Operating a National School Lunch Program

Are you starting a new meal program this coming school year, or new to your role of managing your school’s lunch program? School Food and Wellness group works with over 200 charter schools in California and has shared 10 best practices for successfully operating the National School Lunch Program.

It sounds so simple to operate a school food program: feed the students delicious and nutritious foods! As you may or may not know, school food programs are highly regulated by both the state and federal government, which means a significant administrative burden on the facility running the program. Below are 10 qualities we feel are important for a successful and smoothly-run meal program!

  1. Start planning early.Next school year can sneak up on you! Map out your plans for next school year starting in early Spring to ensure enough time to plan for all required aspects of the meal program. Execute your food vendor contracts, schedule your staff annual training and update policies/procedures and any other documents needed well before the school year ends.
  2. Train staff on the meal program. Make sure all staff are trained annually on the meal program and its requirements. It is recommended that staff receive training throughout the year so that they stay caught up and refreshed on important topics. Any staff hired mid-year should also receive training to meet the annual training requirements and there should always be a backup person trained that can run the meal program.
  3. Keep an organized kitchen/serving area.Having your paperwork organized (production records, menu, delivery slips, etc) makes it so much easier for you to look at participation trends. It also helps if your lead cafe manager is out and a substitute needs to fill in. This also makes it easy for when you receive your Administrative Review.
  4. Communicate with your food vendor. Communicating any issues with your food vendor in a timely manner will help promote consistent service to your students. Have a procedure for what to do if product arrives damaged, out of temperature or doesn’t show up at all.
  5. Get at least 2 health inspections per school year.It is a requirement that your facility receive 2 health inspections per school year. Make sure to reach out to the company or health department providing your health inspections so you have backup that the inspections were requested. Oftentimes, a health inspection may be missed and it is ultimately the responsibility of the school/district to follow up and make sure these are done.
  6. Regularly take temperatures of food and equipment. While the main goal is to serve our students healthy and tasty foods, it is our responsibility to make sure the foods served are also safe. Make sure you take temperatures of food at the time they arrive at your facility, the cooking temperature and also the serving temperature. You should also record the temperatures of the equipment on site (milk coolers, freezers, etc) at least once per day.
  7. Monitor the amount of food you prepare and order. Remember that you only get reimbursement for the meals you actually serve. Having a large number of leftover food increases your food cost and can cause your meal program to lose money.
  8. Keep records and documentation on file according to your state’s requirements.Some states require that you keep all documentation pertaining to the meal program on file for 3, 4 or even 5 years. Keeping all documentation on file and in an organized manner will ensure you are in compliance with this requirement. It will also make it easy in case you are ever asked to pull paperwork from a prior year.
  9. Budget for your revenue and expense ahead of time.Using previous student enrollment and participation, what do you expect to spend on food and labor for the year? Do you have any equipment needs? Project your revenue (state and federal reimbursement and student meal payments) and ensure you will be running a financially sound program. Update your budget each month and review revenue and expense with your schools finance team to stay on top of unexpected loss or surplus.
  10. Student, parent and staff involvement is crucial to a successful meal program. If you work hard on # 1-9 above, but the students are not eating the meals, it is not a success. Conduct surveys with your students and their parents, see what they want to see on the menus (or less of!). Hold taste tests or chef demonstrations to get students engaged. Create a warm and appealing space for the kids to come each day, and eat their meal. Ask staff to get involved and join the students for lunch or talk about the school meals in class.

For more information, please go to https://www.sfwgroup.org/