Clean labels come to the classroom

kids school lunch

From Foster Farms.

National restaurant chains who have worked to remove artificial ingredients and flavors on their menus may have captured recent industry headlines. But in their own quiet way, K-12 school districts are making progress in switching to clean label foods as well.

“Schools are probably coming into this notion a bit later than retail, and only because they are such fragile systems to begin with,” says Toni Liquori, executive director of School Food Focus, a New York-based organization that works with school districts and food suppliers in collaborative procurement efforts. “But they are moving along. Most of the country is going in this direction.”

Significantly, consumers give weight to clean labels. Products described with claims such as “preservative free,” “natural” and “no artificial sweeteners” were perceived by more than 70% of consumers as slightly or much healthier, according to the Technomic 2016 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.

However, one of the challenges that school districts face in implementing clean label products is affording them on small budgets. “The cheapest food out there is highly processed and not as healthful as you would want it to be for kids’ growth or for the environment and local economies,” says Liquori.

Even so, K-12 foodservice directors are innovating with their budgets.

At South Haven Public Schools in Michigan, food service director Amy Nichols says she doesn’t seek clean label foods exclusively, but she does keep an eye out for new products. “I usually purchase them if they are reasonably close in price, because they just seem more like real food and not the typical school cafeteria food,” says Nichols. She says she has tried some great chicken products.

Definitions vary, but most people use the term “clean label” to describe products made with simple, recognizable ingredients rather than artificial or synthetic substances. Attributes such as fresh, local and natural, as well as free-from statements, such as antibiotic-free, GMO-free and hormone-free, may also apply to clean label foods.

Restaurants are prominent role models. “It just makes sense” to eat real foods, declares the website of Core Life Eatery, a fast-casual concept that favors locally sourced, organic and GMO-free ingredients. Boston Market has announced plans to serve only rotisserie chicken that is antibiotic-free by 2018. And Panera Bread boasts that its “100% clean” non-carbonated craft beverages, such as iced black tea and plum ginger hibiscus tea, are made with no artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavors or colors from artificial sources.

At South Haven schools, the student reaction to clean label foods has been positive. “Honestly, they prefer them,” says Nichols. “It may seem odd, but they eat more of the clean items than the older versions.”  

Nichols notes that another benefit of clean label foods is that they give her a greater feeling of confidence when serving with food allergies. “I don’t have to Google ingredients that I don’t recognize and certainly can’t pronounce,” Nichols says.

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