Last week I was invited to attend the School Nutrition Association‘s National Conference for a day. Having three kids in school full time this year for the first time means I’ll have three kids who may buy lunch at school. I like to be informed about what my family is eating.
Attending the conference was a great experience for me. Not only did I get to meet two long time blog pals in person for the first time but I also learned oh so very much about school nutrition programs in general. I really kind of had no idea just how uninformed I truly was before I went to this conference!
Five Things About School Nutrition Programs
1. This is not your mama’s school lunch.
Or even my school lunch. Times have changed. Menus have changed.
I have vivid memories of some of the stuff that was served on our plates in school Especially vegetables! They didn’t, not once, look anything like these!
2. What you see on school menus is not what you find at the grocery store.
This was a big one for me. Seeing toaster pastries on the menu for breakfast or chicken nuggets, for example, for lunch often gave me pause. But ANYTHING served in schools has to meet standards- so maybe that brand of chicken nuggets you use at home is the same brand they serve at your kids’ school, but the breading used is whole grain… the toaster pastries have to be within a set number of calories, grains, salt content, etc…the pasta served isn’t the same as you have in your pantry.
Even cereals served for breakfast are lower in calories, lower in sugar, lower in fat content, and made with whole grains. So while we adults may not love the idea that Fruit Loops are served for breakfast, it makes (most of) the kids happy, and we can know that the kids having that for breakfast are not having the same sugary cereals that we see on supermarket shelves.
3. There are federal guidelines for school nutrition programs.
This probably should be higher in the list, but this isn’t a list based on importance. The USDA has requirements and guidelines for foods served in schools. Period. The items on the school menus that come home (or pop up in your email) ALL have to meet those guidelines.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update these nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. The new regulations, effective July 1, 2012, require cafeterias to offer more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and limit sodium, calories and unhealthy fat in every school meal.
To ensure all foods and beverages sold in school during the school day are healthy choices, HHFKA also required USDA to create nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in competition to reimbursable meals. These “competitive foods” are sold in vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines. In June 2013, USDA issued the “Smart Snacks in School” interim final rule establishing these standards, which go into effect July 1, 2014.
4. When a brand you recognize (ie Pizza Hut, Dominos) is listed on your school lunch menu, the foods are made for school programs and are not the same as what you get in the restaurant and/or store.
I honestly thought when seeing Dominos Pizza or Pizza Hut on the kids’ lunch menus that perhaps the school had an agreement and it was a way to save costs! But, as it turns out, both brands, as well as others, have their school nutrition versions of products. Pizza is a popular food in my house (as it is in many) and is always a day that the kids, especially my son, want to buy lunch when it’s up on the menu. It’s a lot easier to agree to him having pizza for lunch once a week knowing that the ingredients meet the USDA requirements and are made with whole grains, lower sodium and fat levels.
5. Most school nutrition programs aren’t funded by the board of education. Most offer a la carte items to offset costs. Even the ice cream bars, for example, have to meet FDA guidelines for school nutrition.
Starting this year, my oldest had a la carte items available for purchase every day. You can imagine my surprise to hear that she had ice cream available for purchase every day. Actually, the first time I spoke with the PR team from the School Nutrition Association about attending this conference, this was one of the first things I said to them. I realize I’m in a position most aren’t, and was able to attend a conference for the folks who work with school nutrition in so many aspects.
I was also brought around to some of the booths set up in the expo hall by a Nutrition professional from Connecticut (where I live, if you don’t know) who knew of my concerns and took the time to plan visits to brands and companies that she knows meet the standards we have here in CT…including Blue Bunny ice cream, which she knows to meet our state standards. While I’m still not enamored with the idea that kids have ice cream available for purchase daily, I do understand more now that this is to help with the costs of running school lunch programs and a la carte items are one way to help offest those costs. I am MUCH more comfortable with the idea that those ice creams available to the kids for purchase have to meet the same standards that anything else in a school cafeteria , which means they cannot be over a certain number of calories, fat content or sodium content. I (wrongly) assumed, as many other parents have when I have spoken with them, that those ice cream products offered to the kids in the a la carte line were the same as what we could see in the grocery store freezer cases. They aren’t. The folks at Blue Bunny and my guide, Cindy (thank you Cindy!), were really great about showing me just what met our standards and what the calorie counts must be for snacks, serving sizes, sodium content, etc.
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