The people in charge of deciding what’s on the menu at school cafeterias around the country will converge on St. Louis to consider how to make school lunches better.
The discussion will happen at the School Nutrition Association's national conference, July 14-16. The goal of the conference is for school nutrition professionals to learn about the latest changes and innovations in the food industry and how those trends can translate into nutritious and tasty meals.
“We’re always looking at what are the current trends,” said Gay Anderson, School Nutrition Association president. “Other topics could be on different kinds of equipment that are out there that are new that could help create efficiency that are in the kitchen so that they can provide more local food or more fresh food.”
About 6,000 school nutrition professionals are expected to attend the conference.
Tasty and nutritious
Anderson said the event will include tastings so food professionals can seek inspiration and explore how to introduce new options, such as Korean barbecue tacos and yogurt dips, into K-12 school districts around the country. Anderson said those options must also meet national nutritional standards.
“Some of the things that we expect to be seeing, still foods that will still continue to meet our target-one sodium ranges, that we still follow the strict calories and guidelines and fat limits to ensure we don’t contribute to childhood obesity,” Anderson said.
The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required the USDA to update school-lunch nutrition standards. The new policies were implemented for the 2012-13 year and prompted reports that students did not like the healthier food, such as fruits and vegetables, and were throwing it away. To test how the new policies were affecting students, a group of researchers studied food consumption and waste among middle school students between 2012 and 2014 and found the percentage of students choosing fruit increased from 54% to 66%, and fruit consumption remained high at 74%.
In 2017, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the USDA would review the school-lunch nutrition guidelines, referring to the issue of waste.
“Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.”
Anderson said one of the trends across the country that will be highlighted at the conference will be the increase in more self-sufficient methods of food sourcing and preparation, particularly farm-to-school methods in which local foods are delivered to schools. The process benefits local farmers while providing food options that are region-specific.
Food preparation methods and new farm-to-school options have already influenced cafeteria changes in the Rockwood School District.
“There’s a product I learned about last year at the conference where we’re able to grow our own vegetables with grow lights,” said Carmen Fischer, Rockwood’s child nutrition director. “We hope to bring something like that into the Rockwood School District hopefully this next school year.”
The conference comes at a time where the number of individuals participating in the school lunch program is declining. Data from the USDA show that participation in the National School Lunch Program reached a 13-year low in fiscal 2018, with about 30 million students receiving free or low-cost meals daily.
That’s compared to about 32 million students in fiscal 2011. Anderson said the drop in participation is a concern, especially as the convention attendees will consider how to accommodate food-insecure students.
“To have well-educated students, we need to be able to provide them healthy meals,” Anderson said. “We’re running into shorter lunch periods so kids don’t have time to eat, and we need to make sure that kids have that aspect there.”
The conference will take place at the America’s Center Convention Complex.
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