Creating food options that appeal to youngsters while fitting them into federal school meal guidelines at a cost that satisfied budget considerations was the traditional triple-headed challenge facing school foodservice programs.
While that’s still the case for the 2023-24 school year, programs must now also deal with the added pressure of finding compliant product at reasonable prices and having enough staff on hand to prep and serve.
With pandemic-era universal federal school meal subsidies ending a year ago, the school nutrition community had already faced a challenging return to pre-COVID policies over the past year, which resulted in significant reductions in school meal participation in 2022-23 (as well as significant enrollment drops). Although a handful of states have passed legislation that brings universal free meal policies back within their borders, most of the country’s public school districts will still be operating this coming school year under the traditional free/reduced price meal format for eligible students that was re-implemented when federal emergency universal meal subsidies expired in June 2022.
Except for schools and districts that meet the standard to qualify for Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) status, that means a return to all the administrative paperwork and cajoling of families to fill out the paperwork that increasingly frustrated school meal programs before COVID intervened. Now, the pressure is even greater as many districts struggle to find sufficient staffing and enough reasonably priced products to meet federal school meal standards for qualifying meals.
Labor availability and cost promise to be enduring issues in the school nutrition world for the foreseeable future, with smaller rural districts especially struggling. Already this past year, there were reports of schools having to close lunchrooms because not enough staff showed up to prepare and serve the food. In the face of this challenge, some districts have resorted to strategies like engaging or even hiring students to fill basic roles, tapping local culinary school students or recruiting staff from other departments—including teachers and administrators—to help out in the cafeteria.
Labor costs are also rising as the competition for the available workers from other markets intensifies. Meanwhile, unions are turning up the heat on contract renegotiation, demanding significant rises in pay for their members.
Then there’s what’s being served. The COVID period saw significant shortages of some basic products, and while much of this has since been addressed, spot outages still occur, frustrating procurement plans and forcing menu cycles to be more flexible and the number of available options to be reduced.
Photo: Schools want to serve more fresh fruits and veggies, preferably from local farms.
Credit: Farmington Public Schools
The school nutrition community prior to COVID had slowly been moving toward more of a scratch cook/fresh food approach both to promote healthier eating and to entice more participation and customer satisfaction. That goal is now being compromised by both the cost of ingredients and the dearth of staff needed to prepare such meals.
On the plus side, procurement from local sources has continued to increase, driven by public subsidies and the sheer necessity to secure sufficient stock from whatever source. While in much of the country the prime agricultural season runs counter to the school year, this obstacle has not impeded efforts to work with area farmers to whatever extent possible. Of course, categories like dairy and meat are less affected by seasons and the traditional holiday break does mitigate the need for fresh product in the deadest part of winter.
An offshoot of the local sourcing trend is the proliferation of school gardens and even small school farms tended by students with guidance from staff and outside professionals. In some rural districts, students have even raised animals destined to be used to supply meat for the school kitchen, efforts that combine operational practicality with a learning opportunity.
Finances make the K-12 market perhaps the toughest to penetrate by high-tech solutions that are otherwise expanding in other sectors of the onsite dining world. Nevertheless, online menus have become fairly common and may open the way to some kind of practical pre-order system for K-12 meal programs.