How many times did you hear your mother say, “share with your sister/brother” while you were growing up?  You probably notice that as a parent you encourage your kids to share with others as well. In theory, we all know that sharing is a good thing and we likely try to share in our day-to-day lives. We share things like fruit, recipes, and advice with our circle of friends. But have you ever thought about sharing something that would have a bigger impact beyond just your immediate coffee klatch? Don’t worry, the goal of this blog is not to guilt you into volunteering for a noble cause nor is it a plea for donations to feed the masses in a foreign country (although these are both great!). Today I want to discuss the merits of sharing something that many consider just as valuable as both time and money – data.

Share More Data, Save More Time

Data sharing? Huh? You read correctly – data sharing. I am not talking about scientific research (which is what you will find referenced if you google “data sharing”). I am referring to sharing basic data used in our school nutrition programs, in particular, menu planning data. By and large, school food authorities (SFAs) use essentially the same base products in their child nutrition programs. Let’s face it—there are only so many types of tomato pastes out there. So why in the world should each SFA spend time and energy entering the details of their tomato paste into menu planning software when their neighbor has already entered the exact same data? Shouldn’t there be a way to share this workload so that everyone is more efficient?
Whether entering data for each ingredient takes 2 minutes or 10, those are valuable minutes that can be spent on something else to help improve child nutrition programs. Let’s work out the math: If we meet in the middle and assume 5 minutes per detailed ingredient entry, 12 ingredients would take an hour. Even if an SFA only uses 24 shared items that they do not have to enter themselves, they would gain 2 hours back into their operations. Now let’s say that 100 SFAs saved 2 hours each – that’s almost 6 weeks total labor saved! Obviously, 24 shared items is an extremely conservative figure considering that most purchasing co-ops or buying groups join ranks to purchase hundreds of the same items.
In addition to labor-hours saved, there are benefits to data sharing when it comes to onboarding new personnel who may be learning the ropes. New food service directors and menu planners can get off to a great start from the very beginning with little or no effort. By utilizing shared data these newcomers can take advantage of years of experience embodied by their colleagues, both near and far, even if they have not yet built a personal network in the industry.

Data Sharing – A New Best Practice

Sharing data is a form of collaboration and a great way to spread best practices. In fact, USDA is currently working to pair successful districts with those that are struggling to implement the new meal pattern via the Team Up for School Nutrition Success Initiative. What if this effort didn’t have to be on a case-by-case basis?  Shared menu-planning data can go far beyond simply sharing ingredient data. With the help of today’s most advanced software it is easy to share recipes, menus, and even full menu cycles.  I’m not talking about just a pdf of suggested menus, but actually sharing all of the data that sets a working menu cycle into motion from base ingredients through recipes, and the ability to plan for the appropriate number of meals served all in one tool/place. Kid-tested, compliant menu cycles can be shared state-wide for the benefit of all SFAs, regardless of their current successes or challenges.

Why State Agencies Should Love Data Sharing Too

SFAs aren’t the only ones that benefit from data sharing practices. State Agencies can also gain efficiencies when data is shared state-wide. We all know that the Administrative Review cycle has been shortened from once every 5 years (with the previous CRE format) to once every 3 years, which results in a 67% increase in workload for reviewers. Therefore, any time-savers that can be implemented are more valuable now than ever before. When menu-planning data is shared state-wide, ingredient details can be checked once for accuracy rather than every single time a district uses that information. For example, instead of verifying data for the same tomato paste at 100 different SFAs, it can be verified once for all SFAs. So using our math example above, the State Agency can also save about 6 weeks of labor.
Sharing menu-planning data on a large scale, such as across an entire state, can be beneficial for all involved from a time and effort perspective. Collaboration can encourage best practices. Plus, sharing will make our mothers proud! What other benefits can you think of with this type of teamwork?  I would love to hear your input.
P.S. Since data sharing clearly sounds like a great practice, are you curious why you don’t hear about more SFAs doing it? Watch for my next blog (every other Monday) to learn the only two reasons why menu planning data sharing isn’t currently the industry norm (you might be surprised to learn the truth behind it).