School lunch and breakfast programs can have a profound impact on young students’ lives. Federal nutrition standards that limit sodium and sugar intake, however, are changing what baking and snack companies can supply to schools. Ultimately, the goal of schools and other institutions is to have consumers opt for meal plans and in-house dining options rather than pursue other food service solutions.

Since the nutrition standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, 2 million fewer students choose school lunch each day.

“Schools are really focused on trying to bring students back into the meal program not only for the financial stability of the program, but also because research shows school meals are healthier than the average packed lunch,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations, School Nutrition Association (S.N.A.). “They really want to make sure these kids are getting these meals not only from a health perspective but also reducing any stigma on the students who really have to take those meals from a financial perspective.

“Schools are really looking to restaurants to get ideas on how they bring customers in the door. They know they need to make healthier meals than ever before; they know they need to make them appealing.”

To see a microcosm of larger U.S. consumer trends in food, visit a high school or college. Where these halls of learning once offered a limited menu with just one or two options per day, they now provide a plethora of dining choices.

Schools and other institutions are finding ways to make their dining options appealing, healthy and relevant in the eyes of their consumers who are increasingly searching outside the institutions to feed their individual tastes. In the larger food industry, healthy eating and ethnic flavors are the rage. These trends are directly reflected in schools as they and their supplier partners keep up with the demands that come with changing eating habits.

“People want bread that’s fresher, tastier, healthier, more delicious, more local and beautiful,” said Trish Karter, chief executive officer of Chabaso, New Haven, Conn.

Chabaso supplies its bread to schools in the Northeast.

“We see those demands starting at the individual consumer level and moving upstream to the institutional level,” Ms. Karter said.

Defining healthy by generation

Bakers targeting schools and other institutions should be aware of generational eating trends at each specific location. A hospital will differ from a college campus, and a university will differ from a high school.

YPulse, Inc., a New-York based research firm that studies younger generations’ consumer preferences, conducts bimonthly surveys of 13- to 37-years-olds in the United States to gauge their preferences. According to recent surveys, 88% of middle and high schoolers, and 93% of college students say that nutrition and healthy eating is important to them. But what is their idea of healthy?

MaryLeigh Bliss, vice-president of content, YPulse, said Generation Z and millennial consumers increasingly are incorporating balance into their diets. They are willing to indulge when appropriate.

“The majority of middle school, high school and college students tell us they consider themselves overall healthy, and the majority of students tell us they try to have a healthy diet,” Ms. Bliss said. “That being said, 71% of middle and high school students and 84% of college students tell us that indulgences are part of a healthy diet.”

These indulgences take several forms, but one of the most prominent is snacking. According to YPulse, 82% of middle and high school students and 71% of college students snack throughout the day, especially in the afternoon. Knowing this, baking and snack companies can supply the appropriate products to fill this need.

“Consider moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to health claims and callouts,” said Eric Moore Ruddy, senior manager, consumer and industry insights, Technomic. “These consumers are prioritizing more direct and informative claims, such as ‘free from preservatives’ rather than general ‘all natural’ claims.”

Dietary restrictions also play a role in what foods are supplied to schools and other institutions. According to Technomic 2019 data, 25% of students are following dietary restrictions, and 6% totally avoid wheat and gluten. Technomic trend reports indicate that a more successful approach to finding success in schools is to acknowledge that students need balance in their diet and don’t typically follow a set of restrictions unless they are allergic to certain foods.

“It’s about trying to bring more students in again,” Ms. Pratt-Heavner said. “If more students have these dietary concerns, they need to find ways to make them comfortable with purchasing a school meal, too.”

Bring the world to them

In addition to targeting U.S.D.A. mandates, food manufacturers must also offer variety in order to get students of any age, elementary to university, to purchase the food.

Last year,, a Chicago-based research firm that studies the food industry and young consumer trends, explored the dining expectations, attitudes and tendencies of more than 1,000 consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 years through multiple comprehensive consumer studies. Five food trends, including ethical dining and multicultural menus, are extremely popular with younger consumers.

“We found young consumers are using a sophisticated set of criteria involving health, nutrition, ethical concerns and culinary adventure when making dining out decisions,” said Sharon Olson, executive director of “These trends are most likely to have a great impact on college campus dining in the coming years, if not months.”

According to New York-based YPulse, one in three college students had a dining plan in 2016, and 77% of them wished dining halls had a broader selection. Additionally, 72% wished dining halls had more healthy foods.

School districts are meeting this demand by offering meals that feature international flavors and a larger selection, according to the S.N.A.’s 2019 report. Almost half of school districts are providing new international menu items this year, and 21% are considering doing so or testing new items in the 2019-20 school year.

And variety goes beyond just international offerings. Customization is also critical in today’s world. The S.N.A. reported that 85% of districts are now offering customizable menu options, and 45% are providing entree bars or stations that allow students to build their plate as they prefer.

According to Technomic, seasonal offerings have been critical for school operators to drive baked foods purchases. More than half of operators feel that providing seasonal items have been effective in driving purchases of bread, sweet baked goods and desserts.

“Students have high expectations from their food service experiences both on and off campus,” explained Anne Mills, senior manager of consumer insights at Technomic. “Delivery, convenience and menu innovation are all top priorities for college and university students. On top of this, they will choose companies that support causes they care about such as reducing waste or employee pay. These expectations are a lot for operators to think about but important to address in order to stay competitive.”

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