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This post is sponsored by the School Nutrition Association. All opinions are my own.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference that was held in St. Louis this year. I know what you’re thinking – Jen, why did you go to a School Nutrition Conference?! Easy answer – I have a Kindergartner who is starting school in a few weeks, and quite honestly I have no idea what kids eat at school. Secretly, I wanted to learn more! As far as I know, they still eat that delicious 4×6 piece of pizza that we ate when we were in school 20 years ago! Newsflash- they totally still do! But, with a focus on smart choices with fruits and veggies as a side. I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about this industry, talk to some local advocates for school lunches and learn more about how brands are looking to connect with school districts. Let me say, it was a completely different world, and it was so fascinating!
What is the School Nutrition Association?
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national non-profit professional organization representing 58,000 members who plan, prepare and serve healthy school meals. SNA members are the nation’s foremost experts on school nutrition. Not everyone can attend this conference, you have to be a member of SNA to attend.
What is the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference?
The national conference where over 6,000 school nutrition professionals and industry representatives gather to learn more about what is going on in the industry. There are an assortment of presentations, education sessions, and more. The area I spent the most of my time was the Exhibit Hall. I had the opportunity to see over 875 booths from 300+ companies showcasing culinary trends and cutting-edge food, beverage, supply, equipment and service solutions for your school nutrition operation. I could have spent days there, but time was limited. All of the big brand you could think of were there with samples of options for students K-12 that they were promoting to be picked up by districts.
What did you learn?
I saw everything from Ramen Bowls, Hot Chicken, every kind of chicken nugget you could think of, slushies, smoothies and more! There were many private label brands there as well, and I learned that one label supplies Trader Joe’s their Orange Chicken as well as the same product for cafeterias. So, you know that kid’s are getting quality ingredients in what they are being offered.
In addition, I saw brands continuing to make the classics, but with a healthier twist. This “hot dog” was newer to the market, but it was a chicken hot dog. I honestly, couldn’t tell the difference!
One of the other things I learned are that kid’s want options. (Having a 5 year old, I 100% agree with this). Like you, they don’t like eating the same thing over and over again. They love DIY style options. Potato Bars, Fried Rice bars are both big hits. I had a fried rice bowl in a take out container that allowed me to choose my sauce, additional veggie toppings and a protein all on top of my fried rice. I promise I did not leave hungry!
This Food Network Junkie about lost her mind when I saw Jet Tila from across the room. He was so kind and we had a great conversation about how he was getting involved with recipes for kid’s. We talked pizza and how kid’s like the customization options. It’s so neat to see good things happening in the kitchen.
The majority of my time, I connected with a variety of educators in the field. During the day, I had an opportunity to walk the show floor with a Chef who partners with brands to develop healthy recipes for kids, an administrator from Louisiana who was in charge of all the planning and building out of meals for an entire district and finally the Missouri President of SNA who was also the Nutrition Director for one of our local districts. Each had partners they wanted to introduce me to, educate me on and it was a great time to just learn more about what they do. I learned that there are so many grants available to help get kids healthy options. I learned how the USDA works closely with the schools to offer quality products to prepare meals with.
Overall, it was such an eye opening experience. Believe me, your districts are really putting time, energy and focus into good quality foods that they are feeding your children. Sure, you may see Rice Krispies Treats or snacks, but know that your schools are helping to make good choices for your kids. I have to remind myself, as a parent, we still need to encourage our children to make smart choices even when there are more appealing choices.
I’m so excited to see Hattie head off to Kindergarten in a couple of weeks. We’ve already peeked at the menu for the next month and there are definitely a few items I saw at the show! I’m sure we’ll do a little bit of bringing a lunch and buying a lunch, but I’m so glad to know that our districts are putting in the time and creativity to feed our children. Tell me, do your children bring their lunch or buy their lunch for school?