School Food Services in the Post-Pandemic World-September 15, 2020 Recap

Article | 10.09.2020

The September 16, 2020 Wednesdays With Wightman Town Hall focused on school food services in the post-pandemic world. 

Greg Monberg,  Director of Architecture, facilitated the session and panel discussion. The panel included Mr. Scott Reitano, Foodservice Design Consultant, Principal at Reitano Design Group. Ms. Lindsey Hill, School Nutrition Director, South Madison Community School Corporation. Dr. Thomas Langdon, a part-time Superintendent for Walkerville Schools and an educational consultant for Wightman, provided an educator's perspective to the panel discussion. 

To begin the discussion, Scott Reitano stressed that that school programs, facilities, and/or districts need to:

  1. Be able to assess the profitability of their menus to ensure that they are not in the red and, at the very least, break-even 
  2. Understand the particular role(s) that food services can play relative to their own specific needs
  3. Design food service areas in a manner that entices kids to make healthful selections
  4. To avoid inadvertently calling attention to them, ensure serving students subsidized meals receive identical service to those who pay in full for their meals 

Lindsey Hill explained that, like a restaurant, a food services program must generate income to sustain itself. When schools closed due to the pandemic, food service programs suffered substantial financial losses because there was no way for them to continue to generate revenue. Since individual States administer National, subsidized meal programs, the USDA had to put forth waivers allowing food distribution at pick-up locations. It was exceedingly difficult for foodservice programs to shift their distribution method without increased staffing so drastically. With the USDA waivers, all kids became eligible to receive food. In the past, students receiving subsidized meals required them to select a fruit or vegetable in full view of those who are not subsidized students when purchasing their meals. Because all students were now receiving the same food supplies, none felt stigmatized. Lindsey hopes that, someday, the government establishes a universal meal program that will, similarly, treat all students equally.

Scott noted that, despite being 70 years old, the National School Lunch Program suffers from 40% waste. Studies show that good nutrition leads to higher academic achievement; his research seeks new ways to entice students to make healthy meal selections while reducing wasted food on their plates. Scott feels it is essential to provide students with numerous selection options to ensure the items to choose from that they enjoy eating that are healthful.

Given the pandemic, Scott and Lindsey explore new ways of serving kids that prevent them from touching serving utensils or the food itself as one would at a traditional salad bar. Hygiene entails individually wrapping each food item or having a server present to place food selected on a plate for each kid. They noted that kids prefer to customize their meals. Allowing kids to pre-order meals using a mobile device could help cut cafeteria wait times while allowing limited staff to more efficiently process meals. Customized meals are placed into lockers in pick-up kiosks, which, if needed, can be heated or cooled.

Scott and Lindsey noted that packaging matters: food should look fresh, and logos can be designed to build trust and brand awareness. Grab-and-go, packaged food items can be placed in mobile carts strategically located in high traffic areas such as corridors or entry vestibules. Mobile carts that can readily be customized to serve hot or cold, pre-packaged grab-and-go food items are now readily available.

Regarding school foodservice trends, some of the most successful replicate hospitality, corporate, or health care settings. Kids enjoy exploring foods from different cultures and being offered samples of new foods to try.

Regarding delivery methods, ventless/drainless serving units combined with cashless payment options allow food servicing to occur virtually anywhere desired in a school facility.

Regarding the future of school nutrition, Scott and Lindsey stressed the importance of feeding kids before class time and offering breakfast options to focus on their schoolwork without feeling hungry. Creating student lounge areas that allow kids to gather and converse or study while eating nutritional foods also proves beneficial.

Our next meeting, on October 21, will feature Ian Jukes. To attend the next town hall, sign up here.

Here is a recording of the September 16th Wednesdays with Wightman Town Hall