National Survey Finds Significant Training Needs for School Nutrition Staff

Report calls for collaboration to help employees meet new professional standards

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National Survey Finds Significant Training Needs for School Nutrition Staff

Sixty-eight percent of school food service directors said they needed training on development or modification of menus as healthier school meal nutrition standards took effect, according to a new report from the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Most directors (66 percent) believed that their staffs’ training needs exceeded what would be covered with their own budgets. The report, Serving Healthy School Meals: Staff development and training needs, recommends that local, state, and federal policymakers make funds available and collaborate to help school nutrition personnel expand their skills.

The report summarizes data from a nationally representative survey of school food authorities (SFAs), the local agencies that administer the national school lunch and breakfast programs. Responses were collected during the 2012-13 school year, the first in which SFAs had to comply with healthier nutrition guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of December 2014, 95 percent of schools nationwide were in compliance with the updated standards.

“The school meal program is essentially the biggest restaurant in most communities, and it serves some of the pickiest customers,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. “To provide the healthy, delicious menus all students deserve, school food service staffs need a range of culinary, nutrition, and financial skills. But their opportunities to develop this knowledge are too limited.”

The report released today provides a snapshot of school nutrition employees as USDA’s first-ever professional standards for this important workforce take effect. As of July 1, 2015, all food service staff members will have to complete annual continuing education and training courses, just as other school personnel do, and new hires for nutrition director positions at the local and state levels must meet minimum educational requirements. According to the report, just 29 percent of SFA directors and 7 percent of food service managers surveyed in 2012 had bachelor’s degrees in related fields such as nutrition, food service management, or culinary arts. Directors for SFAs with fewer than 10,000 students were less likely to have bachelor’s degrees than were their peers from larger SFAs.

Earlier this year, USDA announced $9.5 million in grants to help state agencies implement hiring and training programs for school nutrition personnel. The department also launched the Team Up for School Nutrition Success Initiative, which provides workshops and peer-to-peer mentorship for SFA leaders working to overcome challenges with menu planning, financial management, procurement, and student engagement in meal programs.

The updated USDA school meal standards require lunches and breakfasts to avoid excess fat, salt, and calories and to include more lean protein, low-fat dairy products, whole-grain rich foods, and fruits and vegetables. As a result, 90 percent of SFAs surveyed said they had made or expected to make at least one change to their food production approach. For example, 55 percent reported they had moved toward preparing meals from scratch, using fresh ingredients as opposed to prepackaged items.

Most SFAs said that to make the needed adjustments, all staff would need training to understand the healthier meal requirements. Other frequently requested training topics are as follows. 

  • For food service directors and management teams:
  • Developing or modifying menus to meet updated meal requirements.
  • Marketing and promoting healthier meals.
  • For kitchen and cafeteria managers:
  • Completing production records to document food quantities prepared and served.
  • Basic nutrition training.
  • For cooks and front-line servers:
  • Basic cooking skills.
  • Basic nutrition training.

The results show that, at the time of the survey, many of these needs would not be met unless schools were to commit new resources or unless state and federal policymakers offered additional support. Only 37 percent of SFAs reported having budgets for staff development and training, and of those, about one-third said the money would be sufficient to cover all of their needs. Furthermore, 72 percent said that their state child nutrition agencies would not provide all of the training and resources needed to meet the updated meal requirements.

“The new professional standards underscore the crucial role of school meal programs in promoting students’ health and education,” said Donze Black. “Schools and policymakers should ensure that nutrition personnel have the time and resources needed to learn skills that will help them successfully run these complex programs.”


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

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