The federally subsidized National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program operate in almost 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions nationally, according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These schools serve lunches to 29.8 million students each day. Feeding all these mouths requires offering selections that the children want and that government regulations deem nutritious enough to benefit the child’s diet. But that can be a moving target.

In 2012, the U.S. government mandated that all grain-based products served in schools be made with at least 50% whole grain by 2014. Resistance to this rule came in many forms, according to the School Nutrition Association (S.N.A.), which represents 58,000 school nutrition professionals from around the country.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations, S.N.A., said regional demands and cultural preferences created issues. Students in the South didn’t appreciate whole grain biscuits. Whole grain bagels in the Northeast weren’t being accepted as replacements for conventional bagels. And whole grain tortillas in the Southwest were not popular. The pushback was so significant that U.S.D.A. retracted the rule in 2018 and returned to an earlier requirement that only half of grain-based foods have 50% or more whole grain-rich content.

The 2019 S.N.A. annual report showed that 91% of school districts are well-positioned to exceed the half minimum mandate this year, with 70% reporting that about three-quarters of their grains offered are whole grain-rich.

To increase student acceptance of these whole grain products, schools have used white wheat for a lighter appearance, conducted taste tests to gather feedback from students on multiple products and recipes, and they have gradually increased the amount of whole wheat flour in recipes. The S.N.A. report said 19% of districts recorded no resistance to the increased whole grain-rich foods.

“Schools are looking to companies to help them meet those target-two sodium limits in the coming years."

Diane Pratt-Heavner, School Nutrition Association

Private suppliers can help schools by creating appetizing whole grain baked foods. JSB Industries, Lawrence, Mass., offer healthier options that kids gravitate toward. Roger Piffer, director of marketing for JSB and its Muffin Town brand, said its line of Smart Choice whole grain bakery products have been well-received in the school segment. Smart Choice was designed specifically for K-12 schools.

“We have graduates calling us frequently to ask where they can buy the muffins or cornbread or bagels that they loved so much when they were in school,” Mr. Piffer said. “Getting these calls and requests from adults looking for the Muffin Town products validates all the hard work our R.&D. team put into our products.”

Chabaso also makes whole grain-rich bread a priority for the schools it supplies.

“At Chabaso, whole grain products were already a strong suit for us, so it was a natural step to create whole grain rich products for schools,” said Trish Karter, chief executive officer of Chabaso. “Additionally, we’re exploring exciting nutrient-rich and flavor-forward ingredients to make bread more tasty, interesting and fun.”

Chabaso is even developing a whole grain roll using only locally sourced Northeast grains for its regional schools.

“We’re working with school systems to model a new distribution system that will reduce costs so that the savings can be invested in better quality food for kids,” Ms. Karter said. “We haven’t been hugely affected by government regulations or rules. If anything, the general guidelines toward nutrition are welcome because they align with our mission to create a better, healthier tomorrow — with bread.”

Getting creative with regional products that meet government nutritional mandates and generate interest from consumers is one way to please students of any age.

Similar to whole grain regulations, sodium mandates also have fluctuated over the past 10 years. The 2012 nutritional guidelines included strict limits on sodium levels in school meals. One of the provisions required that schools gradually reduce average sodium content of weekly meals over a 10-year period. The first target reduction was in 2014, the second in 2017, and a third was set for 2022. However, just like with whole wheat, the government again backed away from its third and most stringent target level.

According to a U.S.D.A. report, food manufacturers said they had a sufficient timeline to meet the sodium requirements of the first target but said there was “extreme specialization” required to produce and market lower-sodium products to meet the second and third targets. Based on producer perceptions, creating a more specialized product for school foods to meet the second two sodium targets may decrease the number of food suppliers offering compliant products because of the financial and business effects of participating in a highly segmented market, according to the report.

In response, the U.S.D.A. extended the deadline to meet the second target’s requirements and has eliminated the final target.

“It was a big concern because it was so restrictive,” Ms. Pratt-Heavner said of the third target. “Schools are looking to companies to help them meet those target-two sodium limits in the coming years. They really need to keep a close eye on sodium levels that they select. So that’s a big request from people in our field.”

The U.S.D.A. report indicated several ways to increase student acceptance of lower sodium foods. One was to use taste tests to inform students about menu changes and identify preferred food items. Another strategy provides more menu options that reflect students’ preferences. Communicating and promoting the healthy aspects of the food and implementing them gradually increases acceptance, the U.S.D.A. said.

This article is an excerpt from the October 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on school food service, click here.