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School farm-grown blueberries and jalapenos come together for a spicy-sweet take on chicken and waffles at Spartanburg schools.

Put your values on the menu: Parsing through clean label, natural, organic and local

What’s right for your procurement processes, your menu, your customers and your stakeholders? Before you jump on any bandwagons, let’s look closely at the menu label terms we hear being thrown around like a chopped salad at lunch rush.

“Is this clean-label?” “I only eat organic.” “Did you source this locally?” “What’s in this?” If you’re a foodservice operator, chef, dietitian or server, you have probably heard questions like these from customers, students, parents, stakeholders and maybe even the local media.

At the root of all the terms and labels is the desire to eat healthy; to eat better. This goes for all ages, but studies are showing it’s especially true for Gen Z.

“Mainly, I believe they want their food to align with their values,” says North Carolina-based consultant Lisa Eberhart, who, along with her longtime colleague Randy Lait, founded foodservice consultancy Menu Analytics after the two spent many years managing and shaping the award-winning dining program at NC State.  


HHS Chef Trula Hepner made this locally sourced grilled watermelon salad with fruits from a nearby farm and spicy lime-mango dressing.

What’s it all mean? Let’s ask an expert

We asked Eberhart what she thinks of the various terms around the seemingly elusive quest to eat better. As a trained dietitian who’s been on the business side of food for a long time, Eberhart has a great perspective to begin parsing through the static. 

While many Gen Z-ers say they want natural foods, “natural is a little misleading,” Eberhart says. “According to the USDA, ‘natural’ meat or poultry cannot contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and should be minimally processed. It doesn’t have anything to do with how they were raised (free-range, etc.) or if antibiotics or hormones were used. For foods other than meat and poultry, the label is meaningless.”

  • Clean label is an approach Eberhart loves, as it’s “simple and understandable,” she says, “having as few ingredients and minimal multisyllabic words within the ingredient list makes sense to people. We’re all about menu transparency, so the clean label approach lends itself to being transparent.”
  • Organic is a labeling term found on products produced according to a strict set of farming guidelines, and as many small farmers know, it’s expensive to get this certification. “The cost of organic may be higher and it may be harder to source,” Eberhart cautions. “Right now, with sourcing issues everywhere could you possibly get produce more easily?”


Students are eating these school-to-farm lunchbox peppers like candy at Spartanburg (SC) School District 6/District Six Organic Farm & Nutrition Services.

Putting words into menu action

A school district in South Carolina has found a way around sourcing issues for organic produce by running its own organic farm, and school stakeholders and the community see a real value in it. That district is Spartanburg (SC) School District 6/District Six Organic Farm & Nutrition Services, where menu items include squash casserole that uses frozen summer squash all through the year for a Southern classic, pasture-raised grassfed beef tacos and the simple pleasures of “lunchbox peppers,” a colorful crop that kids learn to eat like candy (albeit dipped in ranch dressing). 

While the organic label is working there, others find it a bit confining, while still others see more value in emphasizing local food. 

“You should focus on eating food that’s minimally processed and comes from near you,” says Chef Michael Cleary, GM with Bon Appetit Management Co. at St. John’s College in Annapolis. Bon Appetit is known for scratch-made food, and Cleary is currently working on a fermentation project. 

When Cleary was an R&D chef for Whole Foods, he remembers a debate between Michael Pollan and the Whole Foods CEO on whether organic food was better (Whole Foods’ view) or local (Pollan’s preaching). This was years ago, and it’s still debatable. 

“My opinion about it is, organics shouldn’t be considered a religion like kosher or halal,” he says. “Just for general eating purposes, it shouldn’t be a religion. But if you want to make smart decisions, ask how close it came from, how long has it been sitting around and how many ingredients it has.”

Common sense is Cleary’s guiding force: “Some things are going to have pesticides or artificial colors,” he says, “but you’re not going to die if you eat that, maybe if that’s all you ate…There’s a level of hysteria.”


Spartanburg students get a sweet treat with school farm-grown sweet potatoes topped with toasted coconut.

Making local easier

HHS’ company-wide Source Local Initiative was created recently to help operators connect with their local farmers through a partnership with FreshPoint (a ProAct produce distributor) for large-scale orders to add variety to menus, improve the quality of ingredients, add nutritional value, decrease costs, showcase local farms and reduce the carbon footprint. 

According to HHS Chef Marta Hernandez, the initiative is already working like gangbusters and increasing plant-based options. “It’s a great tool, making it simple where it might not have been before,” she says. “You go in and type in your zip code and designate a radius and it’ll come up with farms in your area.”

From there, you can make signs for the serving area (with a predesigned template) that proudly proclaim “Apples from Joe’s orchard” with some info on Joe or maybe even handouts with an apple crisp recipe.

“On my salad bar, we have local lettuces and the mushrooms are absolutely gorgeous right now,” Hernandez says, adding that while it might be ideal to make salad dressing from scratch, in a healthcare setting that may not be an option, “so we go with clean label.”

As a shorthand that encompasses different terms, HHS uses “better for you” on menus and signage, getting straight to the root of that desire we mentioned earlier to simply eat better. 

“We as a company are looking at all our processes to see how to best minimize the damage we do,” she adds. “It’s a business, so we consume a lot, but we try to be conscious. I start with the end in mind when I develop a recipe.”

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