Sustainability Trends in School Food Service

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In many schools across the United States, from elementary through college, cafeterias are beginning to move towards providing healthier, sustainable options for students. Sustainable food is ethically responsible, minimizes the negative effects on the environment, prioritizes human health, and is produced from places that treat animals humanely and treat workers fairly.

The current generation of students cares about where their food comes from, and how it got to their plates – in other words, they care whether or not their food is sustainable. Kids are also craving more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and foods made from scratch instead of the highly processed foods that have been served in many cafeterias.

Schools that don’t provide sustainable food selections are running into problems – students don’t consider sustainability to be an option; it’s a necessity. High school students in Chicago are publicly protesting their current school lunch options, claiming that it is “unhealthy, unappetizing, and overly processed.” (WBEZ91.5)

So, what are successful schools doing to promote the sustainable food movement within school cafeterias? How are schools meeting the demands of students and their families? There are several things that schools are doing and can continue to do so that the foods kids are eating in school are good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

Taking Students’ Health into Consideration

There are some food preferences that students share at all ages like hand held foods, on-the-go options, made-to-order foods, and common staples, like fruits, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and salads. Taste preferences tend to differ depending on the age of the student; younger children prefer simpler foods and older ones enjoy more complex and diverse options.

Schools who support the sustainability movement understand these differences, and how to select food options based on student needs. For example, serving complex dishes to fourth graders would result in a lot more food waste, which is not sustainable, but college students are likely to appreciate it.

Reducing Kitchen Waste

There are a lot of ways to reduce the amount of waste that results from a school kitchen and cafeteria, from recycling and reusing materials and composting food waste to choosing more eco-friendly packaging and dish options. Many schools are choosing to get food locally, which minimizes the amount of packaging and padding required to transport it to the school, and ultimately, reduces waste.

Composting

Schools do tend to have some waste, but there is a sustainable way to deal with it. Composting takes sustainability one step further – it doesn’t end when the food is consumed. Children of all ages can learn to compost, from elementary through college. At the higher level, using compostable food packaging or other materials also reduces waste and adds to sustainability.

Compost can be reused as the process begins again – it can help fertilize landscaping, gardening and farming on school grounds.

Local Sourcing

Another way to promote sustainable food practices is to get food locally. Foods that travel the shortest distances have the least effect on the environment. It’s also easier to get local foods faster, which means that these foods are the freshest and are more likely to retain their health benefits by the time they’re served on a student’s plate.

School Gardens

One of the ultimate results of a more sustainable school food system, including compost as fertilizer, the most local sourcing possible, minimizing fuel and transportation costs, and using fresh, healthy, whole, foods, is that students and staff are taking things into their own hands, and growing their own sustainable foods. This can be a very cost effective option, and it can potentially fit the definition of sustainable food to a tee, depending on how the garden is cared for.

Food Presentation Can Lead to Healthier Selections in Cafeterias

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There has been a push in the last several years for cafeterias to offer healthier food options. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, passed new regulations in 2012 requiring more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in school cafeterias.

However, once the food is there, it’s up to patrons to make healthy choices when building a plate. A cafeteria can make a few simple changes to encourage these healthier choices.

How can things like rearranging food options, adding labels and information about options, and offering trays with small dishes make such a difference?

Know Your Patrons

First, it’s important to remember who will be going through the line in your cafeteria. In a hospital, patrons might be of all ages, and children are likely to be accompanied by an adult. In a middle school, children are likely to make decisions about food selection on their own.

Children and adults are drawn to different kinds of food and different displays, so encouraging healthy eating is different, depending on your patrons.

For example, a tactic used by grocery stores to encourage purchasing certain products is to place them at eye level. For children, this means that healthier options should be near the lower shelves, while adults are more likely to notice them on the middle shelves.

Children are also more likely to react to more colorful foods, and those that are well designed. For example, placing a sample dish with healthy, colorful options, and making a face on the plate might encourage children to mimic the display.

Adults, on the other hand, are less likely to be influenced by the way the food is designed, and prefer fewer foods and colors on their plates. However, making healthy food attractive and easy to see will encourage adults to select these items. Fresh, quality fruits and vegetables are bright and colorful on their own, so simply placing them in a visible area can encourage adult patrons to choose them.

Use Small Plates

One of the biggest issues that leads to unhealthy eating choices is portion size. Small plates fill up faster than large ones, which can encourage patrons to eat smaller portions or to choose fewer selections, ultimately, leading to healthier eating choices.

Put Healthy Options in High Traffic Areas

When a hungry patron comes into a cafeteria, they are most likely to fill their plate with the first things they notice. Placing healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, in a high traffic area like the entrance to the cafeteria will encourage more people to eat these foods.

Similarly, placing easy to grab health foods, like apples, bananas, or pears near the checkout counter – another high traffic area – is a great way to encourage patrons to select these items on their way out.

Add Labels and Descriptions

It is important to label all foods in a cafeteria, but the depth of the food descriptions can make a difference in whether or not the food is selected.

The name of the food should, of course, be the first thing on the label to help patrons recognize the food. The more descriptive the name, the more likely an adult patron is to select the food item.

Cafeterias that include health claims on food items may also find that those foods are selected more often, because the description encourages the patron to think about long term effects about what they’re eating now.

Offer Express Checkout

In public cafeterias, offering a healthy express checkout can be an incentive for patrons to fill their plates with healthy options. A checkout line may only serve patrons who are eating both fruits and vegetables, or who fill a certain portion of their plate with greens. Either way, this checkout line is reserved only for healthy eaters.

Food Presentation Can Lead to Healthier Selections in Cafeterias

Getting A Handle On Food Waste

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From cafeterias to homes, there are many ways that we waste food in the United States. According to NPR, Americans throw out about a third of the food available to us, and restaurants throw away as much as ten percent of the what they buy. Wasting food is a problem for cafeterias on many levels. First and foremost, it represents wasted money, and few cafeterias can afford to throw away any of their budget.

On a broader scale, this waste represents environmental damage. Wasted food ends up in landfills, and as it rots, it generates harmful greenhouse gasses which contribute to climate change.

Because of the ongoing damage, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a challenge for the United States to reduce its wasted food by 50 % by 2030.

At this point, the challenge is voluntary, but many restaurants have already begun to work towards reducing their waste in order to promote their restaurant as green and increase profits. For school cafeterias, showing that the kitchen is doing everything possible to reduce waste, manage budgets, and go green can help show that the cafeteria is giving kids healthy opportunities to eat and learn.

Rightsize your recipes

When you use food inventory software in your cafeteria, you can look at how much of a particular dish you’ve sold in the past, and plan the right amount to cook this time so that you don’t have waste to throw out.

Manage your inventory

Every kitchen has experienced the frustration of finding an ingredient pushed to the back of the fridge which has now gone bad. By digitally managing your inventory, you can keep track of what needs to be used up when, and plan ahead.

Rely on data, not opinions

There’s plenty of emotion and instinct involved in cooking, but a successful cafeteria balances this with data driven decisions. If you want to show that kids enjoy a particular recipe, reaching for data about how many servings were sold is more useful than word of mouth from servers.

If your cafeteria’s goal is to reduce waste, reuse ingredients when possible, and rightsize its portions to maximize profits and increase satisfaction, software to give you a clear idea of your kitchen’s inventory is the first, important step towards achieving that goal. For now, the EPA goal is non-mandatory, but given increasing pressure from various groups, that may not be the case in the long term. Act today to choose the best software for your kitchen!