Tips for Serving in Schools

A Survey of School Food Service Staff

By Christina Niklas, RD, LD, CNSD, and Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD

Vegetarian meals, which tend to be higher in fiber and lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than non-vegetarian meals, can be a useful tool for helping schools bring menus into compliance with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, little practical information is available to assist schools in incorporating more vegetarian options into existing menus.

In an effort to collect this information, The Vegetarian Resource Group initiated a survey of schools. From July to September 2004, we conducted interviews with representatives of 25 school food service departments throughout the nation. The interview questions focused on vegetarian foods already being served in those schools. The purpose of this project was to obtain practical information about how to successfully introduce and integrate vegetarian options into school menus. The ultimate goal was to share this information with school food service directors and other professionals who may want to increase the number of vegetarian meals served at their schools. Most interviews were conducted via telephone with school food service directors or dietitians.

Challenges of Schools

Schools face many challenges in trying to serve healthy meals that are acceptable to students. The costs of food and labor were repeatedly cited as major hurdles. Many food service departments are financially self-supporting and receive no funding from outside their departments. Typically schools budget 25-60 cents per entrée. As a result, the variety of pre-prepared food items they can buy is limited to those that fit within a tight budget. Labor is also a high cost. As one respondent noted, most food service workers are unionized and paid a higher hourly wage than many other types of laborers. Therefore, schools have to strike a balance between cost and convenience, an ongoing challenge in determining the extent to which they can use ready-made, relatively costly food items, such as vegetarian burger patties and other specialty products.

The individuals surveyed said that school personnel also face demanding customers. Parents of vegetarian students may not understand the cost limitations imposed on schools or appreciate the difficulty of meeting the needs of special diets. It can be difficult to communicate to parents that it is not always possible to get what they demand.

Most schools use commodities (food purchased by the United States Department of Agriculture) to lower costs. However, there have been occasional problems with product quality. For example, oil can be rancid. Also, not all commodities are always available. One interviewee reported that commodities such as cheese and nonfat dry milk were always accessible, but ‘unusual' items like brown rice were not. In other words, some foods are consistently available, while others are not. Occasionally, schools get a surplus of a particular commodity (black beans, for example), which can be a challenge due to storage limitations.

Foods that are acceptable in meeting the nutrition requirements of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) varied widely according to which menu system is used. Most schools reported using the traditional food-based menu system. There seemed to be confusion about the use of peanut butter. Some schools reported using peanut butter, while other schools said they could not use it anymore because of food allergy risks. One interviewee stated that the USDA was not clear as to what is an acceptable vegetarian entrée.

Student acceptance of new foods can be another challenge. Most prefer familiar items. Staff often perceive that students are not accepting of new foods. Nutrition education is seldom integrated into the classroom curricula, so healthy foods and their benefits are rarely discussed. Respondents speculated that this lack of nutrition education undermines the students' acceptance of unfamiliar options.

Other issues mentioned include competitive foods, such as those in vending machines; balancing healthy food choices with those that contribute more profit; limited amounts of time for preparation and serving; government paperwork; and unskilled staff.

What Are Schools Doing?

Vegetarian foods were offered in all schools surveyed. Pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and other meatless pastas were the most common vegetarian items served. Many respondents reported that it is difficult to identify the vegetarian foods non-vegetarians were likely to eat, but the most popular non-meat entrée was pizza. Other popular entrées included pasta, soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and bean burritos. One interviewee stated the most acceptable vegetarian entrées at her school were familiar non-vegetarian foods that have been modified to be vegetarian.

Of the 25 schools surveyed, 14 served both products from scratch as well as commercially prepared products. Many of the items made from scratch were made with commodities. The most frequently used commodities were cheese, beans, peanut butter, and tomato products, such as sauce or paste. When cooking from scratch and using commodities, interviewees stressed creativity:

  • Doctor up commodities by adding spices to tomato sauce, or combine a veggie burger with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese for a pizza burger.
  • Process commodity items into a food that students enjoy.
  • Take the meat or animal fat out of a popular recipe and replace it with beans.

Recipes that call for commodities include vegetarian chili, vegetable lasagna, soft tacos, burritos, and vegetarian wraps. Many schools reported using USDA recipes when cooking with commodities. Other sources for recipes included magazines, professional journals, cookbooks, and websites.

Those who used commercially prepared products cited many favorite name brands: Smucker's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, East Side Entrées, Chef America Hot Pockets, and Tony's Pizza. Many schools noted that they order their vegetarian items from the same vendors that provide their non-vegetarian items. Two vendors, Global Foods and Mon Cuisine, carried a large variety of vegetarian foods or ingredients. One person commented that, in the past five years, Sam's Club has increased the quality and quantity of wholesale vegetarian ingredients stocked as well.

Tips for Success

  • Communicate with students and parents. Set up taste panels with students. Be aware of what kids want. Attend PTA meetings or invite parents to schools to find out what they want.
  • Market vegetarian items. For example, introduce new items during National School Lunch Week. Advertise the nutritional benefits of vegetarian meals. Be creative by having students rename vegetarian dishes so that they sound even more appealing.
  • Understand that kids are open to trying new foods. Increase acceptance of healthy choices by including food studies in the school curriculum.
  • Be inventive. Research new recipes, enhance commodities, and include more popular non-meat items.
  • Remember that a team effort helps ease the transition to more vegetarian foods on school menus. Identify vegetarian staff, including chefs, dietitians, and teachers, and get them involved.
  • To decrease costs, buy food items in volume with other schools, and use commodities when possible.
  • Attend food shows and conferences, explore websites, and network with other schools for ideas on how to increase the selection of vegetarian foods at your school.

To decrease costs, interviewees recommended using commodities creatively. Balancing the budget over the week was another strategy recommended. For example, if a high cost item is used one day, use a low cost item the next day. One respondent noted that not buying meat automatically decreases cost, and items such as black beans for a Mexican salad are inexpensive. Many reported that cheesy stuffed baked potatoes are inexpensive, and one respondent stated that this dish costs half the price of a meat item. Another said that Mexican foods, such as quesadillas, burritos, and bean tostadas, are popular and cheap. Pasta, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pizza were also cited as cost effective.

Those who used a nutrient-based menu system recommended it for increased flexibility. For example, under a nutrient-based menu system, protein is not subject to ‘approval.' As one interviewee put it, “It is an easier system to use, and you don't have to serve 2 ounces of meat.”

Almost all schools surveyed stated that no special equipment, no special ingredients, and no special staff training were needed to incorporate more vegetarian meals into school menus.

All schools surveyed reported serving some vegetarian entrées. The demand for and ease of serving vegetarian menu options varied by geographic location. Nevertheless, as national attention to childhood obesity increases, it will likely become easier for schools to add a greater number and range of healthy options for students and school personnel who eat in school cafeterias.

Twenty-five food service and nutrition departments in schools throughout the U.S. were interviewed. For the following questions, multiple parties who gave the same response are indicated by the number after the x. Otherwise, assume one school said they served that particular item. If you are in charge of food service at a school, you may want to assess which of these items may be appropriate to add to your school's menu.

Survey Highlights

Which vegetarian menu items are served at your school?
  • 100% fruit juice
  • 3-cheese calzone
  • 3-pepper pasta
  • Bagel
  • Baked beans
  • Baked potato with cheese x 3
  • Bean and cheese burrito x 4
  • Bean and cheese chalupas
  • Bean and cheese pockets
  • Bean burritos x 3
  • Bean tacos
  • Bean tostadas
  • Beans and rice
  • Breadsticks with sauce
  • Breakfast sandwich or wrap
  • Burrito grande
  • Canned fruit (commodity)
  • Cheese croissant
  • Cheese enchiladas x 2
  • Cheese hoagie on grain bun
  • Cheese hot pocket
  • Cheese pizza hot pockets
  • Cheese quesadilla x 2
  • Cheese ravioli x 2
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Chef salad with eggs and cheese x 2
  • Chickpea stew
  • Cooked/cold vegetables
  • Cottage cheese
  • Couscous salad
  • Egg and cheese sandwich
  • Egg salad sandwiches
  • Eggs x 3
  • Fettucini alfredo
  • Fresh fruit x 4
  • Fresh vegetables (seasonal) x 2
  • Fruit and yogurt salad
  • Garlic cheese French bread
  • Grated cheeses x 3
  • Greek salad
  • Grilled cheese sandwich x 6
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Hummus x 2
  • Italian dippers (mozzarella sticks)
  • Jasmine rice
  • Lasagna roll-ups x 3
  • Legumes
  • Macaroni and cheese x 14
  • Manicotti
  • Meatless spaghetti or penne x 8
  • Mexican Sandwich Wrap (lettuce, beans, cheddar, olives, salsa)
  • Milk
  • Mozzarella breadsticks
  • Nacho combo/bean chili
  • Nachos with refried beans
  • Nachos with cheese and/or salsa
  • Nuts x 2
  • Pasta salad
  • Pasta with cheese and vegetables bake
  • Peanut butter and jelly x 9
  • Peanut butter x 2
  • Pizza bagel x 2
  • Pizza x 18
  • Pretzel with cheese
  • Quiche x 2
  • Ratatouille
  • Refried beans
  • Salad bar x 4
  • Salad x 4
  • Soft taco with refried beans
  • Soups (i.e. alphabet vegetable, potato, bean, lentil, corn chowder) x 4
  • Soy corn dog (discontinued because company stopped making them)
  • Spaghetti with Oriental vegetables
  • Spanakopita
  • String cheese entrée
  • String cheese with yogurt
  • Stuffed baked potato with broccoli and cheese
  • Stuffed crust pizza
  • Stuffed pasta shells x 3
  • Stuffed potato
  • Sub sandwich
  • Taco hot pockets
  • Vegetable or Cheese Lasagna x 6
  • Vegetarian chili (one with sweet potato muffin) x 4
  • Veggie burger x 11
  • Veggie taco with hot pocket and Mexican rice
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Yogurt and pretzel
  • Yogurt x 5
Note: Cheese may contain animal rennet and may not be acceptable to all students. Make sure that yogurt and other products do not contain animal gelatin. Serving vegan foods may be a convenient way to meet the needs of vegetarians and vegans alike.

Other responses to the question “What vegetarian menu items are served at your school?”

  • Any student can refuse the meat entrée and request additional vegetables, fruits, and bread items.
  • A vegan entrée is available on request.
  • Also offer lunch box meals, nacho box, PB and J box, string cheese box, that compete with Lunchables.
  • Yogurt plate that includes 4 ounces of yogurt and half a sandwich, which may be a peanut butter sandwich.
  • In the past, vegetable lasagna has been menued; however, very few students selected this item.
  • Other items that have been tried are: quiche with broccoli, cheese nachos, cheese quesadillas, and vegetable burgers.
  • More vegetarian foods offered in higher grades.
  • Looking at possibly adding pierogies.
  • Have tospy-turvy day where breakfast is served for lunch and then have eggs, pancakes, etc.
  • Use very little cheese.
  • Soy corn dog was added to counteract hamburger day and was popular but discontinued by company we purchased item from.
  • Veggie burger was served on Kaiser roll but didn’t do well due to lack of marketing and kids in elementary school are pickier.
  • Foods go over well if a popular food is used with a vegetarian slant; however, cost is the issue.
Which food service vendor(s) do you use?
  • Abbott/Sysco
  • Adams
  • All items are put out to bid, so no one vendor.
  • Amy’s Organic
  • Aramark
  • Berry Man
  • C.D. Hartnett
  • Chase Bros.
  • Direct shipment to facility
  • Ellenbee Leggett
  • Farmers’ markets
  • Fox River Foods x 2
  • Ginsberg’s x 2
  • Goldstar
  • Gordon Food Service
  • Jordano’s
  • Labatt
  • Little Debbie
  • Maines
  • National Foods Market
  • Nature’s Path
  • Pepsi (juice, water)
  • Sam’s Club
  • Self-operated
  • Shamrock
  • Sofco
  • Sun Valley—Warehouse seeks out vendors based on menu; catering dept. uses Sysco.
  • Syd’s Gourmet vegetarian foods
  • Sysco x 8
  • U.S. Foodservice x 2
  • USDA products
  • Whoever is awarded the bid in the current bid cycle.
  • Wonderbread
Which commercially-prepared products are favorites?
  • Advantage – soy protein
  • Aunt Jemima
  • Boca Burgers
  • Buena Vista calzone
  • Campbell’s frozen soups
  • Canned corn
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cheese
  • Chef America Cheese Hot Pocket x 2
  • Dakota Gourmet – sunflower seeds
  • Dannon yogurt
  • East Side Entrées Lasagna Roll-Ups, East Side Entrées Stuffed Pasta Shells x 3
  • Fernando’s cheese enchilada
  • Frozen peas/carrots
  • Galaxy pizza
  • Gardenburger x 2
  • Gilardi pizza x 2
  • Grilled cheese
  • Hot Pockets
  • JTM chili (Indianapolis)
  • Kraft products
  • Krusteaz Mini-Pancakes
  • Land O’Lakes Macaroni and Cheese x 2
  • Land O’Lakes Nacho Cheese Sauce
  • Max pizza sticks
  • Milk
  • Morningstar veggie burgers x 2
  • PB&J bar is commodity
  • Pizza Hut (kits for schools) Cheese Pizza
  • Polly-O String Cheese
  • Santa Fe burrito
  • Schwan’s Pizza x 2
  • Schwan’s Burrito
  • Smucker’s PB&J x 4
  • Southland pizza bagel
  • State Fair soy corn dog (taken by one-third of kids)
  • Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza x 2
  • The most expensive/real cheese sauce I can find.
  • Tony’s Pizza x 7
  • Yogurt

Which food service vendor(s) supply these favorite products to you?
  • Abbott/Sysco
  • Amy’s Organic
  • Ben E. Keith
  • Casa Consuelo
  • C.D. Hartnett
  • Commodity x 2
  • Dakota Gourmet
  • Ellenbee Leggett x 2
  • Fox River Foods, bring in certain items on special request
  • Ginsberg’s
  • Jordano’s
  • Labatt
  • M and R Foods
  • Maines
  • Mascarian and Sons
  • Sam’s Club
  • Schwan’s
  • Sometimes even local supermarkets
  • Sun Valley
  • Sysco x 3
  • Thurston Foods
  • U.S. Foodservice x 4
  • Vistar Foods
Do you know of specific vendors that have a larger variety of vegetarian foods or ingredients?
  • No x 15
  • Jordano’s
  • Goldstar
  • Sysco x 2
  • U.S. Foodservice
  • Ellenbee Leggett, but high cost and not necessarily approved for NSLP.
  • Mon Cuisine
  • Global Foods
  • Sam’s Club has increased their quality and quantity of wholesale vegetarian ingredients over the last five years. But Adams Fair Acre Farms is always tops for any fresh produce.
Do you use government commodities in preparing vegetarian menu items? If so, which ones?
  • Baking mix
  • Beans x 7
  • Cheese pizza
  • Cheese x 15
  • Eggs x 3
  • Flour x 3
  • Fries, tater tots
  • Frozen eggs
  • Frozen vegetables, frozen fruits, canned fruits/vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Legumes
  • Nonfat dry milk x 3
  • Nuts
  • Pasta
  • Peanut butter x 6
  • Rice
  • Soy oil
  • Tomato sauce/paste x 5
  • Tomatoes x 2
  • Vegetables
Other responses to this question:
  • Tomatoes, canned veggies, used mostly as side dishes.
  • High reliance on fast foods.
  • Don’t use whole grains and beans because of misperceptions about availability and time required to use/prepare these products.
  • Divert item, i.e. send cheese to company, and they return as pizza.
  • We only receive bonus commodities. We are a CLOC site. CLOC refers to commodity letter of credit voucher for specific commodities.
Are there any tips that you can provide to other schools re: integrating these commodities?
  • No, not enough commodities in NY for entrées.
  • Have items processed into an item the students will enjoy.
  • Cheese is very versatile and can be easily integrated into many recipes.
  • Kids like simple foods.
  • Use cans for decreased labor, request healthy commodities – use argument that schools will use if provided, try free items, USDA publishes list, but foods difficult to get.
  • Use as many as possible, can be difficult when you get large amounts of one food.
  • Food service director needs to make a conscious effort.
  • No, most districts process commodities today.
  • Trial and error, error is OK since there is no cost for mistakes.
  • Most products are easy to use.
  • Have an open mind, try new things, and don’t be afraid to add commodities to recipe.
  • Use commodities first.
  • Take out meats/animal fat to make item vegetarian.
  • Doctor up commodities; for example, add spices to tomato sauce.
Are there items that are particularly cost effective that you serve? If so, what are they?
  • All salad stuff
  • Any produced in-house
  • Cheesy stuffed baked potatoes x 4 – costs half of meat item.
  • Chili
  • Commodities – pay for shipping only; use beans, if not high labor involved.
  • Commodity foods, vegetarian specialty items have high cost.
  • Government commodity cheese products
  • Grilled cheese
  • Homemade soups
  • Mac ‘n’ cheese
  • Mexican food is popular and cheap: quesadilla x 2, burrito x 2, bean tostada
  • Nachos
  • No vegetarian options are cost effective unless student selects only vegetables/fruit/bread offerings of the day.
  • No, they are all very costly, but keep them on menu to satisfy client’s needs.
  • Not buying meat automatically decreases cost; black beans are inexpensive. Once had surplus of black beans, therefore, made a Mexican salad.
  • Pasta bake with vegetables
  • Pasta is always the most cost-effective item, even stuffed with fresh vegetables.
  • Pasta, use commodity like spiral.
  • PB&J x 2
  • Pizza x 2
  • Salads can be good, but keeping it fresh is the key. Spoiled produce can cost.
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Soft taco
  • Soups and stews
  • String cheese and yogurt
What funding constraints do you face?
  • None x 3
  • Have to financially support self and break even every year; bottom line is most important.
  • Only the usual.
  • Always constraints, excessive labor is issue, need enough demand to make it worthwhile.
  • Reimbursement by government to cover cost, need low cost items, try to make items themselves. Nonprofit, work for archdiocese, school contracts this company as a vendor; school and contractor take profits.
  • Have to support themselves because food service is separate from the general fund.
  • Need higher reimbursement rate; lots of fruits and vegetables are offered so that’s a high cost.
  • Many with rising food, fuel, labor, and benefit costs and rising indirect costs.
  • Federal and state reimbursement rates, along with board-approved meal prices for students.
  • Lack of funding, only 65-70 cents funded per meal, which is too little.
  • Numerous, 65 cents cost for entire menu is a major one.
  • Budget cuts, goal is 70 cents per meal.
  • Goal is to break even financially, which is achieved; some years even make money.
  • Increased expenses for food, labor, and services.
  • Same as all school districts. Reimbursement is fairly low to cover all the expenses of our enterprise operation.
  • If we lose money, we can’t pay the staff or my mortgage broker. If we charge too much for an item, we lose money because no one buys it.
What other challenges do you face?
  • Meeting healthy requirements, balancing health vs. profit.
  • Providing healthy meals.
  • Educating parents that school lunch is healthy.
  • Schools built for smaller student populations, limited time for serving. Items must be easy to prepare and serve.
  • Starting out with vegetarian foods.
  • More variety in foods offered.
  • Finding student acceptance; vegetarian items are now more requested.
  • Acceptable meals with fast food mentality, students don’t want what school wants – meals aren’t widely accepted.
  • There are no fryers in the schools.
  • Government paperwork.
  • Labor or staff with minimal skills (literacy and numeracy issues) or qualified staff.
  • Old kitchens with frequent equipment breakdowns.
  • Not a lot of selection for schools or not marketed for availability.
  • Access to products; unfamiliarity of products.
  • Challenge to offer whatever people want.
  • Demanding minority diet advocates.
  • Affordable vegetarian options.
  • Staff resistance.
  • Changing needs of students.
  • Controlling inventory, if products will move, minimum case purchases.
  • Matching what customers want.
  • Competitive foods.
  • If we run out of an item, the young customers have been known to cry.
Regarding USDA regulations, what menu planning system do you use?
  • Food-based
  • Enhanced food-based x 3
  • Traditional x 6
  • Traditional, because easiest to understand, almost every food fits.
  • Traditional/reasonable approach
  • Traditional food-based, but nutrient based is increasing among schools.
  • Nutrient-based
  • Some use food-based, some use new menus.
  • FBMD Food Service, NSMP (Nutrient Standard Menu Planning).
  • Nutrient Standard – Computer planning – not subject to “approved” protein; cumulatively reach protein requirements; looks like balanced meal to kids.
  • SHAPE California NSMP, SHAPE California Food-Based, USDA Food-Based.
What foods/dishes fit within these regulations?
  • Hummus, pizza, some soups, PB&J, salads, pretty much everything.
  • Almost any as long as they are not too high in fat, sodium, etc.
  • All that we serve x 7
  • Entrée, grains, fruits/vegetables, fluid milk – 1% variety.
  • Must meet all requirements for fat, saturated fat, calories, vegetable, fruit, bread, protein, and milk portions.
  • Gardenburger – 2 oz. meat equivalent, CN (Child Nutrition) labeled.
Is there anything specific that your school did to fit the regulations?
  • Worked within guidelines, i.e. enough beans in soup to meet protein requirements.
  • Make sure that the meat alternative is served in an adequate portion to meet the requirements.
  • No x 8
  • Work as team, careful planning – Nutrikids software lays out week of nutrition.
  • Use 2 oz. protein for meat alternate.
  • Added breads and fruits, reduced fat.
  • Search for people to help.
  • They hired a vegetarian food service to cater to healthier options.
Have you added any options because of new regulations?
  • No x 7
  • 8 oz. yogurt = 2 oz protein.
  • Yogurt to meet a meat/meat alternate component x 3
  • Allowance of yogurt.
  • Nutrient menu planning is easier, don’t have to serve 2 oz. meat.
  • Yes, got rid of whole milk, which they were trying to do anyway. In the past you had to have <1% sales to delete item; therefore, they could not delete whole milk until now.
Have you added any options because of new regulations?
  • No x 10
  • Only the yogurt plate.
  • Added new menu items (pretzel with cheese, breadsticks with marinara) when switched to nutrient-based menu.
  • Taken away options like junk food.
  • À la carte not > 40% sugar, fats/trans fats not more than 30% fat, SMI review every 5 years.
Which vegetarian items do non-vegetarians buy?
  • All listed above x 2
  • Anything with cheese
  • Bean burrito x 2
  • Chalupas
  • Fruit
  • Hummus
  • Lasagna
  • Mac ‘n’ cheese
  • Milk
  • PB&J
  • Pizza x 7
  • Pretzels with cheese
  • Salads x 2
  • Soups
  • Spaghetti
  • Veggie burgers
  • Don’t know who’s vegetarian x 2
  • Not sure, but likely cheese stuffed potato, PB&J.
  • Don’t buy Gardenburgers x 2
  • Only a couple of items marketed as vegetarian.
  • I believe all of them.
  • We have no way of knowing which students are truly vegetarians and which are not. We do know that the cheesy baked potatoes and cheese pizza are popular items with many students.

If you are a food service staff member, a teacher, a parent, a student, or a food company who has tried to get vegetarian options into school cafeterias, please share your experiences with VRG.

Christina Niklas, RD, LD, CNSD, developed and conducted a survey of school food service staff and wrote this article as part of an internship for a master’s degree in public health. VRG Nutrition Advisor Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD, served as her guide and mentor for these projects.