In an effort to solve the puzzle of affordable, healthy lunches for picky palates, food companies like Revolution Foods are coming up with innovative ways to feed America's children.

Good nutrition is essential for people of all ages, but especially for children. Rates of childhood obesity are rising, and malnutrition threatens the food-challenged among America’s poorer families. It is increasingly important to ensure all kids have access to nutritious foods for healthy growth and development and to teach them how to make good food choices for life.

Providing healthier and more appetizing meals in school cafeterias is a key trend influencing nutrition for U.S. children.

Making the move

The federal child nutrition program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) provides 30 million lunches and 13.5 million breakfasts to nearly 32 million children each day. In an effort to improve the quality and nutritive value of foods served in schools, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.

New nutritional standards were established resulting in daily offerings of fruits and vegetables, lower-fat dairy products, adjusted portions and calories, reductions in unhealthy fats and sodium, and an increase in whole-grain-rich foods. U.S.D.A. set several deadlines for meeting the whole-grain-rich requirements and targeted sodium reductions that began in 2012. Implementing the new U.S.D.A. regulations is the responsibility of the states’ foodservice directors who manage school meal planning and work with foodservice technicians to prepare the food they serve to students.

“School nutrition professionals are committed to serving students nutritious, appealing meals and encouraging them to make healthy choices,” said Patricia Montague, CAE, and chief executive officer of the School Nutrition Association (S.N.A.), which represents 55,000 members.

Food manufacturers who supply products for school meals are also directly affected by U.S.D.A. regulations. Schwan’s Food Service has a long history of providing food for schools, and it takes its responsibility seriously. “We’re very proud of our 40-year legacy of doing what’s right for students — making great-tasting, wholesome and nutritious food by starting with a base of culinary knowledge and an understanding of children’s taste preferences, as well as incorporating the latest recommended nutrition guidelines,” said Helene Clark, K-12 channel leader for Schwan’s Food Service, Marshall, Minn.

Implementing the new regulations was challenging for K-12 food service directors who had to balance reformulating products and menus with managing budgets and controlling costs. Many worked closely with suppliers to meet the requirements.

“We believe that school foodservice directors are the most knowledgeable experts in this area of school nutrition. They’re on the front lines every day, and we need to listen to their needs and assist them in solving their challenges,” Ms. Clark explained.

Schools and food manufacturers have been mostly successful creating foods that meet the 2012 grain standard, making at least half of all grain-based foods served by schools whole-grain-rich, and complying with U.S.D.A.’s Target 1 sodium reduction level.

“Bigger suppliers like Schwan’s, Tyson and General Mills have the resources to devote to product development and staff to help school foodservice managers understand new federal regulations,” said Wade Hanson, principal, Technomic, Chicago.

|||READ MORE: Additional grains restrictions|||
Additional grains restrictions

In 2014, U.S.D.A. adjusted the grain standards requiring 100% of all grains be whole-grain-rich. While students are eating more whole grain breads and buns, regional and cultural preferences for biscuits and tortillas are influencing the success of compliant products, S.N.A. noted.

S.N.A. surveys also found that schools of all sizes and income levels were struggling with reformulating grain products, resulting in higher costs, lower participation and greater plate waste. Some schools encountered limited availability of specialty whole grain items, especially small or rural school districts.

“In the area where I live, it is hard to get good whole wheat or whole grain products,” said Shelly Anderson, food service director, Big Stone City, S.D., school district. “We are a very small school and do not have the luxury of having several suppliers, and we do need the flexibility with several products we use.”

Some food manufacturers are successfully meeting grain standards and with foods that are acceptable to customers.

“We have customized products in formulation to meet demand and requirements in all our schools for over three years,” said JR Paterakis, vice-president, sales and marketing, H&S Bakery, Inc., Baltimore. “The acceptance and approval with premium value has been overwhelmingly positive. Developing whole-grain-rich items such as the 31-g-per-serving buns for long and sandwich rolls exceed the school requirements while providing innovation ahead of the market.”

Ruiz Food Products, Inc., Dinuba, Calif., recently launched newly formulated products under its El Monterey frozen Mexican food brand specifically for school meals.

“Our El Monterey brand is the No. 1 selling frozen Mexican food in the country, and it has a reputation for delivering great taste, quality and convenience,” said Rachel P. Cullen, president and c.e.o. New products include El Monterey Bean and Cheese Burrito, El Monterey Egg, Cheese, Potato and Turkey Sausage Rolled Taco, and El Monterey Chicken with Red Sauce Soft Taco.

Ms. Cullen added, “Food service directors are welcoming the recent launch of our specially formulated products designed to meet the standards that include whole grains while limiting calories, saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.”

Pizza crust has been a difficult product to meet the 51% whole grain standard while still making it palatable to students. Schwan's Food Service was at the forefront of making that happen.

Schwan’s Foods was on the forefront of creating a formulation for whole grain pizza crusts that students would accept. The 51% whole grain crust on the company’s popular BIG DADDY’S Primo Pepperoni Pizza incorporates four different whole grain flours to achieve the best flavor, texture and color.

The Back to Nature Foods Co., Greenwich, Conn., is working to meet school requirements as it reformulates product offerings to include healthier ingredients while maintaining the products’ indulgences.

“There are several whole grain flours on the market today that make formulating a tasty whole-grain-rich cookie more achievable,” said Mark Eisenacher, senior director of marketing for Back to Nature. “SnackWell’s product developers are also exploring natural flavors and enhancers as a way to reduce the grams of sugar per cookie while still providing a great-flavored product.”

|||READ MORE: Sodium reduction concerns|||
Sodium reduction concerns

As standards become more stringent, sodium becomes a concern for stakeholders. “Target 1 and 2 sodium standards will not directly affect the bread business at 2,300 mg per day,” Mr. Paterakis said. “If additional sodium reductions are implemented, schools would have a difficult time meeting targets when serving healthy foods with naturally occurring sodium, including milk, cheese and meat.”

There is a significant amount of naturally occurring sodium in many healthy foods, and this sodium is being counted as part of the total sodium content calculation for school meals. Schools will not likely be able to serve healthy choices like low-fat, whole grain cheese pizza or many ethnic dishes and sandwiches due to the difficulty of balancing daily sodium restrictions.

Schwan’s has consistently supported the goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Since 2006, the company worked to scale back sodium without compromising taste, conducting taste tests with students and foodservice directors. Schwan’s will continue to reduce sodium in foods where it can maintain or improve quality, but reductions slated to go into effect for 2017 and 2022 are difficult to achieve and may result in foods that students will not eat.

“The sodium issue poses other challenges in manufacturing and in achieving acceptable taste profiles, so perhaps a collaborative discussion would be more prudent,” said Jesse Amoroso, vice-president, Amoroso’s Baking Co., Philadelphia. “It is great that U.S.D.A. wants kids to eat much healthier in school, but it is vitally important for policymakers to consider the reality of manufacturing products before setting their agenda.”

Flexibility in the cafeteria

Sens. John Hoeven (R-ND) and Angus King (I-ME) introduced “The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act,” S. 1146, in the U.S. Senate this April. A companion bill, H.R. 2508, was recently introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Rodney Davis (R, IL-13) and Brad Ashford (D, NE-2).

“This legislation ensures schools will continue to serve nutritious meals that meet current sodium limits and offer students a wide variety of whole grains,” Ms. Montague said.

“School nutrition professionals are committed to serving healthy meals, but minor adjustments to the most extreme restrictions under the new rules will help struggling schools bring students back to the cafeteria,” Mr. Paterakis said. “Too many students have swapped school lunch for unhealthy alternatives, which defeats the goal of the standards and reduces revenue to invest in healthy, appealing menus,” he added.

|||READ MORE: ‘Smart Snacks’ rule|||

Even desserts are not safe from nutritious demands as bakeries try to squeeze whole grains into indulgent products such as these chocolate chip cookie bites.

‘Smart Snacks’ rule

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act also included the Smart Snacks in School standards requiring healthier snack foods that are whole-grain-rich, include fruits, vegetables or a protein as the first ingredient, and meet certain levels for sodium, calories, sugar and fats.

Some stakeholders, including S.N.A., advocate that if a food meets current nutrition standards for school meals, then it should be allowed to be sold a la carte or as a daily competitive food choice. This change helps the financial stability of school meal programs and simplifies food calculations and menu planning while ensuring healthy snack choices.

Schwan’s has a portfolio of foods that meets U.S.D.A. Smart Snack rules for a la carte. The company believes that any food healthy enough for mainline meals should be healthy enough for a la carte offerings.

Ruiz Foods understood that it would be necessary to develop new product options for the a la carte program under the Smart Snacks rule. They retooled two flavors from the company’s Tornados product line, Southwest Chicken and Ranchero Beef. The current filling formula for these Tornados already met requirements, so the company created its own formula for a whole grain tortilla to satisfy the regulations. Early response to these flavors from directors and students has been extremely positive.

Mr. Paterakis noted that students across the country are now offered healthier school lunches with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. He believes the Smart Snacks in School standards will build on those healthy advancements and ensure that kids are only offered tasty and nutritious foods during the school day.

Implications for food service

Food companies have invested millions of dollars in research and development to reformulate existing products and create new ones to meet the regulations governing school meals.

“From a marketing standpoint, with regulations shifting toward healthier options and school-age kids retooling their tastes and preferences, it’s important for companies to innovate,” Mr. Hanson said. “These kids will be their major customers down the road.”

He speculated that larger companies have the resources to reformulate current products, change communication strategies and create new products resulting in more nutritious and appealing foods that meet K-12 standards.

When planning menus, Schwan’s offers foodservice managers more than 100 items that meet or exceed today’s U.S.D.A. school nutrition standards.

“Consumers are seeking more flavorful products made with healthier ingredients, and families want those options for their children in school as well,” Mr. Eisenacher said. “Our company is focused on reformulating our products without high-­fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil and artificial flavors or colors.”

Later this year, Back to Nature will launch its SnackWell’s FitPick select, whole grain Mini Chocolate Chip Cookie Bites, which are school compliant, kosher and made in a peanut- and nut-free facility.

Smaller suppliers and start-up food companies that already have a foundation of wellness and nutrition may do well with the K-12 market. According to Mr. Hanson, these companies already design foods with compliant ingredients, so adapting to school guidelines without having to reformulate existing products is easier. They already communicate using social media and other new tactics to create “buzz.”

“These companies, focused on local, fresh and healthy food products, may do well in the K-12 market,” Mr. Hanson said. “They can demonstrate to foodservice managers that their products are already geared to compliance. Since they are smaller, the companies can operate with more flexibility, quickly adjusting to customer needs while accommodating schools.”

According to Mr. Hanson, some mid-sized food companies may find it challenging to devote the time and dollars to the K-12 market segment and decide it is not worth the investment, especially if they are successfully selling products to other customers like hotels, hospitals and restaurants. These companies may not have the resources to invest in R&D reformulations or product development required to serve the K-12 market, especially when considering additional marketing, staff, samples and other costs.

|||READ MORE: School food’s future|||
School food’s future

Recently, U.S.D.A. reported that 95% of schools are successfully meeting the updated standards.

“Helping to adjust the palates of students who have not been exposed to healthier options is still a challenge for schools,” said Teresa Brown, MS, RD, LDN, director of child nutrition, St. Charles Parish, La., Public Schools. “Constant communication with students and parents, promoting menus and constantly checking food quality is vital for a successful meal program,” she added.

S.N.A. features school meal programs nationwide that are finding creative ways to improve menus and get students excited about healthier choices. Successful trends include taste and nutritional makeovers of student favorites, more ethnic food and local sourcing of fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooking classes, school gardens and programs to educate students about healthy eating have also been effective.

Schools host student taste tests to gather feedback on new foods and identify favorites. Food shows enlist suppliers to showcase samples of their new healthy options. “Kids help us design flavor profiles, tell us what they want on the menus and even name some of the food items,” said Kirsten Tobey, Revolution Foods, Oakland, CA. “We involve kids at every stage of the process.”

Student involvement is vital to the success of healthier school menu options. Innovation and education on the part of schools and suppliers make it more likely students will eat the new meals and not waste precious resources.

“Schwan’s Food Service is committed to being a true leader in school food,” Ms. Clark said. “Innovation is a critical part of that commitment, and we will pursue further exploration of whole grains, use of more vegetables and fruits, non-meat protein sources, additional sodium reductions and, where they make sense, new partnerships.”

Earlier this year, Chartwells Food Service K-12 division announced a partnership with the National Gardening Association ( to build gardens at schools nationwide in an effort to engage students in planting, harvesting and enjoying healthier foods. “Research and our own experience show that kids who grow their own fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them,” said Rhonna Cass, president of Chartwells K-12, Chartwells Food Service, St. Charles, Mo.

More than ever, food manufacturers and food service directors can — and do — work together balancing their commitment to provide healthier, more nutritious food options for school meals. Together, they can create foods that maximize taste, minimize waste and help promote a healthy school environment providing wholesome, delicious food for America’s schoolchildren.