Food expenses are such a large portion of the cost of a meal in every school that even minor gains in efficiency can result in significant savings to the bottom line. With such tight margins, there is little room left for any miscalculations or errors in your ordering or food management processes. With good procedures and tools in place, and with proper training for all personnel, accurate inventory management is very achievable.

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Over the next several weeks, my goal is to provide valuable information that will help your nutrition operation gain solid control over your inventory management processes. Taking control of your inventory creates more visibility into your operation, enhances its overall efficiency, and hopefully saves your district a little money. This week, let’s discover how properly managing your inventory could be the best business decision you and your nutrition operation has ever made.

Evaluate Your Current Inventory Management Processes
Have you taken a close look at your inventory situation within your district lately? At any given time, do you know the value of the assets are that are hanging out in storerooms or chilling in coolers? Do you know how much residual inventory you expect to have after you produce your weekly menu cycles? These are important questions to ask yourself as you begin to review your current inventory management processes.

It is not uncommon for many school nutrition operations to use basic methods of paper forms or Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to keep tabs on their kitchen’s inventory. If you use these, you are not alone! Whether these forms or spreadsheets were supplied by your local school district or your governing state agency, chances are they lack significant depth in their analyses and reporting functionalities. If you manage a large district, you may be using a more robust inventory management software solution that helps more easily manage nutrition operations at all of your sites.

Regardless of the type of process in place within your district, there are bound to be certain pain points within your operation. Have you taken the time to consider what those are? Perhaps you are continually running in to issues with vendor orders, pricing discrepancies, or tracking site-to-site item transfers, just to name a few. Think about the main issues you experience within your operation and keep them in mind as we dive deeper into inventory management over the next several weeks.

Expect Accuracy
With just a few tweaks to how you manage your daily inventory, your operation could be well on its way to using best practices. For instance, regarding your daily vendor deliveries, have your site employees check each vendor order as it is being delivered, versus simply signing the delivery sheet and counting for inventory purposes at a later time. Every item coming in will be matched against the order invoice and any discrepancies will be noted accordingly. Counting inventory gets a lot harder when you reconcile items that no longer exist in your kitchen, and were not added or subtracted from your inventory count. This practice of real-time data entry allows you to always know the monetary value of the assets in your inventory. We call this real-time monitoring of a school’s kitchen stock their perpetual inventory.

Once you and your employees have established solid processes within your inventory management system, everyday tasks such as receiving items and item withdrawals will seamlessly flow into and out of your operation. Establishing a level of trust in those daily management processes will give you the freedom to conduct less-frequent physical inventory counts, as you will be constantly aware of your perpetual inventory levels.

Accurate Inventory Management Begins with Your Staff
The best way to expect accuracy in your daily nutrition operation is by making accuracy easy to achieve. It is imperative for you, your site managers, and their staff to believe accurate inventory management and tracking are important. Directors and supervisors must take the lead in not only believing accurate inventory management is possible but in communicating that belief with the rest of your team. By tracking inventory accurately at each site, the district has an accurate food cost picture that highlights which sites are managing their operations the best.

Recently, the USDA announced a new proposed rule in which school nutrition staff will be subject to more strict training requirements and proof of documentation. Since these trainings will be mandatory for all staff members, it presents a great opportunity to incorporate inventory training in the schedule. This helps to ensure that all members of your staff understand the importance of maintaining accurate inventory counts when signing off on deliveries, checking recipes, or producing meals.

Now that you understand the importance of a properly managed inventory within your operation and the positive impact it can have on your bottom line, next time we’ll dive into best practices when ordering and receiving items into your kitchen. For now though, we want to hear from you! How are you currently managing your inventory? What are the most common problems you face in your inventory management process?