Earlier this month, I was invited out to Las Vegas to attend the non-profit School Nutrition Association’s annual conference. I was asked to come out to have the opportunity to learn more about school nutrition standards, how meals are prepared/planned and what goes into school meal program operations. With a food show, educational sessions and food demonstrations with celebrity chefs, there was a lot to take in and I was only there for a day. I learned so many surprising things about school lunches.
In addition to attending a session and a celebrity cooking demo, I was able to walk the school floor with my school district’s Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Services and the Food Services Director for Marquardt School District 15, Glendale Heights, IL on two separate walks. It was great to see how they were so aligned with the idea of nutrition for kids and how they wanted to see even more changes coming down the pipelines.
The Director from my local district just came on board in October of this past year, so she’s ready to make changes and get things healthier and tastier for the kids. With both of these women, it was important that not only the food be healthy and nutritious, but also that the kids like the food, too! Which brings me to my list of 15 surprising things you don’t know about your kids school lunch.
1. Taste testing
Both of the leaders I toured the floor with mentioned that they do taste testing. They do it often and at all of the levels. It’s important to them that the kids at the schools like what will be served to them. So before anything new is brought in, the food is sampled. It seems so common sense and yet, I never realized they went to this level with our children. Also, there was quite a bit of taste testing going on at on the showroom floor, too.
2. Products different then what you find in stores
This one shocked me. So many of the brands you find in stores are also served at schools. Many times, it’s the same product, except it’s not. The brands will formulate these same products to meet the strict nutritional guidelines that the schools have to abide by. So, even though you see something like breakfast sausage at school and wonder how it can be served with a higher fat or salt content, for example, know that the same brands we purchase in the stores offer different versions for schools.
Which begs the question, why aren’t these lower salt (for example) or cleaner label options available for the public consumer, too?
On that same note, many of the products found in schools are fortified with extra vitamins to make them fit within the standards. I noticed this particularly with breakfast foods. This also leaves me a little confused. If something is fortified to make it healthy enough to eat, why not serve what has those actual vitamins or nutrients? I think this can be confusing for kids too because they might think something outside of school (that looks like something that was served at school) is equally healthy and it’s not always the case.
4. Sourcing local
The USDA DoD mandates that money used for school lunches be spent on foods only sourced from the USA, preferably from the same state or neighboring states of origin. There is a lot of bureaucracy, rules and regulations surrounding the purchasing of foods for school lunches. Admittedly, a lot of it went over my head, so know that the people doing the ordering, purchasing and preparing of school lunches have a lot of rules to follow.
5. Cost is crucial
It might be something you’ve considered, but it wasn’t really something for me. I know that things cost money and I know budgets are important, but the difference of a penny per item can make or break product purchases for your child’s school. And, it might not be up to your school who and how those things are purchased. Check out the budgets and costs of feeding programs around the US.
6. Balance of servings
Schools have to maintain a balance of servings of grains, fruits and vegetables (even down to the number of servings of colors of vegetables), dairy, etc for each meal as well as rounding out the entire week.
More fruits and vegetables: Schools must offer students fruits and vegetables with every lunch and increase the portion sizes. Vegetable choices at lunch must include weekly offerings of: legumes, dark green, and red or orange vegetables. Every school breakfast must offer students a full cup of fruits or vegetables. Students are required to take at least one half-cup serving of fruits or vegetables with every school breakfast and lunch.
Whole grains: All grains offered with school meals must be whole grain-rich (at least 51% whole grain).
Finding the balance between meeting the requirements and serving children what they will eat is hugely challenging with these additional requirements. I’m happy they are in place or who knows what they would decide to eat, but I know picky kids and this makes it work.
7. Calorie limits
In addition to making sure there is a balance of grains, fruits and vegetables and more, meals also have to meet calorie limits. School meals must meet age-appropriate calorie minimums and maximums for each meal served.
8. Sodium limits
So, we’ve got serving limits, calorie limits and item limits, but they also have to come within the sodium limits. Schools must gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals over a ten-year period to meet thefollowing limits. Our school district was at Target 2 this year, but they are coming back to between target 1 and 2 due to challenges of meeting future sodium limits. The USDA has retained Sodium Target 1 limits through the end of the 2018-19 school year.*
Part of the problem is adding flavor to anything. With everything being reduced sodium, the green beans are no longer getting touched. There has been in increase in flavoring options to try to combat this issue. Many companies are coming up with completely sodium free Flavor Station. The kids love it because they are in control of the seasoning that goes on their food, and the USDA is happy because the schools are within the lower sodium requirements.
9. Fat limits
We also can’t forget the fat content of the foods. Schools are required to limit unhealthy fat as well. Meals cannot contain added trans-fat and no more than 10 percent of calories can come from saturated fat. I’m thankful it’s not a complete fat ban because I know that fats are important to our diets as well as brain development.
Keep in mind here, we are talking about the lunch room. I know you older child can find other options available in vending machines and while those are supposed to have restrictions, it was a little unclear who would be monitoring them.
Every school meal offers one cup of fat-free or 1% milk. Flavored milk must be fat-free.They are able to offer flavored milks because they meet calorie limits. How do they meet these calorie requirements? Milk processors have developed flavored milk with less added sugar. Therefore, the USDA recently provided schools the option to offer flavored, 1% milk.
There also must always be free drinking water made available in the cafeteria during lunch and breakfast. My girls have forgotten their water bottles and have been able to get a small cup of water. It’s not ideal, but it is offered. Getting kids to drink water is challenging (at least in our house) and it’s not because they are drinking something else. They just don’t like to drink? So, I like to see companies getting creative about different ways of presenting water to kids. However, I would also like to see these in non-single use containers.
11. New products
Innovation was all over the product floor. From new vegetable dips to low sodium products, but these Very Berry Cranberries by Cransations took the cake for me. They were all natural fruit with some acid removed and then 100% fruit juice infused into the cranberry. I even had people walk back around to try them because I thought they were so tasty.
12. Clean/ Cleaner Labels
There is a big push (thankfully) for clean or cleaner labels for all of the food presented in the cafeteria. Almost every brand and company was reminding us to read labels and showing the clean labels that were being produced for schools. I am happy to see that they are going for minimally processed and minimal ingredients in so many of their recipes. (Don’t get me wrong, there were still some that make my stomach turn just reading the labels, but there were many more doing it better!)
13. Serving presentation / preparation
There are many variables that come into play that determine how produce is received: does it come precut and prepackaged like at smaller schools so it lasts longer, or are larger schools processing whole produce for meals? It didn’t dawn on me at bigger schools and districts like mine that the produce was more than likely to come in whole and each school would prepare the fruit or vegetable on demand.
At smaller schools where the demand and use isn’t as high, they are more likely to order the prepackaged servings because they can sit in a refrigerator longer.
Schools are encouraging gardening to teach kids about new flavors and to get them more excited about eating things they’ve helped grow. They aren’t at a place where the garden can provide food for the entire school, but it gets them excited and willing to explore new things.
15. Cooking vs. preparing
What was most surprising to me is that so many schools don’t even have kitchens in them. At best they are heating up food that has been prepared off site. Our schools are now being challenged with partial prep meals where they might be a box mix, but they are mixing in house and adding fresh fruit (muffins for example). However, schools don’t even have a place to heat meals and the schools purchase and serve pre-prepared meals from carts or counters.
There are many school programs doing positive things for children’s nutrition. Check them out and let me know if you learned something about school lunches at your child’s school and/or if it made you have more questions.