By Emily Valentine (@ebvalentine)
I’ve always been fascinated by food trends, so when I was offered the opportunity to attend the Child Nutrition Industry Conference (CNIC) in Seattle last week, I ate it up with a spoon.
The conference is one sponsored every year by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and attended by a slew of passionate professionals representing every touch point in the school food chain: manufacturers, distributors, government and procurement agencies, commodity groups, foodservice directors, registered dietitians, chefs and PR people like me.
There were very few food-related trends that were not addressed at the 2011 conference (gluten allergies, produce vending machines, school gardens and farm-to-school programs, to name just a few), but in all my inter-session conversations with fellow attendees, three key topics kept bubbling to the surface:
1) Salad Bar Wars – In an era where fresh fruits and veggies are increasingly emphasized as keys to a healthy diet, and food safety/traceability is a growing concern, school salad bars have become the proxy turf for a battle between impassioned idealists and headstrong pragmatists.
The former party argues that self-serve salad bars “put the good back in convenience,” but the latter says what you gain in convenience, you lose in control (over portion size, sanitation, etc.). Advocates say kids are more likely to munch on celery sticks if they don’t have to wait in the lunch line to get them, while skeptics say they’ll likely choose croutons and ranch dressing over the green stuff, and they’ll be sneezing and coughing their way down the bar.
2) Salt is the New Sugar – A hot topic of debate at the CNIC were the school food sodium stipulations outlined in the recently passed Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Everyone seemed to agree that the strict new standards will pose significant challenges. Manufacturers are now tasked with developing super-duper-low-sodium products that don’t taste like cardboard; foodservice directors have to convince kids whose palates have been sharpened on fast food that the comparatively tasteless food at school is worth waiting in line for; and dietitians grapple with the sad truth that, no matter how well we control kids’ salt intake at school, all that goes down the drain when mom and dad serve McDonald’s for breakfast and Burger King for dinner.
3) Brands as Teaching Tools – Everyone also agreed that Americans are in desperate need of nutrition education. We need it in school cafeterias and classrooms, but we also need it to carry over into more American homes. Creating awareness is the first step to affecting any significant change, and with all the mixed messages and misinformation swirling around out there about nutrition, it’s going to take a movement the size of Michelle Obama’s campaign to break through the clutter.
As a marketer, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a panel of school nutrition directors at the CNIC emphasize the important role branding can play in this sort of education. Branded food products, they said, enhance their ability to connect with kids and parents alike, and to teach them which products are smart ones to look for at the supermarket. The average American might not take the time to read nutrition labels before making a food purchase, but a strong brand icon (like Kashi’s green emblem or Whole Foods’ leafy logo) can instantly communicate all the information consumers need (and want) to know.
If the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act isn’t enough motivation for food manufacturers to formulate more nutritious products, Wal-mart’s new pledge to put healthier food on American tables sure will be. In addition to changing the nutritional profile of its own brand, the retail behemoth is calling on all food brands to get in line. While, in the short term, this will pose as many challenges to food manufacturers as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization does, it has potential to do much good in the long run. I’d like to think it will even help American schools rise to meet higher nutritional standards.
As Janet Helm (@janethelm), chief food and nutrition strategist at Weber Shandwick, recently wrote on Nutrition Unplugged, “We can do all the educating we want, but people need healthier options to choose from, and they need the healthy options to be affordable … to truly change the way America eats, we need to tackle the issue from several angles.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of the above. What opportunities do you see for marketers and other members of the school food chain to collaborate in the coming years?
Photo courtesies: TEDblog, The Slow Cook