The New School Lunch

Remember school lunch? Much has changed since you were in school. Add to that what has changed about kids’ food environments in general, and it is a whole new scene. Kids have 24-7 access to food stores and drive-thrus. Food marketing is pervasive. Food and cooking shows are all the rage. All this is a game changer for school nutrition programs. Expectations are higher while regulations are tighter.

School meal regulations are based on the Dietary Guidelines, the basis for all federal government food policy. Similar to My Plate, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) must offer a protein and a grain (usually combined in the entrée), two vegetables, a fruit (or two for high school) and fluid milk. New regulations in the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act stipulate that a student must take a fruit or vegetable. In practice, many school divisions are finding this leads to more waste and, for some, lower participation in the reimbursable meal program.

Meal sales are key to the success of a district’s meal program because for each meal sold, the program gets government reimbursement of up to nearly $3 per lunch (the amount varies depending on whether a student is in the free, reduced or paid category). Schools with a low meal count, for any number of reasons, can also remain financially stable through a la carte sales, which are the sale of snacks, beverages, extra entrees and the like. But hold on to your aprons because a la carte sales are about to undergo major regulatory changes, effective July 1, 2014. What can be sold and when it can be sold will be tightly regulated.

The popular press has made headlines of school divisions dropping out of the NSLP. Such school divisions lose that precious reimbursement but also no longer come under the increasingly difficult-to-comply-with regulations. In reality, however, only a small percent have left the program, and more have redoubled efforts to satisfy their increasingly savvy customers.

Enter the new school food service. These meal programs are “in it to win it." Some have designed creative programs to get kids in the cafeteria and to keep them there. Some offer cooking clubs, taught by cafeteria managers, to teach kids the basics of food prep and healthy eating. Some have responded to student and parent demand and installed salad bars with successful themes such as taco salad day. Others operate model healthy vending machines that are linked to student lunch accounts and offer healthy items like wraps, yogurt, milk and fruit, demonstrating that vending can be healthy and profitable. School gardens that grow herbs or produce for the cafeteria help create student buy-in.

Student taste-test panels provide essential feedback to the recipe and menu development process and are a tool used by many school nutrition programs. Others have hired or sought out volunteer chefs to train staff in culinary skills, to provide cooking demonstrations and instruction for parents, and to increase meal participation. Some districts have tapped into technology and offer innovative website and smart phone apps to help market menu items, providing photos, nutrition and allergen information and descriptions to techno-savvy customers. Social media has proved to be a solution for other programs, by tweeting to high school students and having Facebook pages with ample photos about their nutrition program. These trends may help school cafeterias compete in the new food world in which our kids live.

Pam Dannon, EdM, RD on Twitter
Pam Dannon, EdM, RD
Pam Dannon, EdM, RD, works in Child Nutrition Services in a mid-size school division for the School Health Initiative Program (SHIP). She also writes a blog, F4: All Things Food and can be followed on Twitter.