The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

School Cafeteria Lunches Are Getting Better

School Cafeteria Lunches Are Getting Better

Dietitian Dialogues

August 28, 2011

Over the past couple of years, much attention has been focused on school cafeterias and just about everyone is involved – from the First Lady to celebrity chefs to every parent who has a child eating lunch at school. In Washington, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the final stages of issuing new nutrition standards for school meals. Programs, including the White House's Let's Move!Campaign, the Healthier U.S. School Challenge, and partnering with local chefs, have become widespread and have built the foundation for change. 

In fact, the School Nutrition Association’s 2010 Back to School Trends Survey reported that in spite of rising food costs, more than nine out of 10 school districts have increased offerings of whole grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, almost three out of four are reducing or eliminating sodium in meals and two-thirds are reducing or eliminating added sugars. 

As the school year is about to begin, the nutritionists, dietitians, cooks and servers are getting ready to serve an estimated 26 million children school lunches each day. And while most students took the summer off and didn’t even think about school (or school lunch!), nearly 8,000 school nutrition professionals headed to Nashville in mid-July for the School Nutrition Association's Annual National Conference to share ideas and sample healthy new foods that will be offered in school cafeterias this fall, which can be challenging to these professionals who have to prepare and serve these meals at a cost of under $1 per meal.

But as we know, just offering better nutrition is not enough. When it comes to our kids (and adults) foods have to taste great!

So what are the tasty and healthy highlights from the Conference?

The 180,000 square foot exhibit and sampling space included chef demonstrations and how-to's on innovative "from scratch" recipes like Whole Wheat Citrus Couscous Salad, Vegetarian Chili, and Roasted Chicken Brown Rice that could be served to hundreds of students in less than an hour. For those cafeterias without full kitchens, food companies sampled their kid-friendly prepared foods: frittatas made with egg, low-fat cheese and turkey sausage, grilled Haddock fajitas, baked sweet potato wedges, Santa-Fe style brown rice, turkey wraps made with whole grain tortillas, and whole grain macaroni made with reduced fat, reduced sodium cheese. Those are in addition to offering Greek yogurt, low fat cheeses and the hundreds of fresh ready-to-eat, single-serve fruits and vegetables like dried apricots, cherries, nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, packaged for sale in healthy vending machines or cafeteria lines.

Carbonated soft drinks continue to be banned from many schools that are replacing those sugary beverages with reduced-sugar flavored and plain 1% and fat free milks along with organic soy beverages, flavored waters and fruit smoothies.

It is clear that times have changed and this isn't your mother's school cafeteria lunch anymore. 

The School Nutrition Association has set up a new website, Tray Talk, for parents and others who are interested in learning the facts about school lunches and sharing student success stories about how they made their school lunches healthier. Visitwww.traytalk.org to learn more.