Posted on Tue, July 07, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
2 Comments | Categories: Labeling, Policy, School Food,
First published on School Lunch Talk. Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Imagine if Las Vegas built a Costco-themed hotel with a particular emphasis on chicken nugget samples and then filled the building with lunch ladies. Thats the best way I can describe the School Nutrition Associations annual food expo, which is taking place right now in Vegas Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Every summer, thousands of lunch ladies flock to the show to sample the newest industry products for school lunch. They stroll through over 800 booths, tasting everything from popcorn chicken and mini cheeseburgers, to whole-grain doughnuts and blue-raspberry slushees. Forget flipping through cookbooks today, this is the menu planning process for your kids school cafeteria.
If you want a birds eye view of the problems plaguing school food, this is the place to go. The expo boasted 40 booths showcasing ice cream, cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts. Over 20 booths peddled poultry (mostly breaded) and 20 more featured beef products. Pizza showed up at 12 booths. Fresh fruits and vegetables showed up at only 10.
I accumulated a thick stack of spec sheets and brochures during my four-hour stroll through the booths this morning. Heres just a random sampling of the products on display:
- My personal favorite from the show was the Crazy Apple. In an attempt to get kids to eat more fruit, this company has developed apples that taste like bubble gum, cotton candy and tropical blast. Candy-flavored apples????? Next thing you know, theyll be making bacon-flavored hamburger patties. Oh wait, they already do that
- No need to serve pancakes and eggs separately anymore. Schools can now buy heat-and-serve Maple PanEggCakes, an egg patty nested inside a maple-flavored, whole-grain pancake.
- Cafe Pizza by Papa Johns brings a popular brand name to the lunchroom and meets National School Lunch Program guidelines. Sadly, with 900 milligrams of sodium and 33 percent of recommended daily saturated fat, thats true.
- The brochure for Polish Water Ice boasts that the product has no fat, no dairy, no cholesterol, no peanut oil and fewer than 140 calories. So what does it have? Water, apple juice concentrate, cane sugar, corn syrup, natural and artificial flavor, guar gum, carbohydrate gum, locust bean gum, citric acid and FD&C Red #40. The best part is that one serving counts for half of the fruit and vegetable requirement for school meals.
- If youre looking for even more sweetened, colored fruit, the United Commodity Group will take your government commodity apples and process them into flavored applesauce. The neon-green Super Sour Apple is made of apples, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, FD&C Yellow #5 and Blue #1, and Vitamin C. And, guess what, it also counts as a serving of fruit!
- Of course, theres nothing wrong with corn syrup. The Corn Refiners Association (one of the show sponsors) made an appearance to pass out pamphlets titled High Fructose Corn Syrup Making Healthy Foods Affordable for Americas School Children. Eliminating the product would seriously jeopardize and/or eliminate the supply of numerous offerings in school lunch programs. Like those flavored apple sauces, you mean?
- On the commodity front, Cabo Primo will process your government beef into a beef soft taco that has 43 percent of its calories from fat and 14 percent from saturated fat. The USDA limit for a school meal is 30 and 10, respectively. So how do you serve one of those soft tacos (with hot, exciting graphics and ovenable packaging)? As one director on the show floor told me, Im looking for foods that are high in calories but low in fat so I can balance out the percent of calories from fat in my processed entrees.
- If you dont want fat or calories, try some butter mist from Butter Buds Foodservice. The spray gives you the natural flavor of butter with zero fat, cholesterol and calories. And the companys Cheddar Buds cheese-flavored sauce brings just-add-water convenience to your foodservice menu.
- Looking for a way to get a serving of bread onto the lunch tray? Clodhoppers, cocoa-covered graham wafer clusters, count as one USDA serving. Its great for breakfast, lunch or after school!
- Giorgio Foods asks you to pledge allegiance to breaded American cheese with its Cheese Sticks, which are, yes, breaded American cheese.
School meals are part of a federal child nutrition program. But make no mistake, theyre an industry like any other.