A couple of weeks ago we talked about the value of sharing menu planning data. We assessed the benefits of data sharing and basically determined it is the greatest thing since sliced bread (ok…maybe that’s a stretch since for me only chocolate, and maybe cheese, can surpass bread in greatness). You may have been left wondering, “If data sharing is so fabulous, why don’t more people do it?”
There are really only two reasons why menu planning data sharing is not the current industry norm.

  1. Software – either lack thereof or outdated software that has yet to embrace the reality of collaboration, and/or
  2. Control freaks that insist on doing everything themselves.

Of course there are minor variations to both of these reasons so let’s tackle each one at a time.

Reason #1 – Software – The “haves” and “have-nots”

Software is actually a two-fold problem that prevents many School Food Authorities (SFAs) from sharing menu-planning data. It’s a problem if they don’t have menu-planning software and it’s a problem if they do… Stay with me, I promise to explain.

The “have-nots”

Let’s start with the “have-nots.” The reality is that many SFAs cannot afford menu-planning software. In a recent Education Service Center newsletter, the Texas Department of Agriculture estimated that as many as 70% of Texas SFAs are not using menu-planning software. Clearly, if you aren’t entering data there is no room for you to share your data with others or to benefit from data others have already supplied.
While these districts are likely utilizing the USDA worksheets to try to remain compliant with current meal pattern regulations, Excel can hardly be considered menu-planning software no matter how fancy the spreadsheet. Keep in mind that this tool is designed for compliance monitoring, not to help school nutrition professionals achieve excellence in their operations. Detailed nutrient analysis, meal production planning and simple allergen tracking are completely missing from this tool (I reiterate: USDA worksheets are just a tool, not actual menu-planning software). As you can imagine, data sharing is not really an option with this method.

The “haves”

What about the 30% that are using real menu-planning software? They can share their data, right? Wrong. In fact, most school districts using menu planning software have a difficult time even gaining access to their own data through their software providers, let alone have the ability to share with others. (For the record, any time your software provider holds your data hostage – menu planning or otherwise, this should be a huge red flag!).
For years the industry norm for menu planning was a single installation of the software on one computer in the central office. Essentially you would just pray that the computer didn’t crash and you learned to be religious about backups. If there isn’t an effective way to even share between multiple computers at the same school district, how can we expect SFAs to share with each other on a large scale using this antiquated software?
If Excel isn’t the answer and the current industry norm is also lacking, is there a solution for innovators who want to share their menu planning data? You better believe it! State-wide menu planning data sharing is a reality today in both Pennsylvania and Alaska. These two cutting-edge State Agencies saw the value in sharing data and implemented a state-wide menu planning system to assist their districts in collaboration and bring greater efficiencies to all involved. You can learn more about this approach in my next blog.

Reason #2 – Control Freaks – We know what we like

The only other reason besides software limitations (not having software certainly counts as a limitation in my book) that you do not hear about more SFAs sharing menu planning data is that many Food Service Directors and Nutritionists are control freaks by nature – I would like to point out that this is likely a contributing factor in their success. That being said, it is extremely hard for them to trust anyone else’s data. We control freaks (yes, I am owning the title) would prefer to be responsible for our own stuff and know it is done right – or at least be able to kick ourselves if we mess something up.
In addition to not trusting data that is entered by others, individuals with exacting standards want things done their way. For example, “little things” like naming conventions for ingredients and recipes can be frustrating if they are different from what you like or are inconsistent. Whether you are in the “Paste, tomato” camp or on the “Tomato Paste” team – you like what you like and can probably defend why your way is “the right way”.
If folks are unlikely to trust other people’s data and may not like the way they have named stuff, how can data sharing ever work? Like my answer to most social woes, I suggest that education is the key. When we recognize that accurate menu data is sacred to most everyone who deals with it, we can start to loosen up. We also have to educate SFAs about checks and balances built into the available shared data system (this is a very important implementation best practice which I am sure I will detail in a future post). Additionally, knowing that data has already been through a review can go a long way towards easing fears. And when you breakdown the time savings, most people can live with someone else’s naming conventions in exchange for the value gained.

Reason # 2.5 – “We’ve-never-done-it-that-way-before” syndrome

Like Frasier was to Cheers, there is a spinoff of the “control freak dilemma”. “We’ve-never-done-it-that-way-before” syndrome can be debilitating to the data sharing movement. There is only one way to overcome this mentality – start sharing now. Like the dancers show in this TED talk about how to start a movement, it will take a couple of leaders and a few early followers before data sharing catches fire. But before you know it, data sharing will be the industry norm and we will all wonder how we ever survived going it alone. Times change quickly when it comes to technology. Don’t believe me? Try leaving your cell phone at home tomorrow and see how long you survive. I bet it is harder than it would have been even 5 short years ago.

Where do we go from here?

In discussing the only two (and a half) reasons menu planning data sharing is not currently the norm, I realize that I only briefly suggested vague solutions for reason #2. As with any issue, the “people part” is harder to overcome because it deals with intangibles. I purposefully didn’t address reason #1, the software part of this equation, because I would like to devote more than a couple of sentences to this topic (and I am already over my word limit for this article!).
If you are one of the control freaks I mentioned as reason #2, give me a shout out in the comments below – let me know I am not alone! Control freak, or not, be sure to check out my next blog where I will tackle the task of helping the 70-percenters solve their software challenges.