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Grant_County_Oatmeal_Station_III_copy.jpg Grant County Schools
One question facing K-12 meal programs is how much customized and higher-end service stations can be maintained this fall given labor and continuing safety issues. Pictured is a make-your-own oatmeal station at the Grant County School District in Kentucky in 2019.

Back to School: K-12 gets ready for the fall

Despite general anticipation of a full return to in-person classes, K-12 meal programs will be challenged by labor issues and making up for the financial shortfalls of the past year.

As vaccination rates increase and life begins returning to some semblance of ‘normal’ this summer, the eyes of education institutions turn to what fall and the new academic year might bring after nearly a year and a half of pandemic-adjusted operations that generally hit program budgets hard. In the case of K-12 meal programs, this was generally true despite expanded and liberalized federal meal reimbursement policies.

Most school systems seem to be veering toward a full return to in-person instruction this fall, including major ones that had been holding out during the just completed 2020-21 school year. That brings up a number of questions for their meal programs, such as…

• how much social distancing will still be required during meal service?

• how much self-service will be allowed?

• how will meal service be provided to students still learning remotely?

• how will students react to federally regulated school meals after more than a year of eating at home?

• how much will additional revenue sources like a la carte and catering be able to resume?

• what inroads will technologies like remote order and automated stations make in school meal programs?

• and—last but certainly not least—what will the impact of the ongoing labor crunch be on school meal program operations?

While the extension of emergency federal waivers like the higher-reimbursement-rate summer feeding option through the 2021-22 school year is welcome, many K-12 meal programs have a lot to make up for after the financial hit they took since March 2020, so maximizing meal counts in the coming school year will be critical. That means not only serving as many breakfasts and lunches as possible but also looking into extending into other meal occasions—afterschool snacks, suppers, weekend and holiday meals—to add extra marginal revenue, something many district programs have already expanded into during the pandemic period.

Urbandale_a_la_carte_kiosk_copy.jpgPhoto credit: Urbandale Community School District

Photo: K-12 meal programs will probably have to offer more scattered service this fall, similar to this kiosk at the Urbandale Community School District in Iowa.

How much of these extra meals can be produced by the programs themselves is an open question, however, as the current labor crunch may pose a staffing challenge even for just maintaining traditional breakfast/lunch operations. Most school systems, unless they have exceptionally generous union contracts—something that poses its own set of fiscal challenges—face an uphill battle in the competition for employees with commercial enterprises, not least because not only are they hampered by what they can pay but they generally also require conditions like background checks and drug tests that can discourage potential employees.

A severe labor shortage in K-12 meal programs in turn might lead to expanded demand for pre-prepared products from manufacturers, potentially driving up the prices for those products.

It will also challenge programs that have been successful in building participation by creating higher-quality, often scratch-made, customized, freshly prepared selections that also tend to be more labor-intensive to prepare and serve.

Meanwhile, if there is no immediate return to traditional lunch lines and congregate seating, K-12 foodservice programs may face additional costs in expanding to more and more scattered service points and over more meal periods as schools try to mitigate lunchtime crowding challenges by scattering the mealtime gatherings, at least early on.

How will school meal programs deal with these issues? Some solutions are emerging. They include a greater focus on technology and on more centralized production.

While it’s unlikely that there will be a mass expansion of automated points of service such as reimbursable meal vending machines and robotic food stations in the nation’s schools this fall, these solutions are likely to begin spreading across K-12 at some point as the technologies are developed and refined in other markets looking for labor-saving and customer-pleasing alternatives. Currently, most such units that are on the market are fairly expensive and would probably require some extra cost to modify them for a K-12 environment.

One advanced technology that might make greater inroads in the short term in schools is remote pre-ordering, an alternative already embraced by some school systems over the past year to facilitate meal service to online-learning students and families. While it can’t replace the bulk meal service that the typical school system (unless it is really small) needs to offer, it might offer a customer-pleasing alternative that can help provide customized meals for students who choose to order them.

Ultimately, however, school meal providers will have to make do in the short term with what labor they can find or retain—perhaps in a pinch even including recruiting school staff from other areas to help serve meals, something that has happened periodically over the past year due to virus breakouts among the foodservice staff.

Another area that the post-pandemic environment and its accompanying labor shortage might affect is how and where meals are produced. Purchasing more pre-made items from vendors is one alternative, as mentioned above, but districts might also adjust their in-house operation for modified central production, for example by consolidating meal preparation for several previously self-producing school kitchens into one larger one from which the meals can then be satellited.

One final thought: should it continue for an extended period, labor shortages could encourage more outsourcing of K-12 meal operations as contractors are generally in a better position to utilize available labor by leveraging economies of scale across their systems. They also have the means to more quickly develop or access labor-saving technology solutions.

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