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Thousands of school nutrition professionals in Denver for national conference

Rising costs, staffing shortages causing challenges in lunchrooms nationwide
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Posted at 5:12 PM, Jul 08, 2023

DENVER — Thousands of people responsible for feeding the nation's students are in Denver this weekend preparing for a conference on school nutrition.

Their job is becoming more and more challenging amid inflation and labor and supply shortages.

School lunches have come a long way since creamed beef and rice were served to students in the 1930s and 40s.

“What’s really changed the most is the kids,” said Emily Hanlin, the executive director of food and nutrition services at the Cobb County School District outside Atlanta.

Hanlin says kids today have a lot more options.

“I think the sophistication of the palates of the kids is really the biggest change we've had,” said Halin.

In recent years, the focus has grown increasingly on serving healthier meals with less salt and sugar.

But it’s easier said than done.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents over 50,000 school nutrition professionals, says schools nationwide must deal with increasing costs, staffing shortages, and menu item shortages.

“It’s a complex thing,” said Hanlin. “It's so funny people are like, ‘Oh, you just feed kids.’ I'm like, ‘Well, there's a lot more to it.’”

The association is calling on Congress to address long-term economic and regulatory challenges.

Thousands of school nutrition professionals in Denver for national conference

“School meal programs are at a tipping point as rising costs, persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages jeopardize their long-term sustainability,” said Lori Adkins, the president of the SNA. “Congress has an opportunity to protect this critical lifeline by making reimbursement increases permanent and allowing us to offer free meals to ensure all students are nourished during the school day.”

In Colorado, most school districts will offer free meals to all students next school year thanks to a ballot measure voters approved last November.

It will become just one of a handful of states to do so.

In the meantime, over 6,000 people who run the nation’s school cafeterias are meeting in Denver for the association’s annual conference.

It’s a chance for them to learn from each other.

“It’s a giant puzzle, and every day we're trying to figure out how to make that puzzle work, and so any collaborating you can do and learn from others is fun,” said Katie Lopez, the assistant director of nutrition services at Aurora Public Schools.

On Saturday, Lopez gave the conference attendees a tour of the mobile feeding units APS uses to provide meals to kids throughout the summer.

“We’re able to meet the kids where they're at. They're at the parks, they're at the pools, but they're also still hungry and needing food,” said Lopez.

With a brand-new school a little over a month away, what these school nutrition leaders learn in Denver this week, will have an impact on students across the nation.


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