Focus On: K-12 Foodservice

Mandated school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened and continues to threaten the $22.8 billion K-12 foodservice industry, according to Technomic. “I feel all school nutrition professionals across the country had very little time to entirely change their meal service choices and delivery options, and we all stepped up to the plate because it’s about feeding children,” says Annette Hendrickx Derouin, director of food and nutrition services for Wilmar, New London-Spicer, Montevideo and Community Christian Schools in Minnesota. Though feeding students through closures is top of mind for K-12 operators in the short term, the continued need for safety as schools reopen will shape operations in the long term, as well.

 

The Growth Forecast

Industry experts anticipate a decrease in growth. “As of April 14, 2020, we forecast that primary and secondary schools will experience anywhere from a 22% to 27% decline in real—versus nominal—growth depending on how the pandemic unfolds,” says Anne Mills, senior manager of consumer insights at Technomic. A May 2020 survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association asked school nutrition professionals to estimate their financial losses for the 2019-2020 school year; the median estimated loss was $200,000. When isolating just the responses of larger districts with 25,000 or more students, the median estimated loss was $2.35 million.

To feed students who rely on free or reducedprice meals during closures, many schools shifted their service models to provide curbside meal pickup from mid-March until the end of the school year in May. Because many provided a week’s worth of meals in one pickup to reduce contact, additional cooler and freezer space became an immediate need. Some schools repurposed existing milk coolers or rented refrigerated trucks, says SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner.

Districts that have a low volume of students receiving free and reduced-price meals—and therefore rely on a la carte purchases to drive sales—have been especially hard hit, revenue-wise, Pratt-Heavner adds.

 

Seattle Public Schools Meal Pickup

Photo courtesy of Seattle Public Schools

 

Trends + Innovations

» Incorporating more ethnically diverse dishes, from-scratch recipes and “cleaner” ingredients are recent trends that are least affected by COVID-19; however, the recent trend of self-service stations and food court-style feeding will likely reverse, says Gina Brinegar, FCSI, managing principal of Webb Foodservice Design, an Anaheim, Calif.-based consulting firm that works with K-12 schools. If lunch moves to the classroom—per draft guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Brinegar says she envisions using serving spaces as staging areas for carts and kiosks. “We will see more mobile and flexible pieces of equipment that can be taken around campus,” she says. Schools may have to return to the trend of prepackaged meals, which could drive an increase in central kitchens, she adds.

» Schools may convert self-serve operations such as salad bars into grab-and-go stations, says Aaron Smith, director of nutrition services for Seattle Public Schools. “A student won’t be grabbing tongs and touching everything, but you would grab your container and put it on your tray,” Smith says.

» To reduce crowding, schools may need to add more serving lines in alternate spaces such as gyms. “We currently have three main serving lines in our high school and we likely will not want 400 students all coming in at one time for their meals, so we should be the ones to spread out with our serving carts for them,” says Gay Anderson, child nutrition director for Brandon Valley School District in Brandon, S.D., and SNA president. Technology also may change to eliminate points of contact. “Since we currently have touch for our POS with biometrics, we are going to go touchless with scanners,” Anderson says. “Scan a barcode and there isn’t any concern with spreading germs, as we don’t touch the student ID and they don’t touch the scanner.”

 

Brandon Valley School District

Photo courtesy of Brandon Valley School District

 

Schools Snapshot

85%

of districts offered customizable menu options pre-pandemic, with the most common option being a salad bar or made-to-order salad.1

50%

of districts served menu options with a cleaner label (ingredients or products with no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors) in the 2018-2019 school year.1

48%

of students qualify for free meals or reduced-price meals in any given district.1

81%

of school districts surveyed offered drive-thru meal pickup sites during pandemic-related school closures.2

90%

of school districts surveyed by SNA said financial losses were a moderate or serious concern. 2

 

Sources:
1The School Nutrition Association’s 2019 School Nutrition Trends Report
2The School Nutrition Association’s May 2020 COVID-19 closure survey

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