Digging Data

In School Nutrition’s October 2014 issue, author Patrick White shared best practice insights from school nutrition directors who have made the commitment to “Get Into the Numbers Game,” recognizing the value of a data-driven decision-making approach. But what if math was never your strong suit? And how do you get your team onboard?

In this month’s exclusive bonus content, our experts share strategies for building a data-focused culture, starting with the simplest data collection practices. They also direct you to make use of several existing resources available from SNA and other organizations.

“You probably have to love numbers to be excited about data,” jokes Sandra Ford, SNS, director of food and nutrition services for Manatee County (Fla.) Schools, and an SNA past president. But even the math-adverse can learn to use data. A good starting place is to simply ask for help. Whether it’s a district account, comptroller, IT pro or just a numbers geek working on your staff, there are likely experts in your own office that can help you craft a plan to gather and start using data about your program’s operations that’s already available and just waiting to be analyzed.

While you are getting yourself up to speed, don’t forget about your team! In Sarasota County (Fla.) Schools, Director of Food and Nutrition Services Beverly Girard, PhD, RD, SNS, says that the area supervisors and managers on her staff get training in learning how to read financial statements, interpret budgets and analyze other critical data. In fact, an entire day of training on this topic alone is scheduled for the current school year. There’s also a dedicated accountant within Sarasota’s school nutrition department who can help everyone make sense of financial data within the program.

Remember that collecting and applying data doesn’t always mean sifting through reams of obscure computer-generated numbers. Sometimes, you can make a case for change with the simplest data collection methods. For example, a few years ago, one Sarasota County school cafeteria faced a problem with teachers all showing up for lunch at the same time, rather than sticking to the staggered schedule that had been set. Subsequently, the teachers complained about the long lines they encountered.

As a result, “The manager was getting negative feedback from the principal about why the lunch staff wasn’t ready,” recounts Girard. “She explained that the problem was that teachers were all showing up at the same time, but she couldn’t get anyone to believe her. So, we advised her to get a clipboard, make a simple graph and document time that each teacher was supposed to arrive, and when they actually did arrive.” This low-tech data collection effort not only proved the manager right, but eventually helped the school determine that there was a problem with the clocks located throughout the building!

Similarly, in Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Director of Nutrition and Wellness Kathleen Glindmeier, SNS, is taking advantage of the internship program she offers to collect data an analyze the district’s breakfast-in-the-classroom program. Last year, she divided the interns up and assigned each of them to examine three different classrooms where breakfast was offered. “Over a three-week period, they gathered a lot of data on how we were claiming meals, how many meals we were ordering in to each school, how many meals were actually fed to students, waste, and so on,” Glindmeier explains. The information helped propel new procedures. This year, she adds, a new group of interns will be assigned to revisit each of the same classrooms to collect new data to determine if the new approaches are providing improved results.

Also remember to take advantage of existing resources—especially when they are free! First, consider SNA’s Keys to Excellence: School Nutrition Benchmarking, Business Planning and Best Practices. The article, “Do You Hold Keys to Success?” on page 42 of the October 2014 issue offers testimonials from users about the incredible potential of this online tool. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/keys for direct access and more information. In addition, check out resources from:

-Share Our Strength, which offers an online, interactive calculator (designed in conjunction with Deloitte Consulting) to help school districts determine the financial feasibility of taking advantage of several different federal child nutrition programs, serving school breakfast, afterschool meals and summer meals. The calculator can show how increasing participation in these programs can affect the bottom line. 

-National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI), which offers a number of financial management courses that can help school nutrition professionals gain the business expertise needed to run a successful program. Visit www.nfsmi.org to learn more.

-SNA’s Annual National Conference Presentation Library, where you can find a number of presentations from past meetings on a variety of financial and data-related topics. Click here to get started.

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