Food Service Director Becky Mason can’t recall a time when she was able to get every product she’s ordered for her menu. Since starting her current role at Hesston USD 460 in Hesston, Kan., just before the pandemic, supply chain disruptions have occurred seemingly since day one.
“I started in this position [in 2019] and I don't know what normal is,” she says. “This has become my new normal.”
Mason and other operators could see further difficulty with sourcing items that meet the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program requirements when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announces a final rule this spring on its proposed changes to the School Nutrition Standards, which could impact ingredients like whole grains, flavored milk, added sugar and more in school meals.
As the upcoming announcement of the new standards looms overhead, both K-12 operators and manufacturers are starting to prepare for how the proposed changes might impact their operations.
The USDA’s proposed changes include new added sugar limits and tighter restrictions on things like sodium. Some of the changes would be phased in over time. Further sodium reductions in meals, for example, would take place three times over the next several years, with the final reduction occurring in fall 2029.
If implemented, these restrictions will make things harder for both K-12 operators and the companies who make K-12 products, Mason believes. Whole grain items especially, she says, are still sometimes hard to come by for the district.
“There's so many companies that kind of have quit working on certain whole grain items,” she says.
Mason is also worried about the proposed changes to the sodium limits. One of the most popular entrees for high school students at the district contains 740 mg of sodium. If the proposed standards were to go into effect, lunches for high school students must only contain 1,150 mg or less of sodium on average over the course of a school week once the first target sodium limit is introduced in 2025. This will make it hard for the team to continue offering that entree, she says.
Mason is far from alone in her concern about finding products that will meet the sodium restrictions. A survey published by the School Nutrition Association earlier this year revealed that 97.8% of school nutrition directors are concerned about the availability of foods that are acceptable to students and meet even the target 1A sodium limits, which went into effect this past summer and allow for up to 1280 mg of sodium in high school lunches over the course of a week.
Preparing for the changes
K-12 manufacturers are also getting ready for the proposed changes. Kellogg’s, for example, recently updated its MorningStar Farm's plant-based chicken nuggets to include a whole-grain breading that now meets the 1 oz whole grain equivalent credit. The company says it’s also prepared to further evolve products as necessary if the updated standards warrant it.
“Our food offerings are already well-suited to integrate seamlessly with new regulations,” said Director of Commercial Strategy for Kellogg’s Stacey Urbaniak.“Regardless, when the situation calls for reformulation to meet updated criteria, we develop a strategic plan.”
If some companies do drop certain products once the updated requirements are announced, Mason is hoping that others will step in to pick them up. She has also started contacting brokers to ask for more samples of products so she can be sure they still taste good as companies update their recipes.
“It's going to be hard because you want [students] to eat,” she says. “I have always told my cook, something that I’ve carried with me through my years of being in food service, is that we as cooks are in the business of filling stomachs, not the trash cans.”