School Nutrition Association Conference In Denver Offers Preview Of Healthier School Lunch Meals

With new federal Department of Agriculture nutrition standards for school meals slated to take effect this month, thousands of school chefs, food service workers and nutrition experts gathered in Denver for the annual School Nutrition Association conference this week, the New York Times reports.

The rule changes are part of an initiative put forth in January by first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make school lunches more nutritional.

The guidelines establish calorie and sodium limits for meals, require schools to offer a wider selection of fruits and vegetables and mandate that all milk be 1 percent or nonfat. Requirements for the use of whole grains are also being phased in.

As a result, more schools have moved to cooking meals from scratch, thereby making use of more fresh local fruits and vegetables as opposed to processed foods.

In Denver, 95 percent of the public school lunch menu and half the breakfast menu is now prepared from scratch since Denver Public Schools introduced the policy in the fall of 2010. These meals take longer to prepare and in general are more labor intensive, thus prompting the district to hire more than 100 additional food service workers. Food expenses also went up, since fresh produce must be purchased for the schools’ fruit and salad bars.

“Ten or 15 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a salad bar, a fresh fruit and veggie bar, homemade pasta salads,” Theresa Hafner, executive director of the food services department for Denver Public Schools, told the Times. “You probably wouldn’t have seen homemade biscuits, or homemade hamburger buns, made with a white whole-wheat flour.”

Even longtime favorites like chicken nuggets and hot dogs are less likely to end up on school lunch trays nowadays — and when they do, they are often prepared in a more health-conscious fashion.

Also at the conference, Jamba Juice unveiled a new fruit and dairy beverage for K-12 schools. The healthy smoothie, naturally sweetened with fruit and fruit juice and combined with fat-free milk, will be available to schools starting in September 2012.

Jamba Juice is entering the second year of its JambaGO initiative, a program aimed at bringing improved nutrition to kids via full fruit and vegetable servings in smoothie beverages.

In April, NPR set out to uncover the secrets behind the 26 ingredients in a school lunch burger -- amid public outcry against "pink slime." (See NPR's video below.)

Removing processed items from schools is only one step in a national culture centered around highly processed foods.

"If we want to be healthy and want our kids to be healthy, we've got to find our kitchens again," Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, told NPR.

News of the USDA's original plan to bring 7 million pounds of "pink slime" to school cafeterias nationwide came just weeks after the government announced new guidelines to ensure students are given healthier options for school meals. The new standards call for more whole grains and produce as well as less sodium and fat in school meals. While the measures mark a step forward from previous years, they still compromised amid push-back from Congress to keep pizza and french fries on the menu -- counting both the tomato paste on pizza and the potatoes that make fries as vegetables.

Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.