Cafeteria trays carrying whole-wheat pizza, leafy green and orange vegetables and fresh, whole fruit are now the norm at districts across the country as a result of the new USDA meal pattern requirements that went into effect for the 2012-13 school year.
The new requirements bring both obvious and sometimes subtle changes to what constitutes a reimbursable meal, with additional requirements coming next year for reimbursable breakfasts. The changes have had a major impact on meal planning and food production. They have also complicated the jobs of front line school cashiers as they check out crowds of students rushing to get through lines each day.
School cashiers quickly and accurately evaluate each meal to ensure all the necessary components and portions are present. If a meal isn't complete, a student has to be sent back to get what's missing, or it isn't reimbursable. When states audit a school's production records in annual reviews, they look carefully to check what portions were served, how much was left over and whether the numbers support reimbursement claims. If they don't, it's a violation and the audit requires refunds to make up the difference.
“The biggest change is that fruits and vegetables must be served daily and must comprise at least one component of a lunch,” explains Sandra Ford, President of the School Nutrition Association and Director of Food and Nutrition for Manatee County Schools (MCS), Bradenton, FL.
“A server has to know what comprises an acceptable fruit or vegetable portion and a cashier has to be able to look at a tray and know whether or not it qualifies” she adds. Her district has put a great deal of time and effort into training front line employees to ensure that what comes through the line counts.
RELATED: What Makes a Reimbursable Lunch?
Each staff member was brought in for a half-day training, where they were shown in-house developed videos that explained the basics and clearly outlined what constitutes a reimbursable meal. Ford adds that the district cross-trained managers so staff is able jump in wherever necessary.
At Portland Public Schools, staff training took place before school started, with program managers spending time in each school with each Nutrition Services employee reviewing the new requirements. “We conduct our own in-house audits to ‘double check’ that we are operationally sound,” says Whitney Ellersick, MS, RD, nutrition services senior program manager.
“Additionally, we created an educational Power Point presentation that is shown to all employees to teach them about the program and demonstrate how to recognize a reimbursable meal.”
Finding Training That Works
At Hickman Mills C-1 Schools in Kansas City, MO—a much smaller district than at Portland or Manatee County—at-a-glance training has been especially important.
“Our students pay first, go through the line to make their selections, and finally a staff member at the end of the line checks the tray to ensure it qualifies,” says Leah Schmidt, Director of Nutrition Services.
Hickman Mills’ front line training involved checklist-type explanations of the new requirements followed by trivia games in which staffers had to identify whether or not a meal qualified. “We tried to make it fun and functional,” says Schmidt.
For Dallas Independent School District (DISD), training involved back of the house culinary operations in addition to front line education.
“Since students must take a fruit or a vegetable, there has been a significant increase in production of these components,” says Dora Rivas, Executive Director. “In anticipation of the new regulations, all staff members participated in culinary training on techniques to use in their individual kitchens.”
Servers and cashiers were also required to participate in training on the new menu pattern. In most cases, it included hands-on activities and small group discussions about merchandising techniques, customer service and steam table set up.
For Mary Kate Harrison, General Manager of Student Nutrition Services for the Hillsborough County (FL) Public Schools, front line training wasn’t as intensive, thanks to the district’s well-programmed POS system.
“As a child comes through the line, the cashier enters each item on a tray into the system,” she explains. “The computer then indicates if the meal qualifies. This streamlines the process and helps us monitor which items are our biggest sellers and which need to be retooled.”
The 2010 bill also includes a 6-cent per reimbursable meal funding increase, although increased food costs are typically running much higher than that.
Still, “For our district, an extra 6¢ per meal adds up to $1.3 million,” says DISD’s Rivas. “We don’t want to leave money on the table, so training front line employees and making sure each tray qualifies is especially critical.”