How Food Companies Are Scrambling to Stay on School Lunch Menus

Last Updated Mar 29, 2011 2:42 PM EDT

In the wake of the new USDA nutrition standards for school lunches, the makers of frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries and other standard kid fare are scrambling to recast their products as healthy. They're pulling out all the stops -- reformulating their top sellers, touting new items and ramping up PR efforts, all with the goal of keeping school freezers stocked with their processed items.

Thankfully for most food companies, the USDA's new rules are written in such a way that meeting the new standards is an attainable goal.

Nobody is working harder on reshaping its products than the Schwan Food Company, a private outfit in Marshall, Minnesota and the king of school pizza. The company, which is rightly worried that the era of daily pizza consumption in schools may be over, has added whole wheat flour to its crusts, slashed sodium and fat levels and boosted the amount of fiber in each slice.

So, while pizza is under fire as the second largest single source of calories for American kids, Schwan's new offerings will fit neatly into the USDA's new standards, which were released in January. Here's how the nutritional math works out: Schwan's old pizza has 730 mg of sodium, 18 grams of fat, 470 calories per serving and 0% whole grain. Its new pizza -- Tony's Ultimate Flatbread -- has 500 mg of sodium, 10 grams of fat, 370 calories and 51% whole grain.

Schwan says they expect the slimmed down pizzas to represent more than 60% percent of their school lunch business by the fall of 2012.

Whether any of this makes Schwan's new frozen pizza actually healthy is another matter. Some of those fat calories have been replaced by sugar, added in part to help mask what some kids perceive to be the bitter taste of whole wheat. Old pizza has 6 gram of sugar and new pizza has 15. Conveniently, while the USDA set limits on calories and sodium, it gave a big huge pass to the sugar content of school meals.

And Tony's pizza still has many of the same old inscrutable, highly processed ingredients that Schwan and other school lunch manufacturers have been using in their products for years, things like relecithinated soy flour, enzyme concentrates and the dough conditioners ammonium sulfate and l-cysteine.

Tyson Foods (TSN), the leading seller of chicken nuggets, is also embarking upon a full court press reformulation effort. They're adding whole grains to their breading and cutting back on sodium. They're also touting some newer, un-nuggety products that already meet the new USDA rules, like its Dark Meat Strips with Spicy Orange Sauce. This "authentic Asian-inspired dish" clocks in at 490 mg of sodium, only 6 grams of fat and a reasonable 220 calories per serving. Although this product, too, takes full advantage of the USDA's sugar loophole, since at 18 grams per serving it has 50% more sugar than a cup of Froot Loops.

The cafeteria favorite engaged in the biggest fight for its survival is the french fry. USDA rules dictate that students can eat no more than one cup of starchy vegetables a week, which includes not only potatoes, but green peas and corn. It's a dramatic drop when you consider that kids are now consuming on average two cups of just potatoes a week, mostly fries of course.

Considering this, potato companies like Simplot have all but given up trying to retool its products and instead is touting some of its other offerings, like roasted vegetables and avocado items. And they're arguing, through the National Potato Council, that the draconian starchy vegetable rule should be changed, pointing out that nearly all school fries now are baked not fried and have only between 80 and 110 calories per serving.

In addition, the USDA's rule limits lunch ladies' ability to offer baked potatoes or freshly made mashed ones, or to add potatoes to soups or stews. Thus, in the new regime, processed chicken nuggets and frozen pizza will prevail, but baked potato bars won't make the cut.

Image from the National Potato Council
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