It’s common for school officials and educators to periodically revisit and revise curriculum—what could be termed as “food for thought” involving what goes into a student’s mind. More recently, of course, government officials have revised guidelines for school food itself—that is, what goes into a student’s body—during the school day.

When school starts this fall, those foods that were once staples in a school vending machine will be gone. They will be replaced by selections such as sunflower butter, trail mix and gluten-free snack bars. Soon, even advertisements will seem antiquated, as they disappear from vending machines and sports scoreboards.

These and other changes portend that the next generation of school children will grow up in a different era. It is a challenge—and now, a responsibility—for the food industry to meet the changing school food demands. Moreover, the next wave of foods and beverages will help feed, fuel and inform that next generation of school children.

In 2012, the USDA spent $11.6 billion feeding 31.6 million school children across 100,000 school districts—all via the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). USDA oversees the meal program, which is mandated and federally funded to provide nutritionally balanced, free or low-cost meals to children during each school day. All children attending public and non-profit private schools, as well as institutions, are eligible.

Established in 1946, NSLP has helped feed underprivileged children for nearly 70 years. Participants are required to be living at 130% of the poverty level or lower to be eligible for free lunches; and 185% of the poverty level or lower for reduced-price meals. The program includes breakfast, lunch and snacks served during the normal school day. (The program currently is working toward providing summer feeding programs, holiday feeding programs and weekend feeding programs to all students, as well.) There also are grant programs allowing schools to explore other options for feeding children.

During the 2014-2015 school year, schools will be reimbursed $2.93 for free lunches and $2.53 for reduced-price lunches. Schools also receive $0.28 per meal for administrative costs. Students who do not meet the income requirements are required to pay the full prices of a meal that is set by the school district. It is common for schools to receive more money for the free and reduced-priced meals that are served than for the full-priced meals that are sold. Just consider that New York Public Schools charged $1.75 for a full-priced meal during the 2013 school year.

Numerous grant programs have been used to help expand and look for creative ways to feed school children in recent years. In February 2014, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) would provide $500,000 in farm-to-school grants. These grants are designed to help improve the health and well-being of students and to connect schools with local agricultural producers.

During the current presidential administration, First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity one of her priorities. She heads up a program called “Let’s Move,” and one of its initiatives has been to increase a child’s access to nutritious foods.

So far, FNS has issued three proposed or final rules to support this change. The first of these involves reforming school lunch and breakfast programs. In 2013, FNS also finalized the rule governing all vending, à la carte and school store foods. A proposed rule requiring schools to have wellness programs was issued in February 2014.


Breakfast, Lunch Requirements

As mentioned, the program’s earliest changes involved school lunch and breakfast requirements; most of the changes took effect in fall 2012. School lunch and breakfast requirements have increased the amount of fruits and vegetables served, required whole-grain products and—for the first time—set nutritional standards for foods.

Requirements vary slightly, based on the age of the students. Students are divided into three age groups: kindergarten-5th grade, 6-8th grade and 9-12th grade.

School lunches are required to provide 1 cup of milk per day to students. The unflavored milk can contain up to 1% fat. Flavored milks, such as chocolate and strawberry, must be fat-free. Depending on a student’s age, an average of 0.42-1 cup of fruit is required. This can be averaged over a five-day week. Whole fruit is recommended, but fruit juice is allowed. Canned fruits must be packed in water or unsweetened fruit juice. Only unsweetened applesauce is allowed. The USDA issued a final rule in January 2014 that allows frozen fruits to contain some added sugar. (Removing all the added sugar has a negative effect on flavor, appearance, texture and storability of frozen fruits.)

The vegetable requirement, which previously had been combined with fruit requirements, were separated and 0.42-1 cup of vegetables (again, averaged over a five-day week and depending on students’ age). Vegetables requirements also were changed to require that specific vegetables be served each week: ½ cup of dark green vegetables; ¾ - 1¼ cup of red/orange vegetables; ½ cup of beans or peas; ½ cup of starchy vegetables; and 1 - 1½ cups of additional vegetables. The USDA Food Buying Guide was updated to provide the color designation for each vegetable.

NSLP grain requirements also changed. The amount of flour that equals one serving of vegetables was changed from 14.75g to 16g per serving. The Food Buying Guide provides the size of a finished grain product, such as bread, bagels, muffins, noodles and others that equal a serving of grain.

At this time, the updated Food Buying Guide with the new grain conversions has not been provided by FNS. The FNS website indicates that revisions are coming. What is known is that—starting in fall 2014—all grain products must be “whole-grain rich.” This is defined as being 50% whole grain in the grain portion. Whole grains must be the first ingredient on the ingredient statement, as well. The requirement to use enriched flour was reinstated. This May, the USDA issued a memo allowing enriched white pasta to continue to be used until fall 2017.  FNS states that they have allowed this extension because of the difficulty schools were having in purchasing whole-grain-rich pastas. 

Meat/meat alternate requirements are 1.6- 2.4oz of meat/meat alternate equivalents, averaged over a five-day week. Schools were very concerned that the amount of food provided was not enough for all students. In response to this concern, FNS has removed the maximum grain and meat/meat alternate servings that are allowed. This allows to schools to provide additional grains and meats to some students.

As with lunch, the breakfast standards that were changed now require 1 cup of milk, as well as 1 cup of fruit. Grain requirements are 1.4-2oz grains per day allowed. These components must meet the requirements that are described in the meal section.

Within the changes to the food requirements are included revised nutritional requirements. Fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, calories and sodium amounts are regulated. However, the required amounts are allotted for the entire meal and do not apply to specific components of the meal.

Fat is required to total 35% of calories or less. Saturated fat is limited to 10% of calories or less. Trans fat content must be able to be labeled as 0. (The FDA allows trans fat less that 0.5g per serving to be labeled as 0.) Sugar must be less than 35% of calories.

Calorie requirements for each age group also have been established. Breakfast meals for children from kindergarten-5th grade must equal 350-500 calories. Grades 6-8 are to get 400-550 calories, and children in grades 9-12 must receive 450-600 calories. For lunches, children from kindergarten through 5th grade must acquire 550-650 calories. Kids in grades 6-8 are to get 600-700 calories, and those in grades 9-12 should get 750-850 calories.

Sodium reduction is now required. But, because sodium reduction has been difficult, and the amount of reduction that was desired was between 25-50%, these sodium-reduction requirements are being phased in over time. A 5-10% reduction is required starting in fall 2014. A 15-30% reduction over the 2010 levels is required by fall 2017. In 2022, a reduction of 25-50% will be required. FNS set final levels for sodium that must be met by 2022.


Vending, À la Carte and School Stores

Effective this fall, there will be new standards regulating all foods sold through vending, à la carte and school stores. For the first time, this effectively will regulate all foods served in schools. The regulation defines a school day as midnight to 30 minutes after the end of the school day. Beverages allowed to be served in all schools include plain water, low-fat plain milk, non-fat flavored milk, and 100% fruit and vegetable juices. Caffeinated beverages are not allowed in elementary or middle schools.

High schools are allowed to serve caffeinated beverages, calorie-free carbonated water, other calorie-free beverages, and beverages that contain fewer than 40 calories per 8oz serving or fewer than 75 calories in a 12oz serving. A 12oz portion is the maximum serving size for beverages. Additional beverages allowed in high schools may not be served during meal service.

As with meal service products, FNS also set vending, à la carte and school store standard requirements for grain products to be at least 50% whole grain. FNS also requires that whole grains be the first ingredient on the ingredient statement. For meal and side dish products, calorie, fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sugar requirements regulation states that the requirements must include any accompaniments, more commonly called condiments.

Total fat levels required in vending, à la carte and school store products are to be less than 35% of fat from calories, with an exemption for reduced-fat cheeses; nuts, seeds and their butters; and seafood with no added fat. Saturated fat is required to be less than 10% of calories per packaged portion. There is an exemption here for reduced-fat cheese, as well. Trans fat must be labeled as 0g in this category, too. Sugars must count for less than 35% of calories or less than 35% by weight.

Fruit with no added sweeteners, dried fruits, and low-fat and non-fat yogurt with less than 8g of sugar per 8oz serving are exempt. Calorie counts for snacks and side dishes must be fewer than 200, including any accompaniments. Entrées must be under 350 calories per packaged portion, or they may be the same as what is sold as an entrée in the school lunch meals in the same size or smaller. Sodium is required to be under 200mg per serving for side dishes and below 480mg per serving for entrées.


Wellness Programs

Requirements for a wellness program for schools were published in February 2014. These programs will be required for a school district to continue to receive school lunch funding. Compliance with the program will be determined during normal school lunch audits conducted by the state. This program requires that each school set up such a wellness program.

The wellness program is to be established by a committee that includes school personnel, parents and interested community members. Nutrition promotion, physical education and other school-based activities must be included in the wellness program. Some examples of nutrition promotion activities are: including nutrition as part of health math, social science and language arts education; signage around the school; cultural events, such as food demonstrations; and parent information materials. This also includes regulations governing all advertising, as well as the removal of advertising for any unhealthy foods in schools.

The wellness program’s “physical education” portion means teaching kids about physical activities, maintaining their fitness and reducing sedentary times. It also means teaching them about life-long fitness, as well as the importance of 60 minutes of physical activities per day. Meanwhile, other approved, school-based activities can include lessons about tobacco use, (teacher) staff wellness, total family and community wellness, health fairs and other “Let’s Move” activities outlined on It should be noted that the final rule on this requirement has yet to be published. Nor has there been a notice about when implementation will be required.

 No matter what, it’s certainly clear that there are more rules, regulations and limits that guide new product development for school foodservice. However, food scientists, nutritionists and chefs may see that new school food formulation guidelines are not so very different from those voluntarily applied to make new products for health-conscious consumers of all ages. If anything, the mandate to incorporate more and varied fruits and vegetables is prompting developers to be even more creative. In other words, what’s good for the kids can be good for the processors who are resolved to make tasty, nutritious—and attractive—school meals.   



Schwan’s Food Service Debuts Smart Snacks for Competitive Foods Program

The popular phrase and song from Broadway’s Oklahoma! is “Everything’s up to Date in Kansas City.” The same could said for Marshall, Minn., home to Schwan’s Food Service. A leading supplier to the nation’s schools, Schwan’s has kept pace with changing nutrition requirements. 

“All of our more than 100 food items for schools, including pizza, stir-fry and hand-held sandwiches, meet the new USDA school meal nutrition standards for mainline lunch required by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010,” says Mary O’Broin, vice president, marketing, Schwan’s Food Service. “We wanted to be among the first to provide schools great-tasting, kid-friendly choices that met these new nutrition guidelines when implementation first began in fall 2012.”

On July 1st of this year, the USDA’s newest requirements for school foods—specific to competitive foods—went into effect. These new requirements are different from those for mainline foods, but also limit the calories, sodium, fats and sugars for any foods students purchase that are not part of the reimbursable school meals program. Traditionally referred to as an “à la carte line” in a cafeteria, the USDA’s new Smart Snacks program provides students an easy way to nutritiously supplement their schools’ daily lunch menu offerings. The new requirements have meant that every school needed to reevaluate offerings in its vending service and à la carte foods.

O’Broin says Schwan’s Food Service created a portfolio of 19 Smart Snack offerings that meet new Competitive Foods Requirements. The company created two entirely new offerings, reformulated 12 favorites (best sellers) and adopted five more Pan-Asian selections from Schwan’s mainline menu line. Officials say a dedicated R&D team took six months to complete the new Smart Snacks portfolio.


New Recipes, Offerings

O’Broin says Schwan’s Food Service developed new recipes for seven “breakfast-for-lunch” items that range from a Whole Grain Turkey, Egg and Cheese slider to a Whole Grain Turkey Sausage breakfast bagel. The company also created new recipes for its 5in Whole Grain Pizzas and a Whole Grain Italian Cheese Flatbread. Meanwhile, the team adopted some stir-fry entrees and whole-grain egg rolls, which moved directly from Schwan’s main line to the Smart Snacks platform.

Two new offerings are the 4 ½-in by 8in Pesto Chicken and Thai-Style Chicken Artisan Flatbreads. With their irregular edges, the flatbreads resemble restaurant fare. O’Broin says the Pesto Chicken variety has a pesto sauce, chicken and a blend of Italian cheeses. Meanwhile, the Thai-Style Chicken flatbread is topped with a spicy Thai sauce, mozzarella, chicken, carrots, scallions and cilantro. 

“We know kids enjoy finding the foods they have when they go out to eat, so we created culinary-inspired, artisan flatbreads that would be flavorful while meeting the new requirements,” says Sean Trygestad, senior category manager- pizza. “Our R&D team based the flatbread varieties on student preferences and foodservice director feedback.” 

O’Broin concludes: “For nearly 40 years, we’ve dedicated our efforts to providing schools nutritious options, consistently anticipating and meeting USDA guidelines.”



JTM Introduces 12 New School Items

JTM Food Group, Harrison, Ohio, used the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2014 Annual National Conference (ANC) in Boston this July to showcase 12 new products, including healthy breakfast options, flavorful vegetarian dishes and allergen-free proteins. One example is a clean label Steel Cut Oatmeal with Brown Sugar that contains only three ingredients.

“The School Nutrition Association represents more than 55,000 professionals from across the nation responsible for the meals served to students nationally,” says Brian Hofmeier, JTM Food Group’s vice president of Education Sales. “Exhibiting at the ANC gives JTM the platform to present our vegetarian, whole grain rich, allergen free, and clean label products to a number of these decision makers, while demonstrating to them menu solutions that will help them meet the needs of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.”

JTM officials expected more than 3,000 foodservice professionals at the annual convention. JTM Executive Chef Robert Lafond also was there to present recipes and applications such as JTM’s allergen-free Mushroom Enhanced Beef Patty; Egg, Potato and Cheese Breakfast Burrito Filling; and Mediterranean-Style Hummus.

“We’re also excited to introduce the My Way Café concept,” says Hofmeier. “This simple concept is based around three of the top trends in the foodservice industry: customization, demand for more ethnic flavors and an increase in demand for options that utilize fresh (locally sourced) ingredients. We will demonstrate to attendees how to use a set of core JTM proteins and sauces, fresh ingredients and common whole grain-rich bases—like wraps, brown rice and pastas—to turn the standard serving line into a destination that gives students options on how their finished wrap, sandwich or bowl is served.” 

  • JTM says it showcased as many as 30 new offerings including: 
  • Steel Cut Oatmeal with Brown Sugar
  • Egg, Potato & Cheese Breakfast Burrito Filling
  • Bean and Cheese Burrito Filling
  • Mediterranean-Style Hummus
  • Extra Creamy Whole Grain Rich Mac & Cheese
  • Whole Grain Rich Pasta Primavera with Mushrooms
  • Premium Turkey Burger (allergen free, no caramel color)
  • Mushroom Enhanced Beef Burger (allergen free, no caramel color)
  • Premium Pork Sausage (allergen free, no caramel color)
  • Reduced Sodium Marinara Sauce
  • IQF Diced Beef (allergen free)
  • Mushroom Enhanced Beef Meatball