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What’s on the menu for the new school year?

International inspiration and plant-based preps abound, but operations in K-12 and higher ed aim to keep it simple as COVID disruptions continue.
school kids getting lunch
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As the 2021-22 school year gets underway, foodservice teams are welcoming students back to campus in volumes unseen since the pandemic began. While some look forward to re-establishing their focus on sustainability, more traditional service styles and less takeout, others are finding themselves hamstrung by supply chain issues and the ongoing labor crunch.

FoodService Director reached out to members of its Culinary Council to see how they’ve been preparing for this year and what’s on tap for their teams.

Obstacles linger

For the fall semester, supply chain and labor shortages “are dictating what we can serve on the menu and how it is executed,” says Kit Smith, director of culinary operations for Sodexo at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

“Many of our distributors have been struggling with deliveries all summer long,” he says, and his team is working with suppliers to help ensure they can get needed products and maintain service consistency.

Amid current challenges, Josh Martin, executive chef at the University of California Santa Cruz, is working on cleaning up inventory management, purchasing more sustainably and simplifying production while keeping a focus on scratch made. “The hope is that this will help offset our current labor shortages, but keep our quality high for guests,” he says.

Due to COVID-19 safety protocols, Cincinnati Public Schools is still relying on some individually wrapped products from vendors, but staff are striving to make options fun. “We still want to keep the menu fresh and exciting for our students, while working in the safety parameters we are tasked with,” Assistant Supervisor of Culinary Development Stephanie Dyehouse says.

A global focus

The University of Richmond in Virginia has developed a Woks around the World program to highlight pan-Asian flavors, such as Thai basil, Korean barbecue, shoyu and coconut curry, and it’s also adding international offerings, such as congee, at breakfast.

“We are always looking to keep pushing our boundaries,” says Tyler Betzhold, executive chef at the university. “We will have a big focus on fresh big flavors of the Middle East and Mediterranean [and] continuing to push our knowledge of nontraditional meat entrees.”

Asian flavors are a focus for Sodexo’s C&U operations across the West Coast region as well. “We are interested in exploring the various spice [palates] of Southeast Asia, India and the Pacific Islands,” says Chris Studtmann, senior area executive chef for Sodexo. “We are seeing more students coming to campus from these countries who want an authentic taste of home, as well as guests who are passionate about the regional changes in cuisine across Thailand, the Philippines [and the] Polynesian Islands.”

Pre-pandemic, pop-up events around cultural cuisine galvanized UC Santa Cruz’s chefs to do more flavor exploration, and the team hopes to bring back these pop-ups next spring. “Our students have really enjoyed these events in the past, and have always suggested new areas or traditional dishes that we should try at the next event,” Martin says. “Many of the recipes have also found their way into our regular seasonal cycle menu.”

Leaning into plant-based

While Minneapolis Public Schools won’t be adding anything new to its menu for now due to pandemic-related challenges, dining staff hope to debut a plant-based station sometime in the future, says Executive Chef and Operations Manager Mark Augustine.

And in the college segment, plant-based dishes remain a centerpiece.

The team at Seattle Pacific University is expanding its slate of innovative meatless offerings. New grill items include the Spicy Sriracha Greenwheat Freekeh Burger and the Umami Mushroom Burger with Black Beluga Lentils, as well as custom blended burger options using various meat analogues, garlic, sauteed mushrooms and fresh herbs to pump up flavor, says Studtmann.

At UC Santa Cruz, “we've focused on developing a core station at all [dining hall] locations that provides daily vegan offerings of clean grains/starches, vegetable proteins, vegetables and sauces with a rotation that keeps it interesting, but simple,” Martin says. “Guests can then build their plate with items that appeal to them the most, providing more options and a healthier diet.”

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