It’s no secret that quick-service operators are under increasing pressure to offer more nutritious meals to kids. With Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign shining the spotlight on the rising problem of childhood obesity, parents, critics, and government officials are expecting better standards from fast food players.

While improving in-store kids’ meals is a necessary step to curbing the obesity trend, there might be another opportunity to both improve kids’ nutrition and build rapport with parents and the school community: getting involved with K–12 school lunches.

Data suggests there is ample room for the quick-serve industry to partner with schools for their meals. According to an August 2011 survey from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), just 25.9 percent of schools reported offering restaurant-branded foods in their cafeterias. That’s down from 35.5 percent in 2009.

School food providers are also scrambling to develop foods that are both tasty and nutritious. The National School Lunch program, a federally assisted meal program, requires schools to meet new nutritional guidelines laid out by the USDA in January.

The new guidelines, which go into effect next school year, require that school meal providers offer a mix of fruit and vegetables and double the amount they currently offer. Schools must also stop serving foods with trans fat, gradually lower sodium content, limit calories based on age groups, increase the use of whole grains, and offer only low-fat or fat-free milk.

These new requirements join the old standards for the National School Lunch program, which required school lunches to meet recommendations from the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These include having no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat and less than 10 percent come from saturated fat. School lunches also must provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, and calcium.

“Many schools will have to make additional changes,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the SNA. “We’ll be looking for food companies and even restaurants to help them identify new products to serve that will meet healthier standards.”

Some concepts are already on board with K–12 school lunch programs, with the majority coming from the pizza category. Domino’s leads the way, as 34 percent of schools with restaurant-branded foods serve its products. Its Smart Slice pizza offering for schools includes 51 percent white whole-wheat flour, pizza sauces with 35 percent less sodium than the company’s standard sauce, and mozzarella cheese with 100 milligrams less sodium per serving than its standard cheese.

Pizza Hut (19.1 percent), Papa John’s (15.2 percent), Subway (12.5 percent), and Little Caesars (6.3 percent) round out the top five national brands in schools.

“For the brand, it’s a big opportunity for them to step up and say, ‘Listen, this isn’t necessarily bad-for-you food, it’s actually healthy food,’” says Michael Pursell, associate vice president of marketing for ARAMARK Education, which oversees foodservice operations for more than 3,000 K–12 schools across the country.

Pursell says about 98 percent of ARAMARK’s school offerings are proprietary brands, while the rest are national brands. He says national brands are a win-win in schools because they boost participation in the school’s lunch program and add another daypart for the concept.

“Traditionally you wouldn’t be able to serve to this segment during this time because they’re in school. It’s a way for them to grow their business,” Pursell says. “Secondly, they’re building brand equity. If I’m trying to influence a child and really grow my brand, the fact that I would be able to serve in a school helps my brand equity.”

But Pursell says national brands that invest in school lunches must be sure to communicate the health and wellness factors of their foods to both the school and parents. For example, a healthy chicken nugget product that ARAMARK rolled out to schools was met with skepticism from parents purely because of its name.

“If we were to put ‘healthy chicken nugget, baked not fried, with whole-muscle chicken,’ kids aren’t going to eat it, because then they perceive that as, ‘That nugget doesn’t necessarily taste so good,’” he says.

Pratt-Heavner says companies must also develop products that schools can afford. “School-nutrition budgets are exceedingly tight, and they’re having to meet these standards and all of the regulations that come along with the school nutrition program on a very tight budget,” she says.

Jamba Juice is one company that is getting creative with its school offering as a way to be both affordable and healthy. In late 2011, the California-based smoothie concept debuted its JambaGo platform, a licensed station that offers the company’s prepackaged products, as well as a self-service smoothie machine.

JambaGo has so far rolled out to 30 pilot locations, roughly two-thirds of which are primary or secondary schools.

“As schools look for healthier solutions that the kids will eat, we’ve become a really viable way for kids to get their daily requirements of fruits and vegetables,” says James White, CEO of Jamba Juice, adding that the company plans to expand JambaGo across the country.

A grab-and-go format like JambaGo’s might be a good entry point for quick serves to enter the K–12 space, Pursell says, since speed is key to succeeding in schools. “The thing we have to keep in mind is that the average school lunch today is 23 minutes long,” Pursell says. “So that’s really not a lot of time.”

Consumer Trends, Story, Jamba Juice