Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual conference for the School Nutrition Association (SNA). SNA hosted me for a day at the convention in Utah. SNA represents 55,000 school lunch workers all over the country. The conference combines education, networking, and an exhibit floor where vendors present the newest offerings in school lunch. I wish every parent had the opportunity to attend this conference and see the incredible industry that exists simply to make sure that kids are being fed.
School lunch is kind of a hot topic. Schools are criticized for the unhealthy meals they are offering. In fact, in 2010 President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which placed limits on the amounts of sugar, fat and salt that can be served in public schools. The act also mandated that as of 2015 (this year), all grains served in schools must be whole grain. The intention of the act was to help slow down the rate of childhood obesity among American children. While overall the new guidelines are a good thing, most school nutrition workers feel like they are caught between a rock and a hard place.
The school nutrition directors I spoke with desperately want to serve healthy meals that kids want to eat. Instead, they are left forcing kids to take food they don’t want and it ends up in the garbage. It’s hard for kids to be asked to eat whole wheat grains at school when they are eating white grains at home. Food is getting wasted and that frustrates the people working so hard to feed kids. I’ll admit that I knew nothing about these guidelines before the conference and I’m ashamed of that fact. I’m a parent with kids in a public school and I had no idea the incredible jobs school nutritionists are tasked with.
One thing that I took away from the SNA conference was how seriously school nutrition directors take their jobs. They want to partner with parents and help make sure your kids are getting healthy meals that they will eat. They want to make sure bellies are full so that kids can do their best in school. They want you to understand that sometimes their jobs are really hard because they are limited by money and strict nutrition guidelines the must follow.
I wasn’t sure what to expect form the demonstration floor, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the vast majority of the food being sold to schools is quality, healthy food. I saw shredded rainbow carrots; pizza made with whole wheat flour and sweet potato puree; and whole wheat kale and broccoli ravioli. The food industry is working hard to make sure the food they provide is healthy and wholesome.
There are a lot of exciting things happening with school lunch today. Farm to School and school garden programs are expanding. Schools, like St. Charles Parrish Public School District in Louisiana under the direction of Teresa Brown, are cooking most of their food from scratch. Good southern cooking made with love is being served to 7,000 students every day there. In Massachusetts, Kristin Morello is working to find affordable ways to offer a variety of allergy free foods so that students with those needs don’t feel so out of place in the lunch line. Both of these women are mothers as well as school nutritionists and they want you to know how much they care about the kids they feed every day. They do not take their jobs lightly and they work hard to do the best they can given the limits they are given.
If you have any concerns or questions about school lunch in your district, find out who the director of school nutrition is and go talk to them. Invite them to your next PTO meeting. Ask how you can help them as they help to feed our kids. They want to do the best job they can and they certainly can’t do it alone.