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SNA survey: International dishes, customization surge in K-12 dining

Data reveals most school meal programs have offered or are considering offering ethnically flavored items, while made-to-order salads and entree bars are proliferating.

The 2017 School Nutrition Association (SNA) School Nutrition Trends Report, based on survey responses from 515 director-level respondents from 515 districts, revealed a boom in the menuing of international flavored foods in school cafeterias, along with a strong trend toward allowing students to customize their selections.

The survey also showed that districts are deploying a wide range of tactics to meet sodium limits and to increase student acceptance of whole-grain foods, both of which continue to be required by federal law for districts participating in the National School Lunch Program.

The survey, conducted this past August and September, showed that nearly six in 10 responding districts are offering new menu items this school year that feature international flavors, with another 26 percent considering or testing such dishes.

Almost as strong a trend is the move to meal customization, with 69 percent of respondents offering salad/produce bars or made-to-order salads and over half providing made-to-order or self-serve entrée bars, especially at the high school level.

One potentially growing phenomenon related to this latter trend is the increasing prevalence of flavor stations where students can custom-flavor their meal choices with low- or no-sodium seasonings, spices or sauces.

That is one strategy in the battle to meet federally mandated sodium limits for school meals. Other popular approaches, per the survey, include reformulating recipes (73 percent of respondents), increased scratch preparation (61 percent), limiting the availability of sodium-heavy condiments (57 percent) and reducing portion sizes (33 percent).

Nevertheless, there remains widespread anxiety about the potential impact of limiting sodium, with an overwhelming 92 percent of respondents saying they are concerned (with 58 percent being “very concerned”) about the availability of foods that will meet future sodium limits while being well accepted by students.

Plus, 88 percent say they face challenges regarding student acceptance or familiarity with reduced sodium foods, and a large majority cite challenges with naturally occurring sodium in foods such as milk, low-fat cheese and meat; product or ingredient availability; and sodium levels in condiments.

Anxiety also exists over the issue of whole grains, with 65 percent reporting challenges (22 percent term it a “significant challenge”) with the current mandate that all grains offered with school meals be whole-grain rich. Among those reporting difficulties, almost all (96 percent) cite challenges with student acceptance and more than half (54 percent) note the higher cost of whole grains.

Pasta and noodles were fingered as the most troublesome product category, named by nearly half of the respondents as causing the most concern about whole-grain acceptance.

Still, districts are doing what they can to increase student acceptance of whole-grain foods: four in five utilize white-wheat flour to give whole-grain foods a lighter appearance and 39 percent have tried to acclimate students by gradually increasing the amount of whole-wheat flour in recipes. In addition, 70 percent have conducted student taste tests to promote whole-grain options and gather feedback for use in possible future initiatives.

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