Serving Healthy School Meals

Staff development and training needs

Serving Healthy School Meals
Serving Healthy School Meals


Operating a school meal program requires knowledge and skills from a range of disciplines: the culinary arts, nutrition science, food safety, business administration, finance, purchasing, and marketing. The professionals who lead and work in school food service departments have the challenge of planning and executing economical menus that meet children’s dietary needs and appeal to their varying tastes. The foods that schools provide and the eating habits that they promote significantly influence the health of the nation’s children. Each school day, more than 30 million students in the United States receive their midday meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP),1 and more than 13 million get their morning meals through the School Breakfast Program (SBP).2 For many children, these meals supply almost half their daily calories.3

In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized updated nutrition standards for school meals. These standards are in alignment with the most recent information on children’s nutritional requirements as reflected in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans4 and recommendations issued by the Institute of Medicine.5 As a result, beginning in school year (SY) 2012-13, schools were required to incorporate more fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products into students’ meals.

In support of the updated standards, USDA finalized a rule in March 2015 that established minimum professional standards for school nutrition personnel who manage and operate meal programs. In acknowledgment of the complexity of school food programs and the need for ongoing personnel training, the rule establishes hiring standards for state and local school nutrition program directors and requires all staff to complete annual continuing education and training courses.6

To investigate the staff development and training needed for schools to adequately meet USDA’s updated meal standards, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a joint initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—commissioned a national survey of school food service directors or their designees, primarily food service managers. Data collection was conducted in SY 2012-13, which was before USDA released the proposed rule on professional standards.

Most survey respondents said they or their staffs needed more training than is currently available through their own resources or federal and state agencies. To meet the new meal requirements, the majority of school food authorities (SFAs) expected to make at least one change in their production approach, such as implementing standard recipes to ensure consistent nutrient content per serving and cooking more food from scratch. Those changes may require additional training in cooking skills, food safety, and the use of new ingredients or kitchen equipment.

This report, based on a nationally representative survey of school food service directors or their designees, describes the educational and experiential background of their staffs, as well as their assessment of training they need to implement USDA’s updated nutrition standards.

  • Finding 1: The most common form of training received by school nutrition professionals was on the job (59 percent of SFA directors and 76 percent of food service managers). SFA directors in small and very small SFAs (fewer than 2,500 students) were more likely to report receiving on-the-job training than those from larger SFAs. Only 29 percent of SFA directors and 7 percent of food service managers reported having bachelor’s degrees in food-related fields (nutrition, food service management, baking/culinary arts). SFA directors from large and very large SFAs (10,000 or more students) were more likely to have bachelor’s degrees than those from smaller SFAs.
  • Finding 2: Understanding compliance with the new nutrient requirements and meal standards, or patterns, was a top training need for all school nutrition personnel. Training in basic nutrition, cooking skills, and food safety was a top need for kitchen/cafeteria managers and cooks/front-line servers.
  • Finding 3: Only 37 percent of SFAs have budgets for staff development and training. Of those, about twothirds reported that the budgets are not sufficient to meet all of their training needs. Seventy-two percent of respondents reported that state child nutrition agencies would not provide all of the training and resources needed to meet the updated requirements.

Based upon the report findings and a series of specific suggestions discussed in the Kitchen Infrastructure, Training, and Equipment in Schools Workshop, the project recommendations are as follows:

Recommendation 1: School officials should prioritize and plan opportunities for training of food service personnel.

Recommendation 2: Federal, state, and local policymakers should prioritize making funds available to help school food service personnel complete training.

Recommendation 3: Nonprofit and for-profit organizations that have an interest in improving community wellness and children’s health and education should work collaboratively with schools and make use of community resources to increase and enhance training opportunities for school nutrition staff.

A sizable majority of SFAs reported needs for additional training and technical assistance to successfully implement the updated meal standards and improve the quality and appeal of their meals. This report will outline the top training needs of SFAs as they work to provide healthier foods to the students they serve.

Download the full report.


  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “National School Lunch Program: Participation and Lunches Served (Data as of June 5, 2015),”
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, “School Breakfast Program Participation and Meals Served (Data as of June 5, 2015),”
  3. Mary Story, “The Third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study: Findings and Policy Implications for Improving the Health of US Children,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109, no. 2 (2009): S7-S13, doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.11.005.
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, 7th ed., http://
  5. Institute of Medicine, School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2009).
  6. Federal Register (2015), 7 CFR Parts 210 and 235, “Professional Standards for State and Local School Nutrition Programs Personnel as Required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010: Final Rule,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 80 (40) (March 2, 2015), as-required-by-the.

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