By Patrick White 2018-02-05 15:28:16
Harnessing the Power of Data » Wireless monitoring technology for foodservice equipment is much more than a temperature management tool. It’s an operations management tool. When working in school nutrition, you’ve probably struggled with the feeling that you must be in 100 different places at once, right? You might be able to reduce that number—at least to some degree—thanks to advances in wireless temperature monitoring. Dan Ellnor, CP-FS, manager of the Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools (JCPS) Nutrition Services Center, has been on the front lines of this technology as it has emerged, and he has been an innovative leader in the many different ways it can applied in school nutrition operations. Indeed, it’s one reason Ellnor was recognized with the 2017 FAME Silver Spirit Award. Ellnor began his career nearly two decades ago working as chief food specialist with the health department. After six years in that role, he joined a company called SMART Systems, which specializes in food safety training and compliance programs, and is a distributor of the SFSPac Food Safety and Sanitation System (PortionPac). Jefferson County Public Schools) was just one account he served. For the Record During that time, schools were only beginning to implement HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) protocols, he recounts. Though HACCP had been used in manufacturing for years, it was new to the foodservice segment at that time, and schools were struggling to implement it, recounts Ellnor. At JCPS, for instance, “There were probably 15 different logs throughout the kitchen that had to be filled out daily—sink logs, refrigerator logs, milk logs, cooking logs, calibration logs…all of these different pieces of paper that had to be filled out,” he details. As time-consuming as that was, it was even harder to try to make sense of all the data being collected, adds Ellnor. When the logs were completed, “They were submitted at the end of each month to a supervisor who was supposed to review them all, find problems and then go fix them,” he explains. “And nothing was in real time.” It was very difficult for anyone to manually review and analyze those reams and reams—and reams—of hand-written temperatures. JCPS has 147 kitchens, with roughly 2,200 temperature log books. Using these to find and address potential areas of concern was impractical. Even if the temperatures were being recording dutifully, it would have been difficult to spot the temperature of a milk cooler (for instance) creeping up ever so slightly day after day. Seeing a business opportunity to improve this process for school nutrition programs, SMART Systems began working to develop a temperature monitoring system that would improve efficiency and reduce human error. “There were very, very few such systems out there at the time,” recalls Ellnor. And most were wired (rather than wireless) technologies used only by large manufacturing and storage entities to monitor refrigeration throughout a building. Around that time, about 10 years ago, Ellnor left SMART Systems to join the JCPS nutrition program as coordinator of food safety and equipment. In that role, he oversaw an ongoing pilot program to test a new temperature monitoring system developed by Cooper-Atkins. Ellnor knew his previous employer, SMART Systems, was developing similar technology, called SMART Temps. (SMART Temps was later split off from SMART Systems, and eventually, in early 2017, was purchased by Digi International.) To ensure there were no conflicts of interest, Ellnor removed himself from the procurement process, as JCPS began to pilot-test the new technology in 10 schools. Eventually, the district settled on the SMART Temps system and became one of the first in the nation to implement this technology for school nutrition operations. From “See” to “Do” The district’s new wireless temperature monitoring system made an immediate impact. It recorded temperatures, sent out alerts when problems developed and allowed Ellnor and others to observe all foodservice equipment areas in real time. No longer constrained by the volume of hand-recorded log books, school nutrition team members could review and analyze temperature data with greater speed and efficiency. It also became immediately apparent that passive monitoring of temperatures was just one aspect of the new system’s true capabilities and value, Ellnor adds. For example, he worked with the vendor to devise a report that he now uses to address preventive maintenance. “Typically, the compressors in refrigeration units don’t just go ‘click’ and die. Instead, the temperature starts to wander incrementally,” he explains. “It may be very hard to see that, because it may be only fractions of a degree in the beginning.” But by applying certain algorithms, the system can see that wobble over a 24- or 48-hour period and generate a report that shows this pattern as a graph. Ellnor or maintenance team members can receive that graph right on their phones. “And before you reach a critical temperature at which you’re going to lose food or food is at risk,” he notes, “It says, ‘Hey, you may want to look at Refrigerator #2; it has this pattern.’ Which gives you hours, rather than minutes, to deal with a problem.” Soon, it became apparent that the system had the power to serve not just as a temperature management tool, but as an actual operations management tool. When most foodservice operators think about temperature monitoring, they focus on the data element and the food safety element, asserts Ellnor. “They don’t see the operations element. It’s really about being able to dive into the data and cull out what you can see to better run your kitchen.” JCPS has applied the wide array of customizable reports to help drive operational changes. “It’s revolutionized how we manage kitchens in a large district.” Taking the Situation in Hand Ellnor gives some of the credit specifically to the SMART Temps’ “SMART Shield” handheld units, which JCPS added to its kitchens several years ago. They are connected through the internet in the same manner as the refrigeration monitoring devices, but they provide greater flexibility in how they can be used to record the temperatures of actual food products. “That handheld accesses the preset temperature of each different food item that is being checked; so whether it’s a leftover item that has to be reheated to 165 degrees or a chicken patty, where the manufacturer’s directions specify 145 degrees, that’s been programmed into the unit. So, it can tell the employee if that temperature hasn’t been reached, and it asks them what corrective action they want to take,” explains Ellnor. Further, because the handheld units are part of the same wireless system, the data is automatically logged and can be accessed by managers or supervisors in report form. This allows it to become a training tool for the manager, Ellnor continues. “When those corrective actions pop up, it sends the manager an email. Then they can print out a report and say [to a specific employee], ‘I noticed that when you were temping chicken nuggets last week, they kept coming up not hot enough. And I noticed that you were temping them at the same time this week. Let’s try cooking those 10 minutes longer before you temp them next week.’ It becomes a training opportunity.” There are numbers—hard data—to support the manager’s instruction to the employee. Improvements Abound While Ellnor saw early on the potential for handheld wireless technology to be used to improve foodservice operations, he admits that some of the other ways it’s now being applied continue to surprise him. “I asked whether I could get a report on the top 10 items that were overcooked and the top 10 items that were being undercooked,” he explains. This report results in food quality improvements, not just food safety insurance. Again, it allows for guidance—backed up by data—on where improvements can be made. If, for example, Ellnor sees that broccoli is being overcooked to an average of 190 degrees across the district, he can send that report in email form to all site managers to encourage them to work on getting it cooked to the correct temperature and knocking this item off the list of overcooked foods. It means, he says, “You don’t need to go out to every single school and retrain every single cook.” And it has worked; the team has addressed every vegetable that had been regularly overcooked. Because the handheld sensors are programmed with a temperature for every single menu item being served, the daily monitoring be used to document menu substitutions, adds Ellnor. If a manager is going “off-menu,” they must manually enter the item into the handheld unit. Supervisors can generate a report specifically to track menu changes. “From week to week, we can see what managers are substituting on a regular basis” and can focus attention on why those individual managers are making these changes, he explains. Instead of having to review numerous production records from all serving sites, supervisors might quickly see, for example, that one-third of JCPS managers are substituting a specific food item that’s on the menu every Wednesday. A conversation with these managers might reveal that students aren’t eating the menued item. “That’s feedback that can be given to the central office menu planner—which now gives us an operational advantage,” notes Ellnor. Whether the data is being drawn from refrigeration sensors or the handheld units, it’s all about how you want to see it and what use you want to put it to, asserts Ellnor. For example, he’s used the system as “an asset management tool” to monitor equipment performance, checking the percentage of the time it’s operating within the appropriate parameters. Ellnor has asked to see this data presented as a graph. “It’s one thing to look at a list of temperatures and try to pick out a pattern; it’s another to throw those into a graphical format,” he explains. It’s not always about patterns—sometimes the system is used simply to document facts. A parent complaint about an undercooked hamburger, for instance, can be quickly answered with the temperature records from the handheld sensor unit from that day. “We can just email those records over to the health department,” says Ellnor. Or, if there’s a food recall, the temperature management system data can be sorted to see which schools, if any, have served that particular food item. Bottom Line Boost It’s amazing, Ellnor notes, how far-reaching the impact of the wireless temperature monitoring technology has been on the district’s school nutrition program. Of course, the fundamental functions of monitoring temperatures for safety purposes is paramount, both for daily monitoring, as well as during and after storm events, when the battery-powered sensors can keep monitoring even when the electricity goes out. Once the power returns, there’s no second-guessing if the food has been maintained at a safe temperature. “Once the internet comes back up, it immediately begins dumping the data. So, now you have a decision-making tool about whether the food is safe or not,” says Ellnor. That protects the customer—and potentially saves money so that safe food isn’t discarded unnecessarily. Another cost-saving opportunity comes from eliminating the need to pay an employee to visit schools on weekends and during school vacations to manually check on refrigeration equipment. “At any given time at just one of our sites, we have about $3,000 worth of food sitting in refrigerated units. One loss that can be averted pays for the temperature monitoring system at that particular site. And, we lose refrigeration at a location every day,” details Ellnor. In fact, during one bad hurricane several years ago, he estimates that the district recouped its entire investment in the monitoring system through the preservation of food that was proven to be safe. “These systems will pay for themselves,” he affirms. Speaking of that financial investment, Ellnor points out that the cost of wireless temperature monitoring systems has come down as more competition has entered the marketplace. “SMART Temps is not the only product out there,” he notes. “Now there are many, many other products that operate similarly and basically allow you to be in every kitchen as a central office administrator.” The lowered costs also make a wireless temperature monitoring system something that smaller districts can—and obviously should—consider. While a medium or small district may not generate the same overwhelming volume of hand-recorded logs, they have other challenges, including fewer staff and longer drives, which make a wireless system an attractive solution. The price can be accommodated with a scaled-down approach. “A lot of districts opt to protect their walk-in coolers and freezers first, because that’s where their dollars and cents sit. They’ll do a staged roll-out, adding reach-in coolers and freezers. Finally, they add the handhelds. So, you can start with a small investment and then go larger,” he says. Most systems require an internet connection at each site being monitored. But increasingly, says Ellnor, they can be set up to operate with cell phone technology. The beauty of the monitoring technology is that it can be tailored to meet the specific needs of an individual school nutrition operation. And Ellnor cites another benefit: the rewards of a collaborative process with his technology vendor. “I would literally think of something and say, ‘I would like a report on this,’ and a couple days later they would say, ‘Try this,’ and I would say, ‘That’s good, but can we add another column for this?’ And that was the way the product was developed,” he explains. “It was developed for our needs.” Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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