School lunch nutrition programs come in as many forms and approaches as there are school districts. But one constant is that budgets are always tight. However, processors who participate in the efforts to better feed our children can find satisfaction in not only doing the right thing but in creating products for a significantly large demographic. Case in point: The New York school system alone serves more than 1 million meals per day.
“Schools meals are expected to be universally acceptable to all students, so we have push back from both ends of the spectrum,” says Twyla Leigh, nutritionist for Collier County Public Schools in Naples, Fla. “They’re either ‘too healthy’ or not organic/vegan/scratch-cooking enough.”
Leigh admits school nutrition professionals realize that “one size does not fit all” and continue to seek out manufacturers of better tasting, healthy options, even as they are “challenged with labor issues, food safety concerns and balanced budgets.”
“School nutrition programs are expected to be self-supporting, paying for all food, labor, uniforms, equipment, water, electricity, gas, trash pick-up, payroll and human resource services.”
That according to Leigh and colleagues Terri Whitacre, director of school food and nutrition services for the Charlotte County Public School System in Punta Gorda, Fla., and Stacey Wykoski, foodservice director for the Jenison/Hudsonville School Food Service group in Jenison, Mich.
The three provide recommendations that manufacturers “should avoid MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, nitrates and items that are known to be issues in the food supply.” They also believe that GMOs are going to be a “big topic” moving forward. “Manufacturers also need to take the lead in better food labels: sugar listed on a label should refer to added sugars, not natural and added combined,” they note.
Food allergens also will become more challenging with the increase in children who have food intolerances or allergies, says Leigh. “Gluten and peanuts are big issues with school-age children. Being involved with national ingredient and food label access, even with scanners and a more usable way to obtain this information, to link it to the school menus would be a huge victory for manufacturers, school nutrition and the children.”
There are huge challenges facing any program designed to feed wholesome, desirable meals five days per week to hundreds of kids at a time in three or more 30 minute blocs around the noon hour. The biggest, perhaps, is an endless schoolyard tug-of-war between the cost of production and the staggering cost of plate waste.