School lunch EDI system gives paperwork a recess

School lunch EDI system gives paperwork a recess

Food and Nutrition Service sandwiches order, entitlement and distribution processes cost-effectively

By Frank Tiboni

GCN Staff




PCIMS project manager Gary Batko, left, and computer specialists Jeff Brownell and Paul Bickford display EDI-FDD, a system that helps FNS administer surplus food and funding for school lunches.


The Electronic Data Interchange for the Food Distribution Division project has helped the Food and Nutrition Service become more efficient and cost-effective in administering surplus food and funding for school lunch programs.

EDI-FDD has eliminated the cumbersome paper process of forwarding surveys that contain the availability of commodities to state distribution agencies, the entry of delivery orders by state agriculture departments (SDA), food order status updates, and entitlement updates and monitoring, said Jeff Brownell, an FNS computer specialist for the Agriculture Department division.

Since its start in late 1996, the system has saved taxpayers more than $500,000'and the meter is still running, FNS officials said. The agency rolled out the application, which can operate on 486s running Microsoft Windows 3.1 or Pentium PCs running Windows 95, at the project's 56th site last month, the Wyoming SDA, Brownell said.

Before 1995, the FNS division and its 13 SDA trading partners shuffled information on commodities, responses, ordering and receipt of orders via mail or fax, a laborious, time-consuming and inefficient process.

What used to take six to 22 days now takes two, Brownell said.

'The system needed a vast overhaul to manage current volumes, as well as handle the projected exponential growth in trading partners,' he said.



Lunch time


The National Performance Review of agencies, begun by Vice President Al Gore in 1993, prompted USDA to look at using information technology to improve the school lunch program. Using EDI, the department discovered it could automate many FNS processes that provide surplus food and funding for the program, he said.

Through EDI, users exchange information using established transfer standards for suppliers and customers. The data is sent to electronic mailboxes, translated and then processed.

In late 1994 and early 1995, FNS held joint application design and rapid application design sessions to develop system requirements. The agency's Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regional offices and their corresponding SDAs, the Farm Service Agency, USDA technical and user staffs, and vendors participated in the design sessions.

The sessions determined that FNS needed a system that could give it the ability to assess and restructure its order, entitlement and distribution processes to achieve a faster, cheaper operation, he said.

FNS chose Dyncorp of Reston, Va., to develop the EDI-FDD architecture that would connect to the Processed Commodities Inventory Management System at USDA's National IT Center in Kansas City, Mo.

PCIMS, which expedites the process of buying and allocating items, runs on an IBM ES/9000 mainframe, Brownell said.

The ES/9000 also runs an integrated data management system from Computer Associates International Inc. and Gentran EDI translation software from Sterling Software Inc. of Dallas, he said.

Gentran uses Supertracs/Connect:Mailbox linked to a server from Momentum Systems of Moorestown, N.J., running Intelligent Network Gateway (ING) software.

Pentium PCs and 486s in FNS and SDA offices s use an EDI translator called Qualedi from Eventra of Milford, Conn., and HyperAccess communications software from Hilgraeve Inc. of Monroe, Mich., to connect to the system, he said.

Fast work


FNS completed testing in June 1996, went into production in July and by September of 1996, the system was running in 14 FNS regional offices and SDAs. Thirty-five sites were online the following year.

'Since we went live with ING, we've more than doubled our trading partners,' Brownell said. 'It will provide a robust platform as we continue to expand our program to more states around the country, since it's smooth as glass and problem-free.'

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