NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — New federal nutrition standards requiring schools to offer students more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting sodium, calories and saturated and trans fats, are playing a part in a more diverse selection of foods available for school meals this fall, according to a new report from the School Nutrition Association.
The “2012 Back to School Trends Report” included on-line survey responses from 579 school districts across the United States. The survey series began in 1998.
“For too many of America’s school children, school lunch is the only balanced meal they will receive all day,” said Sandra Ford, president of the S.N.A. “School food service professionals are working hard to provide students with the healthiest meals to help them succeed in the classroom and beyond.”
Nearly all of the respondents surveyed said they are using some type of method or approach to encourage students to try new menu items. The most popular method was taste testing/sampling, cited by 87% of respondents, followed by Nutritional Education Initiatives, at 66%, and Farm to School programs, at 30%.
Sixteen per cent said they were involved in chef partnerships, while 15% have developed school gardens and 10% have held recipe contests.
Cafeterias are serving fruits and vegetables in a variety of ways to appeal to students’ preferences, according to the S.N.A. report. Offering whole fruits and vegetables was the most popular option, at 87%, according to the survey, followed by 67% offering fresh, packaged produce, 64% offering prepackaged salads and 55% providing self-serve salad or produce bars.
“The strongest variations are seen by region, and are especially pronounced for self-serve salad or produce bars. This option is highly popular in the West (cited by 70%) but fairly uncommon in the Southeast (cited by only 28.4%),” the survey said.
With the government mandate calling for more whole grains, every respondent said they are using one or more methods to bolster the consumption of whole-grain rich items. Nearly all respondents, 97%, said they are offering whole-grain rich rolls, buns or bread, and 93% offer whole-grain rich pizza crust.
Other popular options for whole grains inclusion cited by respondents were rice (82%), pasta (81%), cold breakfast cereal (80%), tortillas, pitas or flatbread (78%), crackers, pretzels or similar snack items (57%), breading and coatings (49%), and hot breakfast cereal (30%). Only 11% of respondents said they offered quinoa, and only 9% offered couscous.
The school districts surveyed by the S.N.A. said they not only are taking necessary steps to offer healthier products, but healthier products that are also popular with students. Of the most popular lunch entrees, 94% include at least one of the following attributes — whole-grain rich, low-sodium, low-fat, or baked — the survey said, and nearly 11% of the lunch offerings provide all four. The most common attribute was “baked” among lunch entrees (73%), followed by “whole-grain rich” (62%).
New ethnic foods also are making a mark at schools this fall. According to the survey, 28% of the respondents said their school nutrition program plans call for the introduction of at least one new ethnic food in the coming school year. Asian foods are expected to account for the largest share of these new items (49%), followed by Mexican foods (29%).
Many school districts (61%) are turning to locally-grown or locally-raised items this fall, particularly the largest districts in the Northeast, where as many as 76% said they plan to source locally.
“Produce is by far the most common locally-sourced item, purchased by nearly every one of the districts that locally-source their foods,” the survey said. “Dairy products are the next most popular item, cited by nearly 26% of those who locally-source their foods.”
As interest in gluten-free and other special diets has risen, so too has demand at the school level. Nearly 80% of the respondents said there was at least a small increase in the number of special diet requests that their school nutrition program has received in the past year, according to the S.N.A.
For the full report visit www.schoolnutrition.org.