Suffice to say, there are a lot of moving pieces when we think about what school meals might look like this fall. The supply chain, USDA regulations, questions about labor, individual districts’ plans…these are just a few of those pieces.
Sodexo’s K-12 division is piecing together in a “building block” approach to school menus in which districts can select the best block or module that aligns with their service model and labor pool. Whether classes remain online, move to classroom shifts or a combination of both, one thing is certain: the kids will need to eat!
Sodexo Senior Manager, Culinary Offer Implementation Michael Morris breaks down Sodexo’s approach for planning the unplannable in K-12 menus.
The supply chain and pre-packaged items
Currently, Sodexo’s K-12 division is analyzing menus that schools were using prior to the COVID-19 crisis and what those menus pivoted to as meal distribution changed in reaction to the crisis. “We’ve been identifying similarities between districts and are currently working with our supply team, our distributor partners and our vendor partners to make ensure we have a secured supply of food,” Morris says.
Sodexo's Michael Morris in action at the line.
One of the most frustrating things all schools have had to deal with, Morris says, is “the need for more individually wrapped (IW) products to pack out meals. The IW products became a necessity due to food safety requirements, since food was leaving the premises. There are only so many IW products on the market that meet K-12 requirements, so every school in the country was competing for the same pool of products.”
Morris has seen this type of supply-and-demand based on requirements before. “Ironically, this isn’t all that different from when we switched to 100% whole-grain products under HHFKA (Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act), where all schools in the country were competing over the same small pool of products. It takes a bit for demand forecasting to work its way out.”
Unused inventory and USDA-donated foods
Many products that don’t lend themselves to social distancing (i.e., whole frozen pizzas) are another piece of the puzzle. “We are very focused on reducing waste,” Morris says. “We are currently identifying what we have today that is sitting in inventory and finding creative ways to utilize that in emergency feeding programs.”
“We’re also working to understand which USDA-donated foods were selected by our schools (every state is different) and how we can use them efficiently last year,” Morris says. “Those items may or may not lend themselves to whatever service style we need to meet in the fall. We will likely have to work with our vendor partners to ideate around new items that can use up entitlement dollars.”
Individually wrapped alternative
“IW products that are heat-and-serve are the most foolproof options,” Morris says. “It is very difficult to cook from scratch and then adequately cool and package items without the equipment to do that efficiently.”
The exception, he says, “is taking a bento box approach to packaging meals, where we are assembling components into a small box that students can eat as individual components are combine into their own ‘chef crafted’ creations.”
Sodexo is started to look at creating new items that meet this need. However, “whatever the item is, it cannot be very messy and has to hold up in an IW state,” Morris says. “Essentially, the items that we create will have to meet the requirements for the most strict meal distribution, as it is very hard to pivot on sourcing once school has opened.”
In addition to that uncertainty, Morris is also thinking about what could happen if “a second wave of coronavirus occurs, and we’ll be right back where we are now, with buildings closed and curbside pickup for meals.”
Visualizing different school scenarios
If school kids return to physical classrooms in the fall, that could be done in shifts. So, take-home meals for those with every-other-day classes or late classes could come into play. Sodexo is also considering meals with social distancing enforced, meals outside, split schedules, year-round school or starting the school year earlier.
If lunch in the classroom becomes a best practice, “nutrition could become part of the curriculum where ‘working lunches’ are a discussion around how food and supply affect our lifestyles,” Morris suggests.
Menu alignment now more important than ever
Supporting supply chain demand and executing national standards—while keeping local flexibility intact to support local farmers and businesses—requires menu alignment as more than a mission statement, but a living plan in action.
“We need to have strong national specs to make sure we have a steady supply of food that meets the school meal requirements, but we still want to make sure we could keep money in the communities we serve wherever possible,” Morris says.
Breaking down barriers to do even more
“COVID-19 gave us a chance to re-examine how school food works and what else we can do within the communities we serve,” Morris says. “We think we have room to improve how we are feeding kids with hubs/mobile opportunities to offer additional meals.”
The crisis has also brought national attention to “how critical school meals are and how hard child nutrition staff works,” Morris says. “There are a lot more people—outside the school food community—talking about it and how more focus and funding is needed to support the program.”
This new focus has also shined a light on kids’ health, well-being and the nutrition that supports those things. “We’re thinking forward about how we are going to break down the barriers to get kids access to what they are eligible for (free/reduced/summer/supper/snack),” Morris says. “And we think there will be an opportunity to put a focus on healthy comfort foods and anticipate a scaling back from a ton of choices to more complete meals that kids really need/want.”
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