Editor’s note: Laura Stanley is the producer and host of “Inside School Food,” a weekly radio show on the Heritage Radio Network. Read more about the show >>
Each month I will be compiling a short list of some of the more eye-opening takeaways from conversations with school food “insiders.” For this first column, I’m including material from episodes first aired this spring and summer, plus two personal favorites from earlier this year.
1. Shifting gears on a la carte. What to do when new restrictions on competitive foods cut into sales and weaken your bottom line? This challenge is especially familiar in more affluent secondary schools, where a majority of students can afford to bring their own when the a la carte line disappoints. In eastern Kansas, Mill Valley High School responded boldly, stocking the serving line almost entirely with reimbursable meal components. Participation is up as adolescents respond to a marketing pitch for the competitively priced, reimbursable “meal deal” they can select from a build-your-own “creation station.” Nutrition Director Amy Droegemeier trolls the dining room for teen-friendly examples of healthy lunches from home, which she reproduces as reimbursable grab-and-go meals. “We’re seeing our more popular students being role models in this,” she says. “That’s helping a lot.” (Participation: What’s really going on?)
2. Pursuit of “clean label.” Never mind that no one can offer a definition of “clean label.” It’s still an idea that resonates powerfully with many millennial parents. A district that can demonstrate commitment to removing mysterious, unpronounceable additives from its menus is in a better position to woo families skeptical about the wholesomeness of school meals. Some processors are finding that natural ingredient profiles offer an advantage in gaining market share, despite higher cost. For two such companies, Truitt Family Foods and Green Bellies, product development in close collaboration with K-12 clients has contributed to their success. (More conversation about food processing: “Have it your way” part 2)
3. Rethinking the cafeteria. We’re all familiar with ingenious Smarter Lunchrooms Movement strategies that subtly manipulate the lunchroom environment to direct students toward healthier choices. Some districts are going much further by planning and executing complete reconfigurations of the student dining experience. San Francisco Unified School District has partnered with one of the world’s sharpest, most sought-after design firms to create a blueprint that proposes a paradigm shift away from assembly line-style service to more intuitive models that comfortably set young customers before their food, and one another. In Chandler, Ariz., high school students select reimbursable meals from an array of stylish, house-brand kiosks in a shopping mall-style food court. (Cafeteria (not!) of the future; Courting customers: Fresh ideas from Chandler, AZ)
4. Let them eat (local) fish. For decades, fish at school mostly meant one thing: breaded fingers and patties—tasty with ketchup, but detached from their natural origins. But children will eat whole-muscle fish, especially if, like farm-to-school produce, it comes with pride of place. Pioneering projects include “Bay to Tray” in the Monterey, Calif., schools, where community ties to the small-scale independent fishing industry made local fish tacos an easy sell, even with kindergartners. In New England, a New Bedford-based processor uses locally harvested retail and restaurant-market trim and underutilized species from the Gulf of Maine to create affordable, oven-ready casseroles and coconut-crusted filets. (“Bay to Tray” in Monterey; Sustainable New England seafood for New England kids)
5. Why healthier school menus really are a hard sell. According to research from the Monell Chemical Senses Institute, children are born with a tenacious preference for sweet and salt and a strong aversion to bitter. Sweetness and saltiness signal nutrient density that babies need, while bitterness can signal the presence of toxins. But in an environment dominated by processed foods, these protective inclinations can distort palate development. Children not exposed to a variety of fruits, vegetables and low-sodium whole grains in toddlerhood struggle to accept them at school—but will in time, when given the opportunity. (First tastes matter most)