PDE DFN, NSLP/SNP, CACFP and FFVP – a Study in Acronymics


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The English language seems to have run out of words.  Mere congregations of vowels and consonants cannot do justice to the futuristic concepts we all face on a daily basis.  That and the sheer quantity of items, brands, companies, people, customers, and just nouns in general seem to be overwhelming the American populace.  Everywhere you look people are trying to find ways to abbreviate the world around them – what with all the twits out there, and all.  It is hard on the thumbs, after all – and as many of those morons seem to be fiddling with their phones while they’re driving right in front of me I suppose I ought to be glad for brevity in such situations.

Obviously, acronyms surround us every day, and their use is nothing new.  Growing up, I was exposed to OPEC, NATO, the USSR and the SALT talks at an early age – not to mention ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, the ERA and a pitcher’s ERA, ICBMs (which is quite the funny joke to a 10-year old) and MAC machines, now known as ATMs.  As the 70’s turned into the 80’s, MLB seemed jealous of its counterparts and started referring to itself as the MLB – and added in such classics as the NLDS, the ALCS and the WS.  As the century page of the calendar flipped over, our IBMs connected by LAN to watch feeds of MSNBC showing replays of the OJ trial.

I found it a good icebreaker during job interviews – every institution has its own set of acronyms, and making light of their ubiquity certainly served the purpose of easing tension.

Besides, it’s daunting.  After you’ve been at a job for a while, you don’t even seem to notice the acronyms anymore – until a new person comes aboard, you might even forget what some of these weird names even stand for – but that soon passes and you’re usually back to your lingo without even realizing it.

Coming into this new position, I am obviously on the other side of the equation – looking befuddled as new colleagues throw acronyms at me.  And I don’t know why it is – maybe because I’m working for the government, maybe because I’m getting older, or maybe acronymese is more prevalent than ever before – but I am finding myself indundated with acronyms at this job more than at any other point in my life.

As I thought about writing about my new position, I realized that my work environment really is best described by defining some of the acronyms I am now using on a daily basis.

So, I work for the Pennsylvania Department of Education now, in the Division of Food & Nutrition. These are the folks who are responsible for ensuring that Pennsylvania’s kids get access to nutritious meals. And although the group sits within PDE (the Pennsylvania Department of Education), their activities go beyond public and even private schools, touching even informal child care centers, summer camps and even, in relatively rare cases, adult care (such as nursing homes or hospices).

But this group had to live somewhere, and I imagine as it probably all started with the school lunch program (more to follow) then sitting within PDE does make some sort of sense.

So DFN (the Division of Food & Nutrition) is responsible for all of the management of these various food programs. Only a small minority of the resources are expended towards nutrition – schools, for the most part, have their own Food Service Director to handle the nitty-gritty of that, though DFN does provide nutritional curricula and various other resources such as collateral materials, in-school demonstrations, and all sorts of other fun stuff.

The bulk of the division’s resources – human, time, money – are spent working with Sponsors (schools, centers, districts, etc.) to manage the flow of information in several directions.

 

DFN works with the USDA to understand the regulations, obtain funding and report compliance. There are similar interactions with various State agencies as well, some of whom also provide funding (though the vast majority of funding does come from the USDA). There are also many other interactions with other State agencies, dealing with accounting, systems, shared benefits, and much, much more.

At the same time, DFN is working with the sponsors (schools) to ensure that they are following the USDA regulations, provide them with tools to streamline the application and review processes, ensure monies are paid out appropriately, and even to verify what is happening (vs what was submitted on forms) by inspecting schools according to fairly strict guidelines.

Of course there is much more to it than this, and there are two systems which help both DFN and the sponsors themselves manage the various processes involved with all of this. That’s where I come in – I am responsible for developing, maintaining and all-around managing these two systems. There are external vendors who do the actual programming, so it is also my responsibility to manage the relationships with (and work from) them.

 

DFN is organized largely based on function. There is a Division Director who heads up everything – she is an actual nutritionist, as are several of the people on the SNP (School Nutrition) team. Formerly known as NSLP (National School Lunch Program), the SNP now covers meals throughout the day in addition to creating the curricula and other collateral activities discussed above.

The SNP is, by far, the largest source of funding for free or reduced-price lunches in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the team managing this program deals with everything from understanding and implementing ever-changing USDA regulations to processing new sponsors and providing all schools with the data necessary to provide students with funding for these meals.

The CACFP (Child and Adult Care Food Program) has similar responsibilities as the SNP team, though they are really focused solely on the application, funding and approval process, and do little of the extra stuff that the schools get. This team is smaller a bit smaller as well, but it certainly has its own unique challenges. Not only do regulations differ than those for schools – even when it seems to make perfect sense, such as the amount of time a Center has to respond to a finding of deficiency – but these vary greatly, from large pre-school chains to unlicensed day care centers and grandparents watching a couple of neighborhood kids as a favor to the parents.

These two teams, the SNP and CACFP teams of DFN, really manage the programs, working closely with both the USDA and the sponsors. One of the best things about these programs is that there isn’t a funding cap – if my colleagues can find an extra kid (or a thousand kids) who are qualified to receive a free or reduced-price meal, then the funding will happen.

And, fraternally enough, these two teams must take the sponsor applications and claims at face value – if a schools says they have 500 students receiving free meals, then the program team funds them for 500 students. Nice, huh?

Of course there is room for trouble, and that’s where Field Services comes in. These are the cops, the front-line folks going to schools and day care centers and goodness-knows-what-else to ensure just about everything they possibly can. From student counts to menus to form audits to file inspections, this team is the one that has to gain the enmity of any schools not following the particular regs. The Field Advisors work out of their homes one day a week, and are on the road visiting schools (etc.) the other four. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

There is a small group to handle the Financial matters – making sure money gets pulled out of appropriate budgets, reporting back to the USDA as well as various State agencies to ensure money is being spent appropriately, and dealing with payments to (and occasionally, collections from) sponsor organizations.

And, of course, you have me – kind of sitting on my own, referred to around the office as “the IT guy”.

So there you have it – an overview of the new job, complete with a study of just a few of the acronyms I now use on a daily basis.

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