Focus On: K-12 Foodservice

School foodservice operators continue to adapt to the changing needs of students.

Courtesy of Lancaster County School District
Courtesy of Lancaster County School District

In 2020, K-12 foodservice operators made the hurried shift to feed students via curbside pickup or delivery while they learned virtually at home during pandemic-imposed school closures. This year, operators continue to think on their feet as they adapt to various degrees of reopening—feeding students wherever they are learning, either at school or at home. “I don’t see the offering of virtual school as part of public school going away anytime soon,” says Angela D. McCrorey, director of nutrition and foodservices for Lancaster County School District in South Carolina. “It will probably be an option for parents in time to come. We intend to continue to offer meals to all of the students, whether they learn virtually or face-to-face.”


Many school districts are still reeling from revenue losses of the 2020-2021 school year. “Due to school closures, meal programs struggled with lower participation and declining revenue,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association. During the first full year of the pandemic, schools served 29% fewer meals compared with the previous year, which equates to a $2.3 billion loss in federal revenue for school meal programs, according to an SNA analysis of USDA data. “We have heard from many members who have had to defer or cancel equipment purchases, maintenance and capital improvements due to pandemic losses that have wiped out reserve funds,” Pratt-Heavner says.

Food presentation matters, especially at the high school level. Photo by Catherine Jeter Photography

According to a June 2021 report by Technomic, growth for the K-12 segment without inflation is forecasted to be 33.2% for 2021. “Keep in mind that is growth over the same period last year,” says Kathryn Fenner, principal consultant at Technomic. “It will be several years before we are back to 2019 levels. … So, by the end of 2021, we will be at 76.2 percent of sales that we had in 2019 in K-12. By the end of 2022, we believe we will be back to 94.2 percent of 2019 levels.”


» At the high school level, students are looking for authenticity and are all about the experience of dining, according to Scott Reitano, principal of Indianapolis-based Reitano Design Group. Because students in this age group are accustomed to fast-casual dining, trends from that segment will continue to inspire school foodservice, whether it’s the option for mobile ordering with contactless pickup, made-to-order in place of self-service or high-quality prepackaged options.

Sanitation and safety are top of mind for many operators. Photo by Catherine Jeter Photography

» Online ordering tools are helping schools operate curbside pickups more efficiently. Lancaster County School District launched an online ordering tool in October that parents can use to order student meals for curbside pickup a week in advance. “The cafe manager would then print a barcoded roster and labels to be placed on the bags,” McCrorey says. “This really helped with food waste for our curbside meals. … We [used to] forecast from the previous pickup dates and almost always overproduced.”

» Presentation continues to be a driving force for students and is especially key at the high school level, according to Reitano. Equipment such as heated or chilled shelves can facilitate the appealing presentation of plated hot meals or chilled items like smoothies or fruit cups, for example.

» Looking forward, Beth Wallace, executive director of food and nutrition services for Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, says she expects safety to continue to drive decision-making for K-12 operators. “The need to focus on sanitation and safety will be heightened, particularly in larger districts, the method of producing a meal and how it is served,” says Wallace, who also is SNA president.


97% The percentage of school nutrition directors polled by SNA who say they are concerned about supply chain disruptions related to the pandemic.1

48% The amount of schools anticipating a net loss for the 2020-2021 school year; of those schools, 32% say they have sufficient reserves to cover the loss.1

42% The percentage of directors who say they have deferred investments in equipment as a result of financial concerns.

8.66% The decrease in the total number of breakfasts served to students in the first full year of the pandemic compared to the previous year.

79% of Gen Z survey respondents said they would eat meatless meals once or twice a week.3

1School Nutrition Association’s Back to School 2021 Survey
22021 SNA analysis of USDA data
3Aramark’s February 2018 Plant-Forward Study


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