted on these school’s websites, one quickly sees that though the guidelines have changed, their selections of entrees have changed very little (with the exception of adding beans and colored vegetables in a way their students do not understand). In replacing acceptable products with their healthier whole grain and low sodium alternatives, they have traded meeting the guidelines with serving products foreign to their customers’ taste profiles. A pizza with whole grain crust is a completely different creature than the old white flour pizza of the past. A salad made with romaine or spinach is quite different than the one made with iceberg lettuce. In trying to meet regulations, some school food operations have just substituted the new healthier replacement products for the tried and true products students understand and have eaten for years without considering the differences in taste profiles and textures.

Without investigation, the results of this change have produced less than stellar numbers in participation. In low income schools especially, operators are finding it hard to even give the food away. Waste is high and participation has declined even with students who qualify for a free or reduced meal. Most of these operators have the same reason for the drop in participation and the increase in waste: “the HHFKA guidelines”. Other reasons include: “the kids don’t like the new offerings”, “they don’t like whole grains”, “they won’t eat the fruits and vegetables being forced on them”, and the number one reason heard most, “The students don’t get as much food with the HHFKA guidelines.” My question when I read these statements is, how have other schools shown an increase in participation and decrease in waste using the same set of rules and products?

The answer to these problems as I see it? Marketing. Successful program directors educate their patrons, survey them about what they want from their food program, listen to what their student customers say, include them in shaping their program, and most importantly make their operations exciting for their customers. Think about it; children are nothing more than small adults that lack experience, but are being shaped by what they experience. How would adults react to being told what they could and could not eat and what they had to take in order to have a proper lunch? How many children see their parents eat balanced meals on a regular basis? How many families exist on convenience food high in fat and sodium in today’s two income households? To force people to act in a manner abnormal to them without answering the “why” question and showing them the benefit to doing so is setting up for failure. Educating students on the benefits of making healthy choices is key to initial acceptance. Taking this further by looking at their current eating habits and food trends aimed at their market is crucial to having a successful program. This is still America and we teach our children that they have the right to make choices. As food service professionals, we have the ability to shape those choices by providing acceptable products to our customers. If we don’t try to give our customers what they want and expect, we will lose them. Many school food programs have neglected to do this and are paying the price with large deficits.

When asked if they went out in the community and looked at what their patrons were eating outside the school, most of the operators experiencing problems now answer “no”. Most successful operators answered “yes” and said they found a way to offer these same products using healthier ingredients. Most programs have student advisory groups that give them insights into the wants of their customers. Successful programs actually listen to them and make them feel like wanted members of the program instead of outsiders. Operators who are visible, approachable, and open to their customers have a higher success rate than those who are not. Operators who take the time and effort to make school lunch exciting and students feel welcome have higher participation than those who don’t.

In most areas where I’ve had the opportunity to work with schools who sought to fix their participation issues, marketing their program was the key issue. You can’t force anyone to eat something they do not want without the use of force. Since force feeding is not an option, perhaps it is time for operators to expand their comfort zones to get out and see what their patrons want. I read the other day a school food professional said, “You can’t go by what the students say about their lunch program because they don’t give you honest answers.” This made me wonder if the answers were not honest or just not what someone wanted to hear. This was also a program experiencing a major drop in participation and thus, revenue.

To sum it all up, it’s time for school food operators to listen and think outside the box on how to deliver a product that their patrons want while staying within the HHFKA guidelines. These guidelines show no sign of going away soon so it’s time to find ways to make them work for your program. The revenues depend on it.

 

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.

Free School Meals – Ensuring that All Children Are Able to Learn

Good nutrition is at the heart of learning. Studies show that, not only do students need a good breakfast and lunch for health reasons, but they also perform better on important standardized tests and assignments when they have a healthy meal. In contrast, brain functions slow down and are impeded by improper nutrition, junk food and poor food choices. So parents often turn to schools to offer the nutrition their child needs to excel.

The Problem with Lunch Programs of the Past

Free lunches and reduced-priced meals have been available to kids in public schools for some time. The problem was that only a select group of kids actually qualified for the free lunches. Many parents are low-income but fall just above the cut-off for such programs, yet still have struggles paying the amount charged by schools for daily lunches. For parents with multiple children in school, this can become a daily expense that they cannot afford.

Is Free Breakfast Enough?

Some schools have begun implementing free breakfast programs, in an effort to increase the involvement level of parents to get their kids started right in the morning. However, offering free breakfast is not enough. Many kids need free lunches as well, but their parents often do not know that they qualify, or they are not educated on what to do to get this going for their child.

Community-based Free Lunches

President Obama’s new free lunch program is out to change that. The legislation relies on the criteria of “community eligibility,” rather than individual need. Based on the general needs of the community in which the children live and attend school, free lunches are offered to low-income children.

This federal provision was made available as of the 2014-15 school year. It is now available for low-income communities with children who attend school but cannot afford lunch at the regular prices. It offers children 2 meals per school day: breakfast and lunch, which increases the chances of success in learning even more.

What to Do to Take Advantage of the New Program

Parents of communities need only to contact their local school districts to see if their area qualifies. Regarding school lunches, specific requirements are now much easier to reach than in previous legislative actions. The President’s new ruling opens the doors to many who had gone without proper nutrition in the past and makes it easier than ever to get nutrition to kids who need it the most.

Lunch Time, not Crunch Time: Tips to Increase the Speed of School Lunch Lines

Is your goal to cut down the time it takes to pay for lunches served in your school cafeteria? Faster lunch lines have become a priority for schools as they contend with overcrowding and shorter lunch periods to increase class time and boost students’ scores.

Schools also face pressure to incorporate more fresh produce into their lunch menu. This makes faster lunch lines vital, especially because sometimes, eating fresh, healthy foods takes longer than eating prepackaged or processed foods that are ready to eat. Chewing an apple, for example, takes much longer than slurping down sugary applesauce.

Faster cafeteria lines promote healthy lunch choices, especially when kids know they have the time to finish the food they purchase. Longer lunch lines, in contrast, leave little time for eating and seem to be an ideal way to mint lifelong customers for the fast-food industry.

There are many ways to use technology to increase the speed of the cafeteria lunch line, like adding the schools lunch menu online for parents to pre-order a student’s lunch, or using a hand-held point of sale (POS) unit. Collecting, tracking, and using the appropriate data with the right online system can make a huge difference.

Flexible POS

A flexible School Payment software and a cafeteria Point-of-Sale (POS) system eliminates the need for ticket and cash systems, allowing lunch lines to move more quickly while freeing up time for staff to focus on other pressing tasks.

Accepting payments through an online School Payment Software system can increase the speed of school lunch lines drastically. Allowing parents and schools to manage students’ school lunch accounts online means students don’t slow down the line paying with cash. Parents can make secure deposits, pre-order meals, and pay school fees all through an online school payment software system.

Using a hand-held POS unit, designed specifically for cafeterias, has everything needed to quickly get students, employees or customers through cafeteria lines.

Allows for centralized reporting.

Keeping all cafeteria data in a centralized system allows food service managers to better manage their food service operations. With access to a centralized system of lunch data, schools can better prepare for food allergies, identify food preferences, and find healthy alternatives that kids will eat.

Patterns in lunch consumption can also help schools spot trends and preferences, which leads to more informed decisions regarding child behavior, academic performance, and more.

Increase Revenues.

When students don’t have to deal with cash or ordering at lunch time, the lunch line moves faster and more students are served. The greater the number of students served, the higher the revenue for the school.

Increase Reimbursements and Cash Flow.

Whether students receive a subsidized lunch or pay for their lunch, a system that tracks lunch data allows schools to better manage the reimbursements and reduce the number of unpaid lunch accounts.

Reduces waste.

With more accurate tracking of sales, schools get better inventory controls which minimizes waste and gives them more accurate data to reduce food waste and spoilage.

 

Our School Lunch Software and portable POS unit provides everything a school needs to quickly get students through cafeteria lines. For pricing or more details, call 1 (800) 425-1425 or email us at sales@foodserve.com.

Improving Child Nutrition and Integrity Act of 2016

Has the Last Apple been Thrown in this Food Fight?

Written by Milt Miller – The Senate Agriculture Committee has agreed to roll back some issues in the National School Lunch Program’s Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 guidelines, on Wednesday, January 20, 2016, in a show of true bi-partisan politics and compromise. The changes in the proposed re-authorization of the National School Lunch Act, that will provide some increased flexibility for schools to plan menus that will be more acceptable to our nation’s students, are the result of the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) continued lobbying on behalf of its member schools nationwide. Without the continued efforts of the SNA to present common sense concerns and rational solutions, on behalf of its constituents, I fear no improvements would have come about.

By pointing out the flaws in this needed but over regulated act, SNA provided actual facts and first hand observations from within the industry, to show what wasn’t working as well as providing workable solutions without greatly hampering the Act’s intent and purpose. Though hotly criticized by the medical professionals, child nutrition activists, and the White House, SNA held fast to its position and the position of its members. Aligning with the newly elected Republican Congress allowed for necessary leverage to achieve this compromise, without which no change would have been affected.

The SNA position, stated unwaveringly over the past five years, has been one of softening issues hampering school food operation’s self-sustainability and one of improving the wellbeing of America’s school children. Never once had they lobbied for the repeal or rollback of the entire program, as they have been accused by their critics. Again, thank you SNA.

As everyone is aware, the true sense of compromise is everyone wins and everyone loses. In the case of this bi-partisan compromise, it appears that one side has maintained more of the original Act and the other side has gotten some small, but necessary changes. Looking at the proposed legislation going before the Senate and the House in the near future, there appears to be some needed roll backs in the percentage of whole grains that must be offered and a hold on the sodium restrictions for at least two more years. These changes are definitely a step in the right direction and do provide some needed flexibility, but in no way do they ease the burden of increased cost and increased waste created by the implementation of the original act and its continued additional restrictions over the past five years. This compromise appears to be more of an offer of an olive branch rather than an attempt to fix the inequities in the program for the sustainability of school lunch operations.

Granted the roll back of the requirement on whole grains from 100% to 80% provides added flexibility in menu development and the provision of products students find more acceptable. Pushing back the sodium restrictions for at least another two years will allow many favorite items to remain on the menu, but nothing really has been done to address the increased cost of compliance, increased waste, or acceptable revisions to the Smart Snacks in Schools regulations.

An olive branch again has been offered in the waste situation, as the Secretary of Agriculture is directed by this act, to conduct studies to eliminate waste of fruits and vegetables through the increased use of salad bars and share tables. Both of these service models are deemed by the health departments of some states as unsafe food handling practices. Salad bars can create waste due to overproduction, poor rotation of product, and contamination, and share tables are collection areas for unwanted products that can be taken and consumed by individuals desiring extra portions of those products during the meal period. What if no one wants them? What if these foods become contaminated or are tampered with and a food borne illness is contracted from consuming them? Where does the liability lie? I do not believe this is an adequate solution to the waste issue. Addressing the increased cost issue was totally passed over as expected. The Secretary has been directed to appoint a committee to assess the Smart Snack guidelines and make recommendations for acceptable products to be allowed. This is a step in the right direction.

Increased funding for Summer Food Programs, facility upgrades, increased technology, and staff development have remained intact, the CRE or every three year state review of school food programs has been moved back to every five years, and the words “Buy American” have been added to the development of future procurement and purchasing requirements. Outside of a few other changes in language the act has remained intact.

Please do not interpret my comments as unappreciative or ungrateful. I am grateful for what changes and revisions have been made. They were necessary. I am thankful for SNA”s diligence in pushing for the flexibility and improvements that have been penned into this proposed bi-partisan legislation. I know that SNA will be supportive of these improvements and keep working to influence further improvements in the future. I just hope that this is not the last apple thrown in the food fight to improve child nutrition regulations.

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