When we talk about drivers of school or student success we tend to focus on what teachers are teaching or how they are teaching. The reason we focus here is because these factors seem to make the greatest contributions to student learning. However, if we are to see a school or a district as a system, then we need to pay attention to other drivers that can contribute to improved outcomes for students. One area that we almost never talk about is school lunches. The school lunch is highly regulated and much maligned, but it also plays a part in our overall system. Many students obtain vital nutrition in the middle of the day from school lunch programs. What's more, the school lunch program can be wasteful in terms of efficiency and consumption of food. When we are looking at our entire school system we must take time to identify waste and eliminate it. Waste can be roughly translated as "not helpful", which means it is worthy of focus and measurement.
So, how do we go about measuring the waste in our school lunch programs? There are two types I will discuss in this post: (1) waste related to efficiency and (2) waste related to uneaten food.
First, food service operations should be monitored for efficiency and opportunities to improve should be considered and tested. There are many standard measures that we can use to measure the efficiency of food services operations:
- Cost per meal
- Lunch participation rate
- Meals per labor hour
- Lunch participation rate
These standard measures should be collected and reviewed monthly. The Council of Great Cities Schools releases a booklet of key performance indicators (KPIs) annually that include benchmark performance for each of the above measures. () Districts or schools choosing to analyze these measures can use the data from the benchmark report to compare their results and determine whether improvement efforts are necessary. In addition, the booklet includes behaviors (or practices) that impact performance on these measures.
Second, waste related to student consumption should be measured and efforts should be made to improve consumption rates and student satisfaction. To begin a school might simply ask students as they leave the lunch room to complete a short survey (perhaps as few as one or two questions).
· "I eat school lunch." (never, 1-2 days per week, 3-4 days per week, everyday)
· "The food tastes good." (likert 1-5)
An easy to get a handle on how well students are responding to school lunch offerings is to measure food waste. While this sounds difficult, the Quarter-Waste Method has proven a reliable way to measure how much food is being wasted. By measuring tray waste food service operations can set a baseline, try improvement ideas, and measure the results without too much effort. Tray waste could be measured a couple times in a week for baseline data and a couple times in a week to progress monitor. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement has numerous ideas to get students to eat more nutritious offerings. By pairing the Quarter-Waste Method with the ideas from Smarter Lunchroom Movement, food service operations can get involved in reducing waste, increasing efficiency, and improving student outcomes.