Operations

The state of K-12 foodservice: Uncertainty ahead

Though the Keep Kids Fed Act brings some relief, operators consider how best to navigate a world without pandemic waivers, including raising prices and encouraging families to fill out needed paperwork.
Illustration: Shutterstock

After two years of operating under school nutrition waivers that allowed greater foodservice flexibility throughout the COVID crisis, the landscape is beginning to look a little different. 

While the June passage of the Keep Kids Fed Act provides K-12 operators with higher meal reimbursements and more, nutrition programs will still face many challenges this school year as these pandemic-era waivers have expired, or soon will.

One such challenge is rising costs, which 96% of survey respondents say will be a concern this school year. As costs continue to climb, districts like Colonial School District in Lafayette Hill, Pa., are looking at raising their prices.

“We talked about increasing our meal prices, but we just didn't feel comfortable doing that since meals had been free to past two plus years and just due to the current climate,” says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Lori McCoy. 

Instead, the team will up the prices of a la carte items such as ice cream and snacks, vending machine items and catering. 

“We're probably going to increase prices anywhere between 10% to 20% on those items,” says McCoy, adding that about half of the nutrition program’s revenue comes from a la carte sales.

Higher costs and procurement obstacles are also leading McCoy’s team to streamline the daily menu with a focus on ingredients that are reliably in stock and can be used in several different applications. 

“For example, if we're going to use taco meat, we might use it for tacos, we might use it for nachos, we might use it to make like a taco pizza or use it as a topping for baked potatoes,” says McCoy. “[We’re going to] try to really utilize the items that we know that we can get as opposed to trying to expand and try to do a bunch of different items that we may or may not be able to do get.”

Constant communication

The termination of the waivers also means that families will need to start paying for lunch again and free and reduced-price meal applications need to be filled out. 

Colonial’s nutrition team began reaching out to parents and guardians about the waivers on the last day of school this past year. An email was sent wishing everyone a happy summer that included a reminder about filling out applications. 

Communication about completing paperwork will continue as the summer moves forward. 

“Any kind of communication that that [principals] do about back-to-school information, we will also be including that communication in there as well,” says McCoy. 

As the school year gets closer, the team will also host a meal application clinic, where parents who need assistance filling out the paperwork can sign up for an appointment with foodservice staff to walk them through it.  

“We know a lot of families that typically would qualify, but it’s just a barrier for them to complete the application one way or the other,” says McCoy. “So, we're going to try that and see what that works.”

Ephrata Area School District in Ephrata, Pa., also plans to over-communicate about filling out applications as the summer rolls on. Most of that communication will be through the school messaging system, which notifies parents through email, phone calls and text messages. 

Once the school year starts, they’ll also notify parents and guardians when children have less than $10 in their lunch account or are at a negative balance. During these notifications, they’ll remind parents about applications and, most importantly, provide information on how to fill out the paperwork, says Food Service Director Teri Gamez. 

“As soon as we start notifying for lower negative balances, [we] include that information,” she says.

Read more of our 2022 State of K-12 Foodservice report.

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