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K-12 Census: Making the effort

As the battle over menu regulations wages on, schools continue to combat increased costs and food waste.

While the fight to address school nutrition standards and increase funding drags on in Washington, school foodservice directors are struggling to hold off challenges at home in their districts. To get an update on the scope of the issue, FoodService Director magazine enlisted market research firm (and sister company) Technomic to survey our readers for the 2016 K-12 Census.

Students’ needs are great, and the pressure to deliver higher-quality, better-for-you options is multiplying—and not only from regulators. More than half of school foodservice operators expect to increase the amount of locally sourced items on their menus in the next two years. Nearly half expect gluten-free items to rise, while the same number expect to do more scratch cooking.

That’s all while budgets continue to be squeezed by rising costs and greater food waste, the result of regulations that lawmakers continue to debate in Congress. Read on for our 2016 K-12 Census report, a current snapshot of what school operators are facing.

At a glance

72% of respondents say food waste has increased since implementing the fruit requirement at breakfast.

86% say their overall breakfast costs have gone up.

43% have seen their lunch participation rates go down this year, compared to last year.

58% find it extremely or very challenging meeting sodium reduction requirements.

Yet very few operators are dropping out of the National School Lunch Program.

In addition, many school FSDs are feeding students beyond the bell via catering, as well as after-school, supper or summer-feeding programs.


Who we surveyed

207 Number of school foodservice directors.

82% self-operated.

17% contract-managed.

1% partly self-operated and partly contract-managed.

26 Average number of schools in these districts.

49% Average percentage of students who qualify for free and/or reduced-price meals.

The morning, after

How are required meal patterns affecting school foodservice operators, 95 percent of whom offer breakfast? Implementing the mandates has been less of an issue at breakfast than at lunch, with 53 percent saying participation rates have remained the same. Food waste and costs for morning meals, however, have climbed.

5,017 Average number of breakfast meals served daily.

30% Average daily participation rate for breakfast.

$1.10 Median food cost per meal at breakfast.


How challenging has it been to implement the increased amount of fruit required at breakfast?

35% Not very/Not at all

36% Somewhat

29% Extremely/Very


What has happened to participation since implementing the new breakfast meal pattern requirements?

District size (students)DecreasedIncreasedRemained the same
Total27%19%53%
Less than 2,00025%7%68%
2,000 to 4,99931%27%42%
5,000 to 9,99925%20%55%
10,000 to 69,99926%26%49%
70,000 or more33%33%33%

Percentages may add up to more than 100 due to rounding.


Since implementing the increased amount of fruit required at breakfast, has your food waste increased?

28% No

72% Yes

Since implementing the increased fruit requirements at breakfast, have your overall breakfast costs increased?

14% No

86% Yes

Midday doldrums

All of the school foodservice operators in our survey offer lunch, serving double the number of midday meals compared to breakfast. So it’s no small thing that nearly 43 percent have taken a hit to their participation rates at lunch compared to 27 percent at breakfast. And competitive food rules continue to hurt schools’ bottom lines.

10,194 Average number of lunch meals served daily.

56% Average daily participation rate for lunch.

$1.80 Median food cost per meal at lunch.

85% Offer the option for students to purchase nonreimbursable food items, snacks and/or beverages (for example, a la carte,
vending, school store, etc.).


Has your lunch participation this school year increased, decreased or remained the same?

District size (students)DecreasedIncreasedRemained the same
Less than 2,00041%19%40%
2,000 to 4,99949%16%34%
5,000 to 9,99922%17%61%
10,000 to 69,99942%21%37%
70,000 or more50%17%33%

Percentages may add up to more than 100 due to rounding.


Since implementing the new competitive food regulations (aka “Smart Snacks”), has your revenue of food sales increased, decreased or remained the same?

71% Decreased

18% Remained the same

11% Increased

Learning to cope

When it comes to menu requirements, school operators say that meeting sodium reduction requirements has been the biggest hurdle, followed by meeting the Smart Snacks rule. Even so, few are exiting or considering bailing out of the National School Lunch Program.


How challenging are each of the following aspects of the meal pattern regulations under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act?

 Extremely or very challengingSomewhat challengingNot very or not at all challenging
Meeting 100% whole-grain requirements30%40%30%
Meeting sodium reduction requirements58%36%5%
Meeting competitive food regulations, aka Smart Snacks48%38%14%

Respondents were asked to rate on a point scale where 6 is extremely challenging and 1 is not at all challenging at all.


What percentage of your students qualify for free or reduced-price meals?

District Size (students)Average percentage off free/reduced-price students
Less than 2,00052%
2,000 to 4,99947%
5,000 to 9,99938%
10,000 to 69,99952%
70,000 or more58%

Are any of the schools in your district on the Community Eligibility Provision? 

This provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows schools with high poverty rates to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.

22% Yes

71% No

8% Not familiar with CEP.

Blurred lines

Food trends, higher expectations and food insecurity are changing the face of school lunch today. Here’s how operators see things shifting.


Feeding beyond school hours

Besides breakfast and lunch, what foodservice do you offer?

35% After-school meals

47% Summer feeding

26% *Other

*Common foodservice offerings: Catering, after-school snack, supper


Better-for-you trends on the rise

Which of the following food trends do you expect to increase at your operation in the next two years?

57% Use of locally sourced foods

48% Scratch cooking

48% Gluten-free items

42% Vegetarian items

14% Vegan items

13% Organic items


What has been the biggest challenge?

  • 90% of students choose juice as their required fruit component.
  • Having students actually eat the fruit that is required and not throwing it away.
  • Labor and storage.
  • Sodium and calories.
  • Whole grains and smaller portions. Parents and children often complain the kids don’t get enough to eat.
  • We like to use fresh fruit over canned and are limited because of seasonal growing. Also the cost of fresh over canned commodity makes it a bit of a burden on our program.
  • Cost and waste.
  • Time students have to eat.
  • Offering enough variety to meet the requirements.
  • Getting the students to take the fruit.

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