Sodexo worked with Rich Products Corp. to produce a whole grain-rich pizza crust.

PORTLAND, ORE. – Taking a proactive, collaborative approach with its suppliers, food services provider Sodexo has created a non-proprietary portfolio of manufactured whole grain-rich products that has resulted in meal counts surpassing those prior to the implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

In a June 24 presentation at the Whole Grains Summit 2015 at The Nines hotel in Portland, Lisa Feldman, director of culinary services for the Sodexo Education Offer Development Center, Germantown, Md., discussed how her perceptions of the school food service environment have changed and how Sodexo has established partnerships that have proved successful in getting more whole grains to students.

“As a chef, being in schools has been very, very interesting,” Ms. Feldman said. “When I first entered the school environment I sort of marched in and said, ‘I know how to cook. I know what to do. I can fix you.’ They didn’t know they were broken, but I thought they were. I went in gung-ho and was like ‘These are all the great things we’re going to do,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, you can’t do that here. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

She likened being a chef in schools to learning Spanish language skills over many decades in preparation for being dropped by plane into Spain and being able to speak fluently, and then getting on that plane and being dropped into the Sudan instead, where nothing you had prepared for will help you at all.

“It’s been a very big learning curve, and I think it’s been a learning curve for a lot of our school environments as we’ve started to transition to more whole grain products,” Ms. Feldman said.

In moving quickly to make products at least 51% whole grain-rich by weight in 2012-13, and then moving to 100% in 2014-15, Ms. Feldman said there have been a number of unintended consequences.

First, there was a rush to market without the proper time for culinary development and sensory testing.

Second, some companies did not convert until much later in the two-year conversion process and lost market share.

Third, there were massive shortages in the 2014-15 school year because of a shrinking pool of products.

Finally, the waiver process introduced in 2014-15 and new proposed legislation did not define a solution.

Sodexo, though, found its solutions through several partnerships with grain-based foods companies.

One of the first companies that Sodexo worked with was Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, N.Y. The first whole grain product they pushed out into the market was a whole grain-rich pizza crust that was a sheeted dough.

“It failed miserably,” she said. “We refer to it lovingly as Pizzagate 2012. We went to Rich’s and said ‘This is a disaster,’ and they said ‘You’re not wrong.’”

To fix the problem, Rich’s sent food technologists across the country to all Sodexo’s accounts to work with the lunchroom personnel to make sure they were pulling the dough out in time to let it rise, and that they were not doing all the things that you may do to reduce the quality of a product.

Ms. Feldman said the product was rereleased this year with changes.

“We’ve seen much more success with the dough,” she said. “Our numbers in terms of participation have gone up above what they were before conversion happened.”

She said Rich’s also has developed breadsticks, a dough ball and a flatbread, which Ms. Feldman called her new favorite product.

“It’s delicious, it’s affordable, and it makes great sandwiches and flatbread pizzas,” she said.

When Sodexo first launched its tortillas it had major issues. Ms. Feldman said they were sticking, they couldn’t get them to roll, and they were breaking. The company did a lot of work with Dallas-based Mission Foods to correct the problems, including sensory testing with children. As of 2015, Sodexo has converted completely to Mission’s Hearty Grain Ultra tortillas and has received positive responses to the product.

Calling it one of her “favorite” success stories, Ms. Feldman discussed Sodexo’s work with ConAgra Foods on pasta.

Lisa Feldman, director of culinary services for the Sodexo Education Offer Development Center.

“One of the huge issues we have with pasta is that it falls apart after you cook it,” she said. “It has been very hard to convert people to whole wheat or whole grain pasta because typically a lunch period for kids is about 20 minutes. So if you think about it, you have kids running through the line, grabbing whatever they can grab. Their priority is not eating, it’s actually socializing. Then you have them eating very quickly and heading back to class. It’s one of the most unfortunate things about school lunches – is how short the lunch period is.

“Because of that, you don’t have time to do things that you would hope would happen in that food service environment like batch cook. If you only have 20 minutes between files of kids coming through, you’re going to cook all your pasta ahead and hold it.”

The problem, she said, is when you do this the cheese and pasta becomes like glue after about 20 minutes.

By partnering with Omaha-based ConAgra and looking at some of the successes in soups containing pastas, Sodexo found that including egg whites helped stabilize the structure.

“We worked with ConAgra on a 4% egg white solution that has enabled us to hold pasta for up to 5 hours without any change in texture, which is quite amazing,” she said.

Even with his success with Rich’s, Mission Foods and ConAgra, Ms. Feldman said Sodexo is not content to stand pat. The company also is looking at what she called “the next frontier.” She said the company has had a hard time working in intact whole grains, but has partnered with Indian Harvest, Bemidji, Minn., to try and achieve a “big win” for school food service.

Sodexo and Indian Harvest have created “shaker cups,” which are plastic cups that feature intact whole grains at the bottom with vegetables and lettuce at the top. All children need to do is pour the salad dressing in and shake the cup up.