What’s in School Food?
There is a lot of attention today about what we eat and where it comes from. Did you know that Fairfax County Public Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) has been working hard since 2011 to source products that are free of harmful artificial additives, dyes, and preservatives?
It is not an easy process. Real Food for Kids (RFFK) has been advocating for these healthy changes and has learned a lot over the years. The school food program is incredibly complicated. As much as we want changes overnight, change takes time.
RFFK recently spoke with two of the people in FNS who dedicate a lot of their working time to this endeavor: Ruth Matoto, and Teresa Hinds.
In their technical specifications, FNS requires that most foods are free of the following items: artificial flavors, red 40, yellow 5 & 6, blue colorant, BHA, BHT, MSG, HFCS, potassium bromate, and several others. FNS uses the Chemical Cuisine guidelines set out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to help determine which items to eliminate, which RFFK supports.
One of their biggest challenges is using products that constantly change: manufacturers consistently make small formulation changes to their products. So the FNS team has to be very diligent in tracking all of the changes to ensure the products continue to meet their specifications, and that they have posted those changes to the website.
When asked about one of the most difficult items to eliminate, they point to nitrites. Matoto notes that “Students love their pepperoni!” It is very challenging to find a pepperoni product free of nitrites. But Matoto also notes that they are working very hard in sourcing meat and poultry products free of antibiotics, as cost constraints permit. The demand is growing stronger, so manufacturers are starting to listen. Organizations are helping to drive that change, such as School Food Focus, a national collaborative that ignites change in the school food system by connecting districts and food businesses across the supply chain to put healthy meals on kids’ school plates. One of their main initiatives is working with manufacturers to provide more antibiotic-free poultry for schools.
Another area of concern in school food is allergies, which have grown to epidemic proportions in schools across the country. Hinds point out that it is virtually impossible to remove all allergens in the food served to students in today’s environment, as allergies and even sensitivities to food are going to get worse. Because of these issues, ingredient information is available on the FCPS website for parents to determine if their child can eat certain items on the menu.
RFFK has seen the changes in the last several years as schools work towards products free of additives. Both Matoto and Hinds note that more products will be made available once the demand in the retail market also pushes changes through. Many major retail grocery stores have started their own lines of products free of additives, so we believe the changes will come – in time.
In the meantime, Matoto and Hinds work hard every day for the students in FCPS. Students may not know that artificial ingredients have been progressively eliminated from the food they purchase in the cafeteria, but it is important to many parents in the district. As parents, we thank Food and Nutrition Services for all their hard work!