Food Processors and Ingredient Suppliers Study School Lunch Programs for Innovative Ideas

May 30, 2014
Processors and ingredient suppliers need to collaborate in creating meals that are nutritious and desirable for this picky and often overweight demographic.
Back to School

At the beginning of 2012, the USDA kicked off its new meal requirements for school lunches to “raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids [who] participate in school meal programs every school day.”

Included were new guidelines for the Healthier U.S. School Challenge (HUSSC), a “voluntary national certification initiative for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.” HUSSC criteria are updated “to reflect NSLP meal pattern requirements, while continuing to encourage schools to offer a variety of vegetables, fresh fruit and whole grain‐rich options.”

According to the USDA, the healthier meal requirements are a “key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on following her Let's Move! campaign.

The new USDA standards include:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week.
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods.
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties.
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size.
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

School Food Service Excellence achievement requires:

  • School Food Service Manager is a certified food handler (local or national certification).
  • School has a Farm to School initiative: Local and/or regional products are incorporated into the school meal program. Messages about agriculture and nutrition are reinforced throughout the learning environment via activities such as: school gardens; signage, promotions or special events such as tastings that emphasize local products; field trips to local farms; and curriculum integration.
  • Smarter Lunchroom techniques are used to encourage fruit consumption. Fruit is displayed in two locations, one of which is near the cash register, on all lunch lines. Attractive displays, signage and staff encouragement are used to draw attention to the fruit and encourage children to select them.
  • Smarter Lunchroom techniques are used to encourage vegetable consumption. Students are given the opportunity to provide input into vegetable offerings and to identify creative/descriptive names for the offerings. Creative/descriptive names are displayed with vegetables on the lunch line as well as on a poster or menu board outside the school cafeteria.
  • When offered, dark green, red and orange vegetables and dry beans and peas are displayed first or most prominently among vegetable side dishes on the lunch line.
  • Smarter Lunchroom techniques are used to encourage consumption of dry beans and peas. Entrees that include dry beans or peas are displayed first or most prominently on the lunch line amongst other entrée items on at least two days. Dry bean and pea entrée items are given creative/descriptive names with student input.
  • Grab-and-go reimbursable meal options include dark green, red and orange vegetables, and/or dry beans and peas at least one day per week.

Details and downloadable versions of the complete requirements are available at

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.”

Waste not

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.

In a study titled “School Lunch Waste Among Middle School Students: Nutrients Consumed and Costs,” by Juliana Cohen et alia, and published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the authors write critically, “The National School Lunch Program has been guided by modest nutrient standards, and the palatability of meals, which drives consumption, receives inadequate attention. School food waste can have important nutritional and cost implications for policymakers, students and their families.”

The study measured plate waste in four Boston area schools, two under intervention via the Chef Initiative -- in which a professional chef trained cafeteria staff to make healthier school meals -- and two control. The methods described that “costs associated with food waste were calculated and the percentage of foods consumed was compared with a gold standard of 85 percent consumption.”

Results of the study showed, “Overall, students consumed less than the required/recommended levels of nutrients. An estimated $432,349 of food — 26.1 percent of the total food budget — was discarded” and “for most meal components, substantially less than 85 percent was consumed.”

There was good news. According to lead researcher Cohen, new USDA standards (see “Back to School,” below) were helping to improve kids’ diets in the schools investigated.

Research teams visited each school twice before the changes, in fall 2011, and twice after the changes, in fall 2012. More students were taking and eating fruits and vegetables, with overall consumption of those foods rising.

Incredibly Edible

“School foodservice operations put a lot of effort into balancing nutrition in the meals they serve,” says John Howeth, vice president of ingredients for the American Egg Board, Park Ridge, Ill. “But sometimes presentation and acceptability might be lacking. Foods with a high nutritional value won’t do any good if the students throw it away."

In order to improve intake of a nutritionally balanced meal, food manufacturers can ‘pre-prepare’ meal components to help save time on the part of the foodservice workers, while improving meal presentation and acceptability, Howeth says. He explains that eggs “are a highly nutritious protein that qualify as a meat alternate and are available precooked as patties, or scrambled.” Hard-boiled eggs are available in crumbles, slices, wedges or whole. Pre-made eggs can be incorporated into dozens of attractive meal options, from wraps and sandwiches to salads.

Still, the study’s authors concluded that there was “substantial food waste” among the Boston students and that “overall, students' nutrient consumption levels were below school meal standards, and foods served were not valid proxies for foods consumed.” They found that costs associated with discarded foods, if translated nationally for school lunches, would equal more than $1.25 billion in waste annually. “Students might benefit if additional focus were given to the quality and palatability of school meals,” they added.

Opportunity knocks

While waste, of course, is a bad thing, within these statistics some see possibilities.

“So far, I think schools and the food industry have done a great job of implementing a challenging new set of standards on a pretty tight turnaround, bringing in more fruits and vegetables, adding whole grains, reducing sugar and sodium,” says Laura Daly, childhood nutrition marketing leader for Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn. “Ingredient companies and manufacturers have the opportunity to collaborate to take school meals to the next level.”

Daly sees the primary objectives for enhancing school lunch programs as focusing on taste, texture and visual improvements. The idea is to design foods just for kids. “For children, taste is king. A lot is being written about wasted food, food ending up in cafeteria garbage cans [sometimes] as a result of the new nutritional standards. But at the root of this is an opportunity to enhance the appeal of these foods for kids — from a taste, texture or visual perspective, or all three.

“We know it takes time for children to adapt to new flavors and textures,” Daly continues. “As an industry, we collectively still have some work to do to remove the developing stigma that, for example, whole-grain breads and pastas do not taste good. A great way this can be done is by formulating with ingredients such as white spring whole wheat flour, or MaizeWise whole grain corn flour.” (Cargill makes WheatSelect white whole wheat and MaizeWise whole grain corn flours.)

“Through using these sorts of ‘stealth health’ solutions in formulations, our customers can deliver bakery products that are winners with kids and contribute to meeting the increased whole grain requirements,” Daly says.

Recognizing that it can pose a challenge for school foodservice directors to attain nutrition profiles that comply with standards while controlling costs, Daly invites a closer look at an old standby in doing both: soy. “For companies searching for ways to cost-effectively compete in the new school lunch market with meat products, textured soy protein is one way to do it,” she states. “Versatile and packed with protein, soy can make meat go further and meet school lunch program credit requirements."

Daly describes how Cargill combined its Prosante brand textured soy flour and Prolia brand defatted soy flour with beef in a mini-beef patty on a whole-grain bun prototype. “The soy flours are 50 percent protein, and Prosante improves the texture of lean meat products,” Daly says. “In a kid-friendly size and with a juicy texture, it's easy to forget these 2-oz. cooked patties are reduced in fat to 5g per serving, compared to 10g in a traditional 2-oz. hamburger.”

The buns used contained 7g of whole grain per 28g bun and used MaizeWise 100 percent whole-grain corn with WheatSelect 100 percent white whole-wheat flour.

No canned response

Interestingly, nearly all the experts at the heart of the processed food industry stressed fresh foods at every opportunity.

“Schoolyard gardens can offer healthy, cost-reduced or free foods to the schools, to the children, teachers and administrators,” suggests Jeffrey Lind, vice-president of the health business unit at Frutarom Inc., North Bergen, N.J. He points to famed chef Alice Waters Berkeley's “Edible Schoolyard Program,” a national program that demonstrates the feasibility of such gardens.

Also key is understanding that, while more practical than many operators of school foodservice systems are aware of, there still are current limitations to such a sometimes idealistic approach. “Limited budgets might just be the greatest weakness in creating healthier school lunches, although it’s going to vary at different schools,” states Lind. “Access and ability to pay for top quality ingredients is key, too.”

Because of this, processors and ingredient makers also recognize they play significant roles in the creation of healthier school lunch menus. The goal of helping to create menus that enhance general health and that can hopefully counter the present epidemic of obesity comes from these experts’ unique perspective on how to improve school lunch foods within the parameters of processed food products.

It’s not surprising that a number of processors getting involved in helping influence the development and production of foods for such a picky and often grudging audience do so as a personal mission.

“I have four kids and I see the school lunch menus — they’re nutritionally horrible,” exclaims Domonic Biggi, CEO of Beaverton Foods Inc., Hillsboro, Ore. The company, a multigenerational, family-owned manufacturer of gourmet and private label foods and condiments, understands the position condiments play in making foods better.

No illusions exist for Biggi that condiments can replace whole foods. Listing the primary objectives for enhancing school lunch programs, Biggi notes a need to “eliminate all the bad choices” offered to school kids. “The childhood obesity rates are horrible; how can you afford not too?” Biggi questions. “If you give kids a choice between a hamburger and a salad, they are going to select the hamburger. Don’t give kids the option to make a bad choice.”

Biggi sees the persistence of deep-fried foods as another significant problem. “Schools need to get away from cheaply processed foods and buy more local or whole foods, and [see] that they are sautéed or otherwise better prepared.” He says that, to immediately improve school lunch nutrition, “food manufacturers can use cleaner ingredients” and make their products more wholesome.

“However,” he adds, “I put the onus on the school districts to purchase higher quality products. I challenge the school districts to spend an extra penny toward quality products — or continue to watch kids’ obesity rates increase.” He also advocates more teaching of nutrition in schools in order to help kids make the right nutrition choices.

What’s inside

One easy and immediate step to improve school lunch nutrition could be adding functionality to beverages. “That would be a good way to transition to improved school lunch nutrition [because] dairy in many forms is also a familiar food to children worldwide," says Frutarom’s Lind. "Single-serving units can ensure that omegas and minerals, such as iron, for example in the form of AB-Fortis [Frutarom’s microencapsulated iron ingredient] are dosaged and consumed properly.”

Lind points out dairy is a healthful mixture in its own right, and it can be a good carrier for other nutrients. Flavored milk, while controversial, has been shown to increase nutrient intake in children who otherwise would opt for unhealthy alternatives. “Chocolate in the form of milk, in a bar or as pudding is always an appealing, desirable flavor and it happens to mask off notes [of added vitamins and minerals] competently,” he continues. “Between these food choices there are several directions to take.”

As a way of closing the gap between what children have come to expect from school lunches and what is in the best interest of their health, Lind suggests a number of acceptable ways to encourage healthy eating in children.

“Familiar foods or familiar forms are the best to start with and can be a key point to get children on board without creating a gap in the first place,” he says. “Frozen yogurt instead of ice cream is one example. Vegetable purees can accommodate a range of nutritious, functional ingredients and can be easily incorporated into many different types of foods – everything from smoothies to pizza sauce and both savory and sweet.”

Lind also suggests squash formulations as nutritious functional ingredient carriers that “can go both ways, sweet or savory.” He also acknowledges that sweet treats can “secretly” incorporate nutritious ingredients and/or functionality. “I’ve seen brownie recipes made with black beans that give the brownie a chewy, delicious texture with no hint of the source material.”

Ingredient suppliers are uniquely positioned to help, with comprehensive ingredient solutions, systems, premixes and ingredient portfolios, plus the facilities to aid processors in product development and problem solving. Whether a need to utilize whole grains, fibers and proteins or reduce or replace sugar, sodium or fat, suppliers are valuable team members in the effort to make lunchtime a better, healthier time for school kids.

“We can take a holistic approach to reformulating for more nutrient density,” says Cargill’s Daly. “By utilizing capabilities in food applications and sensory testing and combining them with a deep understanding of ingredient functionality, we can deliver an end product children will enjoy eating. This also helps our customers get to market more quickly with successful product innovations and reformulations.”

As Daly confesses, “We’re making good progress, but the work is just beginning for all the stakeholders — USDA, schools, food manufacturers and ingredients suppliers — to work together to make school lunches healthier and to provide food kids look forward to eating each day.”

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