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KANSAS CITY – Children have gone back to school following the holiday break, and school food service professionals will be doing the same this week in Miami as they attend the School Nutrition Association’s annual industry conference. The new products introduced this week represent the food and beverage industry’s best efforts to meet and exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s updated school nutrition guidelines.

In 2012, the agency unveiled new nutrition standards for school meals that called for sharp reductions in sodium content in meals, minimum and maximum calorie levels, larger portions of fruits and vegetables, and more whole grains. Many of the new products industry conference attendees will be tasting in Miami represent the culmination of the industry’s product development efforts.

Land O’Lakes, St. Paul, Minn., for example, will be exhibiting two new shredded American cheese items and two new mac ‘n cheese offerings. The American cheese products are reduced sodium while the mac n’ cheese items approach the new U.S.D.A. standards in different ways. One features reduced sodium while the other replaces semolina pasta with whole grain.

The company said the strategy with its mac ‘n cheese product line is to offer a full line of products with varying levels of fat and sodium to meet the different menu approaches that school food service directors are deploying to meet the new guidelines. All of the pastas will be converted to whole grain by July 1 in order to meet the new U.S.D.A. guidelines, according to the company.

Lean meats are also a component of the updated U.S.D.A. regs, and Sara Lee Foodservice, a business unit of Hillshire Brands, Chicago, will be turning to turkey. Meeting attendees will be able to sample the company’s Briar Street turkey chili, sloppy Joe meat and taco filling. In addition, the company will be sampling a whole grain croissant. 

The blending of mushrooms with meat provides schools with a menu solution that expands portion sizes without adding calories.

The JTM Food Group, Harrison, Ohio, will be pushing the innovation envelope with the introduction of a full line of beef products that incorporate mushrooms. The new line will feature such items as beef patties, meatballs, taco filling and a beef spaghetti sauce and a pasta primavera.

“By incorporating mushrooms, schools are able to give students a larger, juicier burger patty,” said Brian Hofmeier, JTM’s vice-president of education sales. “The entire Beef with Mushroom line is gluten-free, and mushrooms make pasta primavera a hearty vegetarian meal, which help schools provide safe, tasty options for students with alternative diets.”

The state of food service

Next week also will be informative about the state of the food service category as many companies head to Orlando for the Integrated Corporate Relations XCHANGE. Presenters at this year’s meeting include Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Brands, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

The food service sector has been challenged in recent years and it will be interesting to see how these companies view their prospects for 2014.