Industry News | August 14, 2012

Schools Provide Creative Options for Healthy Kids' Meals

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School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2012 Back to School Trends Report shows that school foodservice professionals are finding creative ways to prepare and serve school meals that meet healthy new nutrition standards.

New federal nutrition standards require schools to offer students more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit the sodium, calories, and saturated and trans fat in school meals. 

SNA’s report, which includes survey responses from 579 school districts across the country, provides insight into how school cafeterias are enticing students to both try and accept the healthier choices offered.  

Most notably, cafeterias are serving fruits and vegetables in a variety of ways to appeal to students’ diverse preferences. In addition to produce offered in the traditional serving line, more than 55 percent of responding school districts have self-serve salad or produce bars.  

For students in a hurry, more schools are providing convenient grab-and-go options. Nearly 64 percent of respondents offer pre-packaged salads, 87 percent offer whole fruit, and 67 percent offer packaged produce, like bags of baby carrots, grapes, and sliced apples that students can eat on the run or toss in their backpacks for later.  

Many districts are purchasing produce from local farmers—more than 60 percent of respondents say they will purchase locally grown or locally raised items in the coming school year. 

All respondents are serving whole grain–rich items in their school cafeterias, with nearly every district offering whole-grain breads, rolls, and buns. More than 80 percent of districts are offering whole-grain pastas, rice, and cereals, and 78 percent report serving whole-grain tortillas, pitas, or flatbreads. 

Schools have also taken steps to make kid favorites healthy choices. In 42 percent of responding school districts, pizza is the most popular lunch entrée served, but more than 92 percent of districts are serving pizza with a whole grain–rich crust. Districts also report serving student favorites that are low-sodium, low-fat, and reduced-sugar. 

Virtually all respondents (94 percent) use some method to encourage students to try these new menu items, with more than 87 percent employing student taste testing and sampling methods. 

Districts get students involved in the menu selection process by allowing them to taste test and provide feedback on potential new foods or recipes. Through taste tests, cafeterias gain valuable student insight, which helps them identify healthy choices that students are interested to eat. 

When introducing new menu items, manycafeterias offer students free samples, giving students the chance to taste an unfamiliar food before they commit to selecting that item as part of their meal. 

With tight budgets, schools have faced significant challenges as they redesign their menus and work to meet the new nutrition standards. More than 90 percent of districts anticipate an increase in food costs in the coming year, and more than 67 percent of districts anticipate that the federal reimbursement for school meals ($2.86 for each free meal served) will not cover the cost of producing the meals.  

Nearly 64 percent of respondents have increased lunch prices for at least some of the schools in their district for the 2012/13 school year, with the average cost increase falling at about 11 cents per meal.

The new nutrition standards come at a critical time as more of America’s needy students rely on the National School Lunch Program, which serves nearly 32 million students each school day. 

More than 71 percent of responding districts reported an increase in free- and reduced-price meal participation. 

“For too many of America’s school children, school lunch is the only balanced meal they will receive all day,” says School Nutrition Association President Sandra Ford. “School foodservice professionals are working hard to provide students with the healthiest meals to help them succeed in the classroom and beyond.”

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