The trend towards more healthful school meal choices continues this fall with district nutrition programs emphasizing whole grains, fruits and vegetables while cutting back on trans fats, added sugar and sodium, according to the School Nutrition Association’s 2008 Back to School Nutrition Trends Report.
SNA's tenth such annual report found that although rising food, labor and indirect costs are significant challenges for school nutrition programs, healthy food and beverage items continue to increase in popularity and participation is increasing, as nearly half of respondents report increased overall lunch and breakfast average daily participation in the 2007-2008 school year.
Increasing the availability of whole grain products was the most popular response for the second straight year, cited by 85.2% of school nutrition directors describing food and nutrition efforts in place in their school districts. Reducing or limiting trans fats showed a sizeable increase in popularity since 2007, up to 81.8% from 73.6%. Other policies in place among a significant number of districts include:
• Increasing the availability of healthier beverages in vending machines (74.6%)
• Limiting fat content of a la carte/vending items (71.8%)
• Reducing or limiting the amount of added sugar in foods (70.1%)
• Reducing or limiting the sodium content in foods (57%), which was asked for the first time this year
The continued emphasis on healthy options, which often are more expensive, is becoming more challenging as school nutrition programs face a wide range of rising costs. The Trends Report found that 97.5% of school nutrition director respondents expect to experience increased food costs for the 2008-2009 school year, with 84% stating expected increases for labor costs, 94% for transportation/fuel costs and almost 67% for indirect costs.
Consistent with the larger foodservice trend, ‘going green’ is taking root in school nutrition programs. Energy efficient equipment is the most common eco-friendly practice adopted by school nutrition programs, cited by 42.7%. Recycling follows closely (38.8%), and at least one in five districts have adopted locally sourced food/supplies or green cleaning products. Eco-friendly practices are quite common, with 75.4% of the districts reporting at least one practice in place.
Finally, more than 230 respondents provided feedback when asked to describe how their district school lunch and the school dining environment will be different in the upcoming school year. Responses varied but unlike past years, comments strongly emphasized cost issues in addition to descriptions of how healthier options are being expanded. Among the themes reported:
• increased offerings (and a greater variety) of fruits, vegetables, whole grain products and other more nutritious foods;
• cost-focused issues, such as menu changes, meal charge increases, fewer choices, more efficient service models (such as “Grab-n-Go” meal service), staff layoffs and decreased marketing;
• a focus on “green” issues such as a greater reliance on eco-friendly servingware and recycling;
• building awareness among students, teachers and staff on nutrition and wellness;
• renovations to increase the appeal and utility of the cafeteria space.
The 2008 Back to School Nutrition Trends Report is based on a July 2008 survey completed online by 358 school nutrition directors from 43 states balanced regionally and reflecting small, medium and large sized districts. The survey has been conducted annually since 1998 and explores trends, issues and factors impacting school nutrition professionals. For a complete copy of the survey contact the School Nutrition Association