Smart snacks sorrows

For many operators, the first few months under the new regs have been anything but smart.

It’s been only a few months since Smart Snacks in Schools went into effect, but already many operators are on the verge of calling “mercy.” They’re losing money, they can’t get in products that meet the regs and kids are unhappy.

Take Angela Torres, director of food and nutrition services at Flagler County Public Schools, in Palm Coast, Fla. Pre-Smart Snacks, Torres was bringing in $20,000 a week in à la carte sales. So far this year, she’s down $5,000 per week—a 25% hit.

With a free and reduced percentage rate of 64%, you’d think Torres wouldn’t be as reliant on à la carte sales as those directors who have more students with ready access to cash. Flagler County experienced a housing market collapse a few years back, and with little industry in the county, there aren’t many jobs. “Before the housing bubble burst, we were in the 35% free and reduced rate range,” Torres says. “We had a high amount of à la carte sales that could supplement our program, and the kids were used to that. Somewhere they are still finding money to purchase the snacks now. Smart Snacks hurt us a little harder because our program was a little more dependent on snacks than some other districts are.”

The Smart Snacks area that’s been particularly challenging for Torres is with entrées sold à la carte. The way the regs are written, an entrée that can be sold as part of a reimbursable meal may not meet Smart Snacks regulations for entrées sold à la carte. Sodium limits, for example, are different.

And much like other rules under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, sandwiches seem to be one menu item that operators are struggling to offer under Smart Snacks. Both of the high schools in Torres’ district had sub shops in their food court-style setups. Most of the sandwiches offered in these stations were sold à la carte.

“When you have a sub shop and you make a sub sandwich with lunch meat and cheese, it’s hard to make one that’s substantial enough that the kids want to buy it but that stays under the sodium and fat [rules],” Torres says. “The whole-grain regulation on the bread, that’s not been so acceptable either. That’s been a big problem. The grain component and the acceptability of the kids who have grown up on white pasta and white bread, having manufacture partners produce a bread that is acceptable to them tastewise has been a challenge. The whole grain has hurt things.”

Rather than lose out on the popular sub offering, Torres changed those locations to reimbursable meals. “We could really offer some nice offerings there that the kids were eating,” she says. “Because they didn’t meet the qualifications under Smart Snacks, what we did with both of our sub shops this year is we converted them to reimbursable lines. The kids are liking that a lot because we still can offer them substantial meals because the regulations are different for meals than they are for snacks, so we have a little more leeway.”

Sandwiches aren’t the only item Torres has had to remove from her à la carte offerings. She estimates that she had to cut more than 50% of her snack offerings to meet Smart Snacks rules. “We went from having a lot of things we could sell to a very, very small number of items,” Torres says. “It’s going to take a while to get our à la carte menu back to the level where we have some things to offer the kids they will like.”

There is a bright side—however small it might be. Torres says à la carte sales have started to pick up a bit, between $100 to $200 a week. She also thinks that the whole-grain acceptability issue should get better as manufacturers create new products that students like better.

Offering choice
For Chris Dunn, director of foodservice at Cocalico School District, in Denver, Pa., the lack of choice has been the No. 1 complaint.

“Smart Snacks has certainly been a challenge,” he says. “The students are not happy. The staff are not happy. We realize it’s the law. A lot of laws don’t make sense, and certainly common sense is not ruling the day here.”

Before Smart Snacks, between 75% and 80% of secondary students purchased something from the cafeteria each day. The district has a free and reduced rate of 38%. Dunn attributes that high participation rate to the wide variety of foods he was able to offer, something he’s no longer able to do under Smart Snacks.

“Students don’t have the freedom of choice that they’ve had in past times,” Dunn continues. “We have a really good participation rate here across the board. But I think our middle and high school is really high because we do offer a nice variety of foods and we did have some great à la carte items.

“We’ve lost sales. We’ve lost à la carte sales. We’ve lost participation,” Dunn says.

Kid-favorite pizza has been hard hit this year under the new regs. “Our pizza sales are way down because of the whole-grain crust and lower sodium sauces and cheeses. It’s something kids loved and it’s really dropped,” he adds. Traditional snack-type items—cookies and other baked goods—have all but been removed, which has hurt Dunn financially. “Our local Turkey Hills [c-stores] are a lot busier now,” he adds.
Dunn says his staff is hearing the grumbles from students, many of whom would purchase snacks to eat after school. “We have a lot of students who are involved in after-school activities or sports or theater and they were able to purchase things to take for after school,” he says. “If they were at a sporting event until 8 or 9 at night they could buy whatever they wanted to have a snack before or after the game. We provide breakfast and lunch, but having that opportunity to get something after school was huge. I think the congressmen and senators should think about the students they are upsetting now will be voting for them—or not voting for them—in a few years. When students complain to me I say this is the new Smart Snacks rule. This is where we are with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Write your congressman.”

Dunn isn’t the only operator in Pennsylvania who is concerned with meeting the needs of all his students’ dining needs. While Dunn has thought about taking his schools off the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), David Ludwig did just that at his high schools this year.

“I felt and the district felt that we would not be able to meet our students’ needs [if we stayed on the NSLP],” Ludwig says. “All students are different. There are the football players, the soccer players and the person who doesn’t play any sports. We have students whodddddccxcxxc eat 6,000 to 7,000 calories every day and we were not going to be able to meet their needs. We were able to keep many things that other districts would have to take away.”

One of the items Ludwig was able to reintroduce since going off the NSLP was a Baron Meal, named for the district’s mascot. The Baron Meal consists of an entrée, pizza or sandwich; a choice of french fried, fresh vegetable or snack bag; a fresh fruit selection; a Baron cookie; and either a 18.5-ounce Turkey Hill beverage, a 16-ounce water or milk. This larger meal, which is sold for $4, is especially popular with athletes.

“I’m looking at my high schools since we’ve gone off the program this year, the attitudes and support from the students and the families, it almost feels like there’s an attitude change from them toward the department,” he adds. “I think students know, because it’s all over the news, they know what they would get if we were on the regulations and they know how fortunate they are. I think the parents like to receive choices and allow their kids to purchase what they want to eat. If students are hungry, students are not going to learn. And parents know their students will be able to find something they want to eat and they won’t be hungry.”

Parents seem to be happy with the district’s leaving the NSLP. Parents have put $30,000 more this year into their students’ prepay accounts than last year.

Ludwig’s ledger is also seeing an uptick. À la carte sales were up $7,000, to $37,000, this September compared to last September. Ludwig estimates that had his high schools remained on the NSLP, his à la carte sales would have been cut in half.

“From talking to other schools, what they are experiencing is the students are just tired right now of what they are able to purchase,” he continues. “The bag snacks, I think the appeal is not there. You can sell a reduced fat chip. But those items that kids might be interested in getting, we can’t get them [in from vendors due to lack of supply]. It boggles my mind that a company as big as X didn’t know that this wasn’t going to happen. I can’t believe they weren’t producing more ahead of time. It’s a favorite among the kids.”

Supply and demand
Lack of product availability that meet Smart Snacks rules is increasingly becoming operators’ No. 1 issue.

“In 37 years, it’s the worst start I’ve ever seen,” says Micheline Piekarski, director of food & nutrition services at Oak Park & River Forest High School, outside Chicago. “My budget’s like $2.3 million, but I’m down right now $2,000 a day. The biggest issue we’re having with Smart Snacks is so many of the vendors are shorting our distributor. It’s a huge, huge problem.”

“SNA (School Nutrition Association) has been tracking reports of unusual product shortages and delays this year – particularly among items designed to meet the new standards,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for SNA. “SNA is very concerned about the impact of these shortages on our members and their ongoing efforts to meet the new mandates and run fiscally solvent programs. We are currently working to assess the breadth of these shortages and whether this is a long-term problem.”

The items district are having trouble sourcing run the gamut, from fruit to snacks and proteins. The laundry list of difficult products to get include: commodity beef, peach cups, strawberry cups, chicken products, whole-grain treats, reduced fat chips, peanut butter and a whole slew of USDA Foods, including potato wedges and rounds, deli turkey breast and canned mixed fruit.

Some of the products are in short supply due to weather. Some fruit cups are no longer available because of crop shortages due to the lack of rainfall. Beef is another item in short supply due to the increase in price and low supply of cattle in the country.

Other products, however, aren’t available simply because manufacturers can’t keep up with demand—or didn’t anticipate the demand would be that high. “That’s what I don’t understand, because they all knew the Smart Snacks were coming this year. Like they didn’t realize that we were all going to switch [to products that meet Smart Snacks]?” Piekarski asks about shortages on items like reduced fat, whole-grain chips.

“There’s nothing I can do,” she adds. “I looked at my vending machines and just laughed. They are half empty.”

Like Piekarski, Sara Gasiorowski, director of child nutrition for Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, in Indianapolis, is struggling stocking Smart Snack-compliant items.

“What I think it is is that the manufacturers, especially with things that comply with Smart Snacks, underestimated usage or they were concerned with getting burned with product,” Gasiorowski says. “It’s just tough right now. You’re trying to serve the right products and we can’t get them. Baked chips, there are five different types that we can’t get right now. Two snack bars that we can use in our breakfast program, we can’t get. Our distributor said there is no estimated time of arrival. Others said we’ll get partial orders and outages are expected through 2015. With another vendor they cut all their cases, and that’s related to not having enough whole grain.”

Gasiorowski started making changes in her program years ago because she knew changes would be coming down the pike. One of those changes was baked chips, which she started offering several years ago. “This year, because now it’s 100% of everything has to be whole grain, all those people who weren’t planning ahead and making changes incrementally have just put a strain on the whole system, and I just think the manufacturers underestimated and I think they are afraid they don’t want to get stuck with product. We’re having to make changes and substitutions,” she adds.

One of those substitutions is with the district’s Thanksgiving dinner. Gasiorowski wanted to serve use a USDA Foods turkey roast to make a scratch-made turkey and noodles entrée. Because she can no longer source the turkey roasts, she’s having to purchase a turkey and gravy product from a vendor, using a low-sodium broth and putting some noodles in the dish. “They’re going to have it, but it’s not going to be the way we wanted it to be,” she says.

The product shortages are forcing operators into difficult financial positions. The USDA Foods brown box items Gasiorowski used to be able to get delivered for a total of $2.65 per case, she now has to purchase on the market. Fruit mix, which used to cost Gasiorowski $2.65 per case, is now coming in at $41 per case.

And because manufacturers often don’t know when they are going to catch up to demand, they are suggesting that operators make changes to menus. “There are some [vendors] who say take those chicken items off the menu [due to lack of product availability]. Really? This is a popular product. What’s that going to do? This is going to kill us,” Torres says.

Even if Gasiorowski could get in all the product she needed, she says she’d still be struggling under Smart Snacks. She’s currently down 25% in à la carte sales. For Gasiorowski that amounts to a $35,000 revenue hit. She’s had to remove certain à la carte items that no longer fit the rules, including a crispy chicken sandwich. The sandwich was an oven-baked, whole-muscle chicken sandwich with a whole-grain breading. When paired with a whole-grain bun, the sandwich was over sodium limits. “So we couldn’t sell it,” she says. “That was probably one of our most popular secondary à la carte items.”

The start of the school year has been frustrating for many operators. “I hate to say, I don’t think the USDA realized what was going to happen in the world. Sure they want us to serve healthy food, but if we can’t get the healthy food, what are we serving them? A paper plate,” Piekarski says of the product shortage issue.

Cocalico’s Dunn is worried about the future. “The scary part is, it’s reauthorization in 2015. What more can they do? Hopefully the pendulum swings the other way now,” he says.


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