September 30/Washington/PRNewswire -- Some 94% of U.S. school districts are expected to meet updated federal nutrition standards for lunches by the end of the 2012-13 academic year, according to a national survey commissioned by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project. However, many school districts say that their current kitchen equipment and infrastructure limit their ability to do so and that foodservice staff need more training as they work to implement the USDA guidelines.

The report, "Serving Healthy School Meals: Despite challenges, schools meet USDA nutrition requirements," finds that although most districts expect to meet the updated standards with current facilities, one-third report that their current kitchen equipment makes it difficult to serve healthier foods, and one-quarter face challenges related to infrastructure, such as electrical and plumbing capacity.

Those with inadequate equipment report they are making do with less-efficient processes, such as manually chopping or slicing fruits and vegetables rather than using tools and equipment common in other foodservice operations, or having daily, and more costly, deliveries of fresh produce instead of being able to store it on-site. Survey respondents said that because they lack the needed kitchen equipment, workarounds are expensive, inefficient, and/or unsustainable.

"The vast majority of schools are showing that every day, serving healthy meals is absolutely feasible," says Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project. "But schools could serve foods that meet the nutrition standards more efficiently and effectively if they have the right equipment instead of having to make do with short-term workarounds."

Schools around the country were working to meet updated lunch nutrition standards at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. The standards -- which called for schools to offer more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products -- were the first major change to school meals in more than 15 years.

The project commissioned Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, to assess the challenges related to kitchen equipment, training, and infrastructure in this first-of-its-kind, nationally representative survey of 3,372 school food service directors or their designees. The survey was taken between August and December 2012, so the responses reflect the circumstances as schools worked to implement the updated guidelines for the first time. By March 2013, more than 70% of school districts reported they had met the new standards.

Other findings:

  • Although 91% of schools indicated they had faced one or more challenges to achieving full implementation by the start of the 2012-2013 school year, the vast majority (94%) said they expected to meet the updated standards by the end of the school year.
  • Some 90% had made or expected to make at least one change in operations in order to meet the new meal requirements, such as using recipes that could be used across the school district; buying more ready-to-eat foods from vendors; or, making more meals prepared from fresh ingredients, known as "scratch" cooking. Just over half (55%) have moved to or expected to move to more scratch cooking, which could mean schools would need more equipment and space to prepare meals on-site and store fresh ingredients.

The two challenges districts reported most frequently in their efforts to meet the standards were purchasing healthier foods (76%) and training staff (64%). Other challenges included needing more staff hours; an incomplete understanding of the new meal requirements, including how to qualify for the additional 6-cents-per-lunch reimbursement; and the need for updated equipment and infrastructure.

This report follows recent steps by the federal government to improve school kitchens; for example, Congress appropriated $10 million in fiscal year 2013 to USDA to distribute for school food service equipment. Separately, the bipartisan School Food Modernization Act of 2013 would establish a new loan and grant assistance program within USDA to help schools upgrade kitchens and dining areas, acquire new equipment, and authorize funding for training of and technical assistance to school food service personnel throughout the country.

"With many children relying on school foods for up to half of their daily calories, the information gleaned from districts across the country will help us better understand what schools need in terms of equipment, infrastructure, and training to ensure they are able to serve safe, healthy, and appealing meals that students across the country can enjoy," says Donze Black.

The Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project provides nonpartisan analysis and evidence-based recommendations on policies that impact the safety and healthfulness of school foods. The project is a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.