By Barry Sackin, SNS 2017-08-09 00:55:09
Best practices for effective operations Tech Talks in Texas » New technology helps to raise the bar, raise revenues and lower costs throughout one major city school nutrition operation. In our June/July 2017 issue, School Nutrition did an in-depth look at the process one school nutrition department took in upgrading technology throughout the operation. We explored the steps taken by the Food and Child Nutrition Service (FCNS) team of Dallas Independent School District (ISD) as they determined needs and priorities, identified the right suite of applications, procured the system, trained staff and launched the new system. This month, we examine various ways the school nutrition operation is taking advantage of the new technology to solve problems and make improvements. The previous article made the point that, while Dallas ISD is a very large district, much of the school nutrition technology procurement process is applicable in smaller districts. Such is the case with this article, as well. Yes, certain processes and achievements are the result of Dallas FCNS being able to build a large, talented internal IT staff. But keep reading. Even some of the more sophisticated applications developed by the Dallas team might be replicable for smaller districts willing to invest a little in an outside contractor. Capitalizing on CEP One of the most impactful changes to the student meal program was to remove the stigma related to applying for benefits. The process of matching students and their households for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can be a daunting task. But since migrating to the new student management system, “complicated turned easy,” asserts Riyad Alsaid, the department’s technology director. [Editors’ Note: Since being interviewed by School Nutrition, Alsaid has left Dallas FCNS.] Improved student matching functionality offered by the new software module increased the district-wide identified student percentage for the CEP program. While CEP is available to all schools that qualify, the software can be credited with helping Dallas establish a new, significantly higher baseline for eligibility. Direct certification (“direct cert”) became an option for school districts back in 1986, with the 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization establishing it as a mandate, as well as requiring that all school districts use household applications rather than individual applications for each child. While this may seem a simple concept in theory, in practice, many school districts struggle with the household application when children from the same household attend different schools. Dallas ISD worked with the state agency to secure a comprehensive database of Texas students who were deemed eligible through qualifying adjunctive programs (i.e. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF], Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations [FDPIR]). This database was cross-matched with the district’s student database and then, using improved algorithms provided in the new school nutrition technology system, the household app feature allowed the district to maximize the matching. The result was an 8% increase in identified students, which in turn, made it possible to put the entire district into CEP, with a reimbursement claiming percentage near 100%. This also allowed them to reduce costs by eliminating application/verification processes district-wide. “The increase in revenue from CEP has been the most significant change in the district in many years,” reports Alsaid. “The additional revenue and reduced expenses realized by eliminating an entire section devoted to student eligibility offsets the cost of our migration to the new system.” Such a revenue/expense counterbalance is a win for any school nutrition operation, but the technology change provided Dallas FCNS with even more bottom-line benefits. Inventory Info Last month, this article noted the value of Dallas ISD starting with a clean inventory slate. All product items, recipes and so on were entered into a new database, eliminating items no longer in use. Once the database was validated, a full physical inventory was taken at all sites including the district’s central warehouse. By virtue of its size, Dallas ISD acts as its own distributor, procuring most food items directly from manufacturers and maintaining a large central warehouse. This warehouse operates as an internal distributor, serving “customers” (individual prep and serving sites) and receiving items from the department’s internal “manufacturer,” aka the central production kitchen. (Other districts with central kitchens should consider the model of calculating the “sale” price of items produced in such facilities—adding ingredients, labor, supplies and overhead, but no profit margin—and entering these into the warehouse inventory for ordering, delivery and tracking to individual sites.) Having an accurate starting inventory is critical to the comprehensive management system implemented in the district. The new menu planning, ordering and inventory system uses a central database that all team members can access, from the central office all the way to the individual sites. “This has been one of the most significant and stabilizing changes in the new system,” says Alsaid. “Order discrepancies have gone from multiple trouble tickets each week to none.” The district nutrition staff creates menus that individual school sites retrieve electronically, using these to develop production plans by entering estimated counts for every menu item. Since the new POS system requires cashiers to account for every individual item on a student’s tray, participation records are more accurate to help manage inventory. The production plan drives school site ordering from both the distributor, as well as central and individual site coolers, freezers and storerooms on serving days. The system generates the pull based on the menu, recipes and counts. Dallas ISD cooks were instructed during training to use exactly the quantities called for in standardized recipes. Last month, we met Cafeteria Supervisor Lakisha Williams, who is an enthusiastic advocate for the benefits of the new technology. “The key is to receive inventory correctly,” she advises. “Once you do that, and correctly account for your prepared food, you get an accurate perpetual inventory.” While Williams acknowledges that “it required a lot of training to get recipe prep accurate and make sure there is a hard count of leftovers,” she’s a fan of the new system: “It’s making life so much easier, I tell you.” When Williams and the other Dallas FCNS site managers prepare their production plans, the technology reviews the inventory at each particular site and determines whether that location needs to order more food. These orders are automatically sent to the warehouse, where they are consolidated before the system reviews the central inventory to ensure there is sufficient stock on hand before generating an order. This tech-driven coordination is leading to more just-in-time ordering, reducing inventory (and its associated costs) and providing more efficiency. School Nutrition visited Dallas near the end of the school year. Using inventory balances, staff at both individual serving sites and in the central office were making end-of-year menu changes in order to use up items on a site-by-site basis. As they cleared out excess inventory, they were in a better position to start the next year with a balanced supply. Reimbursement Rewards The new POS system, with its near real-time communication to the central database, has resulted in a big improvement in the meal claiming process. Under the old model, data was uploaded from each site to the district office. Error-checking and validation were time-consuming steps. Exceptions took an inordinate amount of time to identify and record. Reimbursement claims to the state often took the full 60 days allowed. With the new system in place, it’s a different story. Bonnie Chung, Dallas FCNS finance director, says the software is highly accurate and the consolidation and validation of monthly claims is now completed in as little as two weeks. The result is a much faster turnaround and receipt of payment, which improves cash flow. Custom Complements The new school nutrition technology may revolutionize many operational areas, but it can’t do everything. The district uses other software programs, including Oracle, to help produce administrative/financial reports. But to fill in gaps that purchased software systems left behind, Dallas FCNS technology team engineered and developed custom applications. For example, physical inventories are still conducted monthly, but this step is now less labor-intensive for two reasons. One, since the new system helps supervisors track and maintain an accurate inventory, discrepancies are rare. In addition, Jose Lopez, Dallas FCNS’s lead developer, built a custom app through FileMaker (www.filemaker.com), which uses the camera on a mobile phone or tablet to scan barcodes. Inventory takers scan each item and enter the quantity and the app transmits the information directly to the database. Indeed, Lopez has demonstrated mad programming skills, turning FileMaker into a powerhouse interface for all of the department’s users. During SN’s site visit, Lopez unveiled his team’s newest dashboard at a regular department meeting of key stakeholders. Easy and intuitive to use, the new tool was greeted with gasps and “wows.” The dashboard is broken into six segments: Operations, Quality Assurance, Technology, Finance, Procurement and Feeding Programs. But, like most modern interfaces, users can search for any information, data entry or reports they need. The customizable reports generated by FileMaker allow anyone with designated permission to view data in a wide variety of ways. Most reports are saved as templates so they can be regenerated rather than having to be recreated, but ad hoc reports are simple to create. Dallas is fortunate to have a skilled group of developers on hand to build these applications. “We have been using FileMaker for some 20 years with various developers who have made significant contributions to our arsenal of tools,” Alsaid recounts. Smaller districts might consider contracting with a FileMaker programmer to build solutions specific to their needs. Its power to provide the necessary information for effective management and administration is truly amazing. That said, Alsaid warns that “you can’t just hire a developer, even a talented one, and expect the same results. There was much conceptual and process design before and during code development.” It’s Elemental Tech innovations cross a number of operational areas for Dallas’s school meals program. Consider the following areas of current improvement and future enhancement. » Dallas FCNS provides its bids to prospective vendors using a “thumb” drive. This is a big improvement (with big cost savings) over traditional paper bids, although many vendors continue to print out the bid from the portable drive and submit these on paper. Dallas intends to give this process a digital makeover, too. In the near future, vendors will receive, complete and submit all bid information online. The Dallas FCNS software will be able to distill bid responses. » In a relatively small tech project deployment, the district is installing wifi-and cellular-enabled temperature monitors in all of its coolers and freezers. The plan also includes installing probes into all food distribution trucks to monitor for proper temperatures during transport. Whenever a reading exceeds tolerance levels, monitors are coded to communicate instantly to the appropriate person. The ability to react quickly to cooler failures promises to improve food safety and save significant money over time. » Managing a staff of 1,500 can be daunting. The school nutrition operation also uses a temp employment agency for its long-and short-term substitutes. Before installing digital time clocks, subs submitted their hours to the agency, which billed the district for those hours. Using the new electronic time clock, hours are accurately recorded and billing errors have virtually disappeared. » Updated menu boards are a modern movement in school cafeterias. Dallas is using an approach consistent with their larger technology efforts, working with a vendor that provides the hardware and a software package. The district is placing two to four large screens at each school site. While the district supplies the content, the vendor manages the system, sending files that are tailored to the individual site. In addition to menu information, content can be customized with colors, team names, events and messages. Everything’s Up-to-Date in Dallas Long recognized as a leader in the K-12 school nutrition segment, benefiting from the leadership of not one, but two IFMA Silver Plate winners over the past 20 years, Dallas FCNS continues its tradition of excellence with its approach to technology. The combination of commercial software and inhouse-developed systems and apps has revolutionized the school nutrition operation, improving management and reducing costs. “Technology has transformed our team from only being tech support to a business enabler,” says Alsaid. Barry Sackin is a K-12 school nutrition consultant, author and speaker. His clients include Heartland School Solutions, the technology vendor currently contracted by Dallas ISD’s Food and Child Nutrition Services operation.
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