Study finds range of hurdles keeping whole grains out of schools

by Eric Schroeder
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MINNEAPOLIS — Even as more schools seek out whole grains to incorporate into school lunch programs, evidence suggests lack of understanding on the part of food service workers, availability of products, cost and communication remain high hurdles left to be cleared in the race to bring whole grain products to the food service marketplace.

A study led by Len Marquart, assistant professor of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, that appears in the Spring 2009 issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, found that, above all else, food service directors are frustrated.

As part of the study, data from four focus groups consisting of 36 food service directors and/or managers from urban, suburban and rural school districts in Minnesota were collected during the 2007 Minnesota School Nutrition Association’s annual conference in Rochester, Minn. The data analysis identified six main topics regarding whole grains: standards and definitions; packaging and labeling; distribution and availability; quality and cost; sensory and adaptation; and communication and promotion.

In regards to standards and definitions, the study found school food service providers have a poor understanding of whole grain definitions, with many viewing the current definition as ambiguous and difficult to use. Although there is no standard definition for whole grain foods in school food service, a working whole grain definition established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its "A Healthier You" program requires that a product consists of 51% of the total flour as whole grains.

With that working definition in mind, another problem cited by food service providers was the use of grams, percentages or ingredients as a means to identify the amount of whole grain in a food item, a different measuring standard than the more familiar use of ounces in recipes. According to the researchers, a critical first step to greater whole grains introduction in schools will be the establishment of a universal definition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture so that school food service providers "can successfully deliver a known quantity of whole grains and to base their practices for ordering/purchasing, serving and promoting whole grain foods in school cafeterias."

Packaging and labeling also stand out as barriers to introduction. The researchers said participants repeatedly expressed a desire for a clearer product label, or a universal whole grain seal or indicator. A possible application mentioned by the researchers was the continued use of the Whole Grain Stamp within the vendor ordering system so that food service directors may establish specifications for whole grains as part of the initial order or bid. In a study conducted earlier this year by the Whole Grains Council, nearly 60% of school food service directors said one of the top three standards they use for deciding if a food is a whole grain is the Whole Grain Stamp.

Other respondents in the study stated a desire for more convenient packaging of whole grain products.

"It was felt by many food service directors that certain types of whole grain bread packages were too small and require extra labor when serving large volumes," the researchers said.

Participants in the study voiced concern about distribution and availability of whole grains as well, in some cases pointing to discrepancies between the types of products available for large and small schools. There also was a perception among food service providers that in some cases smaller schools receive fewer and lower quality whole grain options.

Cost, long considered one of the most significant barriers to whole grain introduction because of the tight budgets school food service providers have to work with, remains a top concern. Researchers did note that respondents mentioned ways of overcoming this barrier, possibly by creating multiple-school buying groups to decrease cost and improve quality.

Sensory and adaptation issues also appear to be an area that food service providers believe they can overcome. Blending, camouflage, multiple options and no choice were all given as viable ways to adapt whole grains.

Better communication and more promotional tools were seen as high priorities by food service providers. They indicated a willingness to work more closely with vendors and industry in order to better understand standards and increase whole grains consumption.

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