Assessment and Next Steps

Overview

Assessing your current program with the intention of identifying opportunities and challenges related to accomplishing your department’s goals is a key step toward enriching and building stronger food-service programs. For districts beginning or continuing to explore expansion of bulk scratch-cook production, local procurement, culinary skills, and service and communication skills, as well as improvements to facilities and other areas, evaluating food-service operations is an essential task.

The primary purpose of self-assessment is to gain an accurate picture of the current status of your programs and services. By attaining a deep understanding of the current fiscal, operational, facilities, human resources, and community relationship aspects of your department, you can determine the best course of action and develop a strategy for realizing your department’s vision. It can be challenging to step back and critically assess our own practices. The most obvious barrier is time; the secondary barrier is true objectivity.

We emphasize data collection and tracking in assessments because in-depth knowledge of the department’s structure and day-to-day activities is essential for districts that want to engage in complex change.  Acquiring a thorough understanding of your current operation through data analysis makes it possible to prioritize your goals and develop a set of realistic steps for meeting them. Some districts may have specific short-term goals that can be addressed without significant investment of time or resources, but most operational shifts involve a level of complexity that makes strategic planning essential. Having data in hand makes it easier to identify the specific actions required to accomplish your goals.

Essential Data for Assessment

Fiscal Management

Collecting and reviewing key fiscal data is fundamental to your assessment process. Though many districts carry out this data collection to some extent, food-service departments often neglect to track detail in all categories, and some districts lack the software and digital tracking tools needed to make the process of fiscal management efficient.

The following areas will establish the crucial data sets for your baseline. 

  1. Labor Costs: As labor is your largest expense, it is important to gain a detailed understanding of what is spent on labor and whether your team is optimized for your operation. The labor worksheets track your labor cost data, including where each employee is working. As you consider changes to the operational model–whether that involves adding salad bars, implementing Breakfast in the Classroom, or shifting site-based production to regional or centralized production–tracking the cost of labor and the department’s efficiency in this area is critical.
    • Hours Assigned to Hours Worked: This is a tracking tool to make sure hours worked do not exceed assigned (budgeted) hours.
    • Meals Per Labor Hour Worksheet: This worksheet allows for comparisons of site labor allocations to meals provided.
    • Position Control Spreadsheet: This easily manipulated worksheet identifies personnel by site and provides details of each employee’s associated costs, such as health and welfare, number of days, etc.
    • Sample Reorganization Worksheet: This shows how to use the data collected in your fiscal assessment to project the kinds of departmental shifts commonly associated with consolidating from site-based production to a regional or centralized model. 
  2. Simple Meal Count / Average Daily Participation Worksheet: This worksheet projects anticipated revenue and compares it to budgeted revenue.
  3. Food Cost Projection Worksheet: This tool projects food costs, compares them to the budget, and tracks inventory.
  4. Breakfast Expansion: Using information collected from the fiscal tools, this worksheet projects revenues associated with alternative breakfast expansion, like breakfast in the classroom, both on a site-specific basis and for the entire district. (See Breakfast District-Wide Calculator and Breakfast Site Calculator.)
  5. Multi-Year Profit and Loss Statement: This tool uses the data generated in the spreadsheets for labor costs, meal counts, and food costs to produce historical budget comparisons.

Human Resources

In addition to evaluating labor costs, creating a diagram of your Organizational Structure and reviewing the job descriptions related to each position is a very useful exercise, particularly in light of the soon-to-be-approved USDA Professional Standards that have been mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. It is imperative, in any case, to evaluate and update your department’s position descriptions when determining needs related to any operational changes.

Food and Procurement

How would you characterize your current menus and sources? What direction do you intend to take them in? Examining your trends in commodity allocation, commercial procurement, reliance on a la carte sales, use of fresh produce, and historic procurement of local foods will produce useful information that can help you prioritize next steps. Most importantly, it can help you identify low-cost, high-result actions that will move your department toward the realization of its goals.

Facilities

Taking a look at the status of your district’s facilities is another essential process; it should be done on an ongoing basis. Your evaluation should include everything from building access and neighborhood compatibility for truck deliveries to whether the service line has been updated in the last 40 years. Depending on the goals of your program, you may be able to get by with old or outdated equipment for the short term, but it’s important to lay out your long-term needs and make sure that the department is continually evaluating and updating its equipment (see Facilities section). Use the Salad Bar Site Assessment Tool and the Breakfast Assessment Tool to collect facilities information specific to breakfast and salad bar programs.

Climate for Support ‒ Policies, Marketing, and Community Engagement

The district wellness policy, marketing support for food services, community support of kids’ health, integration of food education in the curriculum, and nutrition literacy are all markers that are evaluated when determining how the wider district and community can help in sustaining food-service programs. To evaluate your climate for support, ask the following questions:

  • What activities in your district and community can support the program changes you hope to make?
  • Does your district have a nutrition or wellness committee (see Wellness Policy and Smart Snacks section)?
  • Is there an active grant in the district that includes food service engagement?
  • Are school gardens and learning opportunities established in the district?

The answers to these and similar queries will help you evaluate the resources that currently exist and identify others that might be needed to support your particular program improvement.

Identifying Goals

Collecting data on all aspects of your programs gives you a solid foundation from which to work toward your desired goals. The fiscal tools can be used to create “what-if” scenarios that will help you immediately identify whether you have the required revenue to support a change and identify areas that can be improved to support change, like lowering food costs or increasing meal counts.

Most goals will require more action than just establishing fiscal support, however, so collecting data on all your current conditions is critical. For example, if your next step is to consolidate your means of production from site-based to regional or centralized production for more efficient scratch cooking, the actions you will take will be dependent on every aspect of your entire operational system. Are capital improvements required? Do your current staff members have enough expertise to handle the shift to a new production method? What kind of changes in procurement will be needed to meet this goal? Do you have support from your superiors and the school board?

Alternatively, your objective might be to establish ServSafe manager certificate training as a regular part of your ongoing staff hiring and development process. In this case, you’ll need to ask different questions. What are the barriers to this? Do you have a team member who could become a certified trainer? What would be the annual cost of establishing and then maintaining such a program? Having detailed data about all areas of your programs at your fingertips makes it easy to answer the relevant questions.

Provisional Programs

Provisional programs offer an opportunity for districts to reduce paperwork in their efforts to provide a school meal program for their students and possibly increase revenue through greater participation. These programs come from two legislative actions. The first program is the Community Eligibility Option (CEP) that is based on a policy requirement of Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. The intent of the CEP option is to provide an alternative to household applications and to improve access to free school meals for high-poverty schools.

For a School Food Authority (SFA) to be eligible to use CEP, the SFA must have one or more schools having an identified student percentage of 40% or greater as of April 1, 2014. The identified student percentage is NOT the same as the total number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The identified students are those children that are directly certified as free. The other provisional programs are called Provision 1, Provision 2, and Provision 3 and were authorized at different times under the Nation School Lunch Act. The programs were set up to reduce paperwork and provide an alternative to the normal requirements for annual determinations of eligibility for free and reduced price school meals and daily meal counts by type (free, reduced price, and paid meals) at the point of service. For some school districts these programs can help increase participation and improve certainty of revenue by fixing the spread in the mix of free, reduced, and paid eligibility.

Community Eligibility Provision

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools with high numbers of low-income children to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students without collecting school meal applications.  This option increases participation by children in the school meal programs, while the school district reduces labor costs by not having to collect applications each year and usually increases their federal revenues.  A formula based on direct certification data is the basis for reimbursements instead of the paper applications. To be eligible, a local educational agency (LEA) and/or school must meet the minimum level of 40% of the students directly certified. These are children that are certified for free meals without a paper application based on their status, as in foster care, Head Start, homeless, migrant, or living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), cash assistance or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) benefits. Once approved for participation in CEP, the eligibility of the school or district is good for four years. The program can be discontinued at any time during the period of eligibility should the district determine that the program is not working in its best interest. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has extensive information about CEP.

Benefits include:

  • All students in a district or school receive all meals at no charge.
  • Paperwork for the department and families is dramatically reduced.  The department no longer has to certify individual student eligibility. This eliminates the verification process for the district, and the families no longer have to complete the applications.
  • School meal service is streamlined.  At the sites they simply count the total meals served and assure that each student only receives one meal at the point of service.

Each state will have their own requirements for districts to notify their state agency about eligible students.  It will generally occur in April of each year.  By May 1 each year the state must notify districts that are eligible to participate or near eligible to participate in CEP.  By June 30 each year the districts must notify the state of their intention to participate.

The reimbursement rate for both lunch and breakfast is determined by multiplying the percentage of students directly certified by 1.6 (this rate is good through 2014-15, in the future the rate will be between 1.3 and 1.6). The resulting number is the percentage of meals reimbursed at the “free” reimbursement rate, with the rest being reimbursed at the “paid” rate.  The district or school must pay the costs of serving lunches or breakfasts in excess of the value of special assistance payments with non-federal funds. In other words, if the revenue exceeds the cost of the program the school district must cover the costs with funds that are not received through any other federal program such as Title I.

Before a district decides to participate in this method of reimbursement they should consult with the department in their school district that oversees Title I fund allocations to the school sites.  The student eligibility rates drive the funding allocations. Without collecting the number of eligible students each year for free, reduced, and paid meals, the Title I fundingallocation model will need revision. With that said, CEP may impact the Title I allocation to sites. Even though it may be of benefit to the Food and Nutrition Services Department it might have unintended consequences to the Title I funds the school sites usually receive through school ranking. The U.S. Department of Education has provided guidance on this aspect of the program. This program may also impact the District E-Rate2 application since student eligibility is a factor in obtaining E-Rate funds. The Federal Communications Commission provides guidance in this area. The decision to participate in CEP must be a District decision, not only a food services department decision. The district should keep in mind that if they choose to participate in CEP and decide to continue to collect family eligibility applications, the cost of doing so should not be borne by the food services department.

The department should also conduct an analysis for their district to determine the financial impact of opting for the CEP method. The USDA has provided an estimator tool that is available on their CEP web page.

1Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. Federal funds are currently allocated through formulas that are based primarily on census poverty estimates and the cost of education in each state.

2E-Rate is the commonly used name for the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission. The program provides discounts to assist most schools and libraries in the United States (and U.S. territories) to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access.

Provision 1

This Provision reduces application burdens by allowing free eligibility to be certified for a two-year period. In schools where at least 80% of the children enrolled are eligible for free or reduced price meals, annual notification of program availability and certification of children eligible for free meals may be reduced to once every two consecutive school years. All other households must be provided with a meal application and are permitted to apply for meal benefits each school year. There is no requirement to serve meals at no charge to all students. Schools must continue to record daily meal counts of the number of meals served to children by type as the basis for calculating reimbursement claims. 

Provision 2

Provision 2 requires that the school serve meals to participating children at no charge but reduces application burdens from annual application collection to once every four years. Provision 2 also simplifies meal counting and claiming procedures by allowing a school to receive meal reimbursement based on claiming percentages. During the first year, known as the base year, there is no change in traditional procedures and administrative burden. During years two, three, and four of the cycle, the school makes no new eligibility determinations and continues to serve all children meals at no charge. The school takes count of only the total number of reimbursable meals served each day. Reimbursement during these years is determined by applying the percentages of free, reduced price and paid meals served during the base year to the total meal count for the claiming period in subsequent years. Federal reimbursement is based on these percentages, and the meals are reimbursed at the free, reduced price and paid rates. A district can opt to do breakfast and/or lunch and may choose whether to participate on a district-wide basis or only in specific schools.

Generally schools with high percentages of low-income students (75% or more) utilize this option. Provision 2 schools pay the difference between the cost of serving meals at no charge to all students and the federal reimbursement for the meals. Most participating districts still collect some type of eligibility information on an annual basis so as to not impact the Title I allocations to sites, but eligibility determinations cannot be altered during this period. In years two through four, sites only need to count and claim the total reimbursable meals; the eligibility percentages from year one are applied to the total for reimbursement purposes. School nutrition programs should contact their State Agencies for assistance on how to implement Provision 2 in some or all of their schools (see USDA memo).

Provision 3

Provision 3 reduces application burdens and meal counting and claiming procedures. It allows schools to simply receive the same level of federal cash and commodity assistance each year, with some adjustments, for a four-year period. Schools must serve meals to all participating children at no charge for a period of four years. These schools do not make additional eligibility determinations. Instead, they receive the level of federal cash and commodity support paid to them in their “base year,” which is the last year they made eligibility determinations and meal counts by type. For each of the four years, the level of federal cash and commodity support is adjusted to reflect changes in enrollment and inflation. The base year is not included as part of the four years. At the end of each four-year period, the state agency may approve four-year extensions if the income level of the school’s population remains stable. Schools electing this alternative must pay the difference between federal reimbursement and the cost of providing all meals at no charge. The money to pay for this difference must be from sources other than federal funds.

Strategic Planning for Next Steps

Taking your vision from the bird’s-eye view to the details of actually making substantive changes requires a strategic planning process. A strategic plan helps determine the actions, resources, and benchmarks required for you to reach your goals. Strategic planning should involve the top members of the management team, the director’s direct supervisor, and other key district administrators, depending on the size of the district and the makeup of its administration. Our strategic template sample identifies the areas where next steps are to be taken and lays out the challenges, known resources, and specific actions, along with the parties responsible for those actions and a timeline for each action. When utilizing strategic planning, it’s highly advisable to conduct follow-up reviews at regular intervals. Here is a Strategic Planning Worksheet Sample.

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