Ways to Produce Growth in School Cafeteria Revenue and Participation

Written by Milt Miller – As in people’s lives, school food programs are sometimes in need of help. Many of these programs are drowning in their problems, but fail to recognize they need help. I find this very hard to understand as well as very frustrating. When I was running a school food program, I was always looking for fresh ideas and better ways of doing things. I always reached out to people who knew something I didn’t and picked their brains for new concepts. Sometimes it cost some money but the revenue generated by the results far outweighed the costs. Many times when I speak with school food directors and administrators all they fix on is the cost, not the revenue it will generate. Every business, at one time or another, has to spend some money to make some money.

Another issue I find, is getting directors to admit they have a problem at all. I spoke to one administrator whose program was losing in excess of $100,000 per year, and he told me that wasn’t really an issue because they had budgeted for the loss. Thought processes like that one just make no sense to me. Another told me participation was down, but the kids would get used to the food and start liking it by next year. Really? They don’t like the products now, but they will learn to like them because it is all they are going to get?

I once had a problem with dining room monitors. Students were avoiding the lunch room because the ladies were too rigid and unwelcoming. Many parents were complaining also. So okay, I admitted I had a problem, hired a child behavioral psychologist to come in and train them, on how to handle student issues more effectively. Did it cost money? Yes it did, but the results achieved more than covered the cost and turnover at that position also dropped, which was cost saving too. Over the years I have invested a great deal of money in my staff. Not just on safe food handling skills and nutrition education, but on the fundamentals of cooking, child psychology, knife skills, and refabricating unsold products into new products to lower waste. I always focused on upgrading their knowledge in every way possible, especially the ways that would eliminate waste and increase revenue.

Directors that only provide training on politically hot topics each year, are missing the boat on what really makes revenues and participation go up. Teaching your staff how to avoid throwing food away or how to better utilize unsold products through proper food handling techniques, makes your program more money than teaching them when it is correct to throw food away. Granted, they need to know when it should not be served, but it is more important to stress how to avoid that. The more you invest in improving your program the more you reap in increased sales, participation, and increased revenues. You also have a happier more talented staff.

More times than not, the question you should be asking isn’t “Can I afford to?”, but rather, “Can I afford not to?”. School food decision makers need to look at what training and investment in their programs will provide the greatest return and growth. This development is not always just courses on safe food handling. You may be able handle food safer than anyone else, but if you aren’t selling it because you don’t know how to market what you are doing, or your staff doesn’t understand customer service or how to prepare the food to suit your customers, you still have a losing situation. Training and development shouldn’t always be the same thing every year or it stops producing growth. Many times basic staff needs are overlooked to review some hot topic that really doesn’t produce growth in the staff or the program but it is politically correct. You may receive grant money or get this training free from your state department of education, but when it is all said and done what has really been achieved in the growth of participation or revenue? I always wanted my staff to understand what it took to be compliant. I reviewed rule changes and procedures with them every day as well as twice a year at policy meetings. I did, however provide them with the knowledge necessary to produce program growth and personal growth as well. I brought in experts in marketing, customer service, food handling, produce, protein, baking, behavioral psychology, and how to effectively use student focus groups. All of this provided them with personal growth and growth to my program. The cost of all of these programs was more than offset by the return in growth for my operations.

Some successful directors are already doing this and know what I am speaking about. Sadly, too many appear to be in denial and don’t see they have a problem in their program. Many also are too focused on initial cost instead of the return on their investment. Using experts in the field to grow your program accomplishes an array of different values, knowledge, confidence, enrichment, and program growth, to mention just a few. If we focus solely on the initial cost and not the end return, we many times turn away what is most needed as not wanted.

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.

Please Don’t Come through the Lunch Line, You Are Costing Us Money

Sadly, worrying about meal equity, participation, compliance, food cost, labor cost, meal reimbursements, and the myriad of other school lunch issues, has resulted in some school food operators feeling this way. Many operations we have assessed this year have this problem and don’t even realize what is happening. They know all of their important numbers, labor cost, cost of goods (food cost), participation percentage, plate cost, and required price increase, but fail to realize what is their “Optimum Per Student Spend”.

Optimum Per Student Spend (OPSS) is what must be received daily from every student for the operation to break even. This information is obtained by adding labor cost per day, with benefits, and total food cost per day and dividing the sum by enrollment. This is the total amount needed per student per day to cover costs of operations. Knowing this number breaks total operational costs and needs down to a more immediate level of understanding. I call this “the hundred penny theory of operations.” The theory goes, if food and labor per student per day cost one hundred pennies, then spend per student per day must equal one hundred pennies to achieve breakeven. Knowing all other numbers but this one many times leaves operators wondering why they are losing so much money by the end of a week, month, or year.

Several areas that affect OPSS are participation, cost of goods, and impulse purchases. Lower costs of goods or improved pricing strategies proportionally lower OPSS. Costing at 40% instead of 50% will lower OPSS by 10%. Many operators lose sight of best practice pricing strategies and set food costs above the national average of 40-42%. This causes higher breakeven points and lowers chances for program self-sustainability. Add on buys or impulse purchases increase student spend and facilitate breakeven. Too many times this strategy, of increasing ala carte’ sales, takes away from meals participation by making meals look less desirable. True add on buys are second entrees or ala carte items purchased with a reimbursable meal. These are purchases that add to student spend without detracting from it in anyway. When setting meal and ala carte pricing operators should set prices to encourage reimbursable meal sales and provide accessory items, with perceived value, that add on to the meal purchase. A few operators chafe at the thought of enticing students to spend more, but let’s face it, this is a business and if they don’t spend it with you they’ll spend it on less healthy items at the local convenience store.

Increased participation hides a multitude of sins. It also lowers OPSS rates. Once you have costs in line and OPSS is equal to or greater than cost/student/day, target students who currently are not dining with you and bring them into the fold. Participation insures sustainability. Keep this in the front of your mind at all times. It may never reach 100%, but it should always be in the upper 80%’s.

Breaking operations down to the hundred penny theory and understanding that daily student spend rates must be equal to or greater than daily cost/student rates, is crucial to maintaining a successful school food operation. Not knowing what your OPSS is and efficiently managing it, can lead to catastrophic losses to your program. Without knowing these numbers, it could be you saying, “Please don’t come through my lunch line, you are costing us money.”

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.

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.

The Top 3 Training Topics for School Food Programs

Written by Milt Miller – The Final Rule on Professional Standards for School Food Professionals, has brought many needed training reforms for school food management and staff. These guidelines provide a benchmark for keeping food professionals up to date and growing in the knowledge areas necessary to perform their jobs within the new NSLP guidelines. The new guidelines mandate a prescribed number of training hours yearly for both management and staff. To comply with these guidelines the ruling provides many options for training; the three most requested programs, by our past and present clients, are Effectively Marketing Your Food Program, Purchasing and Procurement Techniques, and Understanding How to Use Production Records.

 

1. Effectively Marketing Your Food Program

Based on what we have seen while visiting schools, Marketing is the number one concern. School food professionals are very humble people, which is an admirable quality, but if they fail to let their student customers know what they are doing in their operations it can create a problem. Marketing a school food program is the weakest skill set we have observed. School food operators need direction in how to identify and reach their target markets in the manner they prefer to be reached. They also need to find the many free or inexpensive medias surrounding them in their schools that will effectively reach their students. Too often parents are not seen as a target market, but they make the final decision, most times, whether to buy at school or pack a lunch. We have shown many operators how to effectively reach and keep parents informed of the great things happening in their cafés.

Understanding and shaping the perceptions about your program is a critical piece of any marketing plan. Sending the proper message, by using the right medias to effectively reach students, parents, and the academic community within your school is key. Understanding and delivering menu items that meet today’s food trends and meet student needs, is also a key element of effective marketing for school food. Utilization of student focus groups, representation at parent gatherings, and keeping educators and administrators informed of program goals and offerings, are important factors in obtaining and sharing this information. The school cafés with whom we’ve worked have increased participation by as much as 15% in the first two weeks of implementing the skills illustrated and discussed in our training program.

 

2. How to effectively use Production Records

The second most requested topic for training is how to effectively use Production Records. This simple form has become an enigma to school food workers. The reason? An unclear understanding of the true purpose and value of this instrument. Production Records are not just a means of directing the work force or recording food usage, as is usually perceived by most café workers. This document is also a daily consolidation of necessary information for kitchen staff involving line set-up, HACCP processes and controls, meal item acceptability, cooking and holding temperature charts, portion control, and waste control. From the management side it is a great record of menu acceptability, meal identification verification, inventory control, commodity usage, per student nutrient analysis, actual cost per meal per day, and provides most of the dietary information necessary for on-site audits.

After raising the awareness of staff on the importance of this document and how simple it is to use properly, the results that usually occur are a 3-5% decrease in food cost, 10% decrease in waste, and a 10% increase in productivity. The training is about four hours, but the results in schools where we have conducted the training have been robust. Once an understanding of the purpose of this document is attained the procedures take no more than a calculator a POS items report and a pencil to complete.

 

3. Procurement and Ordering Techniques

The third most requested training is Procurement and Ordering Techniques. This has come to the forefront recently with the implementation of Policy 2 CFR 200, the policy on procurement for school nutrition operations. The regulations have always been there, but now the current administration, FNS, and USDA has decided it is time to enforce them and tie them to the administrative audit every three years. Though the regulations have changed very little, the enforcement piece is causing every SFA to be much more aware of them. We expect this training program to soar right to the top of the most wanted list in the next few months.

Basically all procurement is broken down to three types. Micro-Purchases, meaning less than $3,500, Informal Purchases, which is greater than $3,500 but less than $10,500 for non-perishables or greater than $10,500 but less than $150.000 For perishable items, meaning food. And last but not least, Formal Purchases, equal to or more than $150,000, which require either an IFB or RFP bidding process. Regulations and necessary forms can be obtained at www.ecfr.gov, or by contacting your local state Department of Education. Every food program must have its own Food Service Account that provides a clear audit trail of all revenues and expenditures. Coupled with each type of expenditure must be a procurement explanation as to why this purchase was made and how it fits with the School Codes for Procurement. The entire process is not difficult, but it is cumbersome and can be confusing. Many of our clients are frantically seeking clarity and a condensed, more understandable version of the guidelines. Most states are conducting mass webinars to explain the new procurement processes and the audits that will follow. I would suggest attending these for the overview, then conducting small group sessions with a credible trainer for the major details. We have geared our programs to assist in gaining a better understanding of the process.

As you can readily see, the face of school food is rapidly changing and a much higher level of administrative proficiency is required than in past years. If training in these top three areas is available, it is well worth the investment to seek it. Do not be left in the wake of these new rules wondering, “What can I do now?”.

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. 

What Can Cafeterias Learn From Chipotle?

Over the last several months, the food service world has been rocked by revelations about the unsafe food practices that caused multiple outbreaks of food-borne illness, all originating from Chipotle. Between 1990 and 2004, over 11,000 cases of food-borne illness resulted from school cafeterias; the numbers resulting from restaurants are less clear. What we do know, however, is that when people get sick from food that they’re served, the consequences can be dire. So how should the industry react? What can be done?

Maintain the Best in Food Handling Protocols

How does your kitchen handle raw meat? Vegetable washing? Do people in the kitchen regularly wash their hands and use appropriate precautions? Are foods thawed responsibly and kept in safe temperature zones?

One of the keys to maintaining a healthy and safe kitchen is knowing both what needs to be done, and who is accountable for doing it.

Encourage Both Health Inspections and Self Inspections for Food Safety

Sometimes those in the food service industry look on health inspections or self reviews regarding food safety either with irritation, or total fear. Instead, train your staff to look at inspections and reviews as an opportunity to do better. As the Chipotle situation shows, we can believe that we’ve got everything under control when there is in fact a great deal of room for improvement.

Know Your Pathogens

Your kitchen probably has first aid instructions for cuts and burns posted, right? What about the three foods most likely to cause food-borne illness? Poultry, leafy greens, and melons are all foods which have a higher than average chance of causing illness, through improper washing, improper freezing or thawing, or improper cooking. By training your staff to handle these foods with extra care, you can go a long way towards keeping your customers healthy and avoiding food-borne illness.

It’s important not to be scared about food safety. Just like handling sharp knives and kitchen tools, fear makes you more likely to mishandle things and hurt yourself or others. Ultimately, the instructions that need to be followed to keep everyone safe are fairly simple to implement. Making sure freezers stay at the right temperatures, that foods are used within appropriate time frames, and that cross-contamination is avoided will go a long way. A great inventory system helps you to keep track of what’s in your kitchen, and good food safety protocols help to make sure your food is delicious.

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.

National School Breakfast Week: March 7-11, 2016

Breakfast is widely known as the most important meal of the day, and National School Breakfast Week is here to encourage kids to enjoy breakfast every day! The week long celebration of breakfast began in 1989. This year’s theme is “Wake up to School Breakfast.” This week, schools across the country are putting their breakfast programs on display to show students and their families that school lunches are for everyone, because they are both healthy and affordable.

There are tons of ways to get your students – and their families – excited about school breakfasts. Have you planned a celebration for this week? Letting teachers and students know that National School Breakfast Week 2016 has arrived is the first step.

Breakfast Facts for National School Breakfast Week

Teachers can remind students of a few important breakfast related facts! They may have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but do they understand why?

Eating A Healthy Breakfast Increases Attention & Memory

Students who eat breakfast daily have been proven to have better memory and a longer attention span than those who don’t. In addition, the quality of the food has been shown to affect cognition, according to The Wellness Impact Report, 2013. The research showed that students who eat breakfast that lacks nutritional value are more likely to miss school, show signs of hunger before lunch, and have psycho social issues in school.

Healthy Breakfasts Boost Performance in School

A second study called Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis, 2013, showed that eating school breakfast has an effect on a student’s performance. In the study, students who ate school breakfast attended 1.5 more days of school each year, on average, than those who did not. Eating school breakfasts also led to higher standardized math test scores.

Breakfast Makes a Better Overall Student

Schools function the best when all students arrive on time, every day, pay attention, and are able to understand the material. Of course, this is not the case in any school, but according to Breakfast for Learning, 2014, students who ate school breakfast showed improvement in all areas.

Students who participated in school breakfast programs had better attendance records, lower rates of tardiness, fewer behavior issues, and they earned higher test scores on standardized tests.

School Breakfast Is for Everyone

One of the benefits of school breakfast programs is that they are there for every student, and often, low-income students can receive free or discounted meals. That means that even if there is no food at home, a student can still reap all of the benefits of a healthy breakfast, every day.

According to the Impact of School Breakfast on Children’s Health & Learning, 2008, a school’s breakfast program can make a significant difference in the life of a child, especially a low-income child. Because a healthy breakfast helps increase memory and attention span, it helps to improve the learning capabilities and cognitive abilities of children. When comparing low-income children who eat school breakfast and those who do not, those who had breakfast had better attendance, higher energy levels, were more alert in school, had better memories, and scored higher on things like math and reading.

School Breakfasts Over Breakfast at Home

Often, eating breakfast at school instead of at home can help students show up to school and be there on time for several reasons. First, they have fewer things to do at home, so they can get ready faster. Second, if a child is hungry and knows that the school provides a healthy meal, they are motivated to work with a parent to get there. Taking time to eat together before school starts can help students bond with one another and have some time to wake up and get ready for the day.