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Convention offers new foods for school lunches

School cafeterias just aren't what they used to be.

School cafeterias just aren't what they used to be.

Instead of sloppy joes or fish sticks, the star foods at the School Nutrition Association's annual national convention this week were chocolate-covered frozen bananas, whole-wheat pizza, and bottled hummus.

The three-day convention, which ended yesterday at the Convention Center, drew thousands of cafeteria workers from around the nation. They were treated to a taste-test of the latest and tastiest foods from more than 400 vendors and exhibitors.

The variety and nutritional value of the foods offered - reduced fat and whole grains were buzzwords on the convention floor - reflected the evolving palette of today's youngsters. While vegetarianism was comparatively rare a few decades ago, many students now refuse to eat meat or animal products. And many have allergies to ingredients like peanuts or gluten, which are common in many foods.

"A few years ago, it was hard to get [food] like that," said Deborah Huck, president of SNA's Pennsylvania chapter and the director of food service and nutrition at the Harbor Creek School District in Harborcreek, Pa.

The convention showed Huck many foods that would accommodate students with dietary restrictions. "At this food show, there's a lot of new items that really give these kids a lot more choices," she said.

On the convention floor, Enjoy Life Natural Brands, a company that specializes in allergen-free snacks, showed off its line of granola bars, chocolate-chip cookies and bagels, all devoid of common allergens such as milk, soy and wheat. The company even had a nut-free trail mix.

Kind Cakes, a Northeast Philadelphia company, had a table filled with bite-size morsels of its namesake product. Kind Cakes are vegan and free of many allergens. The cakes were advertised as "no eggs, no dairy, no worries."

Linda Nelson, cafeteria director of MYA Parkway in West Philadelphia, said she was most intrigued by some of the breakfast bars she saw.

"Breakfast is the most important thing," Nelson said. Students usually "don't get a lot of breakfast," she said.

A shared goal among many of the cafeteria workers in attendance was finding low-cost items for their menus. Food costs are rising, and many cafeterias are cash-strapped.

In addition, stricter nutritional standards, concerns over childhood obesity, and the looming prospect of widespread layoffs make this a time of near-crisis in the industry.

"We're in the eye of the storm," said the association's president, Katie Wilson. "We don't really know what's going to happen. We're all looking for more economical options."

The financial numbers appear stacked against them. The average cost last year to prepare a school lunch - including food, labor, supplies and indirect fees - was $3.10, the association estimated. Meanwhile, the average sale price of an elementary school lunch was $1.66.

Cafeterias are facing a dilemma, Wilson said. They don't have the money to purchase a wider variety of foods, but if they don't, their students will eat out instead.

The challenges have revamped the role of cafeteria workers, said Huck.

"When [I] went to school, they were just lunch ladies," she said. "It was a job, you went in for a couple hours, and that was the end of it.

"But with all the government regulations and the wellness policies and the nutritional analysis," she said, "it really has become a food-service profession."