Hands up if this sounds familiar?
- school canteen needing significant subsidy to stay operating
- struggling to increase the proportion of 'green' food and drinks while maintaining canteen viability
- lack of continuity in canteen oversight leading to administrative inconsistency
- lack of sufficient numbers of volunteers to support canteen operations.
Over the last two years that I have spent on the Majura Primary School P&C Association Executive Committee, these points have been a recurring theme with parents I've spoken to from other schools.
Majura Primary was no exception, with three paid staff, many 'amber' foods and drinks on the menu, a dearth of volunteers and an annual operating deficit that reached between $15,000 and $20,000 in 2013! In addition, the governance of the canteen had incrementally deteriorated as committee members changed and people moved on.
Last year, the parents at the school decided things needed to change. But change to what? And how would we make it happen?
To build the case for change, the P&C committee did two things: a forensic analysis of income and costs for the canteen; and an online survey of parents and carers about the use of the canteen and views on quality, price, and what they'd like to see in a canteen service. We had around a quarter of families respond to our survey.
We found that the vast majority of orders were made on Thursdays and Fridays, with a very small number on Mondays and Tuesdays. We also got insight into views around quality and prices of food, and whether there was untapped capacity for more volunteers in the parent/carer community.
The next step was to enlist the expertise of the Healthy Kids' Association (HKA) to do a full business review and make recommendations to the school community on how we could bring our operations into closer alignment with demand, as well as to a break-even position. HKA is the peak body for school canteens in the ACT, and as part of the membership fees, they offer one comprehensive business review. We would recommend this service to any school looking to improve their canteen operations, as it really helped us see a path to prosperity.
HKA's recommendations were radical: close down the canteen service, revise staffing levels and roles, re-open at a significantly reduced capacity (operating only Thursdays and Fridays) and move completely to online ordering. The analysis showed that these measures would bring us into the black, while fully meeting the demand stated through the canteen survey.
Has it worked? Yes it has, although we're not out of the woods yet.
Our canteen now breaks even, and we have had no decline in order numbers. The menu is almost totally 'green', with only two 'amber' menu items. Feedback from parents and carers is overwhelmingly positive. Flexischools allows us to monitor exactly what and how much is being ordered, giving us invaluable data with which to manage the finances.
We are still fiddling at the margins with pricing and some of our systems for managing contingencies, but it's working.
There are two on-going issues we are still striving to solve: the first is getting sufficient volunteers; the second is dedicated canteen oversight by volunteer parents or carers.
This term, we have instigated a roster system, whereby a class is allocated to each operating day of the canteen. That class is required to supply one or more volunteers on that day. We have also called for a canteen coordinator to oversee the canteen operations and provide a contact point for the canteen manager. Up until this point, the P&C Executive Committee has managed the business, which is beyond their on-going capacity.
Success in these two initiatives are necessary to keep the canteen operating.
In conclusion, running a school canteen is exactly the same as running a small business. It is not a simple task, and requires financial management, operational management and staff management. The only reason to do it is when enough parents and carers want it. However, 'wanting it' must be backed up by supporting it through volunteer efforts as well as ordering lunches.
Note: Council pays membership to the Healthy Kids' Association for all ACT P&Cs so that they can take advantage of services such as the business review - find out more here.