Drink Your Milk

Kids

Food waste is happening at a school near you. In the Southwest, it’s tortillas. In the South, it’s grits and biscuits. In the Northeast, bagels aren’t cutting it. And the list goes on, beyond grain-based foods. The explanation seems quite simple: when kids don’t want to eat or drink something, they’ll throw it away. Perhaps it’s because they care more about One Direction than lunch direction. Maybe the stuff just doesn’t taste so good, especially when compared to the Coke Classics and the white-bread chicken sandwiches of the not-too-distant past.

The ramifications include declining school nutrition revenues and students who aren’t eating a nutritious meal. Oh, and there’s the waste, of course.

“We’ve got very limited resources to begin with and we hate to see money thrown in the trash can,” said Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and the director of nutrition services for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.

Naturally, much of the culinary disdain can be attributed to recent moves in Washington — the trite scapegoat that so often earns the title. On July 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced new school nutrition mandates that limit nutritional content and ingredient options. Bauscher and many other members of the SNA, which features 55,000 school nutrition professionals from across the country, continue to reach out to politicians and the USDA about sensible flexibility with the mandates.

Meanwhile, however, food and beverage companies with an eye on school food service are taking note. While the nutritional changes could hamper mainstay brands of the past, the updates could signal an opportunity for entrepreneurs with a willingness to comply.

The recently-implemented mandates, titled Smart Snacks in School, require all food sold in schools to be whole-grain rich, or have a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product or a protein food as the first ingredient, or contain at least ¼ cup of fruit and/or vegetables, or contain 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.

The mandates also include numerical limits of calories, sodium, fat and sugar and include broad changes for beverages. Schools may sell plain water (with or without carbonation), unflavored low fat milk, unflavored or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives (such as lactose-free milk), 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juice that’s diluted with water and has no added sweeteners. For milk and juice, elementary schools may sell up to 8 oz. portions and middle schools and high schools may sell up to 12 oz. portions.

Also permitted are additional no-calorie or low-calorie beverage options that have no more than 20 oz. portions of flavored water (with or without carbonation) and other flavored and/or carbonated beverages that contain fewer than five calories per 8 oz. or 10 calories per 20 oz. The mandate also allows no more than 12 oz. portions of beverages with at least 40 calories per 8 oz. or at least 60 calories per 12 oz.

To meet the new beverage standards and still give variety to students, Sara Gasiorowski, the director of school district food services in Wayne Township, Indiana, has had to shuffle inventory. Sunny D, sugary lemonades and juices and even 16 oz. milk chugs are out, while Switch, the sparkling juice brand recently acquired by Apple & Eve, Naked Juice, Izze, Gatorade G2, Powerade Zero, 6.75 oz. Juicy Juice containers and 8 oz. milk cartons are in.

Gasiorowski said that some former beverage options had cheaper price points. The new mandates limit not just the calories, but also the minimum dollars and cents. She said that the least expensive selling price for a beverage hovers around $1, while the maximum sits at $2.25.

Students have already expressed their dislike for the steady evolution of food standards. According to the SNA, since 2012, more than one million fewer students choose school lunches each day. Consequently, 47 percent of school meal programs reported revenue declines. How will students react to the new mandates when it comes to beverages? So early in the school year, that’s still tough to say.

“I don’t have, even in my own district, a good projection about what might happen,” Bauscher said.

All beverage companies can do is release products that meet the nutrition standards and hope the products find a way in schools. Apple & Eve recently introduced a new 6.75 oz. Fruitables juice box, available in Tropical Twist and Power Punch. The serving is equivalent to ¾ cup of vegetables. And because the first ingredient in both flavors is sweet potato, the product counts as a USDA reimbursable meal.

Other key beverage players are also playing along with the new serving size mandates. The recently-released Bolthouse Farms Kids Smoothies are sold in curved 6 oz. bottles. Another new kids product, Vita Coco Kids Pink Lemonade, is sold in a 6 oz. juice box.

As beverage brands straddle the lines of innovation and USDA influence, school nutrition directors maintain their analysis of the mandates and their push for greater flexibility. Led by Bauscher, the members of the SNA are doing their best to inform respective districts of the most current nutrition challenges and solutions, write letters to Congress, visit Capitol Hill and talk to elected officials and their staffs.

The members of the SNA are asking Congress to support the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, which would provide the option of a one-year waiver of the new USDA mandates to school meal programs that have experienced a net loss in revenue for more than six months. The waiver could give these programs a better chance at reaching profitability before they must implement the new standards that could shrink margins and, in turn, revenue figures.

In direct response to the mandates, the members of the SNA have four points of focus that they stand by and will continue to push:

1. Retain the 2012 requirement that 50 percent of grains offered for lunch and breakfast must be whole-grain rich, instead of the recent
100 percent requirement.
Note: This would allow districts to add flour tortillas or white rice, for example, as an addition to the other components of a nutritious, whole-grain meal. “It doesn’t rip the program apart,” Gasiorowski said.

2. Retain the July 1 sodium levels and suspend implementation of further sodium level reduction unless/until scientific research supports such reductions.
Note: The current sodium limits are 230 milligrams for snacks and 480 milligrams for entrees. On July 1, 2016, the snacks figure will decrease to 200 milligrams of sodium per item. Gasiorowski, who thinks that the USDA and the Institute of Medicine should be encouraging this research, asks: “is there a need for such severe reductions in sodium levels?”

3. Eliminate the requirement that students must take a fruit or a vegetable as part of a reimbursable breakfast and/or lunch.
Note: Before the new mandates, some students took a full serving of fruit and vegetables, others took a ¼ cup, but at least they ate it, Gasiorowski said. Now, she said, you see kids grab the required ½ cup, take a few bites and throw the rest in the trash. She said that the mandates eliminate the concept of offer vs. serve. “Letting them have a say in how much they can take,” she said, “the acceptance level is much greater.”

4. Require the USDA to allow any permitted food item to not only be served as part of a reimbursable meal, but also to be sold as a competitive food.
Note: The SNA believes that the current mandates will severely limit food and beverages sold a la carte (vending machines and snack bars). A la carte is a significant revenue source and food service directors want to keep options open for students in all formats, not just through reimbursable meals.

Bauscher doesn’t expect Congress to vote on the Appropriations Bill until after November elections. She said that the SNA’s four requests probably won’t get looked at until new legislators are seated in January. Or, she said, Congress could pass an omnibus bill.

Until decisions are in place, food and beverage beverage companies might want to follow along. At stake is what they can and cannot sell in schools across the country. And unlike whole-grain bread or unflavored skim milk, wiser innovators won’t let that information end up in the trash.