By Patrick White 2015-11-19 12:08:36
Just as all foods can, when served in proper proportions and frequencies, fit in a healthy diet, most technology solutions can be right-sized for small, medium and large school meal operations. The world’s largest breed of dog is the Great Dane, which can top 30 inches in height and weigh more than 250 pounds. (Stay with us, here—this does relate to school nutrition technology.) The smallest canine is the Affenhuahua, which stands just 8 inches tall and weighs 3 pounds. Quite a difference in size, obviously, but underneath their fur, both are dogs with the same basic needs: food, water, a good toy to play with, a regular checkup by the vet and loving human companionship. The point of this canine comparison isn’t to qualify you as a best-in-show judge at Westminster, but rather to illustrate something SN learned about technology after speaking with school nutrition directors in districts of vastly different sizes: While the scale of their operations may differ dramatically, the technologies they use to run their school meal programs are really quite similar. POS: The New Normal There are some technologies that the vast majority of school nutrition programs, regardless of size, rely upon. A point-of-sale (POS) software system, for example, has become must-have technology in virtually every American school cafeteria. In Lodi, Ohio, Carrie Beegle is school nutrition director at Cloverleaf Local School District, which encompasses three schools (one elementary, one middle, one high school) and enrolls 2,800 students. “We use a lot of technology,” reports Beegle. She doesn’t mince words when it comes to her POS system (from QSP/Rediker Software): “Quite honestly, we would be lost without it. I couldn’t even think about having to do the pen-and-paper thing anymore!” Increasingly, additional features and functions are being added to all types of POS systems from a host of different technology vendors—taking these systems way beyond their original responsibility as a 21st century cash register. Beegle’s POS system, for example, incorporates EZ Pay technology, which allows parents to make online payments to their children’s accounts. That software is “connected with the whole district, so that other school fees can be paid that way, too,” she adds. At Los Lunas Schools in New Mexico, which has 15 schools and 8,600 students, School Nutrition Director (and SNA West Regional Director) Angela Haney, SNS, uses a POS system from MCS Software/Heartland. Her team uses it not only to register meal sales but also to track inventory, process online applications and perform back-of-the-house financial management. She switched to this system specifically to be able to bring all of these functions together in a single package. “POS [software] is pretty standard now,” Haney notes. She sees more growth in technologies related to the processing of free and reduced-price meal applications. Only a few years ago, scanning paper applications was the hot advance. Today, more and more school districts are adopting online applications, Haney observes. “It’s just so much easier—you don’t have to worry about whether you can read the parents’ handwriting; [paperwork doesn’t] get lost between the classroom and the central office; and it goes so much faster,” she explains. “I can remember when someone had to key in every bit of information on those forms, and it took weeks or even months to process. Now, a parent can submit an application at 11:15 a.m. and, without [cafeteria staff] even knowing it, that child could [get a free meal] when they go through the lunch line at 12:30,” Haney details. In neighboring Colorado, Director of Food and Nutrition Services Beth Wallace, SNS, and her staff serve 54,000 students at 60 sites in the Cherry Creek School District. “We have a fully integrated system from inventory to nutritional analysis to production records to point of sale,” she explains. In 2011, Wallace issued a bid to integrate all those POS functions after tiring, she recounts, of dealing with different vendors pointing fingers at each other whenever something wasn’t working correctly. “It would be difficult to do without this technology, Wallace notes, “We really depend on the reports that we get out of our system.” POS systems are expanding in other ways, as well. Pinellas County (Fla.) Schools is using this technology to expand meal service beyond its traditional serving lines. “We have wireless tablets that allow us to go out of the cafeteria and have point-of-sale locations set up across campus. We also use wireless tablets for our satellite schools,” explains Food Services Director Lynn Geist, SNS. She began the process of introducing the tablets two years ago by testing them in select schools—a process she strongly recommends—and then expanding use throughout the district; today, they’re at almost every location. Tech Support While there are many similarities in school nutrition technology being used by both large and small districts, there are differences in the resources available to implement and support that technology. In Geist’s mega-large Florida district (150 schools and 105,000 students), for example, her school nutrition team includes two dedicated tech experts; one deals with networking and hardware issues, while the other handles software programs. They work frequently with the school district’s IT department to make sure all systems are compatible. In Colorado, Wallace also benefits from having a full-time technology staffer in her department, whose time is devoted mostly to keeping all the hardware up and running. She credits the “outstanding support” the school nutrition team gets from Cherry Creek’s district-wide tech department. “They are just so service-oriented and are constantly asking how they can help us,” reports Wallace. Because the district depends on free/reduced and reimbursement data generated by the school nutrition department, top administrators clearly recognize value in collaboration and compatibility. “They want to partner with us,” she declares. School nutrition teams in smaller school districts typically don’t have the manpower budget for dedicated technology specialist positions. This is where those with a personal passion for technology can, and should, be invited to step in. “I am not real tech-savvy myself, but I have an office full of people who are,” notes Haney in Los Lunas. Not only are they ready to respond when asked, but these staffers often bring new technology suggestions to her attention. “And once we make that decision, it’s usually somebody else who takes the lead in working with the vendor and learning how to use [a new system].” For that reason, the customer service reputation of a vendor is a critical factor to consider when making tech purchasing decisions, Haney adds. “I talk with other school nutrition directors about that. Because even if you’re excited to use a new technology, if there’s not good customer service [from the vendor], the experience is going to be very painful.” Cheryle Lord-Gordon is Child Nutrition supervisor for Cape Henlopen School District in Lewes, Del., a district with 5,700 students at nine schools. She relies heavily on vendors for tech support, lacking much in the way of internal resources. Of the district’s IT department, she notes, “They’re so focused on managing the district’s systems that we really have to know our own programs—we’re on our own. If we want to bring something new in, we’d better know what it’s about.” Fortunately, she reports, “I’ve had great experience with technology vendors.” Whether the school nutrition department has a little or a lot of internal tech support, most directors find they must develop a certain level of expertise on their own as part of their responsibility to find new technology solutions for their operations. Cloverleaf’s Beegle, for example, visits the booths of tech vendors at school nutrition shows. Lyn Halvorson, SNS, who is the School Nutrition supervisor for the School District of La Crosse, Wis., cites past “TechCentral” education sessions at SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) as a valuable source she has used to learn about new technologies to bring to her school meal offerings for 7,000 students at 15 sites. Beegle also asks questions of her fellow school nutrition directors about available technologies—specifically about what works. “There are good resources out there, but you have to search for them,” she concedes. That said, “I get cold calls from vendors all the time,” Beegle adds. Rather than avoiding these calls, she makes time for them. “Five minutes in, you know whether it’s something you can use. That’s how I learned about our new RocketSCAN [applications scanning] system. They did a virtual walk-though of their product, and I loved it because I knew it would save me hours and hours of work.” The Costs of Staying Current Adding new technology can be an expensive proposition—one that must be included in the budget and one that includes many details that come into play now and later. “When we’re deciding to go with new software, we look at the recurring expenses. How many licenses will we need to buy? What is the history for repairs on the hardware? We estimate those, and we analyze what we’ve spent, and all of that gets plugged into future budgets,” recounts Geist in Pinellas County. “We have a pretty hard-standing rule for a three-year rotation of switching out hardware,” says Wallace at Cherry Creek. That means budgeting to replace computer equipment in roughly 20 schools every year, as well as the manpower to get all of this technology switched out and updated. “We’re really committed to doing that. There are so many other distractions that can come along and get you off of your game plan, but I really don’t want to deal with old and dilapidated equipment.” Two years ago, Halvorson purchased new computers for all the school nutrition sites in her La Crosse operation. “You know something like that is going to be pretty expensive, so you put that in your budget as a line item,” she notes. “Or, if you know you need to replace POS registers, you want to budget for that.” For even larger technology purchases, it helps to budget five years in advance, she adds. For some districts, even with planning, that particular line item can be a budgetbuster. A relatively small district like Cape Henlopen still uses 19 computers in its department. Their replacement requires tough decisions. “Some years, I need to decide whether I need to replace computers or whether we need a new refrigerator,” she says. “The food always has to come first. But every couple of years, if I have some extra money, then I can invest in some technology.” While the costs can be intimidating, Beegle insists that the best systems “will save you a ton in the long run.” And, she notes, for smaller districts—or those of any size but with budget constraints that limit technology purchases—you can find low-cost and no-cost options, if you know where to look and keep an open mind. For example, her Cloverleaf operation uses a digital inventory management system—something many large districts aren’t even using yet—that is provided by distributor Gordon Food Service. “You have to be a customer of theirs [to get access to the technology], but you can put other vendors’ items into the inventory system, as well,” she explains, noting that she uses it to manage her USDA Foods inventory, too. “It’s very user-friendly, and it helps us a lot,” she credits. Beegle urges other directors to explore every option available for finding technology—and paying for it. While she does have a budget line item for technology for her operation, she’s also fortunate that her district’s administration is a strong supporter of applying new technologies. “They look for alternatives so we don’t always have to pay for it out of the school foodservice budget,” she explains. “We can use the district’s ‘permanent improvement fund,’ so every year I can ask for a little money out of that. They’ve been greatly supportive.” In Florida, Geist values the common practice of most tech vendors to let her operation test their products at no charge. “We mix it up—in typical testing, we’ll use [new technology] in a small, medium and large school, as well as at the elementary, middle and high school level,” she explains. “Sometimes, we’ll pick a manager who is very tech-savvy to test it out; other times, we’ll pick one who is not very tech-savvy. This lets us see what kind of training and support that we’ll need to provide.” Charting New Tech Territory We all know that when it comes to technology, there is always something new, something arguably “better,” that is introduced to help us improve any number of everyday tasks at work and home. It seems that as soon as one “hot” tech is introduced, another comes along to top it. Some of these endure, others fail—and picking the winners isn’t easy or cheap. So, how do you decide when to jump onboard with one of these new tech trends? Lord-Gordon starts by checking in with school nutrition peers who are further ahead on the tech curve; this helps her to decide her own tech priorities. For example, her Cape Henlopen operation uses Health-e Meal Planner Pro to conduct menu analyses. More recently, “We added SMART Temps in our schools to monitor the temperature of all our equipment and food. We now use that rather than writing out logs,” she notes. This wireless monitoring system relies on handheld devices that track individual items and generate a report. Lord-Gordon added the system two years ago, after waiting “to let some other school districts try it out before I got onboard.” This is a principle she tends to follow for all technology purchases. She wants to be an early adopter, but not necessarily the first! Letting others blaze the trail and learning from their experiences allows Lord-Gordon to make smart decisions about the technology itself, as well as implementation challenges, such as the willingness of kitchen staff to use the technology and the learning curve it takes to use it properly. Wallace takes a similar approach in Cherry Creek, recognizing that it pays to research technology fully, rather than just jumping on every new tech trend that comes along. For example, while she has investigated the possibility of using a biometrics-based system to replace the pin number system her operation currently uses, she’s still not convinced that this technology would work in her district. “While we like to be a first adopter, we also like to hear how things are working for others,” concedes Wallace. “We just have not heard that biometrics is quite there yet.” On the other hand, Wallace is breaking new ground in some areas. Her team uses PayPAMS to provide the opportunity for parents to make online payments to accounts. In and of itself, this is an increasingly common technology application for K-12 school foodservice operations. But Wallace is looking at expanding options to allow students to pay with a credit card at the point of service. “The kids are demanding it in my district, but it’s a challenge, because of some of the newer regulations around credit cards with the chip,” cautions Wallace. She’s also looking into an app that would allow students to order their lunch items in advance. “That’s in the development stage. We don’t have it yet, but we would love to be able to speed up our lines,” she notes. In Ohio, Beegle is open to exploring new systems that have the potential to save her team time. “I research different technologies myself, and here’s why: In a smaller district, I don’t have the assistants that a lot of the larger districts have. So if I can save me 10 hours of doing applications, then I’m going to do that! I need to save myself time so I can focus on the more important things. I don’t want to be stuck in my office all day.” In addition to the inventory management and online application systems previously mentioned, Beegle and her team are on the cutting-edge of school nutrition tech with the recent roll-out of the Nutrislice app for smartphones. She’s excited by all the information that is uploaded, from photos and descriptions of menu items to carb counts and other nutrition details. “It’s going to be a great marketing tool for us,” she says. “And I actually wrote a grant for that, which will cover 100% of the costs. That’s another way you can get new technologies,” she advises. Halvorson would rate her La Crosse operation as being “about average” in terms of its use of technology. But she does believe her team is on the forefront in menu analysis. “A lot of districts use NutriKids (from Heartland Payment Systems) in the back of the house, and we do, as well. But we also use Nutrislice, which evaluates a menu for parents ,” she explains. With this technology, parents can see nutritional analysis information on the school nutrition department’s online menus, right down to each individual ingredient. The app also lets users rate the food from one to five stars, and gives the serving size, the calories, the fat and carbs. “It’s very helpful for families who have children with diabetes who have to do carb counting, as well as families that are just concerned about nutrition,” Halvorson reports. Making the Right Connections Every school nutrition operation, big and small, can benefit from technological advances in K-12 foodservice management. Although staying current with technology involves a significant financial investment, the benefits derived from such technology regularly outweigh the costs. Keep the tech conversation going with other school nutrition directors who manage operations of similar size and socio-economics. Ask about their choices—and the reasons behind those decisions. You may discover a solution that transforms your operation and lets you and your team focus time on other top priorities. Dear Santa… What tops your tech wishlist for the near or distant future? Three directors share their not-so-secret hopes and dreams. • Because Lynn Geist, in Florida’s Pinellas County, works in “the lightning capital of the United States,” frequent power outages tend to wreak havoc on her operation—even sometimes destroying sensitive tech equipment! “It can take out our network and our computers—we have everything on surge protectors and the buildings have protection, but the lightning still knocks things out. I would love to find an even bigger surge protector!” • “I really, really, really want to use some sort of biometric scanner,” says Angela Haney in Los Lunas, N.M. “We were going to try a palm scanner, but there was just too much parental resistance to the technology. What I really want is something that wouldn’t cause a parental outcry, but would move the lines faster!” • “I wish there was some system that would help with collecting debt from families. We do robo-calls and send out paper notices, but I just wish there were some magical way to collect debt,” pleads Lyn Halvorson in La Crosse, Wis. Patrick White is a freelance writer in Middlesex, Vt., and a former assistant editor of this publication. Photography by www.istockphoto.com.
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