By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2016-09-27 15:20:26
Tips on finding and making the most of grants, in-kind donations, partner relationships and more There’s so much you want to do with your school nutrition department. Every month, this magazine features neat ideas you want to try and new products you want to buy. But there’s only so much one can do on a shoestring budget or with a corps of volunteers. Even the most rudimentary projects require supplies. But school nutrition budgets are tighter than Scarlett O’Hara’s corset or Ebeneezer Scrooge’s Christmas generosity. (We’re talking tight!) There’s no shortage of creativity and commitment—there’s just a shortage of cash. How do you respond to this challenge? Hopefully with more determination than resignation! But with all the fire batons most school nutrition operators juggle each day in this profession, you could be forgiven for putting a cap on creativity. You may feel that you haven’t truly given up on your dreams, but your wish list gets a little longer each month. If only you could find a fairy godmother who will wave her wand over your bank account! This article offers advice on becoming your own school nutrition fairy godmother. Instead of an enchanted wand, you work your magic with words, research and an ever-widening network of allies. Yes, Cinderella, your funding wishes can come true. Here’s how your peers in other districts—large and small, rural and urban, affluent and needy—are making their own dreams a reality. 4 Ideas to Boost Your Budget 1 EXPAND YOUR PROGRAM SERVICES. Are you taking advantage of government money that has already been allocated for the federal child nutrition programs? Every year, the Food Research and Action Center publishes reports on the disparity between the rates of free/reduced-price participation at lunch versus breakfast (or during the summer) and totals how much money is left on the table in every state in the nation. Across the country, only half (54.3%) of the low-income kids who take a reimbursable lunch also do the same at breakfast—and that means only half the available reimbursement dollars are being spent. Yes, adding programs like Afterschool Supper or Summer Food Service also means more administration and operating expenses—but remember that much of the overhead costs are already covered, tipping the balance to greater revenues. Take some time for a little financial analysis—the results may motivate you to make the commitment to take on one new program within the next year. 2 EXPAND YOUR SMART SNACK OFFERINGS. While many districts reported their a la carte revenues taking a big hit upon the implementation of the Smart Snacks rule, those are bound to start rebounding as school communities become accustomed to the new array of offerings and industry continues to introduce tasty and compliant new products to the market. (Turn to page 32 for some of the exciting finds School Nutrition’s Secret Shoppers discovered last summer at the Annual National Conference.) 3 START OR EXPAND YOUR CATERING SERVICES. Of districts that responded to SNA’s The State of School Nutrition 2016 operations survey, 65% indicated that they offered catering within schools. That means a full 35%—roughly one-third—of you aren’t tapping this obvious captive market! And even if you do offer in-school catering services, are you taking full advantage of the opportunity, or is there room to grow? What about catering outside of schools? Only 20% of districts in SNA’s research reported managing such a program. Check out “At Your Service,” on page 50, for inspiration and tips on getting started or taking offerings to the next level. And be sure to expand your definition of “catering” to explore opportunities to operate concessions at athletic and performing arts events, as well as school stores, school coffee shops and vending services. 4 CONTRACT YOUR SERVICES TO NEARBY DISTRICTS. The vast majority of the 13,500 school districts in the United States enroll fewer than 3,000 students. Many of these small communities simply do not have the human resources to manage the increasingly complex federal school nutrition programs on their own—and it may become even more difficult with new federal standards for hiring at the director level. A small percentage of SNA member districts have seized the opportunity to provide school meal operational and administrative support to their neighbors. With the right team in place, this can be a win-win-win opportunity to bolster their own budget, capitalize on improved economies of scale and ensure that more kids get the nutrition services they need. Finding Grant Opportunities There seem to be two basic approaches to finding funding for dream projects—and both involve a bit more than simply waving your magic wand! You can continually peruse lists and announcements about grants, awards, contests and other opportunities and then figure out how you get a piece of that particular pie. Or you can have a particular project in mind and set out to research possible vendors who will invest in the big idea. A few people SN spoke with do both. (And we admire their energy and their chutzpah!) Jessica Shelly, MBA, SNS, REHS, foodservices director, Cincinnati Public Schools, is always—always!—on the lookout for organizations giving away money. “I love free money,” she says without shame. She’s set several Google Alerts, letting the browser giant do the first level of research for her. She identifies several key words and phrases (e.g., “school foodservice grants”), and “they come to me instead of me searching for them,” Shelly explains. Other sources include the communications channels of various public and private entities, ranging from USDA and the state agencies to SNA, United Way, Dairy Council, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Chef Ann Foundation and more. “I always sign up for newsletters produced by various organizations that deal with school health, wellness, physical activity, nutrition, etc.,” reports Lori Danella, SNS, school nutrition coordinator, Lee’s Summit (Mo.) R-7 School District. These newsletters aren’t specific to funding opportunities, but often feature news of such. “I read as much as I can. Even if I don’t know the organization, it may pay off eventually,” she says. Also, “Once you apply for a few grants, you will start getting email notices about other grant opportunities,” advises Diane Gruman, SNS, director of foodservice, Cartwright Elementary School District, Phoenix, Ariz. Indeed, your positive reputation for innovation can truly precede you in this area! Several directors reported being pleasantly surprised to have community partners come to them, offering money and an opportunity to work together, based primarily on reading about achievements of the school nutrition department in the local media. Don’t overlook simple networking at SNA national and state conferences! “I was at a conference and talking with a former director who now works as a trainer for the Institute of Child Nutrition (ICN),” recounts Dawn Houser, SNS, director of nutrition services, Collier County (Fla.) School District. “She mentioned that she could come to my district through ICN and train my staff—for free.” The Nutrition 101 training offered (combined with previous food safety training) meant that all of Collier’s foodservice team would be eligible for a Level One Certificate in School Nutrition from SNA and meet Professional Standards requirements. In addition, says Houser, “We discovered lots of training opportunities ICN offered! All we had to do was ask. We also got a fantastic keynote speaker for free through our distributor. Networking, networking, networking—you can discover opportunities you never knew were out there.” Shelly echoes this advice: “Cultivate relationships with everyone!” She worked with the Whole Foods supermarket chain years ago on a grant for salad bars, and made a point to stay in touch with her local contacts long after the conclusion of that initial project. One day, not long after the federal requirement for the availability of potable water in all cafeterias was on the horizon, she was visiting with the store management team. “I saw a great water cooler in their dining room, and commented on how great that would be to meet our requirement,” she recounts. “They said, ‘Oh, I’m sure we can get that for you’—and they purchased the water coolers for all of our schools!” Shelly had these placed near the salad bars to help drive participation to those stations, bringing everything around full circle. Perfect Your Pitch “I don’t like the word ‘grants,’” says Cincinnati’s Jessica Shelly. “I think it scares people away. It sounds like they will have to write a long dissertation, and many automatically think they don’t have the experience to do that. But grants are not all that way. Most of them are like an application. You write an essay and provide a simple budget with an Excel spreadsheet. Most are not as complicated as you might think.” Whether your funding opportunity requires a multi-component application or just a well-written query letter, there are certain strategies to keep in mind. “Think about what the funder really wants. What’s most important to them?” advises Sally Spero, SNS, child nutrition director, Lakeside (Calif.) Union School District, acknowledging that there’s a fine line between selling them on how your idea will meet their goals and “trying to talk them into” your idea. Time and again, Spero turns to Effective Business Communications by Herta Murphy, “the only college text that was worth the money I paid for it,” she says. “It’s been very valuable in my career.” Divided into sections about “every example of business writing imaginable,” chapters provide guidance on the “plan” of each communication. For funding opportunities, Spero references the section on writing a “persuasive sales request,” which advises telling a story that attracts the reader’s attention from the start. “So, let’s say I want to get a milk cooler,” says Spero. “I might start my proposal by saying, ‘If you were here at ABC Elementary, you’d be surprised to see how the young children struggle to get milk out of the cooler, because it’s simply too high for most of them. This cooler is old; we’ve repaired it xx many times. The children of this school need and deserve a better cooler, but we can’t afford it. Your grant would give us a chance to give them that.’ I’d put a picture of the old cooler in the proposal, right beside a new one. ‘I hope you will consider my proposal.’ Take them through your story, make them see it.” Shelly peppers the background information—a component of all proposal requests—with interesting facts and relatable tidbits. Of a proposal made to the Cincinnati Zoo, for example, “I’ll explain that we serve so many tons of food a year—and then estimate the number of elephants that this would feed,” she explains. Use your data in positive ways. She recommends showing progress—such as increases in participation—as well as demonstrating your goals for the future. Shelly writes so many proposals, she has perfected the flow of the background information section about her operation and thus can often “recycle” significant parts of it from one proposal to the next. Twyla Leigh, RD, has just left the Collier County (Fla.) School District for a position with a cooperative extension, but shares the value of organizing your proposal so that it matches the order of the criteria listed by the funding organization. “Make it very easy and simple for the judges,” she notes. “They are usually awarding points for each section; you don’t want them to miss something because you’ve organized the proposal in a different way.” Shelly offers an encouraging bottom line about the bottom line: “Most people are willing to say yes, especially when you can demonstrate how their investment will pay off.” Unexpected Benefactors “It’s amazing how many people are out there who want to make a difference to your community,” raves Shelly. She should know; Shelly’s a champion at getting funding from organizations who have money to offer, but don’t necessarily have a formal funding request mechanism. It just takes a little imagination, she says. For example, she read a news piece about a local Junior League chapter doing a culinary education project with kids in the kitchen. “Hmmm, I wonder if they might be willing to do something for us; maybe sponsor a salad bar,” Shelly asked herself. She called. They said “yes.” In another example, a local university was involved in a neighborhood revitalization project to address food deserts and unhealthy eating behaviors in low-income communities. She asked if they would be interested in sponsoring a salad bar at the school in that particular neighborhood. She called. They said “yes.” Collier County’s Dawn Houser relates a similar story. For years, her district has organized a “Fruitopia Day,” all-school events showcasing a specific Florida fruit. This year, a local education foundation contacted her saying that an area supermarket chain was working through them to provide grant money—could she use some? Next spring, Houser’s Fruitopia focus on Florida peaches will be supported with a $4,000 grant to provide marketing materials, awards and other campaign enhancements. In the Treutlen County (Ga.) School District, Alecia “Red” Barrett, foodservice director, was approached by the local rural conservation and development council, which offered to give her program $3,000 to build a greenhouse, based on the publicity and strength of her existing school garden program. “They came to me,” Barrett reports. “They know if it’s about farm-to-school, I want it. I’ll do it.” Avoiding Proposal Pitfalls What can you do to give yourself the best chance to get the money that’s available? The directors that School Nutrition spoke with offered a variety of tips. Read carefully. When Lakeside’s Sally Spero is ready to pursue a grant or other funding opportunity, she prints out the request for proposal, sits down and scrutinizes every word. “Read through everything and highlight all the critical details. When’s the deadline? Do they want photos? Be really aware of the requirements.” Make the time. Similarly, Diane Gruman in Phoenix cautions against speeding through the process. “It does take time. I usually write a grant over the period of a week or so. I write some. Then think about it, and then add to it.” Avoid negative self-talk... Don’t avoid opportunities to find funding for your wish list because you’re worried you’re not an expert writer. “If it’s something that you have passion for, it will come through in your writing—no special skill required,” says Gruman. ...but tap resources for a professional proposal. Passion is important, but so is proper punctuation. If your proposal reflects careless mistakes, the funder may not trust you with the money. Use your computer’s features to check spelling and grammar. Proofread carefully. Ask a coworker or friend to give it the onceover with fresh eyes. If you really doubt your basic writing skills, find someone who will be willing to work with you—for free or a nominal fee—to translate your passion into proper prose. Is your project sustainable? One question on almost every proposal request, Cincinnati’s Jessica Shelly notes, is showing how the money will be used in a way to show continuity of operations, long after the funding has been spent. How will it be sustainable? “Funders want to see the future,” notes Shelly. This is why she often requests funding for equipment, training or long-term marketing materials, rather than incentives that will draw participation, but only for a limited time. To sustain is to gain! If you do need to find financial support for those participation-driving incentives, try to focus on items that have a longer “shelf-life.” For example, “Instead of giveaways like stickers, bookmarks and pencils, consider purchasing sports equipment, such as basketballs and footballs, that can be enjoyed for several years,” advises Gruman. Don’t overlook the evaluation component. Spero cautions that this can be one of the more complicated aspects of the proposal. Funders want a report after you’ve spent the money. Did it achieve the goals? Did it make a difference? How will you document and quantify that? Be straight forward and practice makes perfect. Is the point of your request clear? Funders shouldn’t have any doubts. “I’ve gotten better at getting right to the point,” says Treutlen County’s Red Barrett. “It’s taken trial and error and some practice—and maybe some genetics. My grandmother was a superintendent and she wrote all the grants for her district!” Find partners. Sometimes it will be hard for your department to get the grant on its own. “I remember a Chef Ann Produce Project Grant,” says Shelly. “I knew we didn’t have the resources for this grant, but I talked to our community learning center. I told them that if they were willing to handle the administration of the grant, we could do the other aspects. We presented it to the board as a partnership between two departments in the district.” Danella is a veteran at working collaboratively with other school departments. Sometimes, the grant is specific to the foodservice department; other times, it might be for other wellness initiatives. “I’ve gotten tons of PE equipment for schools in our district. It may not help our bottom line, but it will help the kids,” she notes. Words of Wisdom This topic is so rich with angles and insights! Consider this patchwork of tips and relections. SHARE RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITIES. “I think the worst thing you can do is keep a grant opportunity close to your chest,” says Cincinnati’s Jessica Shelly. “It’s just not what we do in school nutrition. We’re all in this together.” In fact, she encourages smaller districts to look into some funding opportunities and see if it makes sense to pursue them together and to split the money. “There can be strength in numbers.” KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN. Collier County’s Dawn Houser says that many districts have capital improvement funds that are available to the school nutrition department, if they’d only ask. “I meet with our capital improvement team every year with a plan. I’ve funded several cafeteria and kitchen renovations this way,” she explains. “It’s a huge source of funding that other departments in the district are making use of, so why not us?” She’s always surprised to hear that some of her school nutrition colleagues have never attended a capital improvement committee meeting. Just be prepared when you do go, she advises. “I come with a specific list of what I want to do, what it will cost and why it’s important. Be realistic, but not shy.” STAY IN TOUCH. “Thanks for the check. Here’s how we used it. Let us know next time you plan to offer another funding opportunity.” Ummmm, no. Of course, you want to thank your benefactor and follow through with the evaluation and reporting components of the grant. But don’t let it just end there. “I always provide pictures after the grant—even if they don’t ask for them,” says Danella in Lee’s Summit. “I update them non-stop.” For one thing, when you do that, it’s quite possible that a funder that works often with school nutrition programs will share your successful ideas with other districts, and innovation “spreads like wildfire,” she notes. But there’s another benefit, too. “When you keep proving yourself, your proposal will be the one that they look at first. You’ve proven that you are a good investment.” MULTIPURPOSE YOUR OPPORTUNITIES. Sure, the grant is for a breakfast kiosk, but is there any reason the same equipment can’t also be used for a salad bar at lunchtime? Jessica Shelly admits to getting a little pushback when a funder first discovered that she was doubling down on her grant investment. “But I explained to them how we were still using the equipment to fuel healthy bodies, and that was the point of their grant.” They got it—and even began suggesting the idea to other districts. USE YOUR IMAGINATION. Districts that are in more affluent areas may not be able to take advantage of opportunities targeted specifically at schools with low-income populations. This can be frustrating—especially for districts that straddle income demographics and opt not to provide special programs only to select schools if they can’t do it for all schools. Still, Danella says she reads all requests for proposal carefully and tries to brainstorm ways she can take advantage of this opportunity—or maybe be inspired to put her efforts into something else. KEEP THE FAITH. “You just don’t know until you try,” says Treutlen County’s Red Barrett. “I never thought I’d get the Captain Planet Foundation grant,” she says of significant funding for her school garden project. “We’re just one K-12 facility in a really rural and poor county. We’re not Atlanta or Gwinnett. We’re not going to make that big of an impact. Why would someone give it to us? But they did—because we’re awesome.” Now, she says, “Why shouldn’t they give it to us?” DON’T HIDE YOUR LIGHT! Jessica Shelly doesn’t mince words when it comes to her enthusiasm for all the creativity she sees among her school nutrition colleagues all across the country: “People are doing cool-a** things out there, and if they’d just document it, they’d have a grant!” Winning...But Never “Losing” FIND “YOUR” MOTIVATION “I don’t like to think of myself as competitive,” says Lakeside’s Sally Spero. “But maybe I am! Because it’s one thing to ‘get’ the grant, but for me, I find that it’s another thing to think, I ‘won’ that grant!” Spero’s candor is refreshing. After all, you are investing quite a bit of time and effort into funding proposals, and most of these are competitive opportunities. Why not take deserved pride in your efforts?! Spero takes particular satisfaction in earning the largest equipment grant that was given in California in 2009. “It was a really complicated grant,” she recalls. “You had to have it exactly right. It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off, literally.” NEVER GIVE UP And what about when you don’t “win” the grant? School Nutrition heard positive reinforcement echoed over and over and over again: • Jessica Shelly: “The worst thing is to ask and someone says no. Then you move on.” • Dawn Houser: “Try again. We didn’t get a $75,000 farm-to-school grant because we didn’t have the three years of data the funder wanted. We’ll have that next year.” • Diane Gruman: “It happens. But you won’t get any grant money if you don’t apply!” • Lori Danella: “You can’t think about rejection. You need to be positive and persistent. You need to show determination. I get discouraged all the time—I just turned in 12 grant applications for equipment that would help us make food more palatable with the regulations and we were denied all of them because we have such a low free/reduced rate. But I stick with it and try again, because I know there are always others that will turn up.” BE FAIR Cincinnati’s Jessica Shelly tries to be mindful about sharing the wealth—especially if it’s a funding opportunity that she doesn’t truly need. “I think about whether I should collect that money when I know it’s for a project or item that we can afford and there are other school districts that could use it,” she notes. Keep “In Kind” In Mind Not all funding comes in the form of a check. Don’t overlook the availability of wish list support that varying organizations and businesses in your community may be able to provide. These can include donations of property, time, supplies and services. Seek out appropriate occasions to ask. In Georgia, when Red Barrett was buying supplies for her raised-bed gardens, she told her story over and over again to different vendors. At a local garden supply store, she said, “I’m going to be buying a lot of wood from you for this project. Do you think you can throw in a few hoses?” They said “yes.” At Walmart, she went to the manager and shared details about her garden project, lamenting over the high cost of tomato cages. The manager added a few freebies to her order. A Home Depot manager gave her a $50 credit to use for supplies later in the year. “I just go in and say, ‘This is what I’m trying to do. Can you help me?’” For more examples of in-kind support, visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus BONUS WEB CONTENT Be Your Own Fairy Godmother The directors School Nutrition interviewed for this piece have even more words of wisdom to share. Be inspired by additional stories of unexpected sources for funding, creative application of funds, in-kind donations and more—including knowing when to walk away from an opportunity. You’ll find all this online as part of this month’s Bonus Web Content. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition.
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