Thanks to USDA mandates, there is a greater push among K-12 schools to provide fresher, better-for-you meal options. As a result, the equipment packages these foodservice operators now emphasize multi-use items and cold and hot-food holding.

The future of school foodservice as we know it seems to be changing.

On one hand, new federal dietary guidelines that went into effect this year have mandated that schools serve healthier lunches to their students. And on the other hand, students are becoming more culinary curious — and this has led to an expansion of culinary education programs, complete with fully stocked commercial kitchens. As a result, school foodservice consultants find they have more work to do than ever before and, in many cases, basic operations and the nature of the E&S package has changed.

Regulations for Healthier Lunches

For schools choosing to take part in the National School Lunch Program in order to earn subsidies for the meals they serve, The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the USDA to update the NSLP's meals based on the latest federal dietary guidelines. The new meal standards, which went into effect this year, increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the school menu while reducing calories and sodium.

At the same time, First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign has put pressure on school districts around the country to serve healthier meals, and help students connect with the food they eat through on-campus gardens and support of local farmers and producers.

"There has been a dramatic change coming out of Washington, D.C. with Michelle Obama's initiative," says John Cornyn, FCSI, principal of the Cornyn Fasano Group Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based MAS consultancy. "The big challenge for foodservice consultants now is to keep up with all the new regulations coming down the pipe at lightning speed and still run a foodservice program that's self sufficient. It's a major change that has happened quickly and some districts have not had the time to adequately adjust to them."

Therein lies the challenge, Cornyn adds. "School lunch managers face an awesome task in trying to meet the new objectives alongside reimbursement rates that do not keep pace with inflation," he says. "As a consultant, my job is to help schools document where there are pitfalls and work with state and federal authorities to see how they can make constructive changes."

In some schools, Cornyn has seen parents boycotting the prepared lunches because their kids complain of not getting enough to eat, or being able to choose from a wider variety of what they want to eat.

Tim Stafford, FCSI, principal of the Stafford Design Group Inc., with offices in Seattle and Las Vegas, knows this well. Having worked on more than 100 K-12 schools during the last 15 years, Stafford has seen a dramatic change in the variety of foods available to students, mainly as a result of the new federal regulations for schools, but also because of staff reductions overall. Schools, therefore, face a challenge to create adequate variety based on the limited types of foods they can now serve.

"For example, the school may be allowed to offer pizza, but it has to be on whole wheat crust with limited cheese and they can't use all the same toppings as before," Stafford says.

Ironically, the budget for equipment has actually increased even amidst tightening of food offerings and of staff in general, Stafford says. "We're seeing less fryers, but a general increase in stainless." According to Cornyn, the real challenge lies in spending priorities, and in helping schools "spend money prudently and efficiently as opposed to just bidding on the cheapest equipment." Some more crowded schools now set up lunchrooms in non-traditional foodservice spaces, such as gymnasiums and study halls.

What hasn't changed much in the past 20 years is the design of a typical school foodservice cafeteria, both Cornyn and Stafford point out. "The objective is to feed the kids in the most time efficient manner possible," Cornyn says.

Schools still look to "corral" students toward different stations in the cafeteria with three to five points of service and multiple lines for cashiers. What's needed, as a result, is more adequate cold and hot-holding equipment so the line is well-stocked and staff members don't have to run in back to replenish supplies during the lunch crush, Stafford says. This has translated into better under-counter refrigeration, some use of hot-holding cabinets, and heated bases below the countertop for cooked pizzas.

Scratch Cooking

When it comes to back-of-the-house operations, in light of the push for healthier food, "we're getting away from convenience items and going back to scratch cooking," Cornyn says.

But with scratch cooking comes a labor and training component, he says. As a result, some school districts with limited labor have looked toward commissary setups, where one shared staff can perform prep work, such as chopping vegetables and cooking soups, for multiple schools in a district. Designing a daily food production schedule and training staff to cook new food through enjoyable learning sessions is also a part of this scratch-cooking "evolution," Cornyn says.