By Amber Hensley, Guest Editor
Photos by Jim Ezell, EZ Event Photography, courtesy of SNA
One of the highlights of the 2010 Child Nutrition Industry Conference was the general session entitled ‘New World Expectations: No Hormones, No Preservatives, Go Green and Turn a Few Cartwheels.’ The panel included self-proclaimed ‘Renegade Lunch Lady,’ Chef Ann Cooper, nutrition services director for the Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District and founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation’s Lunch Box Project.
Although Cooper’s perspective about school meals continues to be a controversial topic among many of the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) members, SNA leadership extended an invitation to Cooper to participate in the panel to open dialogue between Cooper and its members, so that they may share ideas and strategies with the goal being to continue to improve upon the nation’s school foodservice programs.
In 2009 Cooper launched The Lunch Box, a web-based portal that enables school districts to transition a processed food based meal program into a whole foods environment where food is procured regionally and prepared from scratch. As a free resource, the site includes tools, such as menus and recipes, nutrition software, technical tools and training.
‘I challenge you to all go back to your district and not only look at the good things you are doing…but identify one thing different you can do every day to make our kids better,’ said Cooper.
Additional panelists included, Jean Ronnei, nutrition and commercial services director for Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools; Jody Houston, SNS, food services director for Corpus Christi (Texas) Independent School District; Barbara Jirka, PhD, SNS, senior brand manager K12 with Tyson Foods; and Janey Thornton, SNS, deputy under secretary, USDA/FNCS.
Ronnei discussed her district’s ‘Healthy Hits’ process that all new products/menuing ideas must go through before being added as a permanent menu item. The first steps in the process include a nutritional and cost-per-serving analysis. The menu item is then tested with student focus groups, piloted in one of the district’s schools, and finally menued three times district-wide and surveyed with students before being added as a permanent menu item. Current ‘Healthy Hits’ menu items include, ‘Buffalo and Wild Rice Casserole,’ ‘Corn and Edamame Salad’ and ‘Southwest Sausage and Rice.’
Houston shared with the group about the district’s nutritional program. The district staffs two registered dieticians who analyze every menu item to ensure it meets the daily nutritional values recommended by the USDA. All menu items and nutritional information is listed on the district’s website so that parents may access this info. Recent nutritional improvements within the district include using 50% reduced-fat cheese in menu items. All products served must contain 20 grams of fat or less per serving and all breads served are now whole wheat.
Tyson Foods panelist, Barb Jirka, provided a manufacturer’s perspective to the panel by sharing how Tyson develops its products for the school segment. It’s important that menu items appeal to students. ‘If kids don’t like the taste, they aren’t going to eat,’ said Jirka. ‘Taste is what drives participation in school meal programs.’
Menu trends in restaurants also translate into what students are looking for in the lunchroom. Tyson uses its consumer insights in the development of products, such as its new charbroiled burgers, to offer products similar to what students order in their favorite restaurants, while still meeting strict nutritional guidelines.
Thornton updated the group on the latest initiatives from the USDA, including the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for national school nutrition guidelines. She also encouraged directors to participate in the Healthier US School Challenge, which was established to recognize schools that are creating healthier school environments through the promotion of good nutrition and physical activity. School districts who receive the Gold of Distinction award receive a personal visit from Thornton.
‘Schools are very different, it’s not one size fits all,’ said Thornton. ‘Not all schools can do everything from scratch and with many schools implementing a breakfast program, staff only has two hours in between meals. Directors have to balance so much including budget, time and resources. That’s the reality…with our goal being to find the right balance to best serve students.’