In every facet of life there are the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Unfortunately, this is even true in the Child Nutrition industry. Yes, we all have the same amount of time in the day and yes, we all are subjected to the same USDA regulations. Undoubtedly, all School Food Authorities (SFAs) have challenges. There is no arguing that when it comes to difficulties each school district has its own unique set of obstacles. However, when it comes to menu planning, smaller SFAs most often face the largest hurdles; not the least of which is lack of menu-planning software.
In my most recent blog post, “Why Don’t Child Nutrition Programs Share Tomato Paste?,” I explained that some State agencies estimate that as many as 70% of their SFAs don’t use menu-planning software. As you can imagine, not having the same tools that larger SFAs couldn’t dream of functioning without, can be a major hurdle for small SFAs. I doubt that any one solution is a silver bullet, but I am willing to bet that by the end of our discussion today you will agree that we can help the “70 Percenters” through the implementation of statewide menu-planning software. State agency-provided menu-planning software is the answer to the top four small SFA menu planning woes discussed below.

Limited Time

There is no arguing that every SFA is asked to do more with less in today’s environment. However, small SFAs are less likely to have dedicated resources to handle menu planning. Food Service Directors (FSDs) tend to wear more hats in small SFAs where they may handle everything from menu planning to daily production operations to transportation (yes, I mean run the buses) and far beyond.
Sharing menu-planning data can be a huge time saver. In the first post in this blog series, I “did the math” to demonstrate how utilizing even a fraction of shared menu-planning data can yield time savings. We estimated that if an SFA utilizes just 24 shared ingredients (extremely conservative example) they would save two hours of data entry time. However, if instead they took advantage of entire menu cycles they could turn their “summer project” of creating menus into just a couple days of work. Statewide menu-planning software is the most effective way to facilitate this type of data sharing.

Limited Experience

Larger markets draw more experienced professionals in any industry. School nutrition is no different. A “green” nutritionist may start her career in a small SFA, but as she gains experience the lure of more responsibility (and possibly more money) will likely take her to larger school districts. We all want to continue to learn and grow in our careers so moving on to a grander stage is a natural progression. Even USDA recognizes that it is difficult for small SFAs to attract people with advanced degrees and experience. The new professional standards provide lower education and experience standards for Food Service Directors in small SFAs than their counterparts in larger school districts to compensate for this disparity.
Statewide menu-planning software leverages shared menu-planning data allowing smaller SFAs to mitigate the experience gap between their program and larger programs. Shared menu-planning data allows those with experience to provide insight and guidance to people new to the field even if they have never met. Instead of abiding by the standard learning curve, less experienced menu planners can leap ahead by taking advantage of menu cycles that are audit-tested and kid-approved.

One Set of Standards for All

Speaking of audits… Despite the previously mentioned hurdles, small SFAs are still held to national meal pattern standards. I am not arguing that they should not be equally accountable – after all, kids that go to small schools should get healthy meals just like their counterparts who attend larger school districts. Due to time constraints and lack of knowledgeable staff dedicated to menu planning, small SFAs are anecdotally, more likely to have audit findings based on meal compliance issues than larger districts. We aren’t talking about egregious errors like disregarding calorie limits all-together or refusing to serve red/orange vegetables. Sometimes it’s the “little things” that can get these districts into a pickle, such as believing they understood the fruit juice limits in the new meal pattern because they sound relatively straight-forward.
USDA recognized in a July 2014 memo that implementing the new meal pattern is challenging for many schools. The good news is that USDA currently encourages State agencies to provide technical assistance before taking Fiscal Action when menus are not in compliance. So unless the errors continue, school districts do not currently risk losing money per se. However, since we all know that time is money, additional time spent reviewing, defending and correcting menus indirectly costs money.
Providing school districts with compliant menus via statewide menu-planning software can avoid the cycle of districts failing and then taking action. Shared data takes a proactive approach to technical assistance by providing the additional help before an Administrative Review requires it.

Limited Budget

While very few SFAs have money coming out of their ears right now, small districts are often even more strapped based on a lack of buying power and limited revenue streams beyond the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). It may be harder for a FSD to convince her boss or the school board of the value gained by purchasing menu-planning software when it doesn’t directly impact Federal Reimbursement claims.
Let’s face it, sometimes you have to pick your battles. I would not be surprised to learn that many school nutrition programs are squeaking by without menu-planning software simply because they had other needs that could not be delayed. They might be struggling through utilizing USDA Excel workbooks because instead of budgeting for software, they needed to replace the 20 year-old milk coolers that cost more to maintain than to replace.

Help is Available

Short of sponsoring a “menu-planning software fund” car wash, is there anything that we can do to help the “70 Percenters” who do not have menu-planning software? YES! State agency-provided menu-planning software allows all districts, including the small districts that we have been discussing, equal access to the tools that are truly needed to be successful. By providing a shared menu-planning solution, State agencies can level the playing field while allowing all involved to gain efficiencies.
Is a statewide menu-planning solution a magic wand? I doubt it. It is, however, the most effective way to help the “70 Percenters” overcome the four most common menu planning woes. Is it possible this solution is also helpful to State Agencies? Join me next time as we explore how helping the “70 Percenters” translates to a win-win for State agencies by adding Administrative Review efficiencies.