How Much Do You Know about Your Child’s School Nutrition Program?

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The challenges of feeding picky eaters are a part of my daily reality. Yours too? Now imagine you need to feed hundreds of picky eaters on a daily basis with exacting government nutrition standards and a limited budget. That’s what thousands of workers in school nutrition are tackling each day! Thanks to the School Nutrition Association, I had the opportunity to attend the School Nutrition Association (SNA) Annual National Conference (ANC) with over 7,000 school nutrition professionals.

For a mom like me who only sees a small fraction of what goes on in the school cafeteria, this was an eye-opening experience. If you have school-aged kids, you’ll appreciate this behind-the-scenes look too. Here are a few of my takeaways.

More Than Meets the Eye

School nutrition goes much deeper than your school’s cafeteria workers. Those jobs along with dozens of other professions play important roles in bring nutritious food to school children. Mark Bordeau, Director of Food Services at Broome Tioga BOCES, gave me a morning tour of the SNA Annual Conference exhibit floor and a bit of a crash course for a layman (laymom?)

Before you that monthly meal calendar is tucked into your child’s backpack or published on the school website, it must meet certain USDA standards.Before a meal plan is prepared, the recipes must be created (including allergy-free alternatives) and the ingredients sourced. Before the ingredients are sourced, a budget must be made.

In addition to this “food chain,” there’s an ongoing process of training, continuing education, record-keeping, reporting, and waste-calculation necessary that requires powerful software to keep up with it all.

Whew! I never knew so much went into pizza Friday which Gus is so fond of.

All is Not What it Seems

I’ve got to confess to a little judginess. Toaster pastries are often a la carte for breakfast at both of my kids’ schools which made me roll my eyes in the past. Far be it from me to storm the school and demand different breakfast options (hello! My picky little stinkers are part of the issue here) but I will confess to giving our schools’ nutritions programs a little side-eye.

Get this. The toaster pastries you purchase at the grocery store are not the same as the toaster pastries served at the school, even if the packaging appears the same at first glance. To comply with USDA national school meal and snack standards, that toaster pastry is made with whole grains and contains less sugar than what you serve at home. I never knew! The same goes for things like pizzas, chicken nuggets, corndogs and more.

Conference attendees learning about new flavors and presentation

Special Issues at the Regional Level

Melissa Donaldson, Child Nutrition Program Coordinator for Trussville city schools, was kind enough to show me around the exhibit floor during the afternoon. Since both of us are native Alabamians, we had some more targeted things to talk about like how whole grain biscuits go over with kids in the South (hint: it’s a hard sell) as well as hunger and poverty in rural areas.

Image credit

The stats are sobering and in my particular county, they’re worse than the national average with one in three kids going to bed hungry at night.

On the flip side of that, more affluent school systems might struggle with participation in their nutrition programs, making it difficult to plan, purchase, budget, and minimize waste. Both present planning and execution challenges for school nutrition staff.

Parents, We’re Dropping the Ball a Little

Far be it from me to heap mom guilt on anyone, (and know that I’m preaching to myself here too) but good nutrition habits start at home. Walking the exhibit floor I saw so many cools brands and snack options and must have asked “Where can I buy this for my kids?” a dozen times. Often the answer was, “You can’t.”


Well, while that whole grain corn dog made with 100% chicken meat might go over well in the school cafeteria (because a healthier corndog is the only corndog) the demand in the retail sector isn’t enough to justify the supply. That means parents aren’t purchasing healthier options for their picky eaters (believe me, I get it!) to access at home.

Schools are helping us tremendously by acclimating kids to whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and reduced sugar in their meals. Let’s do ourselves, our kids, and our “village” a favor by reinforcing these choices at home. The supply will be there once there’s a demand for that whole-grain toaster pastry with less added sugar. It’s time to pay attention to labels and purchase cleaner options.

Going the Extra Mile

There are some other really neat initiatives going on in schools across the country such as the Farm to School program! From sourcing from local farmers to getting kids involved in growing food for the lunchroom, the Farm to School program helps our kids get closer to their communities and the land itself. Check out this post from Jamonkey for an in-depth look at the Farm to School initiative.

healthy school lunch menus

For now, the kids and I are going to try to grow some of this sweet basil we were gifted without killing it. #goals.

This post is brought to you by SNA, the national organization of school nutrition professionals committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy.