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Technology can play a critical role in ensuring up-to-date reports on the many moving parts in a school nutrition program

3 strategies to address new school nutrition standards


Technology can play a critical role in ensuring up-to-date reports on the many moving parts in a school nutrition program

The summer of 2022 brings changes to school meal requirements for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, as school nutrition programs transition from pandemic-era flexibilities—such as loosened restrictions around food preparation and packaging—back to pre-pandemic requirements. Millions of pre-K–12 students across the nation depend on school meals every day, and the changes are significant.

Below, I’ve highlighted what these requirements mean for school districts and key strategies for school leaders to consider if hurdles arise.

Learn from the pandemic’s impact on school nutrition programs

School meals are critical to students’ well-being and readiness to learn. According to Feeding America, one in four children is estimated to be struggling with hunger. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on just how vital school meals are for children. On average, students eat more fruits, vegetables, and milk when at school, when eating at school, than at home. That nutrition is critical and contributes to a productive learning environment where students succeed.

It’s clear that the pandemic had a significant impact on school nutrition programs. To help cope with the challenges brought on by the pandemic—such as supply-chain issues and alternative feeding methods—the USDA relaxed serving method requirements.

School districts reworked their menus, sometimes daily, to create options that worked with curbside meals, to-go weekend meals and the ever-changing available products. Each iteration required re-analysis, more paperwork and extreme stress on the program operators.

While this stress drained our school meal teams, the loosened restrictions allowed school districts to experiment, and great ideas like to-go weekend meals kept students fed throughout remote learning.

Craft a menu that meets requirements and appeals to students

The current nutrition and meal pattern requirements began in 2012 as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). HHFKA was rolled out with a phased approach, meaning that each school year’s meal pattern requirements were slightly different. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) adjusted the original requirements as school districts put HHFKA into practice and found unintended complications such as maximum serving limits of meats and grains. 

Crafting a menu to meet government requirements and still appeal to students is both an art and a science, and the HHFKA requirements have undergone several changes. While school nutrition programs rework menus with each change, the revamped menus have had a ripple effect.

For example, each time menus change, school districts must:  

  • Source new products and alter current ones
  • Test new recipes
  • Analyze the new menu plans
  • Retrain staff

When school districts adjust menus, vendors must adjust forecasts and warehousing plans. Manufacturers might even reformulate products, which is a million-dollar process.

Keep ahead of the curve with technology

To avoid the ripple effect of menu changes as school districts transition back to pre-pandemic requirements, education leaders should consider implementing a nutrition program management solution. Between keeping track of the new requirements, meal applications, income forms, and meal payments at each school and the many other rotating changes, school meal teams have a lot to tackle this upcoming school year. School nutrition programs are challenging and ever-evolving. Still, technology can help school districts meet the more stringent requirements from USDA—even when flexibilities are available—preventing back-and-forth menu changes.

Outlining a school nutrition plan is a team effort. With ongoing supply chain issues, staffing shortages and more, school districts must prepare for these issues and potential future issues. Nutrition program management can provide up-to-date reports on everything from students’ lunch funds to USDA-approved menu analysis, which makes keeping ahead of the curve a bit easier. Integrating technology into a school district’s school nutrition program helps program operators keep up to date on changing USDA guidelines, paperwork and more.

School meals are essential to students’ academic—and non-academic—success. As students return to in-person learning, there’s so much on educators’ minds. However, worrying if their students are hungry in their classrooms shouldn’t be one. School meals can benefit everyone and contribute to a thriving learning environment; through teamwork, technology, and a plan for change, this challenging operation can become less stressful and more manageable.

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