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News round-up

It’s been a while between stories, so here’s a neat little round-up of innovations in school food around the world that caught our eye over the past few days.

In the US, school food provider Preferred Meal Systems has an online service that lets parents find out more about the menu and nutritional content of their children’s lunches and school breakfasts.

By logging onto www.schoolmenu.com parents in some districts will be able to access the nutrition information of each meal. And of course the meals now adhere to the new standards. The information is accessible in pop-ups as the cursor moves over the page.

Other information on payment etc. is also available, and there will also be blogs and information from a panel experts. You can read more about it here.

 

Researchers have shown that caterers can use the same techniques that marketers use to sell junk food, to help children make healthier choices in the canteen.

In advertising it’s not unusual to use familiar cartoon characters, TV icons and superheroes to sell cereals, pasta shapes or sweets, but researchers at Cornell University New York found that using well known characters on healthy products would also prompt children to choose them.

So when apples had an Elmo sticker (from Sesame Street) children picked them rather than choosing cookies or sweets. Read the original report with a link to the Cornell findings here.

 

There’s an interview here with Kate Adamick who has a new book out called Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy.

She runs a Lunch Teachers boot camp which teaches school caterers how to budget effectively and still serve fresh healthy meals.

 

School Nutrition Association in the USA has conducted a survey of foodservice professionals in the nation’s schools and found that more than 90% of those responding think that meeting the new standards will incur greater costs, and 67% of districts believe that the federal reimbursement for school meals will not cover the cost of producing them.

So, many have got creative when it comes to encouraging students to try and therefore buy the meals. More than 87% were doing taste tests with students on new menu items, and therefore engaging students in menu selection, while others were offering free samples to promote familiarity with new dishes. You can read the full report here.

 

In Rhode Island USA school caterer Sodexo has teamed up with a local farm which will produce fresh fruit and vegetables for schools in 11 communities. The Pezza Farm has turned over 15 acres to the project which will enable kids to eat fresh, local produce as part of their school lunches.

 

This Washington Post feature describes how school cafeterias in the US are using supermarket display techniques to encourage students to eat more fruit and veg. By placing bright bowls in easy to grab places kids were taking fruit more regularly, and some operators even taking fruit out into the playground for children to eat on the spot.

Others were marketing veg using labels like ‘mellow yellow corn’ to make their dishes sound more interesting, or using competition promotions to encourage children to make healthier choices, or even trying surprising and challenging ideas to throw down the gauntlet on hard to please kids with ‘Fear Factor Smoothies’ containing different ingredients like spinach.

But it seems to be paying off because teachers are already feeding back that classroom behaviours are improving.

 

A complete overhaul of the school cafeterias in Palm Beach County has renewed interest in school lunches as the restaurants now resemble a modern food court.

Instead of the standard counters and lines, in the ‘Cafe Atlantic’ students can visit different stands including Asian Xperience, Café Sol y Mar (Spanish), Mangia Mangia (Italian), Atlantic Gourmet Deli and Beyond Burgers to get their lunches.

As well as being modern and appealing to trendy teens, the stands reduce queues and waiting times for students who also benefit from better seating and four flat screen TVs.

The improvements have been a big hit with students at Atlantic High and will be rolled out to other schools in the area. Here’s the full report.

 

And finally, a new study has shown that changing the food that’s available in vending machines may be the best way to slow childhood obesity.

The study in the journal Pediatrics tracked teens in 40 states over three years and found a strong correlation between the children’s weight and the state rules governing so-called ‘competitive foods’ which are the freely available vended food and drinks outside the usual lunch programme.

Students in states which had strict laws on the kinds of food and drinks available in vending machines gained on average 2.2 lb less than those living in states that did not have such strict legislation, or even none at all.

Similarly, children that were overweight in the fifth grade had a much better chance of attaining a healthy BMI by the time they reached the eighth grade in states with laws, than those without.

This could show that in order for the new nutritional standards on school lunches to have the full effect, uniform laws on the products available from vending machines will also have to be introduced nation-wide. The full story can be read here.

 

What calorie restrictions?

Having posted today about the calorie restrictions the USDA have imposed on school lunches in the United States, and chatted on Twitter with Victoria McGowan a PhD candidate at Durham University who is studying the relationship between school food and childhood obesity, I thought I would post this short clip taken from a BBC 2 documentary this week called Eat, Fast, and Live Longer which investigated whether a diet that included fasting or extreme calorie restriction could have dramatic effects on a person’s weight and health.

This restaurant in the United States is doing the exact opposite of what the USDA is doing with school meals. In fact they have a burger combo that boasts a ridiculous 10,000 calories. They are un-shamefaced about how unhealthy their food is, and believe it’s their right to eat badly if they choose to, but is it? Do people have a right to regularly eat like this and then expect treatment for their inevitable health problems? A can of worms, and perhaps more so in the UK where health care is largely free. Is this restaurant irresponsible in its ethos? (Click on the ‘Unhealthiest Restaurant’ link below the pic to watch the clip.)

10,000 calorie burger

Unhealthiest Restaurant

New year, new food.

In the United States, August brings the start of the new school year and with it the biggest changes to school food for 15 years.

In January this year First Lady Michelle Obama alongside Tom Vilsack the Agriculture Secretary signed off on new nutrition standards for school meals which will be phased in over the next three years and aim to improve the health and diet of nearly 32 million school children. It should have a massive impact on the health of the nation.

The crucial targets for the changes are:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

 

More fruit and veg

Schools caterers have been working hard to ensure that when the new school year begins they were able to meet the new menu recommendations, and their UK counterparts can empathise with what a tall order that can be.

In Georgia and Ohio some children have already been getting a taste of the new menus. There are fears that some will struggle with the strict portion and calorie controls. Schools must show compliance or risk losing subsidies.

Although items like pizza, chicken nuggets and hamburgers are still available, all children are required to take at least one serving of fruit or vegetables per meal, and portion sizes of these are much larger. Additionally it’s a chance for schools to source from local suppliers and teach kids about the provenance of their food.

As UK school caterers who’ve been battling to improve meal uptakes since their own changes came into being know, winning the hearts and minds of children – and parents – is more than half the battle, so US schools will be trying a wide array of inventive methods to get kids trying and eating their new meals.

We’ll watch with interest to see what happens in the United States as more schools grapple with the standards and the school year progresses. Perhaps some UK caterers can share some of their best tips for getting the students to keep eating their lunches.

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Here are some of the details for the new US standards.

Calorie limits are set for meals: grades k-5, 550-650 calories; grades 6-8, 600-700 calories; grades 9-12, 750-850 calories.

Schools must offer dark green vegetables, orange/red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, eliminate all added trans-fats and serve only 1 percent or nonfat milk. Under the new regulations all grains – in breads and pastas – must be “whole grain rich.”

To read more about the new standards, visit the USDA website here.