The hustle and bustle of summer is coming to a close as we ramp up for back to school season. Practice and game schedules are being synched with the weekly calendar, clothes shopping has commenced, and the air is filled with the crisp smell of school supplies. Life is good. While we will miss sleeping in, lazy summer days by the pool, and theme park adventures; it is time to get back in the swing of things. It is time for set schedules, crisp fall days (hopefully sooner rather than later), and the pitter patter of little feet heading to the bus stop early in the morning. It is time for some normalcy; if such a thing exists!
While we took a timeout to enjoy summer and forgot all about reading, writing, and arithmetic, there is a group of people that have been busy since the final bell rang, signifying the start of summer. No, I’m not talking about students that go to school year round; bless their little hearts! I am talking about the professionals that make each school year a success. The principals, the teachers, the school nutrition professionals … wait, what? Nutrition professionals? Like me, I am certain that there are many people that know teachers, secretaries, principals, and other staffers work summer hours; however, it never occurred to me that nutrition professionals do as well. Thanks to an event, the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference, that I recently attended in Salt Lake City, Utah, I know better now.
Annually, more than 5,500 school nutrition professionals gather for this Annual National Conference to sample healthy foods, participate in education sessions, and to share their best practices and recipes. Now, after having an insider’s look at the true goings-on that surround such an event, I have a few things to share with you!
As you may or may not know, on an annual basis, schools around the country are faced with the challenge of improving the nutritional content of meals and encouraging longer-term healthy decisions while maintaining low cost and participation. Sounds great, right? We all want our children to eat healthy and we are happy to have the schools in our corner backing this play but in reality, is it really that simple? The answer is a resounding yes and no. Confusing? Let me explain!
In 2015, in the United States, a school meal may be the only balanced meal that a child eats each day. Perhaps even more important to point out, there are some children that get their only meals at school; thanks to the free and reduced meal programs. If for no other reason, other than the two facts just stated, it is important for schools to be able to improve the nutritional profile of the meals provided so that children are able to receive the balance that they need.
This is staggering information and just hearing it made me think about my little ones, entering a new school system, and not only their education but the meals that they will eat while there. I started thinking about the school lunches that I ate growing up and nearly panicked. Cold sweats kicked in and I had to talk myself down. I started thinking about which store would have the best deals on lunchboxes, cold packs, and fun foods and then we received notice it was time to move on the Conference Exhibit Hall.
Have you ever attended a wedding expo, home and garden show, or a new trend … baby expo? That is exactly what we are talking about here but instead of wedding dresses and hot tubs, there were wall to wall companies with food, beverages, equipment, technology, and tools aimed at improving the school nutrition program. It was amazing and sparkly and jaw dropping and absolutely eye opening.
Gone are the days of fish sticks and apple crisp. Today’s school lunch pros have options from tasty black bean burgers (courtesy of one of my hometown favorites, JTM) to whole grain pasta (and guess what, whole grains is an important part of national school lunch programs). The exhibit floor was overflowing with innovative companies that have developed new ways to serve our little ones heathy meals that they will actually enjoy and want to eat.
From the sparkly new equipment to the tasty treats, this was enough to put my mind at ease as the school year begins. BUT, just in case you are like me and prefer to be floating around in the full comfort zone, here are a few more things that I learned during our visit.
1) The National School Lunch Program provides low cost and free lunches, served in age-appropriate sizes, to more than 30 million children daily. The School Breakfast Program, designed to ensure all children have access to a well-balanced breakfast at school, feeds approximately 13.5 million children every school day.
2) So you think you are excited about your little one(s) and the school nutrition program at their school? I met two people that may rival that excitement; Jessica Shelly, the Food Services Director at Cincinnati Public Schools, Ohio and Chris Burkhardt, the Director of Child Nutrition and Wellness at Lakota Local School District, Ohio.
These are two people with a clear cut vision and a true excitement and passion for everything healthy eats for the students in their district. While they both have the same end goal, improving the nutritional content of meals and encouraging longer-term healthy decisions while maintaining low cost and participation, it was great to follow them through the Exhibit Hall and watch them ooze enthusiasm about nutrition in their schools this year and watch their eyes light up as we approached some of the new products that they will be introducing to their students. Think smoothies with a full serving of vegetables, healthy breads (i.e. banana, cinnamon, pumpkin) that are individually packaged and will put grandma’s recipe to shame, and General Tso’s Chicken made with all natural ingredients. I don’t know about you but I would be more than happy to show up for lunch every day, in either district, knowing I was going to be in for something delicious and nutritious; I may even lose a pound or two!
3) Schools actually conduct studies of their own and know exactly what is trending when it comes to students, nutrition, and successful execution of new ideas.
Studies show that by simply re-arranging the lunchroom and relocating different foods, kids will make healthier choices. For example, it was found that by rearranging the coolers, in an effort to highlight white milk, resulted in an increased rate of purchase by approximately 46%. By placing the salad bar in the line of sight, versus off to the side, daily salad sales increased 200-300% within a two week time period. Think these “tricks” only work at school? Think again! Place your healthier foods where they will be seen; namely eye level and the more indulgent foods in the back and out of sight. It is easier to avoid temptation when a healthy food is easy to spot!
It’s important to give children a choice. Would you like an apple or an orange? Would you like carrots or celery? Studies show that kids given a choice between carrots and celery ate 91% of the vegetables taken vs. 69% when only one was offered. Our children like to feel as though they are playing an active role in their lives and what better way to accomplish this goal than making choices for themselves.
It is confirmed that 58% of kids will mimic the choice of a student in line ahead of them. This means if the nutrition professional is able to encourage the first child in line to make a healthier choice, it is more likely that the kids behind him/her will follow suit.
There are companies that offer whole grain foods, lower sodium entrees, low fat dairy foods, and ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in school meals. The kicker? They all taste good too!
While I hope this put your mind at ease, I know there are likely those that would like to do a little research of their own before the first day of class! Don’t worry there is a resource that has been developed just for you, the parents. Tray Talk is a page with informative content on successful school meal programs, news and hot topics in school nutrition. Thanks to Tray Talk, parents can learn about school meals, participate in discussion about what is going on in the school nutrition world, and see what they can expect from their school program. For more information about Tray Talk, visit them on Facebook and Pinterest.
Thanks to the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference I learned a great deal about what to expect this year and hopefully you have too. If you still have a question about your school system and what they offer, simply ask! Schools love to have open dialogue with the parents so ask questions! If you would like to learn more about the School Nutrition Association, visit them at http://schoolnutrition.org/schoolmeals.
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by the School Nutrition Association. All opinions expressed are my own.