The Good, The Bad, and The TRUTH about the New Professional Standards in School Nutrition
Last week, we discussed the new regulations and professional standards rule being proposed by the USDA Food Nutrition Service (FNS). Who are we kidding though? Government documents are incredibly long, often redundant, and rather uninteresting to read. We know this information is important to your school nutrition operation, so we’re here to break down these training requirements and education standards into easy-to-digest buckets of information — the GOOD, the BAD, and the TRUTH. Regulations are loose, making compliance easy. This factor is key in the implementation of these new standards. The USDA FNS understands that all school districts are not made equal. Some feed over 100,000 kids, while others feed just 1,000. Some are based in cities and have access to ample resources to train their employees, while others are more geographically dispersed, thereby limiting mass training opportunities. That’s why the USDA has allowed a variety of training activities to count toward the new certificate system. For instance, a part-time food service worker who works an average of 20+ hours a week needs to earn a minimum of eight hours of continuing education units (CEU) annually to be in compliance with the new requirements. The employee may attend formal classes with other workers from the same school system or region for CEU credit. However, CEU’s can also be earned by a task as simple as a manager providing one-on-one training for the employee at the cashier station. Additional business education will enhance management decisions and increase productivity. The core component of these proposed standards includes an enhanced education requirement for school nutrition directors. More stringent education requirements will bring in personnel with more extensive business and financial education, which should lead to overall smarter financial decisions of those who lead their nutrition operation. For a more detailed breakdown of the specific director-level education requirements by district size, view this infographic. Additionally, a 2013 Economic Analysis and Research Network Report found that hiring individuals with higher levels of education supports increased levels of productivity within the organization. Margo Frazier, Supervisor of Child Nutrition Operations in Sheldon ISD (Houston, TX), was recently quoted voicing her support for the stronger education requirements. She has seen the benefits of higher education through her own personal journey.
“The more I learn and apply my knowledge the better I feel about myself. I have more confidence in myself and in my job; therefore I have become a more effective leader. I am currently the supervisor of operations in my district. I have also grown my skills by going to college with the support of my local, state, and national organization. I am the girl who never finished high school, had absolutely no confidence in myself, went back and got my GED, and currently attend college with the goal of being able to become SNS Certified.”
While the new education requirements will only affect new hires and not existing employees in their current role, over time the USDA is confident that it will lead to a workforce making smarter management decisions at higher rates of productivity. Enhance the public’s perception of the industry. It’s no secret that school nutrition professionals are always waging a battle against outdated, negative perceptions of their industry. Historically, many kids viewed school meals as only for underprivileged kids, while parents regarded the meals as bland and unnourishing. With the introduction of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, the USDA FNS is hoping to start shifting those perceptions. It is the hope that these new training and education requirements will increase the efficiency in your school nutrition operation, starting with the lunch lines. This improvement is just another step along the path to enhancing the perceptions of our industry from parents and children alike. Increased labor costs to train employees. Unfortunately, increased training requirements may be a double-edged sword. While the additional training and documentation proof will ensure that all food service employees are knowledgeable about their roles, increased costs will be incurred by the district to provide such trainings. Attending training seminars and conferences will not be inexpensive. Extra labor hours will have to be charged, transportation costs will have to be calculated, and temporary staff will have to be paid, just to name a few of the additional financial burdens that a district supervisor must take into consideration with the implementation of this new rule. Additional funds for employee training will have to come from somewhere – but where? That’s a question many districts will be looking to answer as the new requirements really start taking hold in the next few years. Challenges in attracting and retaining qualified applicants. The economy has been improving in recent months, and working-class America is thankful! However, with the uptick in the job landscape, educated workers may start seeking higher paying jobs that better align with their level of education and work experience. This could present a challenge for the child nutrition industry, especially with regards to the retention of lower level food service staff and managers. Rural districts may face additional challenges as higher educated workers seek a larger opportunity net by settling in a city, rather than the countryside. As current employees move on to new jobs or decide to retire, smaller school districts may have trouble meeting the new hiring requirements simply due to lack of available, qualified talent. Administrative burden of increased documentation. The child nutrition industry is one of the most heavily regulated ones in the nation today. We all want to enhance the health and well-being of the children that we serve – there is no denying that! Creating more regulated, required training activities will be one more step toward that goal. However, with the additional trainings for enhanced food safety and preparation, more documentation will have to be processed by administrators, such as yourself. You are already responsible for managing daily vendor orders, inventory levels, and planning meal schedules, just to name a few. Keeping track of training hours for every single employee according to their position level and education background will add to the already mounting workload that you must be responsible for. For many districts, the new regulations will not dramatically impact the way their nutrition programs operate, as your state may already have strong hiring or training requirements in place before the USDA mandate. If you are unsure what new regulations may affect your district, its best to check with your state’s governing education authority. For directors looking to transition into a new role within a larger school district, you may face challenges if you do not meet the new minimum education requirement. Remember, you are exempt from the education requirements in your current role only. Any future career moves will be subject to more stringent hiring standards. Ultimately, these proposed professional standards will ensure that all employees providing food services for school children are knowledgeable and versed in all proper food safety and preparation guidelines, and that is something that all of our industry professionals desire. WE WANT TO KNOW – What is your opinion on the new professional standards required for child nutrition professionals? What size school district are you a part of? Sound off in the comments below!