Cafeterias celebrate National School Lunch Week
It’s National School Lunch Week (NSLW), and cafeterias across the U.S. are raising their milk cartons to toast their meal programs.
President Kennedy created the weeklong tradition in 1962 when the school lunch program served about 16 million students daily. Now, more than 30 million students go through the lunch line each day.
“The school lunch program has a huge impact and tremendous reach, and it’s serving students from every background,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which coordinates NSLW each year.
Research showing how critical a healthy diet is for academic success has schools striving to provide students with nutritious lunches.
“Schools are working hard to improve their menus, making sure they’re not only meeting nutrition standards but really trying to prepare meals that promote healthy diet and good choices and that appeal to the variety of students that they serve every day,” Pratt-Heavner says.
Some food service directors say menu planning is like putting together a puzzle. They have to make sure all the nutrition pieces fit, and they have to balance cost and preparation time.
Today’s menus include items like wrap sandwiches, yogurt parfaits and Caesar salads. In a rush? How about a grab and go lunch?
“Schools are trying to cater to students who might not have a lot of time because they’ve got multiple activities going on during the lunch period,” she adds.
Joyce Hiler, director of food services, Jacksonville School District 117 in Jacksonville, Illinois, tells us grab-and-go options are a big trend in her schools.
“We put items in a food tray or a boat kind of thing – maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some Chex mix and fruit – and package that up so that if kids want, they can grab a carton of milk and that can be their lunch,” says Hiler.
Cold smoothies are another popular item that Hiler and others want to add to their school lunch menus. A culinary team at General Mills is developing blender-less smoothie recipes that meet nutrition standards, using Yoplait ParfaitPro bulk yogurt. A couple of other creations from General Mills available to K-12 schools are Old El Paso Gorditas – a Mexican entrée – and Pillsbury Cheesy Pull-Aparts, oven-baked bread filled with real cheese.
Despite all the new options, there remains an old challenge: How to get kids to eat their fruits and veggies.
A recent SNA survey revealed schools promote healthier options to students through student taste tests, nutrition education and other programs to help familiarize students with unique fruits and vegetables they might not have encountered at home.
“Schools are really trying to find ways to make dark, leafy greens, red or orange vegetables and legumes, which can be unfamiliar to many kids, more appealing,” says Pratt-Heavner.
“A lot of times, parents don’t want to spend money on something that’s going to be thrown away,” Hiler points out. “So if we can expose students to it at school, then they can point to something at the grocery store and say, ‘Mom, we had that at school. I liked it.’”
The federally-funded National School Lunch Program requires school meals to meet federal nutrition standards like offering fruits and vegetables every day, serving whole-grain rich foods, and limiting fat, calories and sodium.
“This week is a great time to celebrate the school meal program and all it offers to students,” says Pratt-Heavner, “and to see how it’s really helping students focus on their studies, perform well in school and bring them together to share a meal.”
To learn more about what school cafeterias are dishing up, visit SchoolNutrition.org.
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