The K-12 segment of foodservice generates $12.2 billion annually in operator purchases, but many manufacturers and suppliers steer clear of it due to its complexity and its perceived lower margin. This reticence to participate leaves buyers in the segments unable to procure the items they need to feed children during the school day.

Unwilling to accept this dysfunctional status quo, the IFMA Elementary & Secondary Foodservice Leadership Council  (FLC) partnered with Kinetic 12 Consulting to debunk many of the myths of supplying the K-12 segment and provide clarity on how to do business with this unique and complex segment. In November 2023, IFMA published the outcome of this work: The Elementary & Secondary Guidebook.

“We want manufacturers to feel like they can do business with the K-12 segment,” said Whitney Ellersick, Sr. Director of Nutrition Services at Portland Public Schools in Oregon. “We want to be great collaborators and innovators with our manufacturer partners. We know this is a complicated segment and we are here to help simplify it.”

The complexity of the Elementary and Secondary (E&S) segment stems largely from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), passed by the U.S Congress in 1946. At its core, the NSLP is in place to ensure that children from lower income families can receive a free or reduced cost meal every day they attend school. The U.S Department of Agriculture funds the program and also provides nutritional and buying guidelines meant to get kids healthy and nutritious meals sourced from American companies.

These nutritional guidelines are often cited as a reason for food and beverage companies to steer clear of the segment. For example, sodium levels are so low in many cases that the food has little taste and cannot be preserved long enough to endure the supply chain.

After a review period of over 14 months, the USDA published new nutritional standards on April 24, 2024. The new standards were not as rigorous as the initial recommendations that were published in early 2023. The revisions show the power of the K-12 ecosystem, a group that wants to serve healthy foods and beverages to school-age kids, but also wants those foods to be tasty. There were approximately 136,000 comments on the proposed standards.

For example, the proposed standards included product-based, added-sugar limits for grain-based desserts at breakfast. The final standards only include added-sugar limits for breakfast cereals, yogurts and flavored milk. In response to the final standards, IFMA hosted a webinar on May 9, 2024, in partnership with Donna Martin, RDN. IFMA members can access the slides and recording of that webinar here.

The IFMA Elementary and Secondary Schools FLC wrote The Guidebook to hopefully alleviate some of the confusion around the segment. The Guidebook is extensive, with 58 pages of information, including four main chapters:

  • Background on E&S Feeding
  • Process of Doing Business with E&S
  • E&S Regulation Guide
  • E&S Challenges and Objectives

Guidebook readers will learn about the NSLP and the bidding process, a unique buying cycle for this segment. All the nutritional guidelines, both current and soon-to-be-implemented, are covered in detail. Finally, the Guidebook looks at the role of parents, school administrators, sustainability and operational challenges, among many other topics.

If doing business with the K-12 foodservice segment was easy, many companies would already be invested because it’s big, it’s immune to economic downturns and it feeds future household decision-makers. But it’s not easy. The Elementary & Secondary Guidebook hopes to make it a little bit easier, so more companies can benefit from feeding American kids hundreds of days a year.

To learn more about the guidebook click here