8 Ways Public School Lunch Menus
Have Changed Since COVID-19
COVID-19 changed public school lunch menus and school meal service dramatically. It used to be that public school lunch menus were designed only for cafeteria service. Many schools offered multiple daily options, a la carte service and a salad/fruit and vegetable bar. Students came through the service line, having their trays filled with the foods they chose for the day.
Since COVID-19 shut down schools across the United States in March 2020, foodservice directors have adapted their existing public-school lunch menus as much as possible and created new ones that require less contact and potential for spreading contaminants.
Here are 8 ways that public-school lunch menus have changed thanks to COVID-19:
- Public school lunch menus now accommodate a variety of service styles: socially distant meals in the cafeteria, meals in the classroom, grab & go meals from kiosks or carts in common areas or for drive-thru pick up or delivery under a distance learning scenario.
- Multiple daily options have been trimmed from public school lunch menus. With some schools offering meals in a variety of service styles, the time previously spent prepping multiple daily offerings is now redirected to packaging and distributing meals to grab & go stations and classrooms, and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing protocols.
- There are more cold entrées on public school lunch menus now because they can easily be preassembled and packaged into individual-sized containers. Following COVID-19 school closures, NutriStudents K-12 responded to the market need by expanding our public-school lunch menu rotation to 45 weeks, adding five weeks of entirely cold meals to the rotation.
- There are more prepackaged, individually wrapped products on today’s menus because they are convenient, can easily be packaged for bundled or grab & go meals, and minimize contact between foodservice staff and students. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and its Seamless Summer Option require several vegetable subgroups, which can be difficult to meet using prepackaged, individually wrapped items. Under the COVID-19 waivers issued by the USDA, schools can follow guidelines for the Summer Food Service Program, which are more lenient on the variety of vegetables served. The Summer Food Service Program also offers a higher reimbursement rate to schools, which is helpful since schools saw participation levels plummet during distance learning.
- Foodservice programs offering meals in the cafeteria and in the classroom are using quick-cook, scratch-made recipes to maximize use of USDA Foods/commodity foods and keep costs as low as possible. NutriStudents K-12 USDA-compliant, student-approved menus are developed with a “commodities first” approach to sourcing ingredients. Some of the quick-cook, scratch-made recipes include Asian Chicken Bowl, Curry Gravy Meatballs, Bean and Cheese Burrito, and Sloppy Joe Mac. NutriStudents K-12 menus use USDA Foods such as beef crumble and meatballs, fajita chicken, cheeses, pasta, grains, and canned fruits, beans and vegetables.
- Many districts are pre-assembling hot or cold daily offerings into single-serve compartmentalized containers. Pre-assembled meals can be easily distributed through grab & go stations or in classrooms to help limit contact between staff and students. This also ensures that all the required components for a reimbursable meal are provided to students, which simplifies the completion of food production reports and reimbursement claims.
- Public-school lunch menus can no longer use salad bars/fruit and vegetable bars or other self-serve options due to hygiene and sanitation requirements. Fruit and vegetable bars were popular ways for schools to offer students a variety of fruits and vegetables to meet the minimum requirements of the nutritional guidelines of the National School Lunch Program. Now, all vegetable subgroups in the National School Lunch Program must be incorporated into the daily offerings. Similarly, share tables, which helped reduce food waste, are also no longer allowed.
- Many schools have to frequently substitute items on their published public-school lunch menus because of shortages of in-demand products and ingredients from manufacturers or due to inventory management issues. The entire food distribution system was turned on its head when COVID-19 closed schools. Public-school lunch menus were quickly adapted without a full understanding of participation levels. The result was more products in inventory than anticipated.
Many of the changes to public-school lunch menus have led to increased costs. Single-serve packaging, bundled meals, prepackaged products, less use of commodity foods all wreak havoc on a school foodservice budget. Pair those increased costs with lower participation levels from students learning remotely or students’ lackluster interest in cold foods and many foodservice programs are struggling financially.
NutriStudents K-12 can help programs facing financial hardship. A wide variety of student-approved menus, including hot and cold options that use USDA Foods to their fullest extent, and a streamlined market basket can help increase COVID-19 participation levels and decrease costs. Downloadable compliance reports, Administrative Review support, marketing resources and automated tools for menu cycle planning, tracking inventory and scaling recipes can help simplify daily and weekly tasks. We can help you run a profitable, USDA-compliant, efficient child nutrition program with a more than 40 weeks rotation of student-approved public-school lunch menus and behind-the-lines support. Contact us today.