School Nutrition Association Conference – What I Learned
School nutrition is a hot topic these days. After Michelle Obama unveiled healthier standards for school lunches, there has been some political backlash. Some schools struggle to meet the new standards due to budgetary constraints. There has also been concerns about increased waste when children reject the “healthier” meal options.
Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference of the National School Nutrition Association. I was excited to learn more from the front lines as to how schools are implementing new standards and helping to raise the nutritional levels of school meals. Attending this conference was an eye opening experience. Overall, my impression is that most people who work in this industry want to help our children eat healthier.
I was invited to attend this event with a group of other bloggers. When we arrived, we were greeted by representatives from the School Nutrition Association and their PR Group. We met in the press room for an introduction to the event. From there, I was given a set itinerary which consisted of the following:
- Cafeteria Presentation
- Floor tour with a local School Nutrition Director
- Culinary demonstration
- Floor tour with a School Nutrition Direction from Florida
Creating Smarter Lunchrooms
I especially enjoyed the first presentation about creating more engaging and appealing cafeteria experiences for our kids. The seminar was presented by a rep from the Maine School Nutrition Association. They created LetsGo.org. This website and program is dedicated to helping fight childhood obesity. They created the 5-2-1-0 model.
The presentation included interesting ideas that are no cost or low cost for schools to implement. The idea is to create a design that “nudges” kids towards the healthier foods without making them feel like they are losing their freedom of choice. Schools can help kids make healthier choices in the following ways:
- Manage portion sizes
- Convenience of healthier foods
- Selling tactics
The presentation included a video about a school that implemented some of these changes. Hidden cameras were place in the school cafeteria in Albany, NY. Students were monitored during school for a few days. Most kids made unhealthy choices like pizza, no fruit, and sugary drinks. Three weeks later, the producers revamped the lunch offerings by making healthier choices the easiest to access. For example, they moved sugary drink choices behind milk and water and put fruit in decorative fruit bowls. Kids who made poor choices three weeks prior selected much healthier options. Just one change of moving the salad bar near the point of payment increased salad bar participation by 200%. Hosting tastings of new foods also helped increase student participation.
Get Students Involved
When I met with representatives from the Needham, MA school system, they also had shared some great success stories. They created a recipe contest where kids entered a recipe to be sold in the cafeteria. Getting kids involved has been key to successful change in their lunchroom environment. Having kids help rename menu items like “X-Ray Vision Carrots” or “Superfood Burrito” can be a huge influence on students’ food choices. Another school came up with “The Hungry Game”. Student groups earned points when they chose healthier options that could be applied toward things like extra recess, gym or art classes.
Schools were asked to enter a marketing and presentation contest at the conference. The winning school was very creative in making small changes to influence students to make healthier choices and purchase school lunches more often. Adding colorful trays makes food look more “fun” and appetizing. Similarly, a focus on color in other areas and cute packaging to entice kids to try the healthier options was very successful.
Some coverage of the SNA conference focused on the fact that many stereotypically “unhealthy” brands were in attendance like Pizza Hut, Frito Lay, etc. Of note is that these brands create healthier options for schools. They follow strict guidelines providing higher whole grain content, lower sugar and sodium. The backlash is that these foods are still unhealthy overall with preservatives and additives.
On the flip side, there were other vendors like Chobani helping to come up with alternatives to processed meats for protein sources. I could have eaten at that booth all day. They had great ideas for cafeterias to use their yogurt in a variety of ways. I am lucky to live in a school district where most packaged foods and sugary drinks are not offered.
You Can Influence Change
In speaking with School Nutrition Directors I learned that parents really can influence change. Local providers will often work with schools to adjust their products as necessary. For example, I met with a Florida dairy that created fantastic yogurt to meet school standards without a bunch of additives or preservatives. If you are not happy with the school lunches in your area, do sometime about it. The Let’s Go project has toolkits to help other schools follow their program ideas. Talk to your school’s cafeteria manager or district foodservice director. Talk to your PTA. Get involved! My visit to the SNA helped me understand that changes can be made. You can find out more at http://www.schoolnutrition.org.