The 2022 February Elementary & Secondary Foodservice Leadership Council (FLC) conversation took the opportunity to reflect on challenges from the pandemic and opportunities for school foodservice providers and food manufacturers to collaborate. While there are more than 30 members of the Primary and Secondary School operator council, the panelists included three representatives: Danielle Bock, Director of Nutrition Services, Greeley (CO) School District; Dan Gorman, Foodservice Director at Montague (MI) Public Schools; and Alyssia Wright, Executive Director of School Nutrition, Fulton County (GA) Schools.
A Look Back on 2020 and 2021: What Are the Silver Linings?
The conversation began with an optimistic tone by panelists reflecting on the silver linings of the pandemic. The identified benefits fell into two buckets: USDA flexibilities and system resilience.
Bock shared that the pandemic brought with it more flexibility and innovation from the USDA. This gave Greeley the ability to provide food to all students for the first time. In addition, the flexibilities allowed Bock’s team to purchase a packaging machine to portion out individual servings of fresh fruits and vegetables in a shelf stable, cost effective way while participating in the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Program.
Fulton County Schools also adapted the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program by providing curbside pickup with recipes in multiple languages.
The USDA student participation waivers, however, revealed a crack in the system. Bock shared that during the pandemic, there was a substantial increase in food production at their schools, indicating that “135% of the federal poverty line is probably too low to capture students who are in need.” A waiver to serve students regardless of where they live would be helpful in patching up the nutritional safety net. Bock said it would “take a literal act of Congress” to allow Greeley and other schools to move forward in serving students who need nutrition assistance.
Close partnerships with manufacturers and vendors were crucial in helping Fulton County Schools adapt to students’ changing needs. In addition, fewer students in schools allowed staff to be creative with service models and cover staff shortages when necessary.
The pandemic also highlighted how important school food programs are for community resilience. “We were a nutritional safety net for our community,” Gorman said. “[Students] knew from that moment through the next school year…they could have food in their home…We’ve always been that safety net.” It helped people recognize why it is important to have a strong, well-resourced school nutrition program.
The panel shared that large and small school systems are in different places regarding financial resilience. Since small schools were able to reach their students more easily, they have more funding available than their larger counterparts.
Looking Forward to 2022
When looking ahead to the remainder of 2022, panelists remained optimistic that manufacturer collaboration, service-model changes, and adjustments to nutritional content (namely sodium) would mitigate the residual impact of the pandemic.
Manufacturer Collaboration: “Limited Time Offers”
Gorman was surprised at the level of supply issues the pandemic caused. Montague School System has responded by diversifying and localizing suppliers, and by cultivating closer relationships with manufacturers.
To him, this reinforces the need for food manufacturers and suppliers to collaborate with school nutrition programs. For example, Gorman is working with manufacturers to develop a breakfast product that is protein rich and not a sweet bread (i.e., pancakes or muffins). This approach has risks, and both manufacturers and school districts “need to be open to failure if it does not work.”
Wright shared that Fulton County Schools have also collaborated with manufacturers to provide “limited time offers” in their schools for students to try new products before making it a standard part of the Fulton County School District’s menu.
When asked specifically about plant-based foods during Q&A, Gorman said he saw opportunity for growth in the category, as it would allow him to serve an underserved population. As demand increases and prices fall, this will be especially true.
Labor Shortages Require a Change in Approach
According to Wright, “the labor shortage is not going away in the next 2-3 years.” Her team is developing new strategies to streamline operations and create new service models (i.e., self-service). This allowed them to reduce the number of options, but keep the portion sizes the same.
Also, Wright added that students currently receive food at no cost and she believes that now is the time to rethink the systemic approach and reinvest in marketing school meals to customers (i.e., students and their families). Manufacturers can help by providing schools with direct shipping and with new items that are high quality, and culturally appropriate food that schools can incorporate into their regular menus.
Sodium Regulations Loom Large
Bock noted that sodium reduction regulations may be the biggest hurdle school nutrition providers have had to overcome. Schools may not provide more than the regulated amount of sodium. By July 2022, entrees must have no more than 480 mg of sodium. Additional limits are targeted by age group and meal, and averaged over the week.
Close to one third of sodium content is naturally occurring, which puts school feeding programs (and manufacturers) at risk for losses. Bock believes that this regulation will become an equity issue, as low income students will be forced to eat food that their peers refuse to eat. In addition to collaborating on products, manufacturers can collaborate with school systems on policy in state and federal capitals.
The next round of committee webinars will be held in April 2022 with updates on opportunities, challenges and committee initiatives.
For operators interested in learning more about the ongoing council work and access to upcoming resources, visit IFMAworld.com/council, or contact Jim Green at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will receive updates on council activities and have complimentary access to whitepapers, webinars and conferences.