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.

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion
Richard cousins

Compass Group confirmed this morning that CEO Richard Cousins was killed on New Year’s Eve in a small-plane crash off the coast of Australia. He was 58.

Cousins was scheduled to step down as CEO in March, after leading the world’s largest foodservice management company for 11 years. His planned successor, Compass COO Dominic Blakemore, has agreed to assume Cousins’ duties immediately.

“We are deeply shocked and saddened by this terrible news,” Compass Chairman Paul Walsh said in a statement. “It has been a great privilege to know Richard personally and to work with him for...

Menu Development
to-go meals

Drew Allen didn’t hesitate when asked what he expects of noncommercial dining in the future. “Change,” he says. “We have to change with the times and what our guests are looking for.”

Allen, the director of culinary services at Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choices in Lebanon, Ohio, says the more the residents and guests at Otterbein change, the more diverse eating habits his team has the chance to explore. One of those changing habits, he says, is diners’ growing desire for portable, made-to-order items . That’s a theme borne out by data, too—and is true across dayparts. Roughly 67%...

Ideas and Innovation
trail mix

We’ve added fueling stations in our units for our workers who didn’t have time to eat or just need a snack. We have areas set up with trail mix, crackers, cookies and water. It helps us avoid people feeling or getting ill, especially when we get closer to exam periods and student workers are studying and not taking the time to eat.

Ideas and Innovation
email

Communication is key, and [managers] are busy too. One tip I picked up from another director was to label my subject line with the header “action,” “information” or “response” followed by a brief description of the email contents. That way they can filter through their inboxes during their busy days to know which emails need their attention immediately and which they can save to read later.

FSD Resources