By Karly Kolaja 2015-06-09 10:20:43
Cracking the (QR) Code QR codes make going paperless with school menus an easy, effective cost savings. You’ve probably seen QR codes by now—those squares filled with square dots forming patterns of intersecting lines and smaller inset boxes in the corners. They appear on the pages of magazines, on the outside of product packaging and even on T-shirts and hats. You’ve seen them—but have you ever used them as a consumer? What exactly are these strange symbols? Simply put, they’re advanced barcodes, similar to the UPC (Universal Product) codes on product packaging that allow you to scan an item at checkout (see “40 Years of Setting the Bar,” NewsBites, September 2013). The term “QR code” extends to Quick Response Code. These black squares on a white or solid-colored background (or vice versa) are filled with seemingly random patterns. But these aren’t random at all; the arrangement is unique to a specific code, with information embedded in the pattern. Once it’s printed—on anything from a cereal box to a book of coupons—anyone with a smartphone can scan it. All it takes is a QR-reading app, which can be found in the app stores for your particular mobile device. Once the QR code is scanned, it typically takes the user to a specific webpage that offers related information, but it also may reveal text, graphics, images or video. There are even QR codes carved into tombstones that allow you to learn more about the deceased individual! Code Mode Although its commercial use took off in the 2010s, QR code technology dates back to the mid-1990s, when it was developed for use in the Japanese automotive industry. The little graphic originally allowed line workers to track vehicles or car parts as they were manufactured. Now, though, these codes have become popular among marketing professionals to share added-value details about a business, product, event or more. QR codes have the ability to store lots of information—up to 100 times more than the conventional barcode. They can take a user to a company’s website, offer a coupon for 20% off at a register or connect with a cafe’s Facebook page, inviting the user to share his or her location. Plus, they’re convenient. While entering a URL into a mobile browser can be a bit of a hassle, all a customer has to do with a QR code is tap his or her finger once to scan. Ease of use, however, isn’t the only reason the codes are appealing to advertisers. QR codes have a built-in 30% error correction redundancy, which means that, theoretically, up to 30% of the code can be removed and replaced with something else. This means that companies can make the QR code more attractive than the visually indecipherable pattern. They can insert logos, branded images or other graphic elements into the QR code, but the code itself still remains functional. For example, Disney released a series of posters in a Tokyo train station that featured the faces of some of its characters, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, inserted into QR codes. The codes directed anyone who scanned them to the Disney Channel’s mobile site. Menu Mastery While the target audience for QR codes is the smartphone-savvy online consumer, the codes don’t have to exist solely within the realm of advertising. Just ask Chris Burkhardt, director of child nutrition, Lakota Local Schools, Liberty Township, Ohio. Over the past three years, Burkhardt has phased out his district’s paper-printed menus and replaced them with a simple magnet that is printed with the same QR code. The magnet’s code doesn’t take users—in this case, students or parents—to a YouTube video, nor does it offer them special coupons for an upcoming purchase. But it does take them somewhere significant to their daily routine: their school lunch menu. Scanning the code immediately sends an individual to a webpage that changes daily (at 2 p.m., to be precise) and lists the following day’s breakfast and lunch menus. “It’s really simplistic in its conception,” says Burkhardt. “If you want to know what’s for lunch tomorrow, any time after 2 p.m., you can scan that QR code, and it’ll tell you what’s for lunch and breakfast the next day.” Burkhardt’s idea dates back to July 2012, when he attended SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) in Denver. While waiting for a session to begin, Burkhardt flipped through the conference program. Two of the pages featured a QR code accompanied by text encouraging readers to scan the code to learn more information about the conference. Why, Burkhardt wondered, couldn’t he do that with his menus? If conference attendees could scan the code to see extra details, surely parents and students could scan another to see what they could expect for breakfast and lunch. When Burkhardt began working for Lakota Local Schools, the district printed one menu, featuring graphics and color, at the beginning of the school year. It was applicable for the entire year. “It locked us into not being able to change the menu for the whole year,” he recalls. “It was really tough to update something on the menu and then tell everyone about that change.” Under his direction, they ditched the yearlong menu and began producing monthly iterations that offered his team greater flexibility. But with enrollment at more than 18,000 students, the cost associated with printing was high and the labor involved in getting the menus into each school, backpack and home was intense. “Money was tight,” says Burkhardt. “It was getting to the point where some of the schools were asking if [the Child Nutrition department] could pay for the printing, ink or paper.” With the district wasting a lot of time, as he puts it, putting together menus and sending them home only to have families stick them on their refrigerators, creating a refrigerator magnet that features a QR code that will allow them to access updated menus online seemed like an elegant solution. But Burkhardt was starting from scratch—there was no template for launching such an initiative; he wasn’t aware of any other school district trying this approach. Will It Stick? The idea was met with a few initial concerns. What about the growing popularity of stainless steel refrigerators that don’t offer a metallic surface? And would low-income residents be likely to have access to smartphones, essential to scanning the QR code? Burkhardt addressed each concern or objection one at a time. For example, stainless steel fridges still have metal sides; the magnet didn’t have to be in full view all the time; just simple to access. Through his service on the Board for Reach Out Lakota, a food and clothing pantry for low-income residents, he could confirm that most economically disadvantaged families in the area had at least one smartphone, available as either a family budget priority or through grant assistance. In their first print run, Burkhardt and his team created 5,000 magnets and sent them to offices in each district school, so they’d be available for distribution during all open houses, chorale and dance performances and other school events. When those quickly ran out, the Child Nutrition operation printed another 5,000, making these available right on athletic lockers at the district’s high schools (See photo above). In the meantime, Burkhardt attended PTO/PTA gatherings and went to a District Parents Council meeting to introduce his idea. The district continued to print monthly paper menus for the first half of the year, to help families make the transition. After that, his department offered to continue to provide printed menus upon individual request. There were a few such requests throughout the first couple of months, but by the end of the year, Burkhardt and his team had stopped printing menus entirely. Part of the beauty of using QR codes, Burkhardt says, is that there hasn’t been a need to create a new code—QR codes never expire. Lakota Local Schools is on its third year using the same magnet layout. Today, new magnets are issued only to kindergarteners and first graders, and Burkhardt hopes, as seniors graduate, they’ll turn their family magnets back in to the school, allowing the nutrition staff to reuse them for incoming students. Even if they don’t, the costs are unlikely to break the operation. “It costs us 2 to 3 cents to print each one of our menu magnets in color,” he says. “This is a one-time cost for three years. It’s definitely more cost-effective.” Taking the Code Road This type of cost-savings, however, isn’t the only reason behind the appeal of using QR codes for menu or other applications in school nutrition operations. The codes themselves are extremely easy to create, and a number of websites even allow you to generate one for free. If you want to incorporate graphic elements, you’ll probably need to enlist the help of a designer, and certain QR codes come with limits as to how many times they can be scanned without paying a fee. Overall, though, the generator software seems to work well. In fact, the only technical know-how Burkhardt’s process requires is updating the webpage to which the code sends its users—and even that is fairly simple. “It’s just a matter of going to that page on the website and copying and pasting [the next day’s menu details] from our Microsoft Word document [which features the full menu] into the site template,” he explains. “It’s done in 45 seconds or so.” Using QR codes to link to a daily menu certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all in applying this technology to school nutrition operations. Burkhardt, for example, wonders if, in the future, he can use the codes to link to specific menu items and highlight nutritional information. As technology change and advances, he points out, what’s most important is to stay on top of the trends. “I don’t know what the next great thing is, whether it’s smart watches or something I can’t even conceive of yet,” he says. “The one thing I would say to folks looking to incorporate technology into their nutrition program is to look and see what’s happening outside of education, take these ideas and run with them.” Karly Kolaja is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. She can be reached at email@example.com. Photos courtesy of Chris Burkhardt, Lakota Local Schools. TO YOUR CREDIT: For CEUs toward an SNA certifice, complete the “To Your Credit” test on page 116.
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