Thank you to the School Nutrition Association for enlightening me to all that goes on inside a school cafeteria and for the complimentary SNA Expo pass. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
I distinctly remember buying school lunch when I was in elementary school. Once or twice a week my Mom would carefully pack my lunch, but she relied on school lunches to not only fill me up but also to expand my palette with different dishes, prepared in various ways. My school operated on a ticket system, where you handed in your school lunch money check and were given raffle-like tickets for lunch each day. It created a very fair environment where you never knew who paid what for lunch; we all just ate together. I remember the clean tan trays, still warm from the dishwasher, and the freezing cold cooler with the icy sides that kept the milk cool by the register. As Red readies himself to attend first grade next month, I’ve found myself wondering if the cafeteria operates the same way it did 25+ years ago. What is our lunch lady really up to?
I had the pleasure of attending the School Nutrition Association (SNA) Annual National Conference (ANC) 2017 Expo in Atlanta this year, and I was really excited. School Nutrition administration, county Chefs, meal planners, and staff were attending from across the country to learn about new offerings, refresh standards, spice up menus and find new ways to interest their “customers.” I knew there were be tons of food to sample on the EXPO floor, but what I didn’t expect was to leave the sessions charged up and ready to become involved in my kid’s cafeteria.
School Lunch Guidelines
I was toured around the show floor by two lovely ladies, and I asked them about their day to day business, how they set up their year and what their student’s favorite meals consisted of. Laura Lynn, Director of School Nutrition for Brantley County, GA, educated me on the strict and thorough federal nutrition guidelines. Did you know there is a Red/Orange Veggie Category? They are all split up by colors and meals must contain XYZ over the course of a few meals in order to be balanced. There can only be a certain amount of Saturated Fat, Sugar and Salt. Calories now have a cap and a minimum as opposed to 20 years ago. Meal planning in cafeterias has become a teaching situation so that children grow up with a healthy sense of plate and portion size, which is proving difficult in some scenarios.
To help school nutrition professionals vary the menus and find creative ways to serve more whole-grains and veggies, vendors at over 800 booths displayed new foods, products, equipment and culinary demonstrations for school cafeterias across America. I saw a few trends on the floor, some choices being better than others. Street Tacos, Smoothie Bowls, and No-Salt Seasonings were trendy, useful ideas to get kids to stay healthy. But also present on the floor were slushies, sugared raisins, and more whole-grain cookies than you could shake a stick at. Meal planning has some serious challenges!
Kim Minestra, Director of Nutrition Services for Evanston, IL Township High School District must be my long lost sister. Sharing the same sense of humor and a love for savory foods with an ethnic appeal, Kim and I toured her favorite products that were actually made in Georgia. Kim faced a situation that I had not heard of before, dealing with a “central kitchen.” This means her county has one giant kitchen that makes all the breakfast and lunches, seals them up and ships them in hot boxes to cafeterias in her district. Not being able to serve fresh from the grill or oven created challenges to keep food hot, crispy or offer room-temperature or chilled options for school lunch every day. It made me incredibly grateful for the cafeterias I grew up in and opened my eyes to the diverse crowd of students (income, heritage, habits, preferences) that school nutrition staff need to please.
More ideas to get creative and stay within nutrition guidelines included cooking demonstrations. I attended one hosted by Kikkoman’s lower sodium sauces, boasting recipes for 100 like Teriyaki Wings, Fish Tacos and a Lo Mein that had me drooling in the audience. The Lo Mein could be kept warm in a hot box and served out to students from a central kitchen, which was pretty awesome!
Trendy School Lunches
I also sat in on two sessions with school professionals across the country. Sharing trends from magazines and adapting them to school menus was a hot topic, and I even heard schools speak of purchasing and using a food truck to serve high school students. They did amazing business (never going in the red!) and fed more and more students every week. The other session was all about “Shaking It Up” by getting happy and artistic with school lunch. If a school program suffers, they can’t properly serve students via the federal guidelines or don’t have funds to create lunches the students will actually eat. Seasoning shakers with no-salt herb mixes were reported to be the gateway to better nutrition and more adventurous palates.
I left the Expo with my brain full of work and processes that school professionals face every day but I hadn’t thought of. I was antsy to get into Red’s cafeteria and see what the school lunch ladies were serving and how I could use my newfound knowledge to encourage wider palates and a good diet in elementary schoolers. In fact, I may start to use some techniques on a small scale in my own home! After all, doesn’t a balanced diet begin at breakfast table?