Florida, home to some of the largest school districts in the country, is often at the leading edge of K-12 foodservice innovation because of the sheer number of students each district serves.
Combine that with the state’s growing population and its increasing diversity, add the social pathologies that accompany poverty in a slow economy and you have a stew of significant challenges, including challenges for school feeding programs.
Prominent districts like Orange County (Orlando) and Hillsborough County (Tampa-St. Pete) have received a fair share of well-deserved press for their innovation, but there’s a lot going on elsewhere in the Sunshine State in terms of using technology to improve service and operations, and investment in customer-friendly infrastructure.
For example, this fall, Miami-Dade County Public Schools will deploy vending machines in its 45 high schools that will offer not only reimbursable meals, but ones designed by local celebrity chefs that incorporate products from local farmers. It is a system that has already been in use in 20 states, including Florida, for over three years. In Pinellas County (FL) School District, the machines produced a 25-percent increase in lunch sales, says FSD Art Dunham, who is planning to add even more.
The rollout to all 99,000 high schoolers in the Miami-Dade system follows a successful five-month pilot this past spring at 26 high school sites. In the five month period of the trial, 55,000 meals were purchased from the machines.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County is poised to become the first district in the country to deploy a new palm scanning technology that promises to speed up lunch lines, improve POS accuracy and eliminate some of the technical flaws that plague other biometric approaches, such as finger scanners.
The palm scanners use an infrared beam to read the unique pattern of a student’s palm to verify identity and initiate payment either from a cash account or from federal reimbursement. The advantage of the approach is that, by avoiding physical contact (the student’s palm doesn’t touch the scanner, only hovers near it), it eliminates the contamination from dirt and skin oils that plague technologies requiring physical contact. That also makes it more sanitary and avoids the “fingerprinting” stigma attached to biometric finger scanners.
It is also reportedly highly accurate. Pinellas spent $234,000 to purchase 200 scanners and the necessary software for its 20 middle schools and 17 high schools and will add about a hundred more in September for 38 Universal Breakfast qualified elementary schools with free/reduced populations exceeding 80%.
Other Florida districts are spending on more traditional investments that are also designed to attract more participation. Atlantic High School in Delray Beach just opened a high-impact “mall food court” style cafeteria replete with five commercial-style stations specially designed to attract teenagers. The self-branded concepts include Atlantic Gourmet Deli, Asian Xperience, Café Sol y Mar, Mangia Mangia and Beyond Burgers.
The stations have boosted the number of reimbursable lunch options available on a typical day from three to 23 and opened all stations to free/reduced status students (Atlantic High has a 56% free/reduced population among its 2,200 student enrollment). The $450,000 cost of the renovation included $165,000 for new equipment.
The menus at each of the stations are fixed, just as with mall food court restaurants, but each also offers an a la carte “house special” each day for variety. Each also has a vegetarian option and an entrée salad option, plus sides like fresh fruit, fruit or salad cups and hot vegetables.
“The house specials allow us to test new products and recipes,” explains Heidi Schwab, support manager for Palm Beach County Schools Food Service. “If they prove popular, we can modify them so that they qualify for reimbursement and add them to the menu in the future.”
Miami-Dade’s Expanded Vending Option
The advantages of a vending option include speed and convenience that encourages more participation (the schools will also retain their traditional cafeteria serving lines), more efficient use of labor and the leveraging of technology that students are already very comfortable with.
The machines, provided by Star Food Healthy Express, incorporate technology that not only makes qualifying students eligible for federally subsidized meals quick and easy, but ensures strict food safety through a temperature memory log that makes 144 checks each day (once every 10 minutes) to ensure the food stays fresh and up to HACCP standards. Any power interruption or any rise in temperature past 40°F automatically shuts the unit off. It also maintains a strict FIFO rotation of product.
Multi-component reimbursable meals are vended in 20 seconds after a student logs in his or her student ID number and birth date (to comply with the federal requirement for two forms of identification). The system integrates with the school’s POS and accounting systems to assure qualification for reimbursement.
The selections themselves are designed to be not only nutritious and fresh, but appealing through the machine’s viewing windows. There are six options, including salads, wraps, turkey sliders and yogurt/fruit parfaits (the favorite during the trial period). The machines can serve not just lunches but breakfasts and after-school snacks as well.
The selections were designed by a group of high-powered commercial chefs who agreed to participate in the program as a way to help the community and forward the progress of First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to curb childhood obesity and encourage more healthful eating habits among the nation’s youngsters. They were assisted by input from local farmers in the Farm to School Program and by representatives of Star Foods, who had experience with technical details like size and packaging options.
Among the products of the collaboration between the chefs and the school system’s nutritionists (to ensure that the meals qualified for federal reimbursement) were…
• The Montego Bay Wrap, designed by Chef Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s, SRA Martinez),
• Asian chicken Salad Lettuce Wrap, designed by Chef Frank Jeannetti (Essensia)
• Rosemary Chicken Salad, designed by Chef Michael Schwartz (Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink)
The program promises to help control labor costs (though the pilot showed that staff actually had to be added to keep up with the increased volume) by reducing the cost of labor per meal. By eliminating the need for line servers, POS workers and the need to handle cash (the machines are strictly cashless), labor can be allocated to prep that is offset by the increased number of meals sold.
Each machine costs an average of $15,000, including the cost of wiring, software and installation (the machines are standard units that have been modified with the keypad and temperature memory system technology). Each unit holds 96 meals at a time and the district estimates that the machine generates $245 a day if that full allotment is sold, or around $88,000 annually. The machines can also be restocked during the day, especially in larger schools with multiple lunch periods. That, it says would be sufficient to pay off the unit in a single year even after accounting for food, labor and overhead costs.
The machines are stocked each morning from food produced onsite.
Funding for the program was provided by a grant from an organization called Communities Putting Prevention to Work (which in turn is funded by the Centers for Disease Control through the Miami-Dade Dept. of Health). Another grant, from the Florida Dairy Council, will allow Miami-Dade to put 10 more machines, nine in middle schools and one in an elementary school.
“This is a great use of equipment dollars, there is less waste, a higher utilization of staff on meal preparation and it is a great option for the kids,” says Penny Parham, administrative director of Miami-Dade Dept. of Food & Nutrition. “And, it has the cool factor.”
A Hand-y POS Solution at Pinellas
Pinellas County is outfitting all of its middle and high schools with the palm scanners following a successful pilot of the technology last spring at one of the high schools, where checkout times were cut by more than half, from an average of 15 minutes to around seven minutes, says Foodservice Director Art Dunham. “Those number are holding up in the early going with the full deployment of the scanners,” Dunham offers.
Dunham says he saw the technology at a conference a couple years ago and “knew it was something that would work well for us.” He notes that palm scanning is fairly routine in several other countries like Brazil and Japan, where it is used to verify a the identities of ATM users.
The technology is expected to help increase participation by reducing lines, and also by its “coolness factor,” which has prompted students to buy lunch just to experience the palm scan at checkout. “We hope that after getting lunch just to get scanned, they will also see how fast and easy it is to get through the line, so they will be encouraged to come back,” Dunham says.
Using the hand scanner mode of checkout is completely voluntary, Dunham emphasizes. Student who are not comfortable with the technology can still opt for entering an ID number to debit their lunch accounts (or verify free/reduced status). But only a few have gone this route.
“Most students are very comfortable with it and love it,” Dunham notes. “This is a generation that is comfortable with technology anyway, it’s like second nature to them.”
Choices Multiply With “Mall-Like” Food Court
Palm Beach Café at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach used to have one lunch line for reimbursable meals with three daily choices, and four other lines that offered some reimbursable options but mostly a la carte choices. The new, remodeled cafeteria now has reimbursable meal choices at all five stations, a total of 23 fully qualified meal options each day, plus the daily “house special” at each.
The menus for the stations are all new and were taste-tested with students before being finalized. In the early going, the Asian station (Asian Xperience) has been most popular, says Schwab. The menu there includes Teriyaki Chicken and General Tso’s Chicken, each available with either rice or lo mein noodles, plus a “Build Your Own Vegetarian Platter” option.
At the Mexican themed Café Sol y Mar station, entrée choices include Seasoned Beef Gordita, Chicken Fajita and the meatless Black Bean Burger: Mangia Mangia, the Italian station, offers Lasagna (vegetarian), Pasta With Meat Sauce and a Chicken Parmesan Sub Sandwich; and Atlantic Gourmet Deli has a series of wraps that include standards (Turkey & Provolone, Chicken Caesar, etc.) as well as Grilled Vegetable & Cheese and PB&J with Cheese Stick, both vegetarian.
The last station is Beyond Burgers, where two serving windows—one facing an outdoor courtyard—proffer Beef Sliders and Veggie Burgers as well as Hot Ham & Cheese, Grilled Chicken and Spicy Chicken sandwiches.
Labor was not increased, just reassigned, says Schwab. Cafeteria workers now spend more time out in front of customers manning the stations.
As for the customers, “they are very excited about the new cafeteria,” Schwab says. Participation on the first day of school was over 1,000, up about 250 from the typical day last year. In the subsequent days, it receded a little but was still averaging up to 150 more students a day than in 2010-11.