Friday, June 26, 2020

Summer Inspiration Series: Formulating and Marketing for the New Norm School Lunch Rooms and University Dining Halls

Photo source: General Mills/Yoplait

The “Summer Inspiration Series” of Friday blogs is all about stepping out of our comfort zone in terms of innovation. Why not? We’re already operating in an unprecedented manner. Some blogs may explore new concepts in “other” food and beverage categories and discuss how they may apply to dairy, others may focus on new consumer behaviors and brainstorm on how dairy foods processors may respond in coming months. 

Institutional foodservice is getting revamped. For some elementary schools not much will change, as many are supplied with packaged meals from contracted vendors. The story is different for most middle schools and high schools where larger appetites and diet-conscious students pick and choose from an array of featured and ala carte items.

For university dining halls, there will no longer be a taco bar, make a sandwich or create your own pasta. Pre-packaged foods will dominate, with minimal onsite assembly of hot entrees. Schools that had at all-you-can eat meal plan will likely switch to a mini-mart format for carryout consumption.

These institutions need assistance from food and beverage manufacturers, who in turn need their packaging suppliers to provide solutions. Now’s the time to get busy, as many universities have moved up their open date, with campuses opening up in less than 60 days. This is a huge opportunity for packaged goods companies.

The dairy industry does a great job of offering individually wrapped single-serve products. Now’s the time, however, to start thinking of different portion sizes, alternative packages and targeted marketing. Further, production of these products will need to increase.

Think single-serve cottage cheese cups, which have been gaining traction in retail. These now have a place in dining halls. The same for parfaits, dessert cups and overnight oats. Condiments will be portion packs. Think dressings, dips and cheese sauce for chips and fries. Some of these products may require tweaked formulas to better handle the rigor of distribution and handling.

Fountain drinks and milk dispensers will be replaced with packaged beverages. Might the paperboard milk carton become fashionable again? These young adults needs pints of white for breakfast and lower-sugar, fun flavors with their meals. Cartons can be adorned with school colors and trivia. Feature athletes and award winners. Cartons provide an economical canvas to communicate with students.

This may be the first freshman university class to not feel the threat of gaining the freshman 10, as there will be better portion control and readily available nutrition information. Dairy processors must market smart products. Keep sugar content low and protein high. Educate students about protein quality. Keep labels clean and simple because students will be reading them. This is an opportunity to provide young adults with dairy facts and make them customers for life.
Photo source: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Babcock Hall

USDA Announces Flexibilities in School Lunch Programs

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on June 25, 2020, a range of nationwide flexibilities to ensure America’s children receive the nutritious food they need throughout the upcoming school year. These waivers give states, schools and childcare providers time to plan for how they will serve children in the fall, including allowing for new and innovative feeding options as the nation recovers from the coronavirus.  

“As the country re-opens and schools prepare for the fall, a one-size-fits-all approach to meal service simply won’t cut it,” says Perdue. “The flexibilities announced today give states, schools, and child care providers the certainty they need to operate the USDA child nutrition programs in ways that make sense given their local, on-the-ground situations and ensure America’s children can count on meal service throughout the school year.”

As fall nears, schools are considering many different learning models. This announcement empowers them to operate the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to best serve their students throughout the 2020-2021 school year. It also allows providers in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) to tailor operations to serve the children in their care. USDA is providing flexibilities around meal patterns, group-setting requirements, meal service times and parent/guardian pick-up of meals for kids across all three programs to address anticipated changes for the coming school year. 

USDA is also announcing a new flexibility that waives the requirement for high schools to provide students the option to select some of the foods offered in a meal. While this practice, known as “offer versus serve” is encouraged, social distancing or meals-in-the-classroom models would make this regulatory requirement difficult. Collectively, these waivers reduce barriers to meal service options that support a transition back to normal operations while simultaneously responding to evolving local conditions.

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