Vegetarian Journal's Foodservice Update

Vegetarian Journal's Foodservice Update
Healthy Tips and Recipes for Institutions
Volume XII, Numbers 2 and 3 Summer 2006

School Foods 101

By Amie Hamlin

Foodservice directors and cafeteria staff work under difficult circumstances, in relation to finances, government regulations, trying to make everyone happy, and competing with all the unhealthy food outside the cafeteria. Unlike other departments in schools, the foodservice program is expected to pay for itself. It does not receive school budget money, nor does the price children pay for their meals cover expenses. This is really a major problem. No other department in the school is expected to support itself! Imagine if the biology or math departments had to come up with their own funding.

The federal government reimburses schools $2.32 for each child receiving a free lunch (those below 130% of the poverty line), $1.92 for each child receiving a reduced price lunch (those between 130-185% of the poverty line), and $.22 for those paying full price. For breakfast, schools are reimbursed $1.27 for free meals, $.97 for reduced price meals, and $.23 for fully paid meals. Reimburse-ments are $.02 more in "severe need" schools where 60% or more of students qualify for free lunches. Some states also provide an additional minimal reimbursement, but not all.

Schools rely on the reimbursements for school meals, and must meet stringent regulations to qualify for them. For a moment, think about trying to go out and purchase a full, balanced, and healthy meal, including a beverage, entrée, fruit, vegetable, and grain product for between $1.60 and $2.32 each day in a restaurant or cafeteria.

Menu Planning Systems

Meals are provided under the guidance of the United States Department of Agriculture's National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs. In order to be reimbursed for the school meals, meals must comply with one of several menu planning systems:

Food-Based Menu Planning System requires specific food components be served in certain amounts. With this system, you had to work with four components: Meat /Meat Alternate, Grains/Breads, Vegetables/Fruits, and Milk, and two established age/grade groups for lunch (specifically, one for Grades K through 3, another for Grades 4 through 12). There's also been an optional age/grade group (for Grades 7 through 12). This system is the one that has traditionally been used and is based on the old four food groups. It has been in place since the National School Lunch Program was established in 1946, and the School Breakfast Program in 1966. The plan is designed to provide, over time, 1/3 of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for key nutrients for specific age/grade groups for lunch and 1/4 of the RDA for key nutrients for specific age/grade groups for breakfast. Because this system was designed before the Dietary Guidelines became part of school meal requirements, the meal plans do not have any built-in features that will help serve meals that comply with these guidelines. Extra thought needs to be given when planning meals that meet the nutrition goals, including target calorie levels, while reducing fat.

Enhanced Food-Based Menu Planning is similar to the traditional system above, but there are different established age/grade groups. And, there are increased servings of Vegetables/Fruits and Grains/ Breads. In addition, it is designed to provide 1/3 of calorie needs for lunch and 1/4 of calorie needs for breakfast, in addition to the key nutrients. This system was designed to help ensure consistency with the Dietary Guidelines.

Nutrient Standard Menu Planning (NSMP) takes a Nutrient-Based approach to menu planning. Instead of working with specific food components in specific amounts, the menu planner works with menu items. This approach requires a nutritional analysis of foods used in school meals. To do this, schools must use USDA-approved computer software that's widely available and easy to follow. When averaged over a school week, the menu nutrient analysis must provide 1/3 of the RDA for specific nutrients as well as 1/3 of calorie needs for each age or grade group for lunch and provide 1/4 of the RDA for specific nutrients as well 1/4 of calorie needs for each age or grade group for breakfast. It must also meet certain standards which help ensure that meals are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The same age/grade groups can be used as in Enhanced Food-Based Menu Planning. Or, the computer software can customize optional age groups.

Assisted NSMP is exactly like NSMP except an outside consultant or other agency performs all of the functions of menu planning and nutrient analysis. This system is used if a school does not have computer technology that will allow them to use NSMP. If computers become available, they can easily switch to NSMP.

The School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) was initiated in 1995 to ensure that schools are working toward meeting more specific nutrition goals which includes calorie goals that are age appropriate and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Now, regardless of the menu planning option followed, breakfast and lunch menus, when averaged over a school week, should meet the nutrient standards for the selected age or grade group. These nutrient standards set target goals for the following: calories, protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C. They also require that no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat, and that less than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fat.

Commodity Foods

Tight budgets result in the reliance on commodity foods (foods provided by the federal government basically free of charge except for minimal transportation and storage fees). The commodity list changes somewhat from year to year. These commodity foods include raw ingredients, which go directly to schools, as well as raw ingredients which are diverted to a manufacturer first and then sold to schools at a low cost.

If you look at the list of commodity foods available from the federal government, you will see that there are healthy items on it, such as brown rice, dried beans, orange juice, dried cherries, frozen sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. However, that does not mean those items are available, or the best choice for a foodservice director from a business perspective. Each state orders the commodity foods from the federal government for its schools. For example, in New York a survey is sent out to foodservice directors each year to ask what commodity foods they would like to obtain. There needs to be enough demand from foodservice directors in a given region in order to get a particular food from the list. That is because the food is shipped on trucks, and there needs to be enough demand for a particular food to justify shipping it by truck to a given area. In addition, foodservice managers need to get the most value for their money, and it makes more sense for them to order higher cost items such as beef or cheese from the commodity program, and then pay for lower cost items such as brown rice. A new system called ECOS (Electronic Commodity Ordering System) is now available to all states but may eventually be available at the district level (it's the state's decision), which may make it easier for districts to get what they want from the federal list.

The USDA commodity program has made great improvements over the last five years, and continues to evolve. They are very aware of the obesity epidemic and are working to improve the foods offered by lowering the fat, sugar, and sodium levels of the food they make available to schools.

Self Op Versus Contract Management

Most schools operate their own foodservice programs, called "Self Op." Other schools rely on school foodservice management companies, referred to as "contract management." Interestingly, while federal law states that school foodservice must be operated as a non-profit entity, the contract management companies are for profit.

Additionally, about half of the foodservice programs (both self op and contract management) must raise money for the district as well. For example, one contract management company has to raise $125,000 for the school district, which one district described as "taxpayer relief." Another way to think about it is 416,000 bags of $.60 potato chips or ice cream (with $.30 profit per item), or a bag of potato chips or an ice cream every other day for every student in the referred to district.

Amie Hamlin is the Executive Director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Lunches. NYCHSL is a statewide nonprofit that works to improve the health and well-being of New York's students by advocating for healthy plant-based foods, comprehensive nutrition policy, and education to create food- and health-literate students. Visit: <>. Many thanks to Ann Cooper, author of Lunch Lessons; Todd Fowler, Food Service Director of the Bloomfield Central School District in New York; and the School Nutrition Association for their assistance as I prepared this article.

Excerpts from the Summer 2006 Issue:
Adding Vegetarian Options into School Lunch Programs by Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD, CCE
Food Service Hotline
Vegetarian and Vegan Foods in Schools by Amie Hamlin
School Foods 101 by Amie Hamlin
Vegetarian Quantity Recipes
Veggie Pita Delight
Chili "con soya" with Beans
Vegetable Chili
Vegan Pumpkin Pie
Apple Crisp with a Crunchy Granola Topping

Return to the main Food Service page (Vegetarian Journal's FoodService Update and Quantity Cooking Information with links to each issue).

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