Georgia Network Caters to Kids

When schools close for the summer, hungry children are in particular danger of slipping through the public safety net. Communities often must redouble their efforts to find and feed children who receive free or reduced-price meals through the public school system but have no guarantees during the summer months.

In Georgia, that job was covered by the U.S. Agriculture Department, which used to administer a program statewide to feed children 18 years old and younger in locations such as parks, playgrounds, churches and informal neighborhood settings during the summer months.

In late 1997, the task was passed on to the state to administer. Because the Georgia Office of School Readiness oversaw a similar program that provides food to children in day-care centers year-round, it was asked to take on the Summer Food Service Program as well, according to Jennifer Cambern, deputy director for the OSR in Atlanta.

In its first year of overseeing the program, the OSR was able to feed an average of 83,000 children a day and was rewarded with a USDA Dan Glickman Pyramid Award for overall program excellence, Cambern said.

In implementing the program, the OSR used software borrowed from Arizona as well as some custom-built software. The OSR inherited from the USDA a network of sponsors willing, able and experienced in feeding children, including such entities such as boards of education, city and county organizations, and boys and girls clubs. Sponsors ensure food is delivered correctly to specific sites under their responsibility, such as playgrounds and day camps.

The OSR also inherited a rigorous set of compliance requirements that cover matters ranging from the temperature and variety of meals to the way in which individual sites receive their meals, count and serve them, report and dispose of spoiled lunches, and apply to the USDA for reimbursement when they're through.

"Food temperature is one big issue," Cambern explained. "It's hotter than Hades here in the summer, and you're feeding children in parks." Meals must be delivered in a cooler full of ice, but if the temperature is past an acceptable limit, site supervisors are not supposed to serve the food, and sites can be penalized for doing so if reviewers catch the infraction.

What OSR didn't get-and didn't necessarily want-from the USDA was its outmoded and largely manual system for monitoring and tracking sites and sponsors. "They have a big mainframe that they used to do their payments. But for tracking sponsors, there was just a little [Microsoft Corp.] Access database they gave us that was very rough," said Robin Kirkpatrick, the OSR project coordinator who was responsible for coordinating the development of the new review software.

The OSR had an opportunity to automate, but the office had to move quickly. Handed the assignment in October 1997, the OSR had only a few months to beg, borrow or develop software that could track reimbursements and handle sponsor reviews and on-the-spot reviews of individual sites in the field.

The office adopted a two-pronged strategy to meet its goals: The OSR adapted an application- and claims-tracking program from Arizona, which was made available with USDA funds, and it developed its own remote module that would allow reviewers with laptops to perform on-site inspections and generate results in a matter of hours rather than weeks. Georgia commissioned programmers from Arizona to rewrite the main program, nicknamed Sunny for its smiling-sun logo, into an Oracle Corp. database, making many Georgia-specific adaptations as they went. The software is in the process of being moved again, this time into Microsoft's SQL Server.

The custom-developed mobile component of the system, called Snoopy, dramatically increases administration efficiency for sponsors and the OSR by automating every phase of on-site inspections, including one sponsor report that formerly took up 22 hard-copy pages, Cambern said.

For accounting and confidentiality reasons, Sunny and Snoopy are maintained as separate systems, Kirkpatrick said. Snoopy translates data from the in-house SQL system to an Access database on reviewers' laptops. The reviewers use Intel Corp. Pentium 133 MHz machines leased for the three-month season. By dialing directly into the server, reviewers on the road can download background records before a review and upload findings once the reviews are complete, Kirkpatrick said.

A flexible, easy-to-use system is important for several reasons, said Yolanda Robinson, the OSR program coordinator who supervised a review staff of 11. First, reviewers are usually 18 to 22 years old and have varying levels of computing experience. Second, reviewers must be able to seamlessly switch from conducting sponsor reviews, where they review records in an office setting, to site reviews, where they might be propped up against a tree or perched on the end of a picnic table to enter findings on the spot.

Snoopy, which was developed in Visual Basic, features pull-down menus and fill-in-the-blank worksheets that help reviewers easily garner the most information possible in a site visit, Robinson said. "We're looking at lots of things," she said. "Is [the site] safe, clean, organized? Is the person in charge properly trained? Are they correctly counting how many meals they serve? Are they documenting spoiled meals accurately?"

At the end of a visit, reviewers enter their data and generate a number of findings. Perhaps the biggest single benefit to sponsors is that corrective reports can be issued overnight, and verbal or e-mailed "heads-up" warnings can come even sooner. Sites that do not meet the criteria on a given day are not allowed to submit claims for meal reimbursement, and sites that cannot eliminate repeat violations are dropped from the program. So it is in sponsors' economic as well as charitable best interests to fix problems quickly.

"If [reviewers] can go out and find the problem and e-mail me in a day or two instead of writing a report, it saves a tremendous amount of time," said George Simpson, Summer Food Service Program director with Atlanta's Bureau of Human Services. Atlanta is the largest summer food sponsor in the state. The city has about 220 sites to oversee and 11,500 meals to serve daily. "The faster I get information, the faster we can correct problems," Simpson said.

A nimble, technology-enabled relationship among organizations allows everyone to focus on the main goal: keeping the meals coming. "We had a location that was a problem. So we said to the OSR, 'We need to shut this one down and notify the youngsters of a new place to go,' " said Floyd Morris, program coordinator for Savannah's Recreation Services Department, which served some 6,000 meals a day last summer at 131 sites. "In less than 24 hours, we had made provisions for the children. The OSR didn't miss a beat."

Sponsors and the OSR are looking forward to improving the system with a formal e-mail network and on-site printers so that reviewers can leave paper reports at the locations they visit. A sponsor software module may be developed that would enable an even tighter technological relationship between the OSR and its sponsors.

One important benefit of the new technology, Cambern said, is that it helps focus services more directly on the children in need. Every dollar and minute saved in cutting administration hassles is time and money that can be directed to children. "The easier we make it for the sponsors to control costs, the more likely they'll be to open more sites and serve more kids," Cambern said.

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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Replicating Child Nutrition Programs

Many states are considering adopting the client/server system developed by Georgia's Office of School Readiness to manage its Summer Food Service Program.

Every state except Virginia administers a statewide summer food service program to feed children who receive free or subsidized lunches during the school year. However, only Georgia and Florida have Year 2000-compliant client/server systems in place.

To have a system of their own, states can start from scratch and write an in-house application, or they can adopt a system already in place in Georgia and Florida. "For cost reasons, most states are opting for one of the two [state] systems vs. hiring programmers," said David Bowman, program administrator of child nutrition programs for the Delaware State Department of Education. Bowman, who will recommend adopting the Georgia system, said the choice was easy for him. "This is the most cost-effective system out there."

Jennifer Cambern, deputy director of Georgia's Office of School Readiness, said the program is drawing inquiries from states that don't want to reinvent the wheel. "People are asking themselves, 'Do I want to rewrite what I have, or do I want to make a leap and go to another environment?' " she said.

It didn't hurt that the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged states to adopt existing systems such as Georgia's instead of developing their own.

North Carolina and Mississippi also have requested demonstrations of the Georgia system, and Arizona is looking at Georgia's customized mobile application-called Snoopy-to automate on-site inspections.

Meanwhile, Delaware is putting the finishing touches on final specifications for its system and hopes to implement it after July 1.

"It will streamline processes and certainly reduce the back-and-forth of paper between professional staff, administrative staff and local agencies," Bowman said.

- Meg Misenti

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