New School Meal Patterns: Do U Have 2 B a Magician?

Delighted to be in Denver for the School Nutrition Association’s 2012 Annual Nutrition Conference – where 6,000+ school food professionals come to taste new items, check out the latest equipment, and listen to the best speakers in the business. Like my colleagues from every state and several foreign countries, I am here to learn, learn, LEARN!

The focus of this meeting is quite clear: Everyone involved in school nutrition is eager (desperate might be a better word) for answers about the rollout of USDA’s 2012 Nutriton Standards for School Meals. The complexity of the meal pattern changes and the questions about students’ reactions can be summarized in a friend’s Tweet from the conference yesterday: “U dont have to b a ‪#dietitian‬ 2 meet the new school guidelines, u hav 2 b a magician”

Here are three “magic wands” that I’ll be looking for at the conference sessions and exhibits: (1) What products and recipes will meet the new meal pattern AND student taste preferences at the same time?

The Zesty Chipotle Chicken Flatbread tray pictured above meets the new meal pattern and fits well into current reimbursement levels. It has also been kid-tested in the Denver Public Schools. I tasted it last night – and loved it. But, many issues still remain in serving trays that meet the new meal pattens:

  • Chipotle (or flatbread for that matter) will work great in some parts of the county and fall flat in others. Where are the hundreds (maybe thousands) of recipe/meal options necessary to please critical students and fit the guidelines?
  • Some of the toughest new requirements are serious restrictions on grains (even whole grains) and meats (even lean ones). Were such restrictions necessary given the new calorie ranges for three age groups (K-5, 6-8 and 9-12)?

(2) What do we need to market/promote/inspire students and staff to ENJOY (in some cases) radically different school meals meals?

It’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority of US children are not currently following the USDA Nutrition Standards when eating at home or in restaurants. It’s going to take some serious marketing and promotion to get the beautiful new meals into kids rather than garbage cans.

  • The staff in Lake Stevens Washington did a FABULOUS job with their “Make a Rainbow at the Salad Bar” promotion. What else are schools doing effectively to motivate kids to enjoy foods they may never have seen before?
  • Marketing and promotion take time, resources, and expertise not always available in school nutrition programs. How are school training staff, finding resources, and collaborating to get the job done?

(3) What can we do create CAFETERIAS that provide positive, pleasant places for students to learn healthful eating habits?

The current “herd ’em in, herd ’em out” mentality in many school cafeterias is not an environment that encourages trying new items and enjoying a variety of flavors on your tray. One school lunch director told me that kids in her school have so little time to eat that “they are still grabbing things off trays while walking toward the trash cans.”

  • Since it’s only nutrition when they eat or drink it, we have to give more time and attention to school meal environments. With all the focus on WHAT is being served, we can not WHERE, WHEN, and HOW school meals are served. 
  • As long as these conditions are less than optimal, we will be feeding garbage cans not kids. I am deeply interested in WHAT schools are doing to address these issues.
STAY TUNED here and on FB SchoolMealsThatRock and Twitter SchoolMealsRock for everything that I learn here in Denver!!

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