Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


The Continued Quest to Elevate K-12 School Foodservice

Schools reassess menus and equipment packages, plus take a closer look at from-scratch cooking.

K12 Metz Serving Ware Dallas SDMetz Culinary Management uses high-end servingware for food displays in the Dallas, Pa., school district.While K-12 foodservice has its unique challenges, many mirror those of noninstitutional foodservice. Like restaurants, schools must contend with the impact of inflation, supply chain disruptions and evolving food preferences.

According to the School Nutrition Association’s “2023 School Nutrition Trends Report,” increasing costs were the top challenge cited by 99.8% of the 1,230 school meal program directors surveyed. The report also found, among K-12 school lunch programs that charge for meals, average daily participation dropped by 13.2% for lunch and 23.1% for breakfast between October 2021 and October 2022.

“The survey also asked respondents if they’re still facing equipment and parts shortages, and 39% reported significant challenges, while 48% said there are moderate challenges,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, SNA’s director of media relations. Labor shortages continue to impact how schools look at equipment solutions. “Schools are reporting continued staffing challenges in kitchens, and this is worse for big school districts,” she adds.

Despite these issues, the K-12 foodservice segment keeps evolving in an effort to meet students’ higher expectations.

“What we see is an evolution from every market segment, with high school foodservice now looking like what universities used to be,” says Eric Goodrich, principal for the education segment at Rippe Associates, based in Minneapolis. “Even middle schools have more of a college feel.”

With this, Goodrich says, comes higher-end finishes, multiple food stations and elevated menus. “Schools want flexibility to serve just about anything to keep up with menu trends and try new things,” he says. “In many districts, it’s the changing of the guard. Foodservice directors who have been in the district 20 to 30 years are being replaced with young dietitians who have seen different levels of foodservice.”

This leads to an influx of new ideas and upgraded meal experiences with the intent of increasing student participation. “We’re in a scenario with customization, the perception of fresh and control of the tray, as it’s about giving students the ability to choose,” says Scott Reitano, principal, Reitano Design Group, Indianapolis. “Schools have a convenience audience, not a captive audience; even if you have an open campus in high school, if the school’s meal offerings are good, why go anywhere else?” He adds that if a school has 35% free or reduced lunches and participation is at 20%, the meal program is not what it should be.

“Students are looking for a Chipotle-style presence, so schools may bring product from the back of house to finish in front of customers, like pizza,” Reitano says. “The nutritional battle will go back and forth, but at the end of the day it’s about providing meals that kids will eat.”

K12 Monotany Breaker Bird Dawg Buffalo 2The Buffalo Bird Dawg is made with chicken tenders tossed in Buffalo sauce and finished with cheddar cheese and creamy slaw. The menu item created by K-12 by Elior is designed to adapt to a variety of regional flavors.

Impact of Regulations

To understand K-12 foodservice challenges and their impact on menus and equipment, it helps to first be aware of shifting governmental nutrition standards. Starting on July 1 of this year, schools will need to meet additional sodium reduction requirements.

“The USDA put that nutritional standard in effect last year, after the Target 1 sodium limits were implemented in 2014,” says Pratt-Heavner. “Additional sodium limits were supposed to take effect earlier, but were held off till this year due to the pandemic.” This has led to more schools implementing fresh prep and scratch cooking, she says, which may impact their equipment needs.

“Also, in January, the USDA released proposed long-term nutrition standards,” Pratt-Heavner says. Although not yet final, the expectation is the new nutrition standards won’t take effect until 2024, and the USDA would implement a third sodium reduction mandate in 2025.

In the meantime, SNA’s survey revealed more than 90% of respondents are contending with menu item shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages. Further 88.8% reported challenges obtaining sufficient menu items to meet the government’s current nutritional standards (such as whole grain, low sodium and low fat).

Christie White, owner of What’s 4 Lunch, which provides menu and equipment training in the K-12 space, says kitchens and equipment at schools change every day. “With new guidelines proposed, along with extra money put into commodities a little over a year ago, the USDA is looking for more scratch cooking in schools; however, many aren’t equipped for that,” White says.

Prior to COVID, half of the items offered in the schools that contract with foodservice provider Metz Culinary Management were whole grain rich; now 80% of these items are required to be whole grain rich. “We’ve had to look harder at our menu mix; maybe we just serve pizza and pasta with white flour, and everything else is whole grain rich,” says Adam Carlson, division chef for K-12 and corporate dining, Metz Culinary Management, Dallas, Pa. “We need to reach a 10% lower sodium target than we have currently, and every year is a little bit more. With scratch cooking, we can better control sodium levels.”

It’s not about just serving healthier food, but also enticing children to eat healthier. “[Federal nutrition requirements] put a tighter chokehold on how to get children to eat what’s in front of them,” Reitano says. “I would say, from an equipment standpoint, the impact is we can only control what we can control. When you serve healthier food and no one eats it, it’s not a win.”

It then comes down to creating appealing serving spaces, providing choices and, first and foremost, putting out meals that students want to eat.

K12 Reitano BHS Action StationTo add to the student experience, Reitano Design Group included a large action station in the Brownsburg High School Cafe in Brownsburg, Ind.

Increasing On-Site Production

According to White, school districts should view each of their kitchens as a franchise and put the proper protocols and procedures in place. “We should structure school kitchens under one program,” she says. “With food costs on the rise and additional government mandates that change food requirements, the question is what can food providers accommodate.”

White sees more fresh ground beef, pork chops and chicken as schools move away from prebreaded meats to whole muscle. “USDA’s federal mandates are dictating what the ingredients need to be, but food has to be prepared in a two- to three-hour time frame,” she says. “Scratch cooking is a head scratcher with food and staffing shortages. The impetus is on the staff, not just the equipment.”

When weighing these changes and challenges, school foodservice operators must take into account a variety of design and equipment-related considerations. For example, with the shift to more scratch kitchens comes a redistribution of cold storage space. “It’s changing how the square footage is allocated, with more cooler space and less freezers and dry storage,” Goodrich says. “It’s about making the most of a school’s footprint to execute the best program possible.”

Over the last year, K-12 by Elior divested Preferred Meals, a brand that served 170,000 students. “This service consisted of pre-plated, unitized meals similar to TV dinners for schools that didn’t have traditional kitchens or a Class 3 foodservice license,” says Jim Stilwell, vice president, program design for K-12 by Elior. That meant schools had to reassess their capabilities to see if they could implement traditional from-scratch programs. “We’re seeing accounts looking for an in-house caterer or someone that will prepare meals on-site,” Stilwell says.

To bring school kitchens up to par, production, as well as service equipment, was examined. “With 130 locations across the country this last school year, it was quite an undertaking. But by having the correct equipment in place to safely cook on-site, student meal participation jumped by 15% to 20%,” Stilwell says. “We’re all reacting to what the government is getting ready to do as far as mandating limited added sugars, adding more whole grains and continuing reducing sodium. Our menus for the next school year have a higher proportion of whole muscle meat, and we have to be mindful of that with our equipment.”

K12 Asian meals SwtSour Meatballs Angle CloseGlobal menu items, such as this sweet-and-sour meatball dish, have elevated K-12 menus and exposed students to unfamiliar flavors. Photo courtesy of K-12 by Elior

Equipment Ramifications

Preprepared meals taking a backseat in some schools leads to paying greater attention to kitchen flow and production. Key points of emphasis include where and how prep takes place, how the operation brings in food and whether extra cooler space is necessary due to these changes. “Many schools have small production kitchens that can streamline scratch cooking,” White says. “They don’t have to use one oven for cooking; they can use a combi, kettle or tilt skillets that were taken out and are returning to the back of house.”

Traditional cafeteria serving lines continue to make way for food court-style service. “We now have equipment in place and serving line setups to mimic quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants,” White says. “The question is, how can we create school kitchens in the same way?”

That coincides with a mindset switch from rethermalizing premade meals to preparing scratch programs, Stilwell says, adding that there are different talent and training requirements for staff working with raw meats versus rethermed product.

School foodservice operators now place more equipment on the front lines in the form of action or finishing stations, Carlson notes. “There is final cooking right on the line in front of students, whether in batches or cooked to order, with induction burners, saute pans and speed or impingement ovens,” he says. “The back-of-house challenges include dealing with older equipment that’s not always easy to replace.”

In some cases, making such changes may require operators to upgrade electrical or fire-suppression systems. “We’re looking at equipment that facilitates fast scratch cooking as we’re mixing in some convenience products due to the leaner labor market,” Carlson says. “Production is more of a consideration, with dicers, slicers, food processors and immersion blenders becoming fixtures as well as tilt skillets and multifunctional equipment for different cooking techniques.”

Metz now uses air fryer baskets, which include a basket-size sheet pan that fits into a convection oven. “This creates an air fryer effect for cooking fries and breaded items,” Carlson says. “In addition, combi ovens can handle many cooking techniques with the push of a button; schools that have a lot of staff turnover need that functionality.”

In the front of the house, Metz has incorporated shallow wavy pans and tilted risers for displays in an effort to increase food appeal.

Goodrich notes that, in the last four years, more school districts have switched from traditional central meal production to satellite kitchens that can handle production on-site. He contends that combi ovens, hoods and reach-ins are all that’s needed to pull off any menu.

“For schools that bring in cold menu items to finish off, we’ve seen meal participation rates go up 20% to 25%,” Goodrich says. “By batch cooking on-site, students can see product coming out of the oven, and staff takes more pride in their job. Plus, the equipment investment pays for itself in a few short years.”

Flexible equipment packages are often a go-to solution. “If you take out sodium in a meal, it doesn’t impact which oven is used; the goal is the same,” Reitano says. “We want to put as efficient and flexible production pieces together as possible. If nutritional makeup changes, it won’t have a major impact on what’s in the back of house.”

Speed also matters. “With an average of 23 minutes for school lunch, I will want students to get through the line quickly so they can sit and socialize, and staff can finish cooking for the next lunch,” Reitano says. “[Consequently], we’re seeing more creative speed ovens being launched and combi ovens with the ability to cook in different modes.”

Elevating K-12 Foodservice

Taking K-12 kitchens to the next level involves balancing out-of-the-box thinking and traditional production methods. “We always have to remember the front of house is for the kids and marketing food, and the back of house is for employees and production. Both can be elevated, just in different ways,” says White.

As an example, White points to the importance of proper holding, which is typically an afterthought. “The majority of food will be held,” she notes. “And understanding how to batch cook and hold effectively will impact food quality. It’s about food moisture needs and not diluting food value. Holding does not get enough attention; it needs to be simple.”

Although holding is the last step in food prep, it doesn’t stop with the cabinet, since operators hold food on the serving line. “If holding is not taking the menu into account, evaluated beforehand or meeting the menu goals, you’re decreasing quality along the way,” White says. “I’m looking at how to transition retail items into K-12. How can we use what retail is using for holding in K-12?”

Other ways to elevate K-12 kitchen performance include the use of tilting skillets and combis, but it extends beyond the back of the house. “Not every school can have a combi; we have to take out the apprehension of using these ovens,” White says. “Also, we can create mobile food stations in areas of the cafeteria or school to alleviate congestion in serving lines or for students who don’t want to go to the cafeteria.”

Carlson sees some school districts incorporate charbroilers on the line. “Kids can see live cooking and get flavors from open flames,” he says. “In many cases, I see the equipment is there, but staff isn’t trained on it.”

To get full functionality, it’s about teaching the foodservice team what can be done. “For example, they can still cook flattop-style burgers on a tilt skillet,” Carlson says. “It’s about retraining staff, making sure they are using proper perforated pans with steamers so veggies retain nutrients and are cooked properly, for example.” He adds that incorporating energy-efficient equipment is also beneficial to the bottom line over time.

Rippe Associates’ Goodrich says it’s time to stop satelliting hot food around the districts. “Schools need to find ways to rethermalize food that’s made ahead of time or cook-chill, which improves the quality and elevates the meal program,” he says. “Also, as schools and districts are looking at replacement equipment, investigate multifunctional units.”

Adapting in a Changing Environment

Student expectations represent another key consideration. “Younger generations are expecting fresh ingredients and scratch preparation,” Stilwell says. “They view sustainability as a form of wellness, and animal welfare is big with cage-free eggs, crateless pork and free-range chickens. And this generation respects and celebrates diversity, with increasing interest in global cuisines.”

K12 MetzK-12 foodservice staff is becoming more hands-on as school kitchens move from preprepared to scratch cooking. Photo courtesy of Metz Culinary Management Taking the classroom to the dining room can help educate students and lead to increased buy-in for school meals. “Kids know what it means when chicken has no antibiotics ever and products are non-GMO,” Carlson notes. “We’re seeing food used as a tool to educate and provide students with new experiences, such as with global flavors, unique ingredients, themed meals and tastings.”

These students are also technology focused, so incorporating capabilities typically reserved for restaurants continues to become more common. “It is incumbent for the K-12 industry to get on that trend and embrace how they get food outside of school,” Stilwell says. “Bring DoorDash-type services into K-12 to replicate service aspects, for example.”

Stilwell worked with a New Mexico school that requested pickup lockers for meals. “Students order ahead of time, receive a code and pick up their lunch,” he explains. “We also have a pilot program at the school with the goal to provide better service convenience through vending machines, which add multiple serving points outside of the lunch line.”

In addition to technology, much of K-12 meal evolution continues to emphasize speed of service. Stilwell notes that schools his company works with continue to remodel, seeking display cooking capabilities. “It’s about how quickly you can cook and serve in front of students,” Stilwell says. “We should be including teppanyaki grills as part of the service line. We’re also adding electric smokers for clients in Chicago, Nashville and New Mexico.”

This provides the means to incorporate whole muscle meat more easily with overnight cooking. “We advise clients that investing in traditional kitchens offers more bang for the buck than food trucks or moving production outside the kitchen,” Stilwell says.

Goodrich also notes that blast chillers help increase school kitchen functionality. Along with nontraditional equipment, schools seek units that are multifunctional and programmable. “It’s not just combis anymore, but we’re seeking the benefits of multifunctional tilting braising pans that are more ergonomically designed with intuitive controls and programmability,” Goodrich notes. “The flexibility in the back and front of house are merged together for better consistency, speed, yield and a better product. The more firepower in a small footprint benefits everyone and provides a quicker return on investment.”

The net result of all these changes? Elevated food that emulates commercial foodservice.