Insights into non-commercial foodservice

Understanding the school food landscape

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

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Public, private, religious, managed, self-operated, primary, secondary, university, trade school. Food manufacturers eyeing the massive school foodservice landscape have to first understand the animal they’re dealing with, according to the latest data from foodservice data and analytics firm CHD Expert.

“It’s about understanding the operator, who they are why they are, how long they’ve been around and what the size is,”​ Brad Bloom, director of sales at CHD Expert, told FoodNavigator-USA. The firm maintains a database of 109,000 K-12 schools, 4,800 universities, and more than 13,000 school districts through the US. “Enrollment is also big, because that has an impact on the amount of meals served per day.”

The primary school segment accounts for approximately 74% (or 80,700) of the total K-12 market, with secondary schools making up the remaining 26%. (The CHD Expert database defines primary schools as kindergarten-6th grade and secondary schools as 7th-12th grade.) Public schools dominate the primary and secondary schools landscape, accounting for approximately 81% of all K-12 institutions, according to the data.

Roughly 62,100 (77%) of primary schools are public or government operated, while 15% are private, and 7% are categorized as religious. Of the estimated 28,300 CHD Expert-documented secondary schools, 93% (26,400) are public, meaning public primary schools constitute a major potential market for school foodservice providers.

k-12 enrollment
K-12 enrollment by market segment, from CHD Expert

“K-12 is a different animal because it’s almost all public,”​ Bloom noted. “There typically the supplier decisions are made at the district level as opposed to the school level.”

Primary schools are the most prevalent school type in the US, accounting for approximately 83% of total K-12 enrollment. Of the approximately 90,000 primary schools throughout the US, 87,000 have enrollments of less than 1,000 children, according to July 2014 CHD Expert data.

Secondary schools tend to be larger, with multiple primary schools feeding into large high schools. Out of roughly 18,000 secondary schools across the nation, about 12,300 of them have fewer than 1,000 students enrolled, according to the CHD Expert database. When considering schools with more than 1,000 students enrolled, secondary schools outnumber primary schools.

When selecting food products for their schools, staff use specific criteria to choose vendors, and the vendors themselves use their own factors and variables to guide them to the schools they want to sell into. Many use one of “the big three”—Aramark, Sodexo or Compass—for facility management; or purchase through Group Purchasing Organizations to leverage buying power; others are self-operated, which offers the most flexibility from a supplier standpoint.

There’s really no rhyme or reason to why a large, public university or small private school chooses one of big three or self-operates,”​ Bloom noted.

Midwest leads Free and Reduced Lunch Program use

Foodservice vendors also must comply with the federally assisted National School Lunch Program, which had 31 million children participating as of 2012, according to figures from the USDA. According to CHD Expert data, approximately 4,300 school districts in the US have more than 500 students on the Free and Reduced Lunch program.

The three states that provide the most Free and Reduced Lunches as a percentage of total lunches served are Texas at 8%, California at 6.8%, and Illinois at 6.1%. On a broader geographical basis, the Midwest Territory has the largest percentage of school districts with Free and Reduced Lunches at 39.5%, followed by the North East Territories at 22% and South Central Territories at 15.2%. According to CHD Expert data, approximately 41.8% of the school districts in the country serve more than 2,000 meals per day.

free and reduced lunches
Free and Reduced Lunches vs. enrollment, from CHD Expert

Schools nationwide are also working to comply with stricter nutrition standards from the USDA, as part of a campaign championed by First Lady Michelle Obama to eradicate empty calories. The new standards, which took effect this summer for all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, will build off previously established standards that limited serving sizes and limited which foods were deemed healthy enough for the program.

Some school districts have balked at the federally mandated guidelines for being too strict, with some even opting out of the funding and covering the cost of free and reduced lunches themselves. Still, the push to provide healthier meals for students from families meeting low-income guidelines is impacting schools’ overall meal offerings beyond the mandated program, Bloom said.

Four-year colleges and universities lead meal breakdown

CHD Expert has also evaluated the colleges and universities foodservice landscape, finding that of the roughly 4,900 universities in the USA, 52% are four-year institutions, 34% are two-year institutions and 14% are technical and trade schools.

Interestingly, private four-year universities outnumber public, and there is a high percentage of religious technical and trade schools. The meal breakdown among Colleges and Universities is led by four-year institutions, which sell 947 meals per day, compared to two-year institutions’ 729 and technical and trade schools’ 79.

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