Drops in school lunch program participation litter the everyday news. Most schools blame the new Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act guidelines for their recent participation problems. Many programs claim the students are not getting enough to eat, the price of preparing healthy meals is too high, or more and more food is being thrown away and waste is a major issue. While looking at the difference in programs that are succeeding compared to those who are not, I find that what these struggling program directors are really saying is, my portion sizes were not controlled properly and now that they must be controlled, our meals appear much smaller. These program directors never really considered what their plate cost was nor were their staff trained to recognize a reimbursable meal at the point of sale. So now that they have to be more precise they see they are losing money, or never considered what their student customers wanted to eat and just changed the menu to meet the guidelines, hoping the students would learn to understand they needed to eat healthy.
Schools that have maintained successful cafeteria programs have watched plate
costs, reworked menus to include the products their student patrons want, and have trained their staff, students, and parents on the new meal patterns. It’s not magic, it’s called, “running your program like a business”. Those who do it succeed, those who do not, well… you get the idea. Successful programs employ these three principals; cost control, marketing/product development, and communication/training. The new guidelines make it more difficult but let’s face it, it is what it is. Let’s say cafeteria programs are a heavily government regulated business, but a business none the less and needs to be run like one.
Especially over the past two years I have been asked by Business Administrators and Food Service Directors, why their programs are losing money. In most cases it has boiled down to the above mentioned reasons. Most school food service programs have labor costs that restrict them from making money, but if plate costs, portions, reimbursements, and menus are controlled, the loss can at least be acceptable and out of the FSD’s control. A good start on reviving a struggling program is to establish an attainable plate cost, a menu based on eating trends in your area within HHFKA guidelines, and educate staff, students, and parents on what makes a reimbursable lunch or breakfast. Control these and the rest will gradually fall into place.
Kudos to those of you who understand and practice this, for those who do not help is available if you ask. Do not be afraid to seek the advice of those who run successful programs to help turn yours around.
As students head back to school, more will have access to a healthy school breakfast thanks to an increase in innovative programs including Grab-and-Go, Breakfast in the Classroom and Second Chance Breakfast programs. School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2013 Back to School Trends Report reveals that the significant nationwide growth in School Breakfast Program participation is being fueled primarily by large school districts utilizing alternative delivery models to reach students who wouldn’t otherwise have time to eat breakfast through traditional cafeteria service. Tight school bus timetables, late student arrivals and early class schedules can limit participation in traditional cafeteria breakfast
This expansion of the School Breakfast Program occurs as schools are required to meet new nutrition standards for school breakfast. Starting this year, half of all grains served with school breakfast must be whole grain rich, and meals must meet new calorie ranges and limits on trans-fat. School cafeterias are also working toward 2014-15 school year requirements for larger portions of fruits/vegetables offered with each school breakfast.
According to USDA data, over the last year, breakfast ADP (Average Daily Participation) has increased nationally from 12.81 million students to 13.15 million students, a 2.59% increase. SNA’s survey found that about one-quarter (25.2%) of school districts offering breakfast say they plan to add to or expand their breakfast service in the 2013-14 school year, even as school meal programs are tasked to meet new standards. Expansion plans are more common among the largest districts (serving 25,000+ students), with 46.3% planning to expand breakfast service.
Of the school districts planning to expand their breakfast programs: 69% will increase grab-and-go options which allow students to quickly pick up their meal in the cafeteria, at a hallway kiosk, or as they enter the school building, and eat the meal in the classroom or on their way to class. 46.8% plan to expand breakfast in the classroom, which allows students to eat breakfast at their desks, usually during morning announcements. Breakfast may be delivered directly to the classroom, or students may bring their grab-and-go meals to the classroom to eat. 23.8% will increase second chance breakfast, which allows students to receive breakfast after first period.
Research suggests that school breakfast participation improves the academic, health and economic futures of America’s students. “School nutrition professionals want to ensure students have the nutrition they need to succeed, so
they are thinking outside of the box and working within their school communities to make sure every student has access to a healthy school breakfast,” said Leah Schmidt, SNS, School Nutrition Association President and Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Hickman Mills C-1 School District (Missouri).
“By providing options ranging from school breakfast vending machines and kiosks located at the school doors to breakfast delivered and served in the classroom, school meal programs are making it easy for students to choose the healthy options available with school breakfast,” said Schmidt. The 2013 Back to School Trends Survey, the 13th in this survey series, was distributed as an online form in June/July 2013. The survey netted 521 responses from school nutrition