The new school year is well underway. While the most challenging time we could have imagined is behind us, there are still obstacles to overcome. Planning meals that are both appealing to students and meet the guidelines of the National School Lunch Program, for example, can be a challenge. However, taking full advantage of Food Distribution Programs is essential in overcoming many of the difficulties school nutrition directors face today.
Your USDA Foods in Schools program runs throughout the current year. However, the work to determine your Planned Assistance Level (PAL) for the next year is done now. Samantha Murillo, LINQ Product Marketing Manager and a former state agency employee, shares some tips and tricks to maximize your USDA Planned Assistance Level without over-stocking your freezer.
Oftentimes, state agencies will have an excess of inventory. In these cases, they will offer certain USDA foods for free, and accepting them won’t affect your Planned Assistance Level. Your local child nutrition state agency will send a notification when bonus foods are available. You can also check with your USDA Foods in Schools coordinator to make sure you haven’t missed a notification.
Using your entitlement dollars to purchase high-ticket items can help you get the most “bang for your buck.” Items that go in “the middle of the plate,” like chicken fingers, can be purchased with your PAL. In addition, take advantage of other programs. Department of Defense Fresh Fruits and Vegetables – also known as DoD Fresh – can be used to fill the rest of the plate for a balanced, budget-friendly meal.
Knowing what and how much to purchase to feed the students in your district is no small task. Use your records from previous years to forecast your nutrition program’s needs as accurately as possible. This will help you ensure that your PAL usage is on track for the year. If the state agency sees that this is not the case, they may take back what remains of your entitlement dollars and redistribute it to districts that are maximizing their usage. Keeping accurate forecasting records will ensure you are only purchasing what will actually be consumed and no foods, or entitlement dollars, will go to waste.
Rather than looking at your inventory and planning a menu around what you have in stock, plan your menu and then get the items that you need to make your meals. This has been a challenge in recent years so some flexibility and creativity may be necessary. Planning your deliveries around your menu is your best bet for the ingredients you have consistently been able to purchase.
Having a good relationship with your vendors is always helpful, but even more so during times when some ingredients are hard to find. If an ingredient you normally use will be out of stock, they could give you a heads up, and you can try to find a good substitution together. Keep an open mind, work with what they have available, and know that, like you, they’re doing their best to get you what you need.
Working with neighboring districts can help solve some of the logistical challenges you’re facing. For example, some vendors have requirements for order sizes before they will deliver to you. If the amount you need is too small, you could combine orders with a neighboring district. That way you’re both making the most use of your Planned Assistance Level. You’re also working with the vendor and maintaining that relationship.
Understanding Food Distribution Programs and how you should be using your PAL is the best way to ensure you’re getting the most out of your entitlement dollars. If done correctly, your district should use all of its PAL and then be awarded extra. Check your local child nutrition state agency website and the School Nutrition Association for the latest updates. Additionally, the Institute of Child Nutrition offers trainings that you can complete on demand.
While the new year has just begun, now is the time to do the work to prepare for your PAL for next year. Using the right tools to forecast your purchasing needs, planning your purchases around your menu, and using your entitlement dollars to purchase high-ticket items are all ways that you can maximize your PAL. Our LINQ team is made up of many former state agency employees and school nutrition directors, so we know what it’s like to walk a day in your shoes. Stay connected with us for the latest updates and tips to work as efficiently as possible throughout the year.
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