Putting the school nutrition puzzle together

by Allison Gibeson
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Whole-grain rich prod-ucts were shown in abundance at the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference in Kansas City, Mo. from July 14-17. School nutrition professionals met to preview products and discuss innovations, yet it became clear that providing the right amount of whole grains is just one aspect of complying with complex US Department of Agriculture regulations for school meals and foods sold in schools.

Carole Erb, school business operations director with JTM Food Group, said food manufacturers need to be concerned with more than just their product. She said school food service directors are putting together a puzzle, and a manufacturer’s product is just one piece of that puzzle. If one detail changes then the whole puzzle will change.

Offering the right amount of fruits and vegetables, meats or meat alternatives, whole grains and other nutrients such as sodium make the puzzle complicated.

Wanted: Whole-grain rich

JTM Food Group featured a line of fully cooked, flavored and unseasoned beef and turkey products as well as new shredded and whole-muscle meat entrees, ready-to-use vegetarian soups, improved whole-grain rich products and improved burgers and patties at the show.

In anticipation of the new requirements, such as the requirement for all grains served in schools to be whole-grain rich, many companies have been reformulating products to ensure they have compliant foods ready to go.

Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, NY, started converting products to include 51 percent whole grains about six years ago when company executives anticipated

this would become the standard, said Jennifer Besing, customer marketing manager for the K-12 segment. Any new products that have been introduced have been made with at least 51 percent whole grain, and they began converting existing items to 51 percent whole grain.

While Rich Products did anticipate the whole-grain rich requirements, Besing said they didn’t anticipate a change in grain calculations from 14.75 grams to 16 grams as well as a maximum on grain servings. So the company worked to create products such as a mini sub roll dough that may be made into a 2-oz. equivalent and enlarged to a 6-inch size. Rich Products is still trying to figure how to best increase plate coverage without increasing grains, but she said ways they are accomplishing this include making pizza crusts thinner and suggesting operators stretch a 14-inch crust to cover 16 inches.

Overall, Besing echoed a common complaint among manufacturers, stating that spending so much extra time on renovating products to meet regulations means less time for true innovation.

“R&D and marketing resources, as well as plant trial time, are the same for product renovations as they are for new product innovation,” Besing said. “We spent a lot of time last year scrambling to ‘right size’ products, not to mention regulatory resources to rewrite every single bid spec sheet with new calculations for grains. Time spent to address these issues took away from time to ideate and create new product innovation. Our associates were very flexible to meet the challenges, but this ‘emergency’ reaction is not sustainable.”

Alyca Judge, senior channel marketing manager of K-12 at General Mills, Inc., said General Mills also had to work quickly to ensure its products met new ounce equivalent grain sizes that went into effect on July 1.

“The biggest challenge was ensuring the items that needed to be changed were ready for operators in advance of the July 1 implementation date,” Judge said. “It is a time-consuming process that includes finalizing product specs, product packaging, manufacturing and case packaging that needed to be changed.

“Despite working on an accelerated timeline due to the release of information, we were able to start shipping items in mid-May so food service distributors would have products available when K-12 food service directors needed them for the transition.”

Food and beverage companies also saw that the new school snack regulations announced in June were coming down the road and reformulated proactively. The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., has Cheez-Its, Cracker Chips and Nutri-Grain products, among others, that meet the new requirements.

Sodium reduction takes shape

Sodium levels are another issue requiring some changes in formulation as the amount of sodium allowed in food products is mandated to gradually decrease in coming years.

Carol Chong, national nutrition adviser for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, said one challenge in reducing sodium will be including less cheese. She said there is a perception children like food items with cheese, but it contains high levels of sodium.

Yet companies such as Land O’Lakes, Inc. have been reducing sodium levels in cheese over the last five years in products such as sliced processed American, cheddar shreds, cheese sauces and frozen prepared macaroni and cheese, said Ronda Stingley, school operations manager for noncommercial food service at Land O’ Lakes, Arden Hills, Minn.

Another challenge in reducing sodium is most schools use pre-made products to help with food safety and labor cost issues, but the products are often high in sodium, Chong said. She said manufacturers are working to reduce the sodium in the products, often using herbs or spices for seasoning and taste. As a result more ethnic flavors are coming into play, because the flavors are more potent and the sodium levels easily may be reduced. She also said frozen products often have less sodium than canned products.

Chong encouraged the use of school gardens to grow herbs and spices as a way to help reduce sodium. While this might not yield enough for an entire school, the school may order the rest and the portion grown will give the children a sense they helped grow and produce their meals.

Other methods for sodium reduction may involve using products such as Nu-Tek Food Science’s Salt for Life Sea Salt Blends. The product uses sea salt and contains 70% less sodium than table salt and may be used as a one-to-one replacement in recipes.

Uncle Ben’s, a business unit of Mars, Inc., demonstrated various lower-sodium whole grain rice products at the show and how they may be used in school recipes such as a Huevos Ranchero Chicken Skillet Bowl, Warm Baby Spinach Salad, Italian Fried Rice and Southwest Breakfast Taco Dipper.

“Uncle Ben’s developed products that help meet the USDA National School Lunch Program guidelines, and although they are lower sodium, the flavors were selected because they tested high among children and adults,” said Shaina Fox, Uncle Ben’s associate brand manager with Mars Foodservice, McLean, Va. “The biggest challenge was finalizing product specifications that delivered a great-tasting product while also providing high nutritional quality. We feel we have achieved this, and to further support food service directors we are constantly developing new kid-friendly recipes.”

Fox said Uncle Ben’s lowered sodium in Uncle Ben’s flavored rice product line and increased fiber with the addition of beans to three of the six flavors to offer a good source of fiber and whole grains.

Even once all regulations have been met, making sure children will accept and eat the products is another challenge.

“Our opportunity is to address the primary challenge of school food service operators by delivering products that deliver on taste while aligning with USDA requirements,” said Jennifer McDavid, manager of customer marketing with Sara Lee Foodservice, Downers Grove, Ill. “After spending time with key stakeholders in the school food service business and working closely with school leaders, we developed an enhanced product portfolio that provides nourishing, kid-friendly protein options at breakfast and lunch. We have added six new turkey items to the existing products already in our portfolio, creating great-tasting, kid-favorite entrees by trusted, familiar brands.”

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