I recently attended the annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association, the trade group that represents the 55,000 food service workers who have the thankless job of feeding millions of schoolchildren every day. While there, I tweeted out a few photos I took on the expo floor and I've uploaded all 82 of them to Instagram here.
The images are more or less organized by either food category or company. Several of the event's official sponsors, including Tyson, PepsiCo, and Domino's, were listed on prominent signs here and here.
First is a series of mascots, including Smuckers, Chester the Cheetah, and the State Fair hotdog. At the National Dairy Council booth, attendees were lined up to have their photo taken with a statue of a cow. Why? Because (I was told) they would get a plush toy cow. The booth was promoting "Fuel up to Play," a nutrition program in schools that emphasizes dairy.
A big theme on the show floor was pizza, always a kid favorite. Even with the recent improvements in school nutrition guidelines, pizza was everywhere, just now with the requisite "whole-grain rich" crust, along with lower fat and salt meat and cheese. (USDA defines "whole-grain rich" as at least 51 percent whole grain, and every grain-containing product had exactly that amount, not a smidgen more.) For mega-corporations like Pizza Hut, Domino"s, and Schwan's, the school market is critical, so they are happy to tweak a few ingredients. Domino's "Smart Slice" baldly claims be "Feeding Our Future." Pizza Hut hints at healthier options being unpopular by saying pizza is "what they REALLY want for lunch," even promising food service directors will get "high fives" from kids. It was hard to see the nutrition improvements with all the heavy meat and cheese varieties, like this pepperoni "Big Daddy" pizza from Schwan's. I think I saw one pizza image on the entire show floor that had vegetables as a topping.
Continuing on the meat and cheese theme (it was the dominant one), chicken nuggets were also ubiquitous. (I think that's what these were, although with so much batter, it was hard to discern what lurked underneath.) The breading now contains "whole grain," but does that really make these fast food items healthy? Perhaps desperate for a marketing angle, King's Delight promised "no antibiotics ever," as if that made their nugget-ized meat a health food. And according to this "Clux Delux" promo, "savvy schools know: kids love grab 'n' go."
Burritos were also popular, with this Foster Farms' "El Extremo" version just oozing with cheese, while this "Cantina Caramba" brand depicts exactly three black beans lying on top of a pile of ground beef. This same company marketed its "beef, turkey, pork, chicken, or veggie taco filling." General Mills' Old El Paso offered "fold 'n go" tacos.
Jimmy Dean touted the "portability" of "whole grain turkey sasage breakfast sticks" in original, apple cinnamon, and blueberry flavors, "wrapped for convenience." Not to be outdone in the breakfast category, Foster Farms had "blueberry pancake wraps" containing sausages. To go, of course. (Where are schoolchildren going, exactly?)
If schools don't want to serve meat for breakfast, there was no shortage of highly processed grains to choose from. These cinnamon buns were big enough for Princess Leia. Where to even begin with the children's cereals? Of course both Kellogg"s and General Mills had massive displays. But are lower sugar Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs or whole grain Pop-tarts (15 grams of sugar!) really a good way for kids to start their school day?
In the beverage category, while soda wasn't to be found, plenty of substitutes were, because free water is just so boring. For example, there was "low-calorie" Gatorade from PepsiCo, high-sugar chocolate milk from Hershey's (shelf-stable, yum!), and "Pure Life Exotics Sparking Water" (available in "bilingual packaging") from Nestle -- the "#1 bottle water brand," as if that was something to be proud of. The Hershey's chocolate milk contained 21 grams of sugar in a mere 8.5-ounce container; subtracting the naturally occurring 12 grams, that's 9 added. But hey, it's "rBST-free."
Now for some happier photos, like of the produce aisle (way in the back), where I found plenty of cut-up, child-friendly fresh fruits and vegetables. There was even a neat vending machine for fresh produce. The folks from Bolthouse Farms had a lovely display of bright orange carrots (with reps wearing bright orange shirts). The U.S. Department of Defense was on hand to show off its produce in schools program by giving away fruit (the only booth where I could get an apple). There was also a salad bar display (with the Let's Move logo).
Other vendors with somewhat processed products -- but ones that at least contain pronounceable ingredients -- included Beanitos, Barefruit, and a cool product called Snapz, dried vegetables with no added ingredients.
I'll be writing another post soon on my overall impressions from the event, given the recent controversy over improvements to school meal nutrition guidelines. But from the looks of the expo, it's hard to see what the fuss is all about, as the vendors are all in compliance with the new rules, for better or worse.
You can peruse all my photos here. You can also read my recent article at TIME.com on the "smart snacks" at the expo.
Many thanks to the Institute for Responsible Nutrition for collaborating on this report.