School Lunches Just Got Lighter

Soy protein tortillas. Chipotle-lime sunflower seeds. Garbanzo bean dip. Yum.

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These healthy foods were among the options for public school menus presented Tuesday at the national School Nutrition Association’s conference at McCormick Place. With schools emerging as the frontline in the fight against childhood obesity, more than 7,500 food service directors, cafeteria managers and so-called “lunch ladies” have been attending the conference since Sunday, taste-testing recipes that could end up in cafeterias by the fall.

Asparagus guacamole, anyone? The annual conference, which ends Wednesday, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how school menus are shaped and how hundreds of vendors compete for lucrative school food contracts. Though they haven’t received the same negative attention as fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, schools across the nation serve nearly as many meals as the hamburger giant, experts say. And schools often struggle to figure out how to get kids to eat healthier.

Last year, school districts implemented new “wellness policies” mandated by the federal government to help promote nutrition and physical activity for students. Though they follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, which call for eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, most schools determine what they’ll serve in the cafeteria.

In some cases, states set additional nutritional standards. In Illinois, where there’s a ban on junk food in cafeterias and school vending machines, school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, select their menus.

As school officials prepare for a new school year, a national report released in April and requested by Congress recommends even stricter standards to cut calories, fat and sugar in snacks and drinks sold in school vending machines, at fundraisers and as a la carte items in cafeterias. continue reading