In the last two decades, new software and technology have transformed school food-service management in myriad ways. But in the last several years in particular, school nutrition professionals have had access to new tools that are revolutionizing the industry–from cashless transactions on the front lines to state-of-the-art operational efficiencies in the back office.

“Nutritional analysis software is playing an important role in helping school nutrition programs offer healthy school lunches,” says Erik Peterson, director of public awareness for the School Nutrition Association. “The software also helps school nutrition professionals ensure that they are complying with federal nutrition guidelines on school meals.”

So what’s up next for school nutrition professionals? Technology vendors and food-service personnel say the best is yet to come. This report focuses on three broad areas in food-service management software and technology:

  • ” Identification: Using state-of-the-art techniques to verify student identity;
  • ” Innovation: Pushing the technology for more creative applications; and
  • ” Integration: Pulling food service and other school-based student data systems together for even greater efficiency.

Identification

There’s a growing interest in the use of biometrics for student identification in school cafeterias. By just about every measure, biometric forms of identification outpace other options for efficiency and ease. When a child presses a finger into a scanner, there’s no doubt about his or her identity. There’s no risk of lost ID cards or forgotten PIN numbers. There’s no chance of fraudulent use of the child’s meal account by someone else.

“There is a fairly strong push to use biometrics,” explains Barry Sackin of SFNS, a school food-service consultant. “We’re overcoming the concern about the idea of ‘fingerprinting’ a child. It’s not a fingerprint scan in that way. The way the systems work is that they take an image of the finger and match it to key points of the finger’s stored profile. It’s done within a very closed universe.”

Biometric forms of identification also provide anonymity and eliminate any stigma for the children who receive free or reduced-price lunches. “Not long ago it was commonplace for schools to use different-colored lunch tickets or other noticeable means to identify free and reduced-price students,” says Peterson. By moving to electronic point-of-service systems that use identification numbers, swipe cards, or biometrics, students no longer can easily identify who is receiving a free meal, he explains, adding: “That’s one big reason for the increased participation in the National School Lunch Program.” And increased participation in the program can translate into more funding for districts.

The Penn Cambria School District near Pittsburgh, Pa., has been using fingerprint technology from Food Service Solutions Inc. for several years. As noted by the district’s superintendent, Russell Strange, on the vendor’s web site, “Not even the cashiers know which students are free or reduced.”

Innovation

As nationwide efforts to guide children toward healthier food choices grow exponentially, this area is taking off in the food-service management systems industry. The IT and computer systems of today–and tomorrow–are viewed as essential to the goals of combating childhood obesity and instilling nutrition education for a lifetime.

A number of new tools are on the market to help in both the planning for and dispensing of nutritionally sound meals for children. For the last decade or so, school districts increasingly have been trying to provide nutritional breakfasts and lunches for children. The current push is centered around a more sophisticated approach that includes evaluating nutrient values, calories, fat, and sugar content, much like savvy grocery shoppers do when they review food labels.

School meal planners are experimenting with new software and technology to assist them in analyzing foods. They need tools to help them analyze nutrients as they plan what the selection of one food choice over another will do to the overall nutrient content for the meal. They must weigh factors such as caloric intake; recommended-daily-allowance values; amounts of key nutrients such as calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C as they plan menus.

As a result of this new effort, school districts are looking more to registered dietitians to oversee meal planning and are using new nutrition software programs. “You don’t have to be a registered dietitian, because the new software programs make it easier to manage the menus, but it helps,” notes Mary Jo Tuckwell, director of food and nutrition for Eau Claire Area School District in Wisconsin. “I think more schools are moving towards having dietitians on staff.”

Four schools in Eau Claire are among 300 selected to take part in the national kickoff of a nutrition education program developed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, sponsored by the Clinton Foundation in conjunction with the American Heart Association. Tuckwell, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in public health, is excited about the program because its goals include making changes in the national infrastructures and in policies that affect school nutrition.

Along with more detailed analysis of food choices for menus has come the opportunity to involve parents in the food choices their children make. Technology is playing a significant role here, with web-based tools that let parents view what choices their children make at breakfast and lunch. One example: MealpayPlus from Horizon Software International. Designed as an online prepayment tool for parents or guardians, MealpayPlus also affords the capability for oversight of food choices by logging in to the web site.

“Parents or guardians can view online what their kids are eating,” explains Tina Bennett, director of MealpayPlus. “It can help to open a dialogue between parents and students about what foods they are choosing. The system also can set up alerts at the point of sale. Say a student is allergic to peanuts … that type of alert can be put into place.”

Another key area of focus: healthier vending. Sackin describes a pilot test of vending systems that tie into a school system’s student database. Instead of going to a cafeteria or kiosk, a student can purchase a prepaid, reimbursable meal from a vending machine. The machines being tested are tied into a point-of-sale system, and they can track the purchases to prevent a student from buying two lunches on the same day. In addition, notes Peterson, school meal vending machines integrated into POS systems allow students the opportunity to purchase a healthy school meal without waiting in the lunch line.

Integration

As far as integration is concerned, a growing trend is technology-based solutions designed to manage every aspect of food service. One such example: OneSource from Horizon Software. According to Horizon officials, OneSource can manage the gamut of functional areas, from warehousing and distribution to menu planning, nutrition analysis, and point-of-service sales. It also includes software modules that manage warehouses, delivery routes, shipping and receiving, stock transfers, physical inventories, perpetual inventories, production, asset management, personnel, and procurement.

OneSource was developed using Microsoft technologies, including SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, which provides local data storage for high-volume POS transactions. In addition, school leaders increasingly are looking for ways to enable their various data systems to work together, including those that support food-service management. According to Sackin, integrating these many disparate systems to enable data sharing is an ideal scenario.

“There’s one system for attendance, one for financial information, maybe another for tracking textbooks,” he says. “If student information is already in one database, why should it need to be entered again in other systems? Why not share data between the systems in a controlled and protected environment?”

That very basic goal is what laid the foundation for the Schools Interoperability Framework, or SIF. SIF is a voluntary set of standards for data formatting and exchange that facilitates data sharing regardless of what technology platform is used (see the special supplement in this issue). Technology vendors and the education community teamed up to form the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, a nonprofit coalition that coordinates the data standards.

SIF initially focused on traditional school information needs but now encompasses all areas of data management within the school environment, according to Sackin. SIF working groups focus on specific areas, one of which is food service. And vendors competing in the school food-service market take the idea of data exchange seriously.

“We are SIF-certified,” says Charlene Combs, CEO of Data Futures. Combs’s firm is the creator of LunchBox, a suite of food-service management solutions. “It’s a pretty new concept and important. With SIF in place, a seamless level of interface happens. SIF is just one way to exchange data. We have fairly universal import-export capabilities.”

It’s clear that food service within school districts is expected to be both efficient and innovative. Chip Goodman, CEO of School-Link Technologies, describes school food service as a “big commerce engine.”

“About 65 percent of purchasing that is not facilities-related in schools is done by food-service [departments],” Goodman says. “We’re moving toward more standards, more accountability, best practices … just more of an enterprise approach. Overall, we need to take the view that food service is a business–and we need to run it more efficiently.”

Indeed, says Peterson, not only will systems be integrated within school districts, but consolidation also will take place among district, state, and federal regulatory agencies when it comes to reporting requirements and eligibility for free and reduced-price categories. That’s where technology will play an essential role for the food-service community, according to Peterson. “And it’s technology that will play a key role in affording school nutrition programs with improved ordering and access for USDA commodities,” he concludes.

Links:

School Nutrition Association
http://www.schoolnutrition.org

Alliance for a Healthier Generation
http://www.healthiergeneration.org