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Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted a final rule imposing new professional hiring and training standards on all school food service personnel. The rule became effective on July 1, 2015 and created new standards that school districts must satisfy beginning this school year.

During the 2015-16 school year, school nutrition program directors must complete eight hours of training. Different requirements apply to other personnel. Part-time staff will have to receive at least four hours of training annually.

Training requirements may or may not represent new costs that need to be accounted for in district budgeting.  

Notably, districts are authorized to use food service funds to satisfy these requirements. Also, the New York State Education Department (SED) plans to provide a minimum of 18 hours of free professional standards training annually, beginning this school year. The department received $5 million of federal money to provide training and other activities required by the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Additional free and low-cost online and in-person training resources are available through the Institute of Child Nutrition, at www.nfsmi.org.

USDA goals
The USDA’s goals include ensuring that school nutrition professionals have the skills and knowledge to:

  • Meet food safety standards.
  • Comply with federal meal pattern requirements for healthy meals.
  • Maximize use of USDA foods.
  • Plan and serve cost-effective meals.
  • Accommodate students’ special dietary needs.
  • “Exceed the expectations of students, parents, and the local community.”

USDA officials say such training is needed to ensure that local school districts comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which altered school nutrition standards in an effort to prevent and reduce childhood obesity and provide nutritious meals and other foods to eligible students across the nation.

This law affects all participants in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, as well as four other programs: the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the Special Milk Program and the Summer Food Service Program. In total, these child nutrition programs provide various forms of assistance to over 30 million children across the nation.

While the current law expired on Sept. 30, 2015 and is due for reauthorization, all of the above listed programs other than the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program are permanently authorized and will continue so long as federal funds are available.

The USDA’s goal in establishing new minimum standards for school nutrition professionals who manage and operate the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program is to ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and training to create school meals that satisfy the various requirements of each program. The hope is that these new standards will improve the overall quality of school meals, and, in turn, the integrity and effectiveness of each child nutrition program.

Hiring standards
The USDA rule establishes specific hiring standards for school nutrition program directors hired after July 1, 2015. Directors who were hired before July 1, 2015 are “grandfathered” from the act’s requirements, but new hires and individuals who are promoted to supervisory positions will be required to meet the new hiring standards.

The hiring standards vary based on the number of students served by a given food service operation. For instance, individuals responsible for 10,000 students or more will need to have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent plus either (a) an academic major in nutrition, dietetics, family and consumer sciences, food service management, business, or a related field, (b) a state-recognized certificate for school nutrition directors or (c) at least five years’ experience in management of school nutrition programs.

Training requirements
Training topics must include, but are not limited to: free and reduced price eligibility; application, certification, and verification procedures; identification of reimbursable meals at the point of service; nutrition; health and safety standards; and any other topics identified by the Food and Nutrition Service in the future. Training topics must be determined based on each individual’s position and responsibilities within the program.

A listing of training programs is available at http://professionalstandards.nal.usda.gov.
If an individual is hired for a director, manager, or staff position on or after Jan. 1 of any school year, he or she still will be required to complete half of the annual training hours before the end of the school year. In addition, although the USDA did not require volunteers to satisfy any training requirements, it gave state agencies the authority to do so. SED has indicated that, at a minimum, volunteers will be required to complete Annual Civil Rights Training, which already is mandatory for all staff at schools and BOCES that receive federal funds from the USDA. The Child Nutrition Knowledge Center has made available a PowerPoint presentation that can be used for training purposes.  The presentation is entitled Civil Rights: Rights and Responsibilities in the School Nutrition Program, and it can be found at http://portal.nysed.gov/portal/page/portal/CNKC/.

The USDA places the burden on nutrition program directors to maintain adequate documentation to demonstrate compliance with the new standards for all individuals with responsibility related to the school nutrition program. In the event that a program is subject to a state or federal review, it must be able to certify that the program director meets the hiring and training requirements, and that each manager and staff member has completed the requisite training before the end of each school year.

The regulation does not specify the kind of records that must be kept regarding training. According to the School Nutrition Association, records that list the employee name, employer/school, training title, topic/objectives, training source, dates and total training hours would be appropriate to demonstrate training completion. The USDA has prepared a helpful training tracker tool, which is available at http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/professional-standards. SED also has created an Excel-based training tracker, a link to which can be found in the August 2015 memorandum, available at goo.gl/8kDyLn.    

The increased administrative and monetary burdens generated by the final rule may strain school food programs, which often operate at or near breakeven. The USDA, while recognizing these impacts, has clearly conveyed its view that the final rule is necessary to improve the integrity of school nutrition programs and to ultimately ensure that eligible students are provided the full range of benefits guaranteed by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

For more information, see http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/professional-standards. For information on training options, see http://professionalstandards.nal.usda.gov. The School Nutrition Association has information available at https://schoolnutrition.org/professionalstandards/.

Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts. This article was written by Jeffrey B. Same of Hodgson Russ LLP.

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