K-12 meal programs face financial and operational challenges

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

Unfortunately, things aren’t looking much better 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. Details insights from a series of listening sessions with 274 school meal program operators, K-12 industry representatives and state agency officials organized in May by SNA and SNF with the support of Share’s No Kid Hungry campaign. OurStrength.

Lamar_High_School_student_crowd_copy.gifLeft: With in-person classes expected in most districts across the country, lunchtime crowds will once again be the norm. Houston Independent School District photo

Among the findings of 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 “representatives from the industry are reporting problems at every link in the supply chain with shortages and rising costs of raw materials, packaging, equipment, and fuel, as well as labor shortages in the manufacturing and transportation sectors.”

Like manufacturing and transportation, school feeding programs also face often severe labor shortages and have had to increase wages as a result, putting additional pressure on tight budgets. Meanwhile, understaffed school nutrition teams mean reductions in labor-intensive but quality-promoting practices like initial preparation, even as attention must be paid again to managing the collection and processing of applications. of free or reduced-price meals, something that was temporarily. removed by COVID-driven emergency measures in recent years.

Monroe County Community School Corporation Nutrition ServicesMCCSC_nutrition_staff_packing_hot_items_copy.gif

Staffing is probably the biggest problem facing school meal programs.

The Keep Kids Fed Act, enacted in late June, relieves some of the supply pressure by relaxing nutritional standards to help address product availability issues, and also increased federal reimbursement rates for school meals, but it does little to mitigate the staffing crisis. , which is probably the biggest challenge facing the school nutrition community heading into the 2022-23 school year.

Last year, some schools resorted to hiring administrators, office staff, teachers, outside volunteers and even older students to help out in understaffed cafeterias, and closing cafeterias on days when no one was around to serve them. The outlook for this year looks a little better because the programs have had some time to prepare, but not much.

Urbandale Community School DistrictUrbandale_a_la_carte_kiosk_copy.gif

The COVID experience prompted school nutrition programs to develop or expand alternative modes of meal delivery, such as kiosk carts, an experience that can be used even with the resumption of traditional classes.

It is true that a slowing economy may free up more potential workers as commercial employers restrict hiring, and therefore school kitchens and canteens may see a surge in applicants, especially mothers with children in school. who find they need to supplement their inflation-affected family income and for whom the daytime hours required by the school food service job fit their schedules, but there are many vacant positions left to fill, so this is unlikely by itself just solve the problem. Meanwhile, existing labor shortages force the remaining staff to put in overtime and take on more tasks, making the job look even less attractive to candidates.

Raising salaries and offering referral bonuses have helped some, but since other employers have done the same, this is mostly a watertight strategy. As a result, more districts can be expected to look to alternatives such as 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 at schools. 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 the opportunity to get real-world training while being paid, while providing the program with the extra hands needed.

However, potential technological solutions to labor shortages, such as robotic servers, automated food stations, and unattended retail spaces that other foodservice markets are increasingly implementing, are beyond the financial reach of the government’s meal program. typical public school system.

However, even if labor-saving strategies are implemented, supply chain issues remain, and many districts, especially those located far from major population centers, will likely continue to struggle to get timely and adequately filled deliveries. And even when they do, they increasingly involve more minimum purchase requirements, increased surcharges/prices, and longer order or delivery times, according to the “Staying Afloat” report.

Therefore, given 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 staying flexible with extended-cycle menus. With national supply chain disruptions, districts will also seek more partnerships with local growers, tapping into the farm-to-school trend that was already underway before COVID, but extends 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 buying produce, perhaps through alliances between neighboring districts to lease a central warehouse or even buy refrigerated trailers.

Meanwhile, the COVID experience has prompted changes in the way some school meal programs operate. On the plus side, they’ve learned how to feed remotely with curbside pickup and even home delivery options, so if they’re faced with a similar emergency again, they’ll be better prepared.

In schools, pandemic-related restrictions forced programs to develop enhanced classroom meal programs that relied on established breakfast-in-the-classroom procedures or spread-out lunch service that allows students to eat at places other than the cafeteria.

Pandemic restrictions on crowding also put more emphasis on developing increasingly attractive take-out alternatives to traditional lunch line service, and pre-packaged foods can be expected to account for a larger percentage of lunch offerings. school meals in the future, 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 will not change despite all the obstacles is the core mission of school nutrition programs: feeding children healthy and nutritious meals.

“Supply chain crises, labor shortages and high costs are a long-term reality for school meal programs,” SNA President Lori Adkins said following the release of the “Staying Safe” report. afloat” and ask for more federal support. “Despite these obstacles, school nutrition professionals have shown a remarkable ability 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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