In a school district, far, far away, the school nutrition program director, let’s call her “Susan,” (a fictitious character not representing any known or living person) is under extreme pressure to meet the school district’s operating budget. She continually racks her brain for solutions to the problem and yet, comes up with nothing. Susan understands the need for productivity and efficiency in her program and is doing everything in her power to accomplish it, which means increasing her reliance on technology. Processing free and reduced-price applications online for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a wonderful example of the benefits Susan reaps from the use of technology.
Each year Susan and her staff have a 10 day window to quickly and accurately process applications. While Susan knows she is not alone in this task as school nutrition professionals across the country face the same challenge. However, she still finds it incredibly difficult to meet the deadlines. Historically, parents in Susan’s district applied for free and reduced-price meals with paper applications. These applications were then manually entered into the system by her staff. This was a full-proof plan, it never failed her, and yet she knew something needed to change to make this process more efficient.
Then, like a knight in shining armor, scanning technology made its appearance. This impressive technology offered what Susan referred to as a “quantum leap” in application processing speed. Those 10 days did not seem so short to Susan any longer. The scanning technology virtually eliminated manual data entry. This also significantly reduced Susan’s staff resource requirements. Despite the many benefits scanning offered, some challenges still remained. For example, handwriting is not always legible and can result in multiple follow-up phone calls to confirm information provided by the parents. Due to the fact that paper forms are not always filled out completely, Susan’s office staff takes on the role of a detective, searching for clues needed to complete the free and reduced-price application. Additionally, Susan faced the challenge of applications not always reaching the intended school office – instead they are safely nestled in the bottom of Bobby’s book bag.
Years later, a new knight came to Susan’s rescue, but this time it was online applications. This technology raised the bar by offering capabilities not seen or imagined to be possible. Online processing acts as a remedy to scanning’s challenges. However, the new technology also complements scanning’s strengths. Susan could not be happier with the new technology of online applications and decided to compile a list of reasons for utilizing online applications that she could then share with other school nutrition professionals.
1. Electronic applications are clearly typed into a computer by parents, which makes them easier to read. These applications also avoid the confusion of parents whose handwriting is illegible in ink (or any other type of writing utensil).

2. Electronically submitted applications have their destination hardwired. It is unlikely that an electronic application will get lost in the mail or stuck in the bottom of Bobby’s book bag.
3. Online applications don’t allow steps to be skipped thus, parents must complete the entire form. This allows school nutrition professionals to put their detective hats to rest.
 4. Online Applications move extremely quickly. The data makes its way to the Child Nutrition Office almost as fast as the speed of light.
5. Online applications don’t waste paper. This gives the school nutrition departments major kudos for going green and being environmentally friendly.
Susan knew change might be hard for some parents so she offered both physical and online methods of applying for free and reduced-price benefits. Parents who are quick to embrace the convenience of new technology can select the flexibility of the 24/7 web based solution and parents who like things just the way they are can choose the standard paper application. After successfully implementing this dual approach Susan found that parents in her community were swift to tap the power of online technology. Susan is extremely excited to see what role technology will play in the imminent transformation of free and reduced-price application processing.  What do you see becoming the future of this process?