Cash In with a School Catering Program to Boost Nutrition Revenue

Tap into new revenue by offering catering services. Use your school nutrition program’s kitchens and talent to deliver quality meals.

school catering program

A school catering program can help your program fight its uphill battle against inflation, lower participation, and staffing challenges. It’s no secret these challenges plague school nutrition programs in every state—the proof is in the (USDA-compliant) pudding. Food prices keep climbing, student participation fell off after the pandemic, and it’s getting harder than ever to recruit, hire, and retain school nutrition staff.

Tapping a powerful new funding stream can be your secret ingredient for long-term program sustainability and success. That’s where a school catering program comes in.

A school catering program can help you address challenges like:

  • School food prices increased by 296% between April 2022 and April 20231  
  • Average daily participation (ADP) falling with a return to traditional operations2 
  • A tight labor market, with nearly 97% reporting staffing shortages in a recent SNA survey3  

Your school nutrition non-profit food service account isn’t alone in facing these challenges. That’s why school nutrition leaders increasingly think strategically and outside the box to boost meal program revenue. Catering’s rising to the top as a crème de la crème tactic.

School catering as a business and revenue tactic

When school nutrition programs need new ways to increase their revenue, the same tactics traditionally come to mind. Non-reimbursable paid meals, vending machines, and popular snacks all add to your program’s income, but their impact may not be enough. Catering can deliver a stronger revenue boost.  

Think of it this way: for all the hours your school lunch staff spends preparing school meals during the workday, how much would it cost to prepare smaller catering orders? They already have the expertise and equipment to efficiently produce meals on time at a consistent quality—essential capabilities of a professional catering team.  

Catering orders can help your nutrition team capitalize on their talents by bringing in high-value bulk orders rather than relying on boosting revenues through individual meal, vending machine, or snack sales. Catering can also provide valuable income for your program and your employees during summer and winter breaks, spring break, and even after hours—it’s likely you already have staff members eager to add more hours to their paychecks.

How to plan a successful school catering program

Ensure your school catering program’s success by establishing a solid foundation. Thinking through the following concepts can help you establish your needs, priorities, and measures of success. 

  • Break-Even Point: What are the minimum resources you need to operate a catering program? How much would it cost you to hold excess inventory, for example? Or how long will it take staff to prepare and package the orders?   
  • Return on Investment (ROI): How will you price items in your program? Understanding the market price and leaning on that as you calculate your own prices will pay dividends (pun intended). Relying on your School Nutrition KPIs will help you determine the break-even point. Then it can help to calculate your catering prices accordingly.   
  • Distribution Model: Will you operate out of a central kitchen or designate certain kitchens to prepare all catering orders? Will you be delivering the catering orders or requiring organizations to pick them up from a location in your district? It’s important to figure out these things and plan accordingly into your overall budget to determine what’s right for you.   
  • Ordering System: How will you accept and process orders? An intuitive and easy-to-use catering system will harbor goodwill in the community and streamline the process for customers and your nutrition staff. An effective catering system can also designate various meal item categories while providing options for payment.   
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): How will you grade and report your school catering program’s success? Consider the seasonality of the program and the frequency of reporting to stakeholders like school and district leadership, school board members, and your school community. Set and track KPIs early to define success more easily and continuously improve your program using new data to inform future decision-making. Consider creating an easy-to-digest reporting template, like the one we created for school nutrition program KPIs.  

Think about your target market

Operating a school catering program allows you to treat your school nutrition program as a business. Who is your target market? What type of catering are you looking to support?   

Here are typical clients for school catering programs:

  • Student Organizations: Help student organizations by providing group breakfasts, partnering to support a pancake breakfast, or delivering food for retreats or special events. 
  • Community Organizations: Partner with organizations that host events or meetings at your school or district buildings.  
  • Other Nutrition Programs: Many districts supply meals to other organizations sponsoring child nutrition programs, like the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)4 and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Partnering and providing catering to another organization allows your kitchen to generate additional revenue without adding administrative burden. Meal patterns for the CACFP and SFSP are less stringent than those associated with the National School Lunch Program and may help your district reduce any excess inventory.   

Identifying your client base helps you formulate a marketing and advertising strategy. Think about how, when, and where to attract your customers best. Partnering with your school district and encouraging buy-in across the district is a great starting point. Since your nutrition program’s success is a win for the whole organization, you’ll likely have plenty of team members from other departments willing to help. 

For example, your school or district communications team can share your information on social media, a school newsletter, or any other public forum. Designing and printing flyers with art teachers is a great way to help them showcase their talents. Post them at local organizations such as churches, grocery stores, or sporting events. An effective nutrition website is your friend as well—give your catering services a prominent location on the website and make sure to include selling points like menu options, flexibility, and how catering supports your school nutrition program.

Start your school catering program with the right tools

LINQ Nutrition’s Digital Menu Suite and Online Ordering for Catering can help you get your school catering program off the ground. Custom nutrition websites can provide important information beyond your school menus, local wellness policy, and nutrition department contact information. Design a website that best meets your nutrition department’s greater goals and level up your program.   

For online ordering, LINQ creates a smooth experience for the nutrition department and your customers with Online Ordering for Catering. Prospective clients can easily view catering options, place orders, and include special requests. Orders come in through a clean interface for your team to pick up and run with. Managers get clean reporting and a clear line of sight into orders for the day, week, or month.   

A catering program can be a creative and enjoyable way to boost revenues in your school food department, enable nutrition staff members to flex their talents and develop new skills, and serve your community with delicious, convenient meals.  

Find out how LINQ Online Ordering makes catering fast, friendly, and easy

Learn how to hook prospective customers’ interest and deliver a convenient menu browsing and ordering experience.