Growing Pains

by Charlotte Atchley
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Middle school and high school are awkward times for everyone, but the lunch tray and breakfast carts are not a place where school food service directors expect to find confusion. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s proposed guidelines for school nutrition have school food service directors and the bakers who supply them unsure about what the government says students need and whether schools and the industry can afford it.

Current nutrition guidelines require all grain-based foods be made with either whole-grain or enriched wheat, without dictating to schools how much of either flour is required or how many whole-grain products should make up the total grains served to students.

The proposed guidelines, which will be made final in January, specify that half of the grain-based foods served to students must be “whole grain rich.” The proposal also says that over the course of two years following implementation, enriched wheat must be phased out so that at the end of two years, all grain-based foods will be whole-grain-rich. The proposal doesn’t define “whole grain rich,” adding to the confusion in the school food service industry. This point received plenty of criticism in public comments on USDA’s proposal — criticism that the department will consider while revising these rules. Under this proposal, schools that meet all of the nutritional requirements, not just the grain requirements, will see an increase of only 6¢ per lunch meal in government reimbursements, enough to buy part of an apple.

WHOLE GRAIN.

School districts can see the writing on the wall. Even though current nutritional guidelines for school meals do not require whole grains over enriched grains, many schools are asking bakeries for whole-grain-rich products anyway. That’s where bread products have been headed for the past five years, and the trend only seems to be gaining ground.

“It’s probably in the last five years when you started to see white-based product consumption decreasing, and a large part of the decrease is attributed to the parents directing their kids to eat heartier, wholesome whole-grain products,” said J.R. Paterakis, vice-president, marketing and sales, H&S Bakery, Baltimore, MD. “You can see the product shift in supermarkets and at the schools.”

School food service directors are asking bakeries for whole-grain-rich products. Although USDA has yet to define “whole grain rich,” so far those in the industry have applied the 51% golden rule to guide them — 51% or more of the flour used to make a product must be whole-grain.

While Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, GA, does not create new products specifically for the schools it supplies, Janice Anderson, vice-president, marketing, said the company already makes a consumer product line of 100% whole-grain breads, hamburger and hot dog buns, bagels and sandwich rounds available to schools. These products meet the USDA’s proposed nutritional requirements.

Like many companies serving school districts, H&S Bakery also saw the whole-grain trend coming and took a proactive approach. Before the federal guidelines were even proposed, Mr. Paterakis met with the school boards of H&S Bakery’s clients to discuss their districts’ needs in regards to whole grains and what could be done in the bakery.

“My intent was to help the overall nutrition of the children but to also standardize the pan sizes and products being distributed in the marketplace and trying to maintain cost so it could be reasonable,” Mr. Paterakis said.

During the past five years, many school food service suppliers switched previously enriched-wheat or refine wheat products to whole grain. Albie’s Food, Inc., Gaylord, MI, only offers its EZ Jammer soy butter-and-jelly sandwich in whole grain, and the company intends to offer its other filled sticks and prepared sandwiches in both whole-grain and white flour. Cargill Kitchen Solutions, Monticello, MN, reformulated its Sunnyfresh PanEggCakes andFrench toast to whole grain.

GRAB AND GO.

Schools also need foods that will work in the changing eating situations students find themselves in. The cafeteria, although still an important eating hub at school, is not as strong a center as it once was. Students now can eat breakfast in the classroom or grab breakfast, lunch and snacks from food carts, and some schools have implemented at third eating opportunity with afternoon snacks. Bakers can be creative in the ways they serve whole grains to students by creating portable products that require minimal preparation in the kitchen.

Fairlight Bakery, Vancouver, WA, reformulated its Zac Omega Bars and Zac Attack Bars with organic whole grains to meet nutrition guidelines. The breakfast bars come individually packaged, and students can use them for in-class meals and on-the-go snacks.

In an effort to create a highly nutritious product, Cargill Kitchen Solutions developed Griddle Bakes, a patent-pending product revealed at this year’s School Nutrition Association conference. The pancake-like product can be served hot or cold and has a flavor system that makes syrup unnecessary, allowing students to eat between classes or at their desks with minimal preparation and cleanup.

TASTE AND TEXTURE.

The biggest challenge with whole grains is taste. Whole grains tend to be bitter, and their texture can be gritty and grainy. All good intentions of nutrition guidelines and reformulations go out the window if students won’t eat whole-grain bread products because they aren’t sweet enough or look different from the white bread students usually eat.

“Many kids aren’t used to the taste and texture of whole grains,” said Dayle Hayes, RD, president of Nutrition for the Future, Inc., Billings, MT. “So one of the things that has been very popular has been white whole wheat because visually [the baked goods made with it] look more like products that kids are more used to eating.”

To meet this need, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE, developed Ultragrain, 100% whole-white-wheat flour that can be mixed into refined or enriched flour to meet the 51% rule while still maintaining texture and taste similar to that of white bread. According to Don Trouba, director of marketing, ConAgra Mills uses a patented milling process that grinds the whole-wheat kernel to the same particle size as refined white flour. Finished product manufacturers can reformulate their products using Ultragrain to meet the proposed guidelines but still get a taste and texture that students will eat.

Ultragrain is sold directly to schools that do scratch baking and to food manufacturers like ConAgra Foodservice, which uses Ultragrain to create finished whole grain products with white flour texture and taste, such as The Max pizza line for schools. Among the many other finished products developed for schools using Ultragrain are Ultragrain Pasta from J.M. Swank and Azteca Ultragrain Tortillas from Azteca Foods.

ADM Milling, Decatur, IL, and Farmer Direct Foods, Atchison, KS, also sell white-whole-wheat flour to manufacturers making finished products going to school cafeterias. Kent Symns, president, Farmer Direct Schools, said he has definitely seen an increase in his sales of white-whole-wheat flour to these customers. Cargill Horizon Milling’s WheatSelect white-whole-wheat flour can help schools baking from scratch and finished product manufacturers meet the 51% rule for whole grains.

“From our perspective, the challenge was palatability and getting [the finished product] to not be grainy and gritty and making it acceptable to kids who typically like their white-bread-and-Velveeta sandwich,” said John Orsucci, sales and marketing manager, Cargill Kitchen Solutions. “The ultimate goal was for [whole grain] to be nondiscernible and at the same time meet the critical requirements of the school.” Mr. Orsucci took this into consideration when Cargill Kitchen Solutions worked with the Cargill Bakery Technology group to develop Griddle Bakes with the WheatSelect white-whole-wheat flour. The company camouflaged the whole grains behind a maple-like taste, something familiar to students.

LUNCH MONEY.

Bakeries can make a whole-grain product that meets USDA proposed guidelines and is portable and palatable, but none of that matters if the bakery can’t do so within the school district’s budget. Whole-grain products are more expensive to make and, therefore, more expensive to purchase. Like everyone else today, school districts are being asked to do more with less money.

“[Cost] is going to affect the schools immensely because, with their tightening budgets, the push toward all whole grain-rich products will be a challenge,” said Judi Adams, president of the Grain Foods Foundation. “The industry will still supply the schools with products that they need or want, so I don’t think it will affect the industry to that great
an extent.”

Albie’s Foods keeps margins as tight as possible to hold costs down, but price is only one factor in what school districts seek, according to Regan Quaal, the company’s president. “[The whole-grain food] has to be a good product,” Mr. Quaal said. “It has to taste good. It has to perform. It has to provide the nutrition schools are looking for, but it has to be competitively priced. You don’t always have to be the lowest. [School districts] look at quality and what it brings to the table as well.”

At the moment, H&S Bakery’s Mr. Paterakis hasn’t noticed a problem with his school food service clients struggling to afford more expensive products. “Their objective is to meet the guidelines, and they’re going to pay for it,” he said. “They see the value to nutrition.”
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