Clean Labels in School Food
An Interview with Life Time Foundation’s Nutrition Project Manager Megan Flynn, MPH, RD
Food Service Directors and their staff have many decisions to make, factors to consider, and tasks to accomplish before school meals even hit the lunch line. Directors must train staff, procure ingredients, plan meals that meet nutritional guidelines, and do it all within budget. With so much to do, scrutinizing food labels often falls off the task list. Thanks to the Life Time Foundation, schools now have help with this tedious task. Life Time Foundation works to help schools remove the Harmful 7 Ingredients from their school meal programs. The Harmful 7 Ingredients include:
- Trans fats and hydrogenated oils
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Hormones and antibiotics
- Processed and artificial sweeteners
- Artificial colors and flavors
- Artificial preservatives
- Bleached flour
To learn more about the Harmful 7 Ingredients and the Life Time Foundation’s work, we sat down for a chat with the Foundation’s Nutrition Project Manager, Megan Flynn:
CAF: Thanks for meeting with us, Megan. Can you share a little bit about how you came to work with Life Time Foundation?
MF: You are welcome! Before working with Life Time Foundation, I was working on student wellness initiatives in one school district. I was interested in childhood obesity prevention and I saw working for Life Time Foundation as an opportunity to impact school districts across the nation. I was also inspired by Life Time’s CEO, Bahram Akradi and his strong passion for providing better nutrition for students nationwide. After graduating from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition, I started working with the Life Time Foundation in 2015. Life Time Foundation Executive Director Barbara Koch reached out to me about the position and I immediately knew that it was my dream job.
CAF: That’s wonderful! It’s not every day you get to hear about someone finding their dream job. Could you tell us more about your role in removing the Harmful 7 Ingredients?
MF: Yes, of course! As the dietitian on the team, my role is to work closely with our school district partners to eliminate the Harmful 7 Ingredients from their school menus. I really enjoy helping directors identify areas for improvement in their menu and collaborating to find healthy solutions for their students.
CAF: What other programs do you work on at the Foundation?
MF: I also manage our free nutrition education program, Hooray 4 Healthy. Life Time Foundation understands the importance of educating children and parents on how to make informed healthy eating choices and being active every day so we created this program as a tool for first through fourth grade teachers. The program includes four short animated nutrition videos and one physical activity video. The nutrition videos teach children where food comes from, the benefits of each food group, and healthy choices they can make in each food group. The program also includes teacher guides to facilitate discussion and parent support guides to extend learning to the home. It’s a great package of information that already has seen great success in classrooms and homeschools throughout the nation.
CAF: Where should parents or schools go to find more information and sign up?
MF: All program resources can be accessed for free at www.hooray4healthy.org.
CAF: Thanks for sharing, it sounds like a great program and resource for parents and teachers! Let’s dig back into removing the Harmful 7 Ingredients. This is a big task. Can you break it down for us? What is your process?
MF: It IS a big task! That is why we work diligently to help schools and districts read labels and find replacement products. Many people might not realize just how much work goes into making school meals. Imagine doing all of this work only to find out that some foods need to be replaced. I work with Food Service Directors over a three-year period because we know these menu changes take time.
First, I conduct an initial baseline label review to find what percentage of their menu contains the Harmful 7 Ingredients. Findings are compiled into a spreadsheet that includes recommendations for replacement products and serves as a guide for collaboration during the remainder of the three-year partnership.
Once our initial analysis is complete and we have a plan in place, my team and I work closely with schools to find replacement foods and determine which items can be made from scratch. We research, share ideas from other partners, and attend food shows to find the best options for our school partners. We have even been able to work with local companies to have them adjust their products so they don’t contain the Harmful 7 Ingredients. Since school districts are such large procurement partners, companies are willing to make changes that result in fruitful partnerships.
Throughout the three-year partnership, we repeat our label reviews each year to track progress, check in with school district partners once a month to discuss successes and challenges, and adapt our plan accordingly. In the end, our goal is for our partners to use healthier replacement products and make items from scratch when possible.
CAF: What are the most common products you see that contain the Harmful 7 Ingredients?
MF: We see them the most in breakfast items, especially cereal and bars. Other common products that frequently have the Harmful 7 Ingredients are a la carte packaged snacks, condiments, salad dressings, and commodity meats.
CAF: Typically, which ingredients are the easiest or hardest to replace?
MF: Every district is different, but most districts have already eliminated all trans fats and hydrogenated oils. The hardest ingredients to eliminate are artificial preservatives and processed sweeteners because they are so prevalent in processed food.
CAF: How do you work to keep clean labels affordable for districts?
MF: Making sure a replacement is affordable is essential to our planning process. Buying an alternative might not be the answer. For example, instead of replacing one bottled salad dressing with another bottled salad dressing, schools might be able to prepare the dressing from scratch and stay within budget. We always suggest that schools look into scratch-cooked options.
School districts have also found very creative solutions with manufacturers, farmers and local companies. Often these local partnerships solve more than one problem too. For example, Minneapolis Public Schools purchases from a local turkey farmer that had a surplus of dark meat.
CAF: What is one thing that would make it easier to get rid of the Harmful 7 Ingredients in schools?
MF: A greater variety of affordable breakfast options made from whole, healthy ingredients would make it easier for school districts to eliminate the Harmful 7. It is really challenging for food service staff to prepare breakfast items from scratch when they have such a short prep time before breakfast service.
CAF: What are some of the ways that schools can start working now to remove the Harmful 7 Ingredients and move towards more scratch cooking?
MF: Great question! There are a few things schools can do:
- Read the complete list of Harmful 7 Ingredients.
- Break the project down into more manageable steps: start with only one or two of the Harmful 7 Ingredients, or look in the most common foods we talked about earlier. Hydrogenated oils and trans fat are easier to remove, so that’s a great place to start.
- Contact food manufacturers and local companies to tell them what your needs are and which ingredients you are avoiding. They might be willing to change their ingredients.
- Assess equipment and labor to determine which items can be made from scratch.
- Seek grants that help purchase equipment needed to cook from scratch more easily. Farm to School is a great place to start for equipment grants.
- Work with students and dietetic interns to get help reading labels.
CAF: Removing the Harmful 7 Ingredients and cooking from scratch in schools is a big task. Can you share a success story you’ve come across through your work?
MF: Yes, we have seen a lot of successes from school food programs and Food Service Directors who are finding ways to prepare more items from scratch and purchase clean products. For example, Austin Independent School District purchased blenders for each location to make salad dressings from scratch, and they also purchased food processors to prep vegetables more efficiently.
CAF: Well, thanks so much for your time, Megan, and all the work you do. We only have one more question for you, and we have to ask: what is your favorite recipe from The Lunch Box?
MF: You are very welcome, my pleasure! Well, I love curry, so one of my favorite recipes on The Lunch Box is the Butternut Squash & Chicken.
While cook from scratch programs that focus on whole fresh ingredients make it much easier to reduce ingredients like the Harmful 7, the steps to a fully cook from scratch operation can take time. By working to reduce and remove the Harmful 7 Ingredients school districts can incrementally work towards a healthier meal program based on whole fresh ingredients. Learn more about their work by watching the Life Time Foundation’s mission video and visiting https://www.ltfoundation.org/. We at Chef Ann Foundation thank Life Time Foundation for their continued support of The Lunch Box, allowing it to be a free resources available to all schools!
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