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School Food - Not Available at your Local Grocer

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Many people have the idea that every farm has a red barn, silo, a cow, chicken and pig.  Just as that idea is outdated so is many people's view of school lunches.


The National School Lunch Program was started following World War I after many of the boys drafted to serve were malnourished and therefore unfit for military duty.  Now the struggle is with obesity. Child Nutrition programs are constantly in the news and it's not always good coverage. 


As part of my job with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA) I work with the men and women of school food who work in the trenches every day.  These are the people who must meet ever changing federal guidelines, deal with student allergies, parent expectations - all while serving nutritious meals that meet current standards and cost $1.25 per plate.


Before I started working with NCDA my experience with school food was a student in school - 20 years ago.  My memory of our school lunch was that you could peel off the cheese layer of pizza and eat it separate from the crust.  What do you remember about your school lunches?


In the last 3 1/2 years, I have learned that school food is so much more than I could have ever imagined.


Last week I attended the School Nutrition Association of NC annual conference.  NCDA always has a booth since we work with not only the Farm to School program but also commodity foods.  




Part of this conference includes a trade show where vendors set up displays of food for child nutrition directors (CNDs) to sample.  I learned a great deal at the show but the lesson I want to focus on this week is probably the biggest secret about school food:  You can't buy the food school cafeterias can because it isn't sold in any retail store.


Yes, schools serve pop-tarts and Fruit Loops, they serve Domino's pizza and Sara Lee muffins.  These companies, in fact all food companies that service schools, have a K-12 division dedicated to food that meets USDA standards. You can see in the picture below one of the CNDs (they make the food purchasing decisions) talking with reps from Tyson's K-12 division.




I have seen many of the items featured at the trade show in school cafeterias before and I have to admit, I wondered how they met the guidelines.  Now I know.  The Fruit Loops (or Rice Crispies treats, chicken nuggets, cookies, hot dogs, get the picture) I buy at the grocery store do not have the same nutritional content as what schools serve.  So just because I see an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie at school doesn't mean it has the same nutrient content as the one I buy at my local grocery store.  It doesn't.


The first booth I visited was Domino's pizza.   Their school pizza is called a "Smart Slice".  According to the brochure, it is made with reduced sodium pizza sauce, the crust is 51% white whole-wheat flour, cheese has 1/2 fat of traditional pizza cheese and they offer turkey pepperoni (4 pieces per slice because all kids have to get the same portion).  In fact, I started buying turkey pepperoni (don't tell My Farmer) to use at home after trying it during one of my visits to a school cafeteria. 


I picked up samples of various products and then went to three grocery stores in my area to try and find the same products.  Pop-tarts were easy to find and a staple of my childhood, college-hood and much of my adult life.  While both the school and grocery store pop-tart had the same calories, fat and sodium, the school pop-tart has 11g of whole wheat.




Carolina Packers is a North Carolina brand of hot dog that is only available in certain parts of the state.  I'd never heard of them until My Farmer introduced me to these red hot dogs.  Their school hot dog is higher in protein, lower in sugar and tasty.  That last one is a personal observation.


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I sampled a variety of items.  Some I liked and some I didn't.  I can see why some schools are having trouble getting students to eat food that meets the current guidelines.  The ranch dressing we buy in the store or get at a restaraunt is not the same ranch dressing served in schools.  I compared several school products to their retail version and the biggest differences I saw were the use of whole grains and lower sugars in school food.


In talking with the vendors I could see the challenges they have in making food that meets those standards.  The gentlemen working the Hershey booth spent a good deal of time talking to me about the products they have that meet next year's standards and the ones that don't.  Yes, even ice cream has to meet these standards.




I talk to CNDs every week and they all say the same thing;  they want to serve nutritious meals the kids will eat.  They can't scratch cook everything so they need pre-packaged and prepared foods.  Kids like pizza, chicken nuggets and cookies.  I like pizza, chicken nuggets and cookies.  In fact, I topped off my visit to the trade show with an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie that, according to the nutrition label, is made with "51% or more whole grain".  Sorry I didn't take a picture before my first bite.  Looking at all that food makes a girl hungry!




When was the last time you had breakfast or lunch in a school cafeteria?