Schools with large free and reduced-price meal populations become part of the hunger safety net, operating summer food programs that serve thousands of free breakfasts and lunches. While summer feeding program meals are free to students, there’s a cost for schools that offer them. Managing that cost requires attention to data and operational best practices.
School districts where greater than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals are eligible to participate in the Summer Food Service Program. These schools are reimbursed for the cost of meals by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unless a district secures grant money or creates a partnership with another organization, those reimbursement dollars must cover administrative, labor, transportation and other operational costs.
Build freshness into a simple cycle menu
At Marietta City Schools north of Atlanta, Foodservice Director Cindy Kanarek-Culver relies on data to run two school serving sites that also operate as prep centers for 40 other summer food locations countywide. With a staff of 20, Marietta provides 2,000 meals a day during the summer.
“I use data to tell me what foods young people like, and then I create a one-week cycle menu instead of a two-week menu,” she says. That helps her limit the variety of food she must have on hand to create cold meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and hot meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Because she’s serving foods she knows students enjoy and since youngsters don’t come for a meal every day, the repetition doesn’t have a negative impact on meal count.
Consider the costs of pickup vs. delivery
Marietta also reduces food costs by requiring the 40 non-school sites to pick up food at the prep locations. This requires Marietta to train someone from the off-site locations in regulatory feeding requirements and food-handling practices, but it’s a big money-saver when it comes to administrative, labor and transportation costs.
The participating camps, community centers, churches and YMCA sites are each provided a food thermometer, shown how to use it, and provided food logs to track distribution. The district uses insulated totes to keep foods at safe temperatures. It’s a setup the off-site locations have come to appreciate.
Let participation numbers determine staffing
Staffing is another area where schools look to data for cost management. At Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan, Nutrition Center Supervisor Jennifer Laninga oversees 16 school sites and 16 non-school sites each summer. She has used participation data recorded over the past 10 years to determine the number of foodservice staffers she needs.
“We serve one-third of the number of meals in the summer compared to the academic year,” she says. “And since we only staff the 16 school sites where hot breakfasts and lunches are served, I can do the work with a staff of about 35—during the school year we have about 200 employees.”
Staffing is one of the hurdles that the non-school feeding sites must address. Laninga says everyone wants to make sure hungry students get fed, but they’re not prepared for the administrative time that comes with it.
The USDA has a number of mapping and calculator tools available. Choosing where to locate a summer food program and how to calculate costs, reimbursement rates and other financial factors can help with program planning.
Asking for help at the state level also is a great idea. Every state can have its own rules on summer food programs, so contacting state administrators can help avoid unexpected costs related to regulations and administration.
Getting buy-in at the district level and spreading the word also can pave the way for success. Posting flyers around the community, sending out information with students before the end of the year and even getting teachers to remind students can increase participation.