In order to meet new USDA mandates, school foodservice operators are learning how to better leverage their equipment packages to make the most of their often tight budgets.
In addition to foods prepared in a traditional production kitchen, students at one Indiana high school can choose from three different kiosks that provide home-style entrées, fresh sub sandwiches and ethnic dishes, including Italian, Mexican and Asian entrées.
"This is where K-12 foodservice is headed," says Scott Reitano, principal at Foodservice Solution Group, based in Indianapolis. "We're even seeing coffee shops as part of these designs."
K-12 foodservice is emphasizing merchandising, too, as these operators add more grab-and-go items and pay close attention to speed of service.
Today, trends that have become more common on college campuses are being seen in high schools and middle schools as well since many of these students have more disposable income to spend than in the past. "There is no such thing as a captured audience, but there is a convenience audience," Reitano says. "Will students spend an extra $2 for a school lunch or hang onto it and go to Taco Bell or the convenience store after school?"
A federal mandate to serve healthier meals while working with limited budgets and outdated kitchens presents a unique set of challenges for the K-12 foodservice segment. Food sales in schools are predicted to total close to $18 billion in 2012, an increase of just 1 percent from a year prior, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm. Approximately 31.7 million students purchased school lunches on average in 2010, an increase of only about 1 percent from 2009.
"School funding is based on property taxes, which has a ripple effect on budgets," says Kristin Sedej, owner of S2O Consultants Inc., based in Cary, Ill.
The general freeze on municipal budgets has resulted in fewer design-build projects for school districts and more renovations. "Recent improvements have included full-out scatter systems or food courts, but these kids still require a sense of order, so natural lines and traffic control are key," Reitano says.
In addition to the economic challenges of the day, school foodservice operators must contend with new federal regulations that look to ban fried foods, sodas and other fat- and sugar-laden items, while pushing for more fresh fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias. As part of this, the federal guidelines indicating what foods are healthy enough to make the cut for free and reduced-priced meals have become a moving target.
"It's a challenge providing meals that students like and that meet federal guidelines," Sedej says. "The food schools make money on aren't big sellers. There is a direct conflict between where additional income can be generated and the desire of the government to provide healthier meals."
In the back of house, there has been more attention on incorporating versatile equipment, such as combi ovens, warming cabinets and retherm units. "Multiuse and flexible equipment has become the norm," Sedej says.
At the same time, school kitchens continue to shrink. With less money and equipment, it has become more difficult to create innovative programs and increase volume. "[Due to budget restrictions] this segment is not easily able to utilize new technology, so they have to make do with the equipment they already have," Sedej says.
Despite the financial challenges, to be successful, school foodservice programs have to appeal to more educated and sophisticated student tastes. "Older students, in particular, want to see food prepared in front of them," Sedej says.