When you work in a School Lunch program, you’re bound to face challenges that pop up seemingly out of nowhere. That’s just the nature of serving hundreds or even thousands of students each day.
But, when you keep encountering the same Child Nutrition program problems, over and over, day after day, it’s likely more than just a coincidence.
Instead, there probably are bigger issues causing these problems.
The bad news is that it often can be unclear what these bigger issues are, which makes fixing them almost impossible.
The good news? We at Harris School Nutrition Solutions have spent thirty years working with the men and women of Child Nutrition programs all across the U.S., helping to diagnose and solve their School Lunch problems.
So, we figured we’d share with you some of the common school lunch-line challenges we’ve seen over the years, the real issues behind those challenges, and of course the solutions to both.
Negative Account Balances
One common problem Nutrition programs face with their lunch lines is dealing with negative account balances.
The goal, after all, is to move the line happily along by keeping the conversation between staff and student focused on side dishes and pleasantries. So, having to stop the entire lunch line to deal with your program’s payment policy because of a single overdrawn student is a sure way to throw a wrench into the entire process.
But what’s the real issue? What’s the source of the problem?
We’ve found the culprit here is usually poor communication.
When the policy for negative balances is not clearly understood by the parents or by older students, it can lead to a halted lunch line.
Even worse for everyone involved — the Food Service Director, the server, the student, and the parents — is when a student must be denied food because of a misunderstanding of the policy.
Write the policy clearly.
Having a clearly written policy will help you to avoid a potentially heartbreaking situation and will speed up your lunch line overall.
Communicate it effectively to parents, including reminders.
Once you’ve determined the best possible policy based on the needs of both the school and the students (and you’ve spelled it out very clearly), it’s important to communicate it effectively to parents at the start of the year. You may also want to consider communicating the policy to them again at the start of each semester in order to refresh everyone’s memory.
Be proactive, letting parents know when they’re getting close to the charge limit.
Being proactive is a great way to solve a problem before it even becomes a problem. If a student is approaching the point where the account has too many charges, let that student’s parents know. This can be done weekly by sending letters home.
Make sure your team knows not only the policy, but how to handle situations involving over-charged accounts.
Be sure to explain the policy to everyone on your team so that each person is clear about not just what the policy is, but also how to handle those situations when these rules come into play. If the server knows exactly what to do in such a scenario, the odds of a stopped lunch line go way down. Plus, even if the line does come to a complete halt because of a payment issue, it will start moving again much sooner if the server knows how to respond.
Point of Sale (POS) Problems
Another challenge of many school lunch lines revolves around the Point of Sale (POS) system.
Obviously, if your POS device constantly malfunctions or your system is so outdated that it often crashes, it’s time for new software and hardware. But there’s a much less-obvious issue that many School Nutrition programs don’t even realize is slowing down their lines — the way the POS system is used.
In an effort to save some money upfront, it’s tempting to implement a clunky, inconvenient POS system just because it’s less expensive. But consider the age-old adage, “Time is money.”
As an example, many POS software systems force you to work from an interface that isn’t designed the way you need it to be, the way your frontline employees want it to be. If your cashiers don’t feel comfortable using it, or if it creates extra steps because it doesn’t match your lunch-line processes, then you’re wasting time (and money).
How much time are you wasting? Probably more than you think.
Let’s say you could save two seconds per student if your cafeteria staff had a more user-friendly software. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot… until you do the math.
Two seconds multiplied by, let’s say, 800 students in a school, ends up costing you about 26 minutes.
That’s almost a half-hour’s worth of labor costs for the entire staff!
Just think what you could do with an extra half-hour added to your work day, and how much your students would enjoy the extra time to eat and to socialize with their friends.
It’s worth providing staff with a refresher training course from time to time, even for seasoned (excuse the pun) veterans. The reason is that, despite what employees may have been taught when they first started using the software, people tend to do things whichever way is most comfortable. As a result, inefficient methods can become the norm over time, which can create errors or waste time.
On the other hand, if staff members are using the software in a way other than you think they should be, it could be because the system itself is breaking down at some point. Maybe they’re working around the software’s shortcomings. If that’s the case, you need to consider their feedback and see if there’s a way to adjust the software to their needs.
If the software can be configured in only one way and doesn’t offer flexibility where you need it, the last step is to consider switching software. Again, this could cost some money upfront, but if you look at the big picture and the long-term savings, it often ends up being more than worth the investment.
New Students, Old Information
A third lunch-line problem comes up when students who have just enrolled in school, but who are not yet in the food-service software, show up to eat.
The cashier can’t serve a new student until the student’s record is found. But, often, the student doesn’t have a record in the POS system yet. The reason? Many Nutrition program systems are separate and disconnected from the district’s student information system.
So, while the cashier goes on a wild goose chase for a record that isn’t there, the line of hungry students grows longer — and more impatient.
Guess what the best way is to solve the problem of new students showing up to eat in your cafeteria without being in your system.
Make sure they’re in your system!
To do that, you need to work more closely with your district or your school’s office. That could mean stressing to the administrators the importance of letting you know immediately when a new student is enrolling, or finding a way to integrate the district’s student information system with your School Nutrition program’s system.
Either way, missing records are far too common for you not to be proactive about fixing them.
Like with any of the repeated lunch-line problems we’ve discussed, if you know it’s going to happen, then there’s no reason you can’t prevent it.