Budget Stretching Strategies for Education Food Service Providers


At Miami Beef® we have been a proud resource and wholesale provider of quality meat for education districts across the country.  From elementary schools to college and university food service programs, we have an important role in providing healthy meals that feed the next generation of Americans.

In this article, we’re going to share some facts about school food budgets, and how administrators can strategically plan economical meals without compromising on flavor or nutritional value for students.

The Financial Expectation of In-School Food Service Programs

While State and regional funding is provided for education, that funding does not usually extend significantly to provide nutritional meals for students.  From teacher salaries to administration costs, facility management and recreational equipment, government funding allocated from tax payer contributions fund elementary, middle-school and high-school education for our children.

Many people are surprised to learn that the food service program is rarely funded in the same manner.  In fact, food service for business is a unique department that has obligations to provide nutritious meals at a break-even rate, or in some cases, for profit to generate additional resources for the school.

It is important to think of in-school food services as a business model, because it is evaluated annually as such, and that means a great deal of pressure for administrators to make strategic choices about the menu and cost per meal equation.

Quick Facts About Student Lunch Programs in the United States

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is an important tool to assist with population health.  In the most recent USDA report (2017) participation in school lunch programs are growing annually. According to 2017 data:

  • Over 100,000 schools and educational institutions now provide a school lunch program.
  • Approximately 20 million free lunches are served daily.
  • Approximately 2 million children are provided reduced price lunches (student pays $.40 per day).
  • 8 million American children are provided lunches at full price.
  • 9 billion lunches are served across the country annually.

Subsidized lunches can be limited to schools that have a sufficiently large student population, where economies of scale allow for a reduced cost per meal, that is passed on to families.  However, in many rural locations where schools may have fewer students, or where fundraising is not engaged to subsidize meals, students and their families are required to pay full cost.

Cost Saving Strategies for School Meal Programs

There are many effective ways that school boards and food service programs can control costs, without compromising on the nutritional quality provided for students.  Maintaining accurate daily food expenditure data and meal planning is essential, to understand the per-student cost of service, while evaluating opportunities to reduce waste.

  1. One Mess Many Meals Methodology

Cooking for the next day is one strategy that many school meal providers embrace for freshness, but there are a variety of methods that can reduce preparation time and costs.

For example, the beef water slices prepared for a hot sandwich can become a healthy rice bowl with rich beef topping later in the same week.  It sounds like basic meal planning but planning your purchasing around 1-2 repurposed same-ingredient meals is a time and cost saving strategy.

  1. Source Produce from Local Suppliers

We all know that sourcing food locally provides additional nutritional benefit.  The less time fresh vegetables and fruits spend being trucked across the country (or imported) the more nutritional value the produce retains.  Additionally, local produce has a longer ‘shelf life’, which can help reduce spoilage and waste.

  1. Learn More About Specific Cuts of Meat and Preparation Methods

There are many cuts of beef that are economical for high volume food service.  The caveat is that some cuts of beef may require additional simmering time and advanced preparation, such as marinating.  While many school cafeterias seek quick-preparation food sources, those convenience foods are also at a premium price.

With some basic training, volume portions of meat can provide more value at a lower cost, if the food service team is willing to do some of the extra work to trim and prepare the portions.  Ask our team at Miami Beef® for expert advice on economy cuts and preparation.

Here are two other useful resources to consider, when evaluating your food preparation budget and expenditures.

  1. Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs Interactive Web-Based Tool

This is an interactive online “Food Buying Guide” that provides instruction on creating a favorite foods list, yield information and Recipe Analysis Workbook (RAW) to assist food service providers on cost-saving nutritional choices for student menus.  Provided by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).


  1. Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs; Final Rule

Established in 2012, this final legal rule updated the nutritional standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to create compliance wit the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  The ruling required schools to increase the protein, fruit, vegetable and whole grain content of meal plans for students.