Harris School Solutions

How to Overcome 3 School-Lunch Accounting Challenges

When it comes to your School Lunch program, you probably feel, at times, like there are too many moving parts.

And you’re not wrong.

From planning out the menus and tracking inventory to performing nutrient analysis and reporting on it, every last piece of your program needs to run smoothly or you’re going to get buried under a sea of red tape and mashed potatoes.

There’s so much to do, in fact, that maybe you didn’t even notice that we didn’t mention, you know, actually serving the food to the students. It’s the entire point of your School Food Service program, and yet many K-12 Food Service Directors and staff don’t have time to focus on that part of it.

The process that eats away at the director’s time the most, though, usually is accounting.

So with that in mind, let’s look at three often-overlooked back-office accounting challenges, and how to overcome them in order to improve your School Nutrition program and let you and your team focus more on serving the students.

1. Accounts Payable / Accounts Receivable

The Problem

It all starts with knowing how much you owe and how much is owed to you. This information dictates your budget, purchasing ability, inventory… everything. And, to add a side-dish of stress, it’s all under the scrutiny of auditors and school boards.

But accurately keeping track of the money coming in and going out is much more complicated than the uninitiated would at first believe because it’s all part of a larger cycle.

Chief School Financial Officers (CSFOs) need information in a very particular way in order to do their job properly. As a result, the more accurate and organized the data you give them, the better you’ll be able to do your job on the next go around (ordering, menu planning, serving, etc.).

So how do you improve the way your School Lunch program handles the complex cycle of Accounts Payable / Accounts Receivable?

How to Fix It

It’s all about compatibility.

The best advice we can give is to make sure the software that you and your school’s Financial Operations personnel use integrate with one another.

If your software is set up to export timely financial data to your CSFO’s accounting software in the appropriately organized way — thereby eliminating the need for error-prone manual data entry — then both you and the CSFO will be able to get your respective jobs done better and in less time. It’s a win-win.

2. Bidding / Co-Op Purchasing

The problem

Once you have a better understanding of how your Operation costs fit into your budget, the obvious next step is to use that money as wisely as possible.

This is where bidding and co-op purchasing come into play. Now, while the process can be complicated and time-consuming, it nevertheless is out of your hands. So, how do you become better and quicker at bidding / co-op purchasing if you can’t change the process?

You can start by recognizing that the problem isn’t the process; the problem is the way you engage in the process.

Many schools handle bidding and co-op purchasing manually, which can be absolutely painstaking. Think about it: thousands of inventory items, multiple vendors, price and inventory-record changes… all by hand!

Plus, even for schools that do have software to handle the complex process, the software often is too slow and outdated to get the job efficiently, especially since the requirements and rules evolve from year to year.

So, beyond just the need for software to integrate and work together, the tools within the software that specifically handle Bidding / Co-Op Purchasing often make the whole process convoluted and time-consuming because those tools aren’t kept up-to-date.

How to Fix It

The solution to your Bidding / Co-Op Purchasing woes is so simple that it often goes overlooked.

What you need to do is find Bidding and Purchasing tools that are able to interface with the software you use for the rest of your School Nutrition program. By giving your vendors an easy path for entering their bid information, and then having the tool to import and analyze this data with little or no effort, you will free up literally hours on your schedule, hours that you used to spend solely on moving numbers from one place to another and then manually analyzing them.

Just keep in mind: both parts — functionality and integration – are equally important. If your software solutions don’t speak to one another, it’s going to cost you valuable time every single time you approach the process. On the other hand, if you have fully integrated software, but the tools can’t do what you need them to do, then what’s the point?

3. General Ledger

The problem

The third issue most School Food Service programs face has to do with their general ledgers.

General ledger issues are the easiest to fix. Well, they’re the easiest to fix before you have a problem, that is. If you wait until you’re about to send a report and then you find out your numbers aren’t adding up, it could be too late and you could end up spending way too much time on something that was supposed to be straightforward (usually, addition and subtraction).

Still, a lot of general ledgers aren’t built to handle what School Nutrition programs need them to.

The result is that either the Food Service Director or the CSFO has to perform mathematical backflips to untangle and resolve an unruly mess.

How to Fix It

Even if it takes a little investment up front in order to get a general ledger tool that works for your unique K-12 School Lunch program, it’s worth it many, many times over.

The best advice for choosing a general ledger tool or software is to make sure you can customize it or configure it so that it works the way you want it to. That way, you won’t have to waste time trying to remember how to operate it. You’ll be able to get the work done quickly and move on to other important tasks.

Plus, not only will you save precious time and money you’d have spent on labor costs, you’ll likely also end up saving money through wiser spending, thanks to your more-accurate bookkeeping and tracking.

We’re not just talking about the big-ticket items your district must purchase for your K-12 Food Service program; we’re also talking about smaller expenditures, like the Advil you’ve been buying in bulk for when your system crashes or you realize you made a data error sometime around the beginning of the school year. And, after all, every little bit counts.

So there you have it. To recap:

Your software needs to evolve with the changing processes and regulations associated with funding. It also should integrate with your school district’s Accounting software and should offer the tools you need – simple to use but powerful – for each of your most time-consuming tasks (e.g. general ledger, Purchasing / Co-Op Bidding, and Accounts Payable/Receivable). Lastly, make sure the software lets you configure it to your needs.

And keep in mind: spending a little time doing some research on School Nutrition solutions upfront will save you a ton of time down the road.

Bonus tip

As an example to get you started in your search, you can click here to check out eTrition, our own fully-integrated and easy-to-use School Nutrition program software.

Whichever software you choose, though, be sure to check around in order to find out how the company behind the product handles Support and Training. What are their response times like? Is their Support team friendly? Experienced? Ask these questions before you purchase anything because, at some point, you’ll likely need to rely on the women and men of that Support team almost as much as you rely on the software itself.