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K-12 Foodservice: Back to School

What’s in the works for K-12 school foodservice this year? USDA standards, a wave of legislation, budget concerns, and nutrition education are on the minds of many school foodservice directors right now.

Back-to-school is coming soon. What’s in the works for K-12 school foodservice this year? USDA standards, a wave of legislation, budget concerns, and nutrition education are on the minds of many school foodservice directors right now.

School nutrition standards in flux

In February 2023, the USDA released proposed updates to school nutrition standards. Calling the updates “the next step in an ongoing effort toward healthier school meals,” the USDA said the standards reflect the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and “build in plenty of time for planning and implementation to ensure the school meals community and the kids they serve have the best chance for long-term success.” The new standards, if adopted, would limit added sugars in school menus, with a phase-in beginning in Fall 2025. 

Meanwhile, sodium reductions are already taking effect for the Fall 2023 school year: “High school lunches must contain less than 1,280 mg of sodium and breakfasts must contain less than 640 mg of sodium. Also as of July, elementary lunches must have less than 1,110 mg of sodium and breakfasts must have less than 540 mg,” reports FoodService Director.

As of March 29, 2023, the School Nutrition Association called on the USDA to ease up on strict nutrition standards and focus instead on increasing access to school meals. They also expressed concern that tightening standards would reduce participation, saying, “Since schools are the healthiest place Americans eat, a further drop in student meal participation would be contrary to goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans” (FoodService Director).

Budgets matter

As schools focus on budget challenges and some are in debt, Metz points to the impact of food cost inflation on school foodservice. Meanwhile a new federal bill introduced in March 2023, Healthy Meals Helps Kids Learn Act, would increase reimbursements for school meals. “Food is just as important to their education as a textbook or a laptop,” said the bill’s author, U.S. Representative James P. McGovern (FoodService Director).

Student-friendly school meal initiatives

As school foodservice leaders look to leverage their roles in promoting student well-being, some states are considering or enacting new legislation, reports FoodService Director.

  • Universal free meals: Both Montana and Vermont are considering laws that would create universal free meals. Some states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and Nevada, already offer them.
  • Longer lunch periods: Legislators in both Maine and Connecticut are considering a bill that would mandate at least 30 minutes for lunch. 

New school menu trends

Chartwells, in its latest roundup of food trends for school meals, points to driving forces on K-12 menus this year:

  • Global flavors
  • Spicy seasonings
  • Community connection, e.g., school gardens
  • Eco-friendly eating
  • Bold sauces
  • Smoothies
  • Nutritious desserts, e.g., black bean brownies
  • Plant-based items
  • Colorful produce
  • Signature sandwiches

Nutrition in school meals

While school nutrition standards play a definitive role in shaping nutrition for school meals, some industry leaders are taking a participative approach by offering student educational programs. Metz says that “Instilling good nutritional habits in children is an important part of their education and helps them develop important lifelong eating habits that lead to better overall health.” They promote on-site educational programs and encourage using school gardens to interest students in nutrition.

Some school districts are engaging kids in wellness through student recipe contests across the country, reports FoodService Director

Tufts University, in its Food is Medicine initiative, cites school foodservice as an important incubator for the health of our population. They encourage us to eat more nuts and seeds, seafood omega-3, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and polyunsaturated fats—and less sodium, processed meat, sugary beverages, and unprocessed red meat.

As you weigh factors at play and changes afoot for your school menus this fall, look to Chicken of the Sea for healthy, economical menu solutions. And check out to get a leg up on cost control and seafood nutrition.

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