By Arianne Corbett, RD 2017-03-01 21:58:46
Are you taking full advantage of this business-savvy strategy to reduce childhood hunger in your community? Most U.S. school nutrition directors are expected to wear two hats when it comes to their role in feeding the children of their communities. First—and, in the eyes of many, foremost— school meal operations feed hungry children, serving as a critical wedge in filling the hunger gap for millions of American children from low-income families. But in so doing, most school nutrition departments are expected to be financially self-sufficient, operating quite literally as a multi-million-dollar foodservice business, serving the needs of a customer base comprised of all students, regardless of income. The most successful school nutrition operations are led by directors who wear both hats simultaneously—and their secret to combating childhood hunger and operating a financially solvent business is to become a Nutrition Hub. School districts operating as Nutrition Hubs help economically disadvantaged children access healthy, high-quality meals by running all eligible federal child nutrition programs, including school breakfast, lunch, afterschool and summer meals. This strategy provides these students, as well as their more affluent peers, with essential nutrition year-round. It also gives school foodservice departments a financial management solution to increase revenue, stretch tight budgets, optimize staff time and maximize operational efficiencies. School Nutrition Hubs provide vital investments in communities in many ways: » Improved access to crucial meals: Kids have access to “wraparound nutrition,” including a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as meals in the summertime (and, increasingly, other occasions) when school is out. » Improved education: Schools that address the needs of hungry children benefit from better attendance, reduced tardiness, fewer visits to the nurse’s office and overall better academic performance. Academic success across neighborhoods lifts the entire community. » Improved school culture and community: School Nutrition Hubs create new jobs and improve wages and hours for existing foodservice employees. Nutrition Hubs also bring school and community stakeholders together. Principals, teachers, parents, custodians, school athletic directors, parks and recreation departments and community organizations are all working together to provide children with the meals they need. » Improved operational efficiency: Schools that operate as Nutrition Hubs streamline menu planning and procurement across programs to maximize buying power, improve inventory management and lessen administrative burdens. » Improved financial success: Increased participation in a variety of child nutrition programs increases federal reimbursements, which provides school nutrition operations with added revenue to innovate service models and reinvest in both their programs and people through, among other things, additional training and updated equipment. School nutrition operators have always been partners in the fight to eliminate childhood hunger. They have the skills, experience and appropriate systems in place to serve healthy meals throughout the year. This means you! You have what it takes—the acumen and the attitude—but are you taking full advantage of the opportunities? If national participation levels by students eligible for free/reduced-price school meals in such programs as breakfast and summer are any indication, you have much more work to do. The concept of Nutrition Hubs can help you to reframe how you look at your school meals operation. By identifying the steps necessary to become a Nutrition Hub, you and your colleagues in the district can help develop a strategic plan to make the vision a reality. BUILDING A SCHOOL NUTRITION HUB Defining Your Blueprint School Nutrition Hubs participate in all eligible federal child nutrition programs. It’s likely that, in addition to lunch, you are already serving breakfast. Some of you may be offering limited snacks, suppers and summer meals, as well. But in most communities, there’s incredible untapped potential to expand these programs to their fullest extent. Where do you begin? Take an unvarnished look at your current participation in all school-based federal child nutrition programs outside of the National School Lunch Program. Breakfast After the Bell. Students who eat school breakfast are more likely to perform better on tests, attend more days of school and graduate from high school. Despite this, only half of the low-income students who eat school lunch are also eating school breakfast. Recognizing the connection between school breakfast and academic achievement, policymakers across the country are rethinking how and where school breakfast is served, in order to close this participation gap and ensure kids have the nutrition they need to succeed. Schools that serve breakfast in the cafeteria before the start of the school day often struggle to increase participation due to factors outside their control. Too many kids miss out because of late arrival times, cafeteria capacity problems, stigma and a host of other issues. When schools make breakfast a part of the school day by serving it in the classroom or through other means outside of the cafeteria, participation rates skyrocket. Schools that implement these innovative breakfast models report student academic and behavior improvements, improved school culture and boosts in school nutrition revenue. Have you reached beyond standard cafeteria service with your school breakfast offerings? If you have, is there room for expansion? Do you need to look at breakfast service in different ways, acknowledging that a classroom delivery service might work well at one site, but another site might benefit more from grab ‘n’ go stations set near the school entrance? Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom (which includes SNA’s School Nutrition Foundation) and Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry initiative both offer a variety of online breakfast resources, including toolkits, best practice ideas, videos and standard operating procedures. Look for these online as part of this month’s exclusive Bonus Web Content extras www.schoolnutriiton.org/snmagazinebonus, which also include resources to help you start or expand participation in afterschool and summer meals. At-Risk Afterschool Meals. This part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program offers a flexible way for schools to connect kids with free, healthy food after the school day ends, on weekends and over holiday breaks. The number of suppers served through the Afterschool Meals Program has more than quadrupled in the first five years that the option has been available nationwide. However, a large gap remains: There are less than four afterschool suppers served for every 100 school lunches going to kids in need. In some states, implementation of this program is so low that there are just one or two suppers served for every thousand free or reduced-price lunches. Afterschool Meals provide an opportunity to support school principals and stakeholder groups trying to encourage and increase participation in tutoring and other enrichment programs. In addition, they can help to meet the needs of students who stay on the school campus for long hours for various reasons. They also are effective in building community and family engagement. Some districts have taken advantage of this program to provide meals to hungry kids on weekends, during holiday breaks and unexpected closures, such as snow days. From a foodservice perspective, your decision to expand this program can offer multiple benefits beyond added revenues. It can serve as a conduit to creating relationships with a new customer base, in turn leading to improved participation in other school nutrition offerings. Additionally, afterschool meals can provide an opportunity to offer and test new menu items in smaller settings. In many cases, it can allow you to create expanded economic opportunities for staff, through lengthened workdays or the creation of new positions. Summer Meals. Summer meals programs can provide an important source of nutritious food for America’s youth during the summer months, when schools are closed for an extended period and family budgets can be stretched to the breaking point. The availability of free meals is also an incentive for children to participate in summer enrichment programs, which means that children are not only well-fed, but in a safe, supervised environment, engaged in educational and recreational activities that can, in turn, help return them to school ready to learn. School nutrition operations have many options to participate. The Nutrition Hub model is likely to encourage being a full-fledged sponsor of serving sites in order to maximize reimbursement potential, but serving as a vendor of the meals as part of a contract with a sponsor without foodservice expertise also gets the job done. In either case, school nutrition departments can realize the same benefits as with afterschool meals, including new partner relationships, greater reach to children, enhanced public awareness, increased revenue and more. Despite the many benefits of summer meals programs, they are severely underutilized. Only about 15% of kids who eat free or reduced-price school meals also receive meals during the summer. This is a great time to begin serious planning for summer meal service. See “Have a No Bummer Summer” in SN’s February 2017 issue, as well as checking out the additional resources in this month’s online extras. BUILDING A SCHOOL NUTRITION HUB Under Construction Building a Nutrition Hub is a methodical process that doesn’t happen overnight. The vision and the will are essential elements, but without a strategic approach, you could risk either spinning your wheels in endless good intentions or jumping into the deep end and drowning in such a way that you undermine crucial relationships. When schools carefully implement all eligible nutrition programs, students, staff and the community all win. Consider some expert advice from those who’ve already walked this path. Plan for Success. Which program is ripe for a start or expansion right now? Sure, you might have an exciting vision of converting a school bus and heading all across town with summer meals outreach, but have you done your homework? Do you have the resources you need in place? Do you even know what resources you’ll need, how to estimate related costs and determine the breakeven point? Okay, so maybe a summer food truck isn’t the project for this year, but you have some steps identified to research for next year. In the meantime, what about that new high school principal who seems an ideal candidate to approach about a breakfast after the bell pilot? Or maybe you want to reach out to the always-supportive coach about an after-practice, homework-help supper option? Working with a brainstorming council of key staff and/or supportive stakeholders, take each program, whether you already have a toe in the water or not, and identify a vision, quantifiable goals, areas to research, potential obstacles and possible solutions—in short, map out what you know and what you need to know to take this to the next level. Use Data. Management based on key performance indicators drives smart decision-making and planning. Monitoring participation, staffing and other key operational indicators at the school level can support program improvements, and help identify operational concerns in real time; just ask Marla Caplon, Food and Nutrition Services director, Montgomery County (Md.) Schools, who has been tracking participation and adjusting staffing to match for 28 years. Today, a process that began on paper is a sophisticated department productivity analysis, called “The Marla Report” and run through the district’s IT department. It features key benchmarks to help each site review revenue, expenses and efficiency. By following an objective analysis of monthly goals, each staff member on the team has a role to play to keep participation high and staffing hours up. “They’re gratified because they know that they’re feeding more students. They’re also getting more pay, because their hours have increased,” notes Caplon. Be sure to use the No Kid Hungry School Calculator (https://bestpractices.nokidhungry.org/business-model-tool-0) to run the numbers and determine the best options for your unique set of circumstances. Identify Champions. This is not an area where you can go it alone. Nutrition Hubs require active and engaged champions: champions of programs, champions of the vision and champions for kids. Start small by identifying a few key stakeholders who can help get new programs off the ground. You might consider a second group to act as an implementation team. When Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools began serving breakfast in the classroom, Senior Director of School Nutrition (and 2011-12 SNA President) Helen Phillips. SNS, started late in the school year, but around testing time, in May. She began with a three-school pilot. “There was huge interest right from the very beginning, and then it was simply principal word of mouth. Once we did those three schools, it spread like wildfire,” Phillips explains. By the start of the next school year, only three months later, a whopping 19 schools were requesting a breakfast in the classroom program. Maintain Flexibility. Look for customized solutions designed to meet the needs of each individual school, site, partner or stakeholder. Implementing new programs requires trust, support and reflective, authentic collaborations. Stakeholders need to feel heard and know they have the full support of the foodservice team. If that means purchasing garbage cans with lids to prevent would-be pests or placemats to guard against messes, find money in the budget to meet such needs, as it will pay off in the end. These efforts, accommodations and compromises will pay off in the long run. Find Synergies. Serving breakfast, lunch and supper year-round may provide an overlap that can increase kitchen efficiencies, improve inventory management and enhance district purchasing power. Plan menus that complement all programs, using similar entrees and sides in different programs; purchasing increased quantities results in better pricing and, thus, lower food costs. Monitor inventory closely; when smaller quantities of items remain, they can be used in programs with less participation. Serving more meals over more hours also helps maximize staff potential. At Burke County (Ga.) Schools, School Nutrition Director Donna Martin, RD, SNS, uses overlapping cycle menus for each program and seeks creative opportunities to coordinate between each. School nutrition employees serve one meal while prepping for the next; lunch and dinner menus share entrees and sides; and summer meals use up inventory that remains at the end of the school year. “We go through all the coolers and freezers, turning to our perishables first. We transfer everything from all the schools—the bread, sandwich meat, fruit and juice—to the summer production site. That inventory helps plan the summer meal menu,” explains Martin. Phillips agrees that economies of scale help to mitigate food costs, streamline menu planning and even facilitate student focus groups. “We definitely plan our dinner menus right from our lunch menu,” she reports, pointing out that they are careful not to repeat the same items on the same day. “And we use our dinner program as an opportunity to test new products and recipes, because it is on a smaller scale.” WIN-WIN-WIN Each year, more and more school nutrition directors are demonstrating that becoming a Nutrition Hub is not only possible, but also sustainable. “There is no way to lose by opening up your school as a Nutrition Hub for your community,” summarizes Phillips. “It is a fantastic way to utilize the resources that you have, to increase participation to serve your children and your operation to help boost it and financially to meet all of your needs.” BONUS WEB CONTENT Schools as Nutrition Hubs This month’s online extras include links to many resources developed specifically to help school nutrition operators implement and expand federal child nutrition programs, including case studies and expert advice. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Arianne Corbett is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla., and a consultant working with Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry initiative. Photos courtesy of No Kid Hungry and Rick Brady.
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