The enemy within

Sodium. It’s found in just about every item of food. We consume too much of it. And now, schools and manufacturers are tasked with reducing it in meals. But is the USDA pushing too hard too fast to cut the salt?

Published in FSD Update

Baby steps

For many foodservice directors, making small, incremental changes is the best way to reduce sodium without negatively affecting participation.

“We tried to cut back on sodium so it wasn’t noticeable,” says Clare Keating, vice president of marketing for Preferred Meals, the Berkeley, Ill.-based provider of meal solutions. The company provides menu planning and meal services to districts across the country. “Every time we reformulated a meal, we tried to bring the sodium level down a little bit so it wasn’t so drastic.”

Keating says most of the company’s meals are already within the first sodium reduction. Only a few of the items, mostly tomato-based sauces, still need some work to reduce the salt.

The company has reduced salt by asking vendors for lower sodium options, simply cutting the amount of sodium in recipes or using other flavor enhancers besides salt, such as herbs.

Jon Dickl, director of school nutrition for Knox County Schools, in Knoxville, Tenn., has used many of the same tactics to reduce salt. Dickl also has a sea salt and potassium chloride blend that he uses when he can’t achieve the same palatability with herbs only. Dickl’s menus are within 60 milligrams of meeting the first sodium reduction.

Cincinnati’s Shelly developed flavor stations in cooperation with McCormick and Cambro. Flavor stations are caddies that hang off salad bars that hold shakers of a Mexican spice, an Italian spice, crushed red pepper flakes and garlic pepper—all sodium-free flavor enhancers. “If I’m giving a kid an entrée that has [less] sodium, he can go and flavor it up so that it’s not so distinctly noticeable,” she says.

Shelly also worked with JTM Food Group to create a burger with mushrooms, which lowered the sodium content by half.

Some districts had to remove items, however. Cheese seems to be one of those foods that increasingly is falling into this category. Lynnelle Grumbles, R.D., director of nutritional services for Visalia Unified School District, in California, has taken some cheese products off the menu.

Philadelphia has also removed items that are cheese stuffed, like mozzarella sticks. Other items directors are reducing or eliminating because of high sodium content include lunch meats and bread items.

Dickl’s No. 1 breakfast item was a biscuit. He’s hoping to find a lower sodium, good-tasting version, but until he can do so he’s menuing an alternative option, like a croissant. “If I’m going to get students complaining about the biscuit [because it’s lower in sodium and doesn’t taste as good] then I’m going to cut it from three days to one,” he says.

The other half of the equation

Dickl’s search for a better low-sodium biscuit highlights one of the main challenges—and opportunities—for the industry. Schools purchase premade products from manufacturers, which must now reduce the amount of sodium in their items or lose money in the school foodservice business.

Many companies, like the districts, saw sodium reduction coming and began working years ago to cut it. Schwan’s Food Service has been working to reduce sodium since 2006, according to Karen Wilder, R.D., senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs. Wilder says that by the time the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was released, the company had already reduced the sodium in its products by 20 percent.

Wilder estimated that 10 percent of Schwan’s products had to be tweaked to comply with the first reduction. The focus for sodium reduction has been on breakfast. “Breakfast items are a little more challenging simply because you’re talking about usually a combination of a protein and a bread item,” she says. “Bread is one of the major contributors to sodium in the American diet.”

Schwan’s first step in cutting the salt was working with ingredient suppliers—meat and cheese purveyors—to see what kind of lower sodium products they could supply.

“Are salt substitutes in some of those items? There may be some but one of the challenges that we have is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all replacement for salt,” Wilder says. “What we end up doing first is just reducing the amount of salt in products but maybe boosting the flavor. So some of our pizza sauces have more of a spice profile and that helps to [hide] the fact that we reduced the salt. We still have to deal with the leavening agents, because the dough isn’t going to rise without some kind of leavening agent, which has salt.”

Like Schwan’s, Kikkoman has developed lower-sodium products for schools. “Sodium reduction isn’t just a matter of using less salt. It’s all about using the right combinations of ingredients so kids don’t miss the flavor of salt,” says Debbie Carpenter, senior manager, national foodservice sales & marketing, Kikkoman Sales USA Inc.

Kikkoman has worked with Ann Cooper, chef and director at Boulder Valley School District, in Colorado, to create “a variety of low-sodium, kid-pleasing menu ideas in a variety of cuisines.”

More From FoodService Director

Managing Your Business
alumni worker

It’s a sure sign that a school is doing something right when its students want to come back and work as adults. From the standpoint of the foodservice director, though, there is plenty to gain from retaining homegrown talent—call it the ultimate return on investment. In the wake of back-to-school season, two dining programs with a robust alumni contingent share their thoughts on hiring former customers.

Local expertise

At Georgia Southern University, about one-third of Eagle Dining Services’ 107 full-time employees are alumni. “They way we do things on our campus may be very...

Managing Your Business
business ladder climbing illustration

Recruiting talent is only half the battle for Mike Folino, associate director of nutrition services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. Once he’s attracted good employees, providing clear opportunities for advancement can help retain them—but knowing when to bring up the topic in conversation can be tricky.

Prior to hiring

Folino likes to touch on advancement during the initial interview process, but the extent to which he does so changes case by case. “I have had interviews where we knew right away that we needed to discuss our structure and...

Ideas and Innovation
woman surprise

When I joined the staff at FoodService Director in the spring of 2015, I couldn’t believe how much there was to learn about the intricacies of the industry. My past experience, from kindergarten to my college days to on-the-job meals, would lead me to believe that noncommercial dining was a kind of automated process—an amenity that’s expected, and one you only become aware of if something goes wrong.

But as with my own household chores, there are no magical elves making sure the business of feeding students, seniors and hospital patients is done, and done well. Foodservice...

Managing Your Business
hands team

In November, students at University of Missouri in Columbia began leading protests against discrimination faced by people of color on campus—including some marches through the dining halls. Julaine Kiehn, director of the school’s campus dining services, said the 2015-16 school year was a tough one, but she was proud of MU’s students for being at the forefront of a national movement.

And not only did the protests launch important conversations with students, but also with staff. Kiehn heard the protests and thought that her student workers, at least, might not feel safe and welcome...

FSD Resources