Your School Lunch Program Gets a Makeover: School Nutrition Association Conference in Denver

school nutrition association conference denver 12Where can you go to find Food Network stars, a White House chef and thousands of lunch ladies under one roof? The Association’s Annual National Conference, of course!  Thanks to the SNA I was able to join in the fun in Denver earlier this week, taste some new product offerings, and gather loads of information about lunch programs.  And let me tell you, school lunch is not what it used to be!

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Sam Kass, White House Chef

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) Annual National Conference (ANC)

The first thing that surprised me about the School Nutrition Association conference was its size and scope.   The conference has been going on for sixty-six years and now boasts over 6,000 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors.  It’s HUGE!   Attendees range from media (such as reporters and bloggers like myself) to vendors and school food service directors.

National Brands:  On a School’s Budget?

Think your school can’t afford popular name brands?  Think again!  Barilla Pasta, Campbell’s, Pillsbury, Domino’s Pizza, and Kraft were all there, just to name a few.  I assumed school cafeterias could only afford to serve government commodities and generic brands (after all, I personally often forgo name brands because they’re often more expensive).  National brands work closely with schools to make their products affordable, as well as adhere to nutritional standards.  Purchasing in bulk also helps bring the cost down.  Some schools even have cooperatives with other districts set up to bring the cost down even further.

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New School Lunch Standards

The conference was buzzing about the new USDA nutrition standards for school lunches that went into effect on July 1, 2012.   If you’re like most moms, you weren’t even aware of these changes (I wasn’t).  These standards will be phased in over the next ten years.  However, there will be a noticeable difference in all schools participating in the school lunch program beginning in the upcoming ’12-’13 school year.  Your child will now be getting more servings of fruit and veggies, more whole grains, less sodium and fewer trans-fats.  These are all healthy changes, but will require additional planning on the part of school dietitians and involvement with vendors to change the products they supply.

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School Lunch Trends

Kern Halls (above, left), Area Manager of Food & Nutrition Services in the Orange County Florida School District, mentioned that his district allows to test new recipes before they’re rolled out to the general school population.  Many other districts also do this, so that money isn’t wasted on serving new recipes that won’t enjoy. Popular items are foods have seen at restaurants like Orange Chicken (think Panda Express) and Burrito Bowls (Chipotle). This seems to be a trend with food suppliers.  I saw lots of Asian foods, as well as Mexican and gluten-free foods.

Grab-and-go offerings also had a huge presence at the conference. Pre-packaged orange wedges, apple slices, and grapes are not only easy to hand out in a lunch line, kids are more willing to eat them than whole fruit.   Salads and a la carte options in prepackaged containers are also great for students who are rushed through lunch lines.

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Familiar Foods

You can make school lunches as healthy as you want to, but if the kids don’t eat them – you’re wasting time and money.  This is why you still see a strong emphasis on foods already readily accepted by children:  pizza, chicken nuggets, tacos and so on.  However, when you see them on the menu, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re junk!  This is a common misconception moms have, and one I had myself.  Often, they’re much healthier than the versions served at home.  Even good ‘ole Domino’s Pizza served at school meets the new standards – with lower sodium sauce, lite Mozzarella cheese, reduced fat and sodium pepperoni and whole grain crust.

school nutrition association conference

Join the Conversation

Do you have questions about school lunches and the school nutrition association conference?  Leave them in the forum and I’ll answer them there.  You’ll also find dozens of pictures of the new product offerings in our forum galleries. Visit my School Lunch Association Conference Photo Gallery and feel free to leave questions or comments in the pictures section.


  1. dkb says

    I’m glad that you had the opportunity to attend the SNA Conference. It seems to me that its easy to complain about School Lunch but you took the time to attend the conference and thus begin your journey of learning about Lunch, Breakfast, and After School Snack programs offered by Public Schools across the country. If not for meals offered at Public and Private Schools thousands of hungry kids would stay hungry.
    Childhood obesity is now an epidemic that needs to fought on several fronts with nutrition education and the balanced meals offered at schools being one of the ways that we are going to win the battle. I would urge any interested parent to contact the head of the nutrition services department at their school district and ask to eat lunch with their child at school, of course be prepared to pay for the lunch, they are not free.


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