Pizza is still one of the most popular menu items for students in the Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colorado, even if the dough is made from whole-wheat flour and the pepperoni is reduced in fat.
“We try to have as many whole foods as we can on our menu,” says Erika Edwards, interim director of the Nutrition Center for the district, which operates 61 schools, including 42 elementary schools in the metro Denver area. “We have done more quick from scratch things like pasta dishes and items that allow you to control the number of simple ingredients you are using.”
Since the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised school lunch nutrition guidelines in 2010, elementary school foodservice operators have been looking for ways to create “clean” menus for children at breakfast and lunch.
“Clean” is often used to describe dishes made with minimally processed foods, fewer ingredients, no antibiotics or artificial products, and less or no sugar, salt and gluten. The challenge for school foodservice operators is to provide more wholesome food that meets federal guidelines, is within the school's budget and that children will enjoy eating.
School districts are reimbursed for meals that adhere to federal guidelines with regard to the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables and protein on a plate. To help the schools achieve their goals, more food manufacturers such as Jones Dairy Farm are stepping up with offerings that help school districts meet government guidelines for nutrition, while also improving flavor and quality, say school cafeteria foodservice operators.
“We’re seeing lower sodium items and the total elimination of trans fat,” says Kyleen Harris, director of Food and Nutrition Service for Abilene Public Schools in Abilene, Kansas. “When the guidelines first changed, it was hard to find what I was looking for in protein. It’s amazing how fast manufacturers were able to meet the new guidelines.”
On a school weekday students in Abilene’s three elementary schools can choose from such breakfast dishes as French toast and sausage or a whole grain cereal, and for lunch they can select chili with crackers, fresh celery sticks, cucumbers and slices of pears rolled in cinnamon.
When it comes to protein, Harris says, “The type of products we’re looking for are less processed, and with minimal, if any, additives.”
Some suppliers like Jones Dairy Farm have always offered meats with minimal ingredients, such as its array of all-natural, certified gluten-free sausage products. Jones Dairy Farm offers lower sodium pork sausage links and patties as well as sausage links made from minimally processed turkey or chicken.
Jones Dairy Farm is one of several in the nation that participate in the voluntary Child Nutrition Labeling Program. To obtain the CN label, manufacturers must adhere to quality control procedures and inspection oversight that meets requirements of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. School nutritionists know foods with the CN label will contribute to their requirements for reimbursable meals.
“The labels make it easier for me to know how much meat credit a protein has,” Harris says. “We look at how much meat is in a product and we get credit for it. For example, if the chicken nuggets have 2 ounces of meat, we get six points.”
Food companies have helped Kansas City Public Schools find products that are lower in salt and made without artificial ingredients, says Josh Mathiasmeier, director of Nutritional Services for KCPS in Kansas City, Missouri.
“More processed items are higher in sodium, but we’re seeing companies reformulating their products accordingly,” Mathiasmeier says.
Another way to avoid artificial ingredients or too much sugar or salt is to do more cooking from scratch — although students might not be as accustomed to consuming foods that are less salty or sugary, he says.
“Unfortunately, our area is somewhat of a food desert,” Mathiasmeier says. “The students' access to from scratch type items is limited, and they are used to the heavily processed items when eating away from school.”
The school district is now making more foods from scratch, including, quesadillas, hummus, barbecue chicken, meatball sandwiches and chili. They also are developing additional from scratch items such as pizza, calzone and burritos.
While students enjoy tasty proteins like gluten-free pork sausage patties that do not contain any binders or fillers or MSG, school nutritionists are still trying to get children to eat their fruits and vegetables, particularly now that there are more of them on their school lunch tray.
“Some food waste may be generated by this process and that’s a hard thing for anyone to see,” says Edwards at Cherry Creek schools. “What are students seeing at home compared to what they are seeing at school meals? It may be the first time students see a kiwi. It takes a few tries to get students to recognize and appreciate new foods. It’s a challenge, but it’s a wonderful challenge.”