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Chartwells_K12_at_Florence_One_cafeteria_serving_line copy.jpeg Chartwells K12
Despite everything, school meal programs will continue to serve their young customers in 2022-23.

Back to School: K-12 meal programs face financial, operational challenges

Staffing issues, product supply problems and the end of universal free meals confront school nutrition providers in fall 2022.

Last fall’s Supply Chain Survey from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) found 98% of responding school meal programs saying they struggled with product shortages, 97% with rising costs and 95% with labor shortages.

Unfortunately, things don’t look much better for this fall either, at least according to the recent “Staying Afloat in a Perfect Storm” report from SNA, the School Nutrition Foundation (SNF) and No Kid Hungry. It details insights from a series of listening sessions with 274 school meal program operators, K-12 industry representatives and State Agency officials hosted in May by SNA and SNF with support from Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.

Lamar_High_School_student_crowd_copy.gifLeft: With in-person classes expected in most of the country’s districts, lunchtime crowds will again be the norm. Photo from Houston ISD

Among the findings from those sessions was that “directors report spending hours on the phone each week with manufacturers and distributors to determine product availability and alternatives, continually scrambling to change planned menus” while “industry representatives report problems in every link of the supply chain with shortages and cost increases for raw materials, packaging, equipment and fuel, as well as labor shortages across manufacturing and transportation sectors.”

Like manufacturing and transportation, school meal programs also face labor shortages—often severe ones—and they’ve had to raise wages as a consequence, further straining tight budgets. Meanwhile, short-staffed school nutrition teams mean reductions in labor-intensive but quality-promoting practices like scratch-prep even as attention has again to be allocated to managing the collection and processing of free and reduced-price meal applications, something that was temporarily eliminated by COVID-prompted emergency measures over the last couple of years.

Monroe County Community School Corp. Nutrition ServicesMCCSC_nutrition_staff_packing_hot_items_copy.gif

Staffing is probably the biggest issue facing school meal programs.

The Keep Kids Fed Act signed into law near the end of June relieves some of the supply pressure by relaxing nutritional standards to help cope with product availability issues, and it also upped federal school meal reimbursement rates, but it does little to mitigate the staffing crisis, which is probably the biggest challenge facing the school nutrition community going into the 2022-23 school year.

Last year, some schools were resorting to recruiting administrators, office staff, teachers, outsider volunteers and even older students to help out in understaffed lunchrooms—and closing cafeterias on days when there was no one to man them. Prospects for this year look a little better if only because programs have had some time to get ready, but not much.

Urbandale Community School DistrictUrbandale_a_la_carte_kiosk_copy.gif

The COVID experience incented school nutrition programs to develop or expand alternate modes of meal delivery such as kiosk carts, experience that can be used even with traditional classes resuming.

True, a slowing economy may shake loose some more potential workers as commercial employers tighten hiring, and school kitchens and lunchrooms may therefore see an uptick in applicants—especially moms with kids in school who find they need to supplement the inflation-impacted family income and for whom the daytime hours required by school foodservice work accord with their schedules—but there are a lot of open positions remaining to be filled, so this alone is unlikely to solve the issue. Meanwhile, existing labor shortages force remaining staff to put in extra hours and take on more tasks, making the job look even less appealing to candidates.

Raising wages and offering referral bonuses has helped some, but as other employers have done likewise, this is mainly a treading water strategy. As a result, more districts can be expected to look at alternatives like turning to staffing and temp agencies, partnering with nearby technical and culinary schools to offer career-related work to their students and even hiring district teens for part time jobs in the school kitchens.

Escambia County SchoolsEscambia_County_Schools_culinary_student_copy.gif

Student employees work in the kitchen at Booker T. Washington High School in Florida, giving them an opportunity to get real-world training while getting paid, while giving the program needed extra hands.

However, potential tech solutions to labor shortages like robot servers, automated food stations and unattended retail spaces that are increasingly being rolled out by other foodservice markets are out of the financial reach of the typical public school system’s meal program.

Even if labor-saving strategies are deployed, though, supply chain issues remain, and many districts—especially those located away from major population hubs—will probably continue to have a tough time getting timely and adequately filled deliveries—and even when they do, they increasingly involve minimum purchase requirements, surcharges/increased prices and longer lead or order times, according to the “Staying Afloat” report.

So, given the supply uncertainties and labor shortages, K-12 meal programs in the coming year can be expected to simplify their menus and use more versatile ingredients while remaining flexible with extended cycle menus. With national supply chain disruptions, districts will also look for more alliances with local producers, building on the farm-to-school trend that was already underway pre-COVID but extending to more categories.

That’s one of the recommendations coming out of the “Staying Afloat” report, along with strategies like securing more storage space to keep forward buys of products, perhaps through alliances among neighboring districts to lease a central warehouse or even by purchasing refrigerated trailers.

Meanwhile, the COVID experienced has effected changes in the way some school meal programs operate. On the positive side, they learned how to do remote feeding with curbside pickup and even home delivery options, so if they are again faced with a similar emergency, they will be better prepared.

In schools, pandemic-related restrictions forced programs to develop enhanced meals-in-the-classroom programs that built on established breakfast-in-the-classroom procedures or disseminated lunch service that lets students eat in places other than the cafeteria.

The pandemic’s restrictions on crowding also put more emphasis on developing more and more appealing grab and go alternatives to traditional lunch line service, and pre-packaged can be expected to represent a larger percentage of school meal offerings going forward, perhaps eventually aligning with automated points of service once they become more affordable, and even pre-order systems that can add a customization component.

One thing that won’t change despite all the obstacles is the core mission of school nutrition programs: feeding kids healthy, nutritious meals.

“The supply chain crisis, labor shortages and high costs are a long-term reality for school meal programs,” said SNA President Lori Adkins following the release of the “Staying Afloat” report and calling on more federal support. “Despite these obstacles, school nutrition professionals have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to pivot and innovate to ensure students continue to receive healthy school meals. Congress and USDA must continue to ensure the sustainability of these programs, which provide a critical nutrition and hunger safety net for America’s students.”

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