Healthier Food Options Abound

Healthier Food Options Abound as School Cafeterias Welcome Students

Tight budgets coupled with new nutrition mandates are expected to force meal planners to find creative ways to finance the food choices that land on students’ lunch trays during the 2011-2012 school year.

Despite this challenge, according to a new national survey of school food service directors, K-12 students returning to school this fall will find more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain options and locally grown foods in school cafeterias than ever before.

The new options are popping up because directors are taking steps to implement school nutrition standards recently proposed by the federal government. The new standards are expected to mandate more fresh fruits and vegetables, a broader range of whole grain food options and lower-sodium offerings in school cafeterias. A final rule mandating the changes is ex-pected in early 2012.

Food service directors from 48 states were surveyed by the School Nutrition Association about foods served and how they educate kids about healthy school meals and good choices on the lunch line.

“We received great news across the board. Schools have made great progress and are well on the way to meeting the new stan- dards before they become final,” said SNA’s Diane Pratt-Heavener.

Nearly 70 percent of 1,294 directors surveyed are considering implementing the new standards, according to SNA’s “School Nutrition Operations Report: The State of School Nutrition 2011.”

“Nearly every school district is offering fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods have become readily accessible, and most offer salad bars and packaged salads,” Pratt-Heavener said.

A whopping 98 percent of districts surveyed offer stu- dents fresh fruit/vegetables in at least one school; whole grain foods are offered by 97 percent and nearly 90 percent offer a salad bar or pre-packaged salads.

And more schools (48 percent, up from 37 percent in 2009) are sourcing at least some fruits and vegetables locally.

Another relatively new development is that nearly one-third (32 percent) of schools surveyed offer a farm-to-school initiative and another 13 percent plan to start a program.

“It’s great that so many of our members are involved in farm-to-school programs to teach kids where their food comes from. It’s an exciting trend,” Pratt-Heavener said.

Commenting on the recent media backlash against chocolate milk, Pratt-Heavener said SNA supports flavored milk choices in schools.

“Kids tend to drink milk more readily when flavored choices are available,” she said. Pratt-Heavener also noted that the new mandates will require fat-free flavored milk choices and processors have been working to reduce fat levels in this type of milk for some time.