With food and fuel costs far above what they were a year ago, school children can expect to see some changes in menu offerings this academic year, says a nutrition expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
Connie Diekman discusses how fuel and food prices may change how schools prepare lunch menus for students.
“I think we will see a definite shift toward local foods and other ways to stretch the food dollar while still maintaining healthy meals for children,” says Connie Diekman, RD, director of University Nutrition and immediate past president of the American Dietetic Association.
Food prices have skyrocketed this year due to poor crop yields, an increased use of corn for fuel and the rising costs of transporting food across the country.
“For me as a registered dietitian, this is a perfect time to make portion control a focus,” Diekman says. “Obviously, if we can bring portion sizes down to a more appropriate level, it will help tremendously with expenses. This is a great opportunity for schools to examine healthy portion sizes, which not only improve the health of students, but cut down on costs as well.”
While schools that participate in the federal government’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are bound by certain nutritional standards, schools can use creativity to help reduce costs, Diekman says.
“Districts will probably need to do more seasonal thinking when it comes to food choices,” she says. “While fresh berries might be too expensive in the winter at some schools, oranges or grapefruit might not.”
Another possibility is to use more frozen or canned fruits and vegetables.
“Schools have access to federal allocation for fresh fruits and vegetables ” Diekman says. “but since the amount is limited the district may find it difficult to keep fresh produce on their menus throughout the year.”
Using frozen vegetables and fruits canned in their own juices can be cheaper, last longer and are just as nutritionally sound as their fresh counterparts, she says.
“Economically, it’s a great way to keep produce on school menus longer,” Diekman says.
Creative use of less expensive but still very healthy foods like beans, grains and canned or frozen fruits and vegetables will keep nutrition levels up while holding dollar amounts down.
“I suspect that for most districts it is going to be a challenge, even with their creativity, because food costs have just taken off,” she says.
If prices continue to escalate, districts will likely move toward increased reliance on local foods, Diekman suggests.
“Using local foods helps with environmental sustainability and cuts down greatly on shipping costs,” Diekman says. “It also increases the likelihood of getting a fresher product.”
And while it may be getting more expensive, keeping the focus on health is still very important.
“The food that goes into these kids is what fuels their academics,” Diekman says. “This is a great opportunity to examine how we give them the best food for their best performance and to do it in a way that makes fiscal sense.”