Working under the guidance of a federal mandate, K-12 school cafeterias are balancing cost control with new efforts to serve healthy meals — and getting kids to eat them. Packaging, portion control and whole grains are in; sugar- and sodium-laden foods are out. Here’s a sampling of food service trends at area schools.
State & Federal Mandates
To combat rising childhood obesity rates linked to poor eating habits, Congress required schools participating in national school breakfast or lunch programs to have wellness plans in place by 2006. Whether independently or in response to parental action or the federal legislation, states and school districts nationwide have developed new food programs.
For example, the Voorhees Township, NJ, public schools are “reducing sodium, fat and sugar; baking, not frying; purchasing healthier snacks; and cultivating children at a younger age to get their taste buds acclimated towards healthier options, including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables,” says food services director Deborah Zeed.
“We use a whole grain wheat crust and low-fat mozzarella cheese on pizza, and we offer low-fat dressing for salads,” she says. “These examples and more are in compliance with the state of New Jersey, which has one of the strictest wellness policies in the U.S.”
Large urban districts have also made changes. “All of the School District of Philadelphia’s meals meet or exceed federal regulation requirements regarding the nutritional makeup of the meal,” says food services chief Wayne T. Grasela. “Our plan, one of the most aggressive in the country, restricts not only the sale of beverages to 100 percent juice or low fat milk with strict portion control, but also has snacking guidelines relating to sugar, sodium and other ingredients.”
For its wellness plan, Upper Merion Area School District in King of Prussia, PA, “has switched over to whole wheat hamburger and hotdog rolls and pizzas,” says food services supervisor Francis Hendrick. “Just this year we incorporated a refrigerated vending unit that has yogurts, fresh fruits and 100-calorie snacks. In short, we’re continually trying to expose children to new options.”
Stringent wellness policy requirements, the economic downturn and
increasing food and fuel costs have put extra strain on budgets, prompting cost-saving innovations.
Cooperative purchasing among districts is accelerating. “Voorhees is part of an extremely competitive cooperative comprised of 45 school districts,” says Zeed. “We keep prices stable by using the same products in cycle menus.”
District groups don’t just bid on food. Upper Merion Area School District “goes out on tri-county bids for everything, including paper products, cleaning agents and smallware,” says Hendrick.
The Christina School District in Wilmington, DE “belongs to a New Castle Co-op with schools in northern Delaware,” says school district dietician Andrea Solge. “We’re also conducting ambitious planning sessions to include all 19 Delaware districts on a statewide bid, so everyone can benefit.”
School cafeterias are also realizing savings with pre-packaged meals. Zeed says, “Because of costs and the recession, schools will move towards controlled items like salad containers instead of salad bars.”
Such containers will become more prevalent as labor costs rise. “We purchase pre-packaged meals for approximately 50 percent of daily meals served,” says Grasela. “These products can reduce the number of man-hours needed to provide the service.”
Attracting Kids to Healthy Foods
The rallying cry seems to be “know your consumer!” in attracting kids to healthier foods. “What’s key is to resonate with a specific age group, whether elementary, tween or high school teen,” says Michael Pursell, a marketing executive for Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company that provides food services to 420 school districts nationwide.
In cooking up meals with kid appeal, Aramark “models on commercial segment promotion trends and conducts focus group research,” he says.
Marketing and presentation are key tools. “A good example is our healthy pizza, put in boxes that mimic a branded item coming from outside, but which we bake onsite,” says Zeed.
“We aim to meet customer needs because kids are savvy consumers! They see what’s out there and demand it here. So we’ve added deli lines, salad bars and Tex-Mex lines,” Solge says.
Food and beverage container appearance is also a factor. “Bottled milk appeals to kids more than cartons and stays colder too. Since switching over, children’s participation has increased dramatically,” says Hendrick. “In the last three to four years we’ve seen more baked, lower-sugar and lower-fat products become available. As more food manufacturers come on board, I think we’ll see a wider variety of healthy, better-tasting items for students.”
The school district cafeteria service in Mount Laurel Township, NJ, conducts Youth Advisory Council (YAC) meetings with children to help gauge whether or not an item will sell.
“The YAC meetings reveal many things,” says communications director Marie Reynolds. “We offer nutritional choices and theme days and then go back to the students for input.” Now that less healthy snacks have become unavailable, Mount Laurel kids have asked for more 100-calorie choices.
Food as Education
Nutrition education, early and often, is crucial to winning over children. “I concentrate mainly on elementary kids to influence behavior and habits,” says Solge. Creative cafeteria menus reinforce her teaching efforts.
“We offer fresh fruit and yogurt platters that are popular,” she says. Other choices include more grilled products and chicken and salmon Caesar salads.
“We do science fairs, and last December held a district-wide ‘healthy recognition day’ with prizes,” says Zeed. “Children are becoming educated at a younger age; we actually allow
kindergartners to purchase snacks like fruits and vegetables.”
Some districts conduct educational outreach for parents and faculty. For example, parents can order healthy snacks from Mount Laurel Township’s cafeteria service, Reynolds says.
Point-of-sale systems using a computer in place of a cash register are becoming common in area schools. They can track sales plus take credit/debit card payments and offer parents more convenience and control.
This year Mount Laurel Township is testing a point-of-sale system. Reynolds says, “Reactions can be hysterical when parents pull the child’s menu for the first time, because they can see everything their kids are eating. ‘What? Are they buying for the entire table? Four snacks in one day?’ ”
“Our program will enable parents to deposit money into their child’s account online, and limit by dollar amount how much their children can spend on a particular item,” she says.
“One of the primary reasons for installing the point-of-sale system, to be completed in May, is to have the capability to adjust the menu with trend information from the online records,” says Philadelphia’s Grasela. “Tracking will also enable us to become more efficient with service management, and monitor food allergies or special dietary needs.” ?
Pamela Barroway is a local freelance writer.