2013 K-12 Census: School districts struggle with elements of new meal regs

Participation, food cost higher at lunch than breakfast.

For this year’s K-12 Census, we decided to take a broader look at what’s going on in the child nutrition industry. Instead of focusing primarily on financial data, as has been done in the past, we delved deeper into the biggest challenge facing school foodservice: the USDA’s new meal pattern. In the following census, you’ll learn how child nutrition professionals are coping so far with the new regulations, in addition to some baseline data (including food cost per meal and participation rates) so you can benchmark your district to those similar in size and region. In keeping with the recipes theme of the Feb. 2013 issue, we’ve also included some recipes that meet the new meal regs to help spark some menu ideas for your own operation.

K-12 Census At a Glance

  • There are 115 school districts in our survey.
  • 92% are self-operated; 6% contract managed; 2% partly self-op and partly contract managed.
  • All districts in our survey are on the National School Lunch Program, although three high schools (grades 9-12) are not on the NSLP.
  • The average number of schools in a district is 39.

Staying within calorie ranges is one of the requirements that operators say is the most difficult of the new regulations to meet. (The other highest-ranking challenge, the maximum for grains, has been eliminated.) We asked operators to rank several aspects of the new meal pattern on a six-point scale, with six being extremely challenging and 1 being not at all challenging.

Our findings indicate that operators were likely exchanging high fives after the USDA eliminated the grains maximum, which happened after our survey was completed. Sixty-nine percent of operators rated staying within allowable grain ranges a 6 or 5, making this the requirement that operators found most challenging.

Staying within calorie ranges was the second most vexing issue, according to operators. Sixty percent gave this a 6 or 5 rating. Districts with fewer than 100,000 students were significantly more likely to be challenged by staying within calorie ranges compared to districts with more than 100,000 students (64% versus 13%, respectively)

The third most challenging regulation was planning menus based on age/grade groups. Forty-three percent of operators rated this a 6 or 5.

Other new meal pattern requirements were not as onerous. Only 39% of operators scored meeting meat/meat alternatives as a 6 or 5 on the scale, while 31% gave meeting whole-grain requirements those ratings. New fruit and vegetable requirements also scored low. Twenty-one percent of respondents ranked increasing the variety of produce as a 6 or 5, and only 20% report increasing the serving size of fruits with one of the top two rankings.

On the positive front, 80% of operators say meeting the new milk regs is not at all challenging. Schools in the South, however, are significantly more likely to report this as a burden. In addition, 41% of respondents say implementing food-based menu planning is not at all challenging.  

Related Recipes

Roasted Turkey Over Pear and Strawberry Salad with Orange Vinaigrette

Campfire Side Salad

Braised Kale