On July 14th, Food Management launched its Back to School leadership series examining the outlook and outlining potential coping strategies for the K-12 and college/university foodservice markets with an hourlong session looking at the prospects for these two key onsite dining markets. The session, featuring FM Editor in Chief Becky Schilling and Mark Brandau, group manager for research and consulting firm Datassential, used Datassential survey findings and FM’s ongoing coverage of the onsite dining market to develop a portrait of how things stand for K-12 and college foodservice.
Among the key takeaways was that things look slightly better for the former than the latter because of the nature of the markets.
“K-12 has this irreplaceable job and responsibility to provide meals to a pretty food-insecure population [whose] families might become customers for this kind of foodservice as well, [while] C&U is a little better set up for remote learning” that can be done without students being onsite and serving as customers for campus dining, Brandau noted.
This was reflected in Datassential surveys that showed significantly more college dining programs than K-12 dining programs that saw steep drop-offs—or even full shutdowns—this spring. “There is no single C&U operator that responded to one of our surveys [who said] that sales haven’t decreased,” Brandau noted. Further, the vast majority (88%) of K-12 survey respondents reported “no staff cuts so far” while 54% of C&U respondents said they “laid off 75% or more of our staff.”
Unsurprisingly, more K-12 survey respondents (38%) were “cautiously optimistic” about the fall than college respondents (25%) and more college respondents (12%) than K-12 respondents (2%) were “very nervous we will not be able to come back from this crisis.” Indeed, 65% of K-12 respondents expect to be open for the fall term while 62% of C&U respondents are “not sure yet.”
That doesn’t mean K-12 doesn’t face challenges. Schilling noted that FM found that while many K-12 programs continued to operate this past spring, the meal count numbers, and therefore revenue, were lagging.
“School districts opened up a lot of grab-and-go centers, but they quickly realized they needed to reduce the numbers because they were seeing fewer students and meals they were serving,” she noted.
In fact, Datassential’s surveys show a 36% drop in the number of meals served this spring by K-12 programs compared to pre-COVID projections, though that was still less than the 48% drop experienced by college dining programs.
Given the uncertainty about how and how much to reopen, K-12 meal program can be expected to continue to struggle with meal counts if large numbers of students stay out of school buildings.
One potential source of revenue to make up for lost student meal sales might be in more meals served to the families of students, and in fact Datassential’s survey shows that 59% of K-12 respondents have already started offering meal kits or take-and-bake items.
College dining programs, meanwhile, will experience a radical change from a model where they were at times going to extreme lengths to serve students, offering everything from meals for specialized diets and exotic cuisines made with authentic ingredients to late-night dining and other convenience-oriented services. In the wake of COVID, “there may be a re-evaluation of what really is important in a college dining program,” Schilling said. “What food provides for mental as well as physical health I think will be of great importance to C&U operations in the next year.”
There is also the big question for C&U of how many students will be on campus and how inclined will they be to patronize campus dining, given that much of it inevitably will be takeout. Some are looking at technology solutions, though some Datassential surveys seem to indicate a reluctance to embrace tech solutions like integrating robots to reduce human contact, voice/facial recognition software and even going cashless.
Join us next week for the second week of Back To School with Food Management, where we’ll focus on setting up a delivery program on your campus and lunch in the classroom and other service styles for child nutrition.