Reforms risk healthy food falling off the menu in America’s schools

Poor uptake and legislative impetus means school cafeterias are shunning healthy foods – foodservice consultants should speak up for the long-term benefits, reports Thomas Lawrence

In 2010, then first lady, Michelle Obama threw her weight behind the Hunger Free Kids Act. The idea was to promote healthy eating in schools by overhauling standards; this entailed restrictions on salt content, a wholegrain-only menu and a new low-fat milk regime.

The plan was meant to herald a new era of public health, but its efficacy has come under scrutiny. As Scott Reitano FCSI – who works extensively with schools in Indiana – points out: “I appreciate that the first lady at the time brought up school lunch and made it one of her priorities. But the deeper government gets into it doesn’t mean it happens better”.

Some – for example the School Nutrition Association – say the Obama-era legislation was counterproductive from the outset. Strict rules meant some previously nutritious options were axed in favour of unpopular, pricier alternatives. Lunches that are both expensive and unappetizing have not gone down well in the nation’s cafeterias. Reitano sums it up: “It’s not enough whether they put broccoli on the plate, it’s whether they eat the broccoli”.

Earlier this year, the government took action. Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, Trump’s man in charge of school meal standards, pledged to relax the regulations. This will mean the postponement of sodium regulations for three years, as well as renewed permits for non-wholegrain rich products and flavored milk.

Despite legislative changes, Reitano argues it is possible to provide healthy food and solve childhood hunger, all while satisfying client demands. “The latest statistics I’ve seen are that one in six kids in this country are hungry. And we’ve got a vehicle to do something about it.”

Serving up change

With a Harvard Public Health study finding that 60% of vegetables and 40% of fruit is being thrown out, some states are taking matters into their own hands. California and Texas have passed legislation allowing schools to donate uneaten cafeteria food to the needy. But the system could be more efficient to begin with.

This is where foodservice consultants come in. “I don’t think USDA was about enticing children, it was about making sure there was healthier food on the plate”, says Reitano. “I think there’s a lot more where operational consultants come in to entice those children to eat that healthier food.”

Making school meals both popular and cost-efficient is the crucial challenge. Although their first duty is to clients, Reitano notes that foodservice consultants can have a lifelong impact on public health initiatives if they supply their own expertise – offering returns of its own in the long run. He gives the example of a new serving system implemented in two Indiana schools: “All of a sudden, 20% more kids are eating. Food waste is going down. It’s smart business and being part of the community to say this is how you improve participation in your programme – which includes higher revenue – but it’s an opportunity to change how children eat.”

Reducing food waste in schools needn’t be overcomplicated. Reitano taps into some simple psychological cues: “On a design end you can put fruit and vegetables first and present them nicely – slicing apples and peeling oranges increases consumption by over 68%. If you put something on your plate yourself you’re also more likely to eat it.”

Reitano also observes that foodservice consultants will have to be commercially savvy in order to stay relevant to younger audiences. Billions of dollars of advertisers’ cash will go into reaching children on tablets and mobile devices in the coming years. “Something like 70% of the marketing dollars spent on the children’s category is spent in the F&B world”, says Reitano. “We have to act like these are our consumers”.

Regulatory instability and sluggish uptake of healthy eating in schools is a typical example of the challenges consultants face when working with public bodies. Are there really opportunities open ahead? “Absolutely”, concludes Reitano. “We’re bringing the conversation forward. School lunch and foodservice is part of the curriculum and educational process”. Consultants themselves must learn how best to reach out to pupils going forward. Those involved in this conversation will have a pivotal role to play in shaping the industry over the coming years.

Thomas Lawrence

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