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A shift in eating habits spurs snacking

The pandemic is accelerating demand for smaller bites.
Photograph courtesy of Heritage on the Marina

With more people working from home, schools offering virtual or hybrid learning models, healthcare employees on call around the clock and senior-living residents eating in their rooms, traditional foodservice has been disrupted. Pre-pandemic, the dayparts were already blurring and snacking was on the rise. But now operators are discovering an even greater demand for bites between meals.

Cornwall-Lebanon School District in Lebanon, Pa., was well prepared to meet that demand. When school buildings shut down due to the coronavirus, Food Service Coordinator Emily Rodriguez had an emergency feeding plan in place. “We had piloted a snack box program prior to the pandemic, and it was very successful,” she says. “It was easy to expand the packages for meal delivery.”

Students offer snacking advice

Rodriguez had been working to upgrade snack options for over a year, starting with input from a two-day focus group she held with high school student council members. “The students told me that they often do not have time for meals and were looking for on-the-go snacks in the cafeteria,” she says.

Middle school students were also asking for a “light lunch” option, and Rodriguez had created a snack cup filled with grapes, cubes of cheese and a bag of pretzels. “That was the prototype for the first snack box—the Protein Power Punch,” she says. It’s filled with a hard-cooked egg, cheese stick, crackers, apple slices, baby carrots and a crisped rice bar. The contents meet the criteria for reimbursement through the school lunch program.

“The students told me that they often do not have time for meals and were looking for on-the-go snacks in the cafeteria." -Emily Rodriguez

The high school students also requested more vegetarian choices and were excited about this ovo-lacto snack box, she says. It’s conveniently placed to purchase as they come through the lunch line and can be eaten right away as a lighter meal or as a snack later in the afternoon. Rodriguez soon added to the selection with a breakfast bento box (yogurt, hard-cooked egg, cinnamon toast and fruit) and a muffin box (muffin, yogurt, sunflower seeds and a cheese stick).

This fall, the district’s middle and high school students have the option of 100% virtual classes or half live and half virtual, and 80% have chosen to return to some level of in-person learning. So Rodriguez is gearing up with a wider snack selection. “I’m packaging our veggie bar in a glass,” she says. “In the high school cafeteria, students were able to choose five vegetables and a dip for 75 cents, so I’m packing their favorites to go—broccoli, cherry tomatoes and carrots—along with hummus or ranch dip.”

Health care embraces snacks

Subbing snacks for meals has become a trend in hospital foodservice as well, reports Rocky Dunnam, executive chef at MU Health Care in Columbia, Mo. Over the last few months, Dunnam has overseen a renovation of the foodservice venues and has expanded their grab-and-go cases and retail cafes to include more snacks.

“During the pandemic, we started packaging sandwiches, sides and desserts separately so employees could customize their meals by mixing and matching,” he says. “We noticed that they were buying small containers of pasta salad or cups of hummus with veggies to have on their own. These evolved into snacks.”

Drink Station
Grab-and-go items like this strawberry salad are on the rise; photograph courtesy of MU Health Care

Now on offer are additional items such as tzatziki with pita triangles, yogurt and fruit parfaits and heartier items such as a Buffalo chicken wrap to go.

In senior-living communities, the coronavirus forced residents to make a 180-degree shift in eating habits, from socializing over meals in the dining room to eating solo in their rooms. Snack carts have helped alleviate some of the isolation at Windy Hill Village in Phillipsburg, Pa., where foodservice is managed by Cura Hospitality. Director of Food Services Jeffrey Boggie has employees wheel around mobile hydration stations with lemonade and fruit punch in the mid-afternoon. Come fall, he plans on adding snack-size desserts, such as berry shortcakes in 2-ounce cups, along with crudites, dips and spiced sausages with mustard.

berry smoothie
Chefs are having fun with themed snack items such as these berry smoothies; photograph courtesy of Reutlinger Community

And at many of Morrison Living’s 400 communities, the “Time to Groove” snack cart comes around at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., says Adam Grafton, Morrison’s vice president of culinary. “The selection is mostly wellness driven, with snacks such as chia pudding, granola bars and yogurt parfaits,” he says.

But the chefs also have fun with themed items: At Heritage on the Marina in San Francisco, the team created an Italian cart featuring bruschetta, which showcased Morrison’s superfood of the month—tomatoes. And the Reutlinger Community in Danville, Calif., served berry smoothies complete with tropical garnishes.

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