SNA 2012 Roundup: New Meal Regulations take Center Stage

Experts give tips on salad bars, produce and marketing.

In July more than 6,300 school nutrition professionals gathered in Denver for the 66th Annual National Conference of the School Nutrition Association. FSD was on hand for the conference, where the hot topic was the new USDA meal pattern regulations, which go into effect in schools this fall. Here’s some highlights from the more than 90 educational breakout session at this year’s conference.

Are you getting the right produce at the right price:
This educational session was presented by Tom Schwartz, of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and Julie Skolmowski, of the USDA’s Team Nutrition. Schwartz, who has done produce inspections, spoke about the produce purchasing process.

“It takes about $6,700 to pallet of lettuce from California to the East Coast,” Schwartz said, adding that fresh produce can be expensive. Schwartz suggested operators consult the USDA’s Market News, an everyday listing of how much produce costs in different geographical areas.

Schwartz’s advice for operators when buying produce was to purchase with the end in mind. For example, he suggested if produce was to be used cut up on the salad bar, that operators don’t need to buy the highest grade produce. Certain quality defects such as coloration or odd shapes will knock produce from No. 1 to No. 2 in USDA grade standards. “The difference between a No. 1 cucumber and a No. 2 cucumber has nothing to do with the nutritional value but what it looks like,” he says.

Schwartz suggested looking for produce specifications that are not standard because operators might be able to get a better price for them. He cautioned, however, that operators make sure their equipment can handle preparing non-standard size produce. For example, limes that are larger than normal may not fit in a standard cutting, de-coring machine.

Lastly, Schwartz said receiving temperature was more important for certain produce like leafy green vegetables. When staff time is limited and they can’t check every item coming in the back door, Schwartz said to make sure staff know which items need to be checked and which ones--potatoes--can bypass the initial inspection.

Effective Marketing to the Next Generation:
Eileen Staples and Quentin Cavanagh, of the Greenville County School District in South Carolina, spoke about the district’s marketing program.

“Ask yourself: If I owned it would I run [my program] differently,” Staples suggested to the audience.

The two offered some tips, including:
• Put yourself in your customers’ shoes/perspective

• Food presentation is key; for example, if your staff eats before the students come through the lines, the pans won’t be full and students might perceive the food as being leftover

• Talk to students during lunch; you’ll get more honest and better info during mealtimes than if you convene students later for a food council

• Promote your food safety programs; parents want to know when their children come to school it’s a safe environment

• Make sure your parents and teachers know the foodservice department is a business

• Create a different marketing plan for each school because each location has its own personality

• If you can’t get students to stop purchase items from the school store, buy the store for the foodservice department

Living on the Veg: Raising the Salad bar for School Lunch
Jessica Shelly, director of the Cincinnati Public Schools, spoke about her personal evolution of salad bars. Shelly, who used to work for the city’s health department, said at first she wasn’t a fan of salad bars in school due to food safety and sanitation concerns. She said, however, that she’s done an about-face and is now a proponent of salad bars in every school. Shelly has already implemented the new meal regulations, and she says salad bars have helped her meet the new vegetable subgroups requirement. She says salad bars have helped increase participation rates in her more affluent schools.

Before installing salad bars in the schools, Shelly wanted to ensure the students know how to properly use them first. She enlisted the help of local Whole Foods stores. Whole Foods brought a traveling salad bar to the every school filled with produce supplied by the grocery store. Whole Foods’ produce manager also went to the schools to teach the students how to use the bars and about the different produce offered. The service was provided at no cost.

Shelly hasn’t paid for a single one of her salad bars. She applied for grants, created partnerships to get the funds and converted old steam tables to create salad bars. Another way she got funding was to put a stipulation in the bid for the district’s vending that said the company would provide $5,000 each year to be used for healthy initiatives. Shelly uses that money to purchase salad bars.

Shelly also suggests using longer handled tongs so they can’t fall into the produce and cause sanitation concerns. Using quarter pans also helps prevent tongs from falling into food.