Written by Lindsey Hill

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August 12, 2020

Well, we did it.  Or… we ARE doing it.  Yep, that’s better – we’re doing it – opening schools during this pandemic to the very best of our ability. The moment we’ve all been planning for and thinking about since March is here.

When I visited my schools on the first day of school, I had mixed emotions. I wasn’t sure what school would look like with some students virtual, masks required, food serving styles and appearance modified. I walked in with hesitation and was instantly greeted with a surprising sense of calm and normalcy. When I looked around, all I could see was the hard work and thoughtfulness that was put into every step to get our students and staff back in our buildings. I was (and am) incredibly proud of my team, my school district, my administration, and our students.

Now of course, it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.  The amount of logistics and planning that has gone into (and is still going into) operating essentially 3-5 different serving models is almost unimaginable. In our district, we have offered both in-person and virtual options for students. Should certain indicators of COVID19 spread be met in our county, the county health department will notify us and we will move to hybrid schedules at secondary for the following week, one week at a time. If the indicators meet an even higher level, we would go to all e-learning.  All of the scenarios involve a different plan and strategy. With different plans and strategies come different menus, point of sale considerations, staffing moves, food and supply orders, the list goes on.

Our main objective here is that our students will have meals and hopefully enjoy those meals in a positive environment that gives them some sense of normalcy and calm. We will do this by accomplishing our plans and strategies.

What about the financial impact?
I’m not going to sugar coat it. It is completely unfortunate absurd that it is August 2020 and a pandemic hit this country 5 months ago and we do not have any additional funding to support everything that we are doing to feed our students. Part of opening schools means feeding students. How is it possible to provide all of these various feeding models to our children and still have a school nutrition program left at the end of all of this?

The answer is still unknown because this story isn’t over. It will be extremely challenging and perhaps impossible without an influx of funds from other sources (whether that be federal or district funds). I believe that the best thing we can do is to minimize the financial damage by monitoring what is happening each day in real-time. All of the trends and history from past years is really pretty meaningless to compare to this year’s data. If you try to compare revenue and expense trends from past years that involved different enrollment, no virtual programs, and perhaps totally different serving models to this year it’s like comparing apples to oranges. The only thing we can do is monitor each day’s revenue, expenses, and profit/loss and make adjustments in real-time. But we can’t wait until month-end or year-end. We have to know today’s revenue and today’s expenses were after service and why. By knowing the when, why and how, it will help guide us to identify adjustments we need to make in real time.

This certainly means changing menu days that are losing the most money. We don’t need to compound the issue of too little revenue to apply to our fixed costs with having too high variable costs (food, supply, labor). What I mean by this is that we will almost inevitably have reduced revenue, but our fixed costs have stayed, just that – fixed. We have to ensure that our variable costs (food, supplies, some labor) are not unnecessarily high. We have to monitor what we are capable of controlling, which are those variable food and supply costs on our menus. My plan is to monitor our menu cycle day patterns and eliminate the worst days by modifying them. Ultimately I want to repeat success and reduce or eliminate failure.

Overwhelmed but we carry on 
When I visited our schools and admired the way our community and our team came together to make school opening happen safely, I was overwhelmed. I thought I would be overwhelmed with the stress and issues and all of that, but I was actually overwhelmed with appreciation and admiration.

I found a quote written on the dry erase board in one of my kitchens by the Manager. How fitting is this for all of us, no matter what our role is?

We don’t know what this school year will bring. The only thing we can do is focus on doing our best each day along the way.

I wish you all the very best this school year.  Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay positive.  We can do this!

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