Cloud Software Helping Schools Track Student Nutrition

School districts across the U.S. have implemented cloud-based software to monitor student nutrition, with the goal of simplifying meal planning and improving student health.

School Lunches
When schools were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the action adversely impacted vulnerable populations. A report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service found that in 2019, 13.6 percent of households with children were affected by household food insecurity, and for families depending on school meals, shutdowns made problems such as child malnutrition worse. But with new cloud-based technology and data resources at their disposal, various school districts across the U.S. are trying to make data-driven decisions to positively impact student health.

IDAHO

School districts in Idaho were able to access innovative technology to monitor and improve student nutrition as a result of the Technology Innovation Grants (TIG) awarded in 2019 by the USDA, with the second round being distributed in March 2021.

The intended impact of modernizing nutrition programs in the state was to help districts ensure compliance with nutrition requirements while cutting costs by eliminating unnecessary sides or extras, for example by using this data during meal preparation to reduce food waste. As described by Dr. Colleen Fillmore, director of child nutrition programs for the Idaho State Department of Education (SDE), child nutrition programs have limited funding, and COVID-19 further strained some of these programs financially. Additionally, child nutrition programs require a lot of time-consuming paperwork. Some cloud software products allow the work to be done with more accuracy and integrity, according to Fillmore. She said there are no student privacy issues with the data, because while the software catalogs population-level statistics and nutrition facts on school menus, it doesn't track individual students.

According to Fillmore, the competitive three-year grant was awarded in 2019, and Idaho has already completed two phases of sending money to local sponsors. USDA awarded this grant to Idaho in part because they were impressed with the state's practice of giving flow-through money to local sponsors that run child nutrition programs, described Fillmore. Fillmore expressed gratitude that this funding will no longer be competitive in the future, but rather will be allocated by USDA to help states meet technology needs. She emphasized that the grant is unique in that it covered all program areas: the National School Lunch Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program.

The grants were broken down into three sections – hardware, software and training – and districts could purchase the most beneficial technology. Multiple districts chose to adopt cloud-based technology to enhance student nutrition. According to Fillmore, cloud-based nutrition technology helps with nutrient analysis, as well as simplifying the process of communication between the state agency and different sponsors.

Fillmore stated that SDE has seen a lot of positive results from the grant, but the timing is also an important factor. Typically, improvements would be measured with analysis of data prior to and following the implementation of this technology. Due to COVID-19, the post-implementation analysis will likely be extended. Final impact in terms of integrity and improvements noted during review will be reported to USDA.

SOUTH CAROLINA

South Carolina is also implementing cloud-based technology to improve student nutrition. With funding from a USDA Administrative Review and Training Grant, the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDOE) partnered with Health-e Pro in March for menu planning and nutrient analysis.

Donna Davis, SCDOE’s interim director of health and nutrition, said she communicated directly with districts, sent surveys and reviewed three years of data to determine how SCDOE as a state agency could best support them. She ultimately concluded that nutrient analysis software could eliminate most challenges school districts face in tracking the components and quantities of food they serve.

“Of course, our purpose and our goal is to serve nutritious meals to students,” she said.
SCDOE selected Health-e Pro menu-planning software, which uses color coding based on nutrient requirements to clarify if items are missing during menu planning.

Davis said the team at SCDOE that oversees the program believes this software will be a game-changer. Deputy Superintendent Virgie Chambers emphasized that this technology will help the department feed students better.
“We feel good about the meals that they're serving, and the bottom line is we want the children to be able to eat nutritious meals,” summarized Chambers.

NEW JERSEY

The school district of Newark, N.J., the largest in the state, has also implemented cloud-based technology for student nutrition. In July 2020, TITAN School Solutions announced a partnership with the Newark Board of Education (NBE) to implement their cloud-based nutrition management software.

According to Tonya McGill, executive director of NBE’s Department of Nutrition Services, TITAN was chosen to replace the district’s existing software system.

McGill said the software has already proven to be a success from an operational standpoint. She also praised the company for notifying the district of irregularities indicating a possible cyber attack.

McGill noted the importance of TITAN’s technology throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it came at the perfect time to help the district manage operations remotely, calling it a “godsend” because it allowed operations to continue effectively. She acknowledged that the software is still new but said she was pleased with the partnership.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.