Whole Grain Rich Options Abound in Schools

Whole grains are on school lunch trays to stay, according to School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) recent survey of school meal programs nationwide. When USDA regulations pertaining to whole grains in school meals took effect to add more menu planning flexibilities in July, some were worried about what this would mean for the whole grains in cafeterias across the country. However,  over 90 percent responding to the survey indicated that their school districts will exceed federal whole grain requirements.

North East ISD (TX) offers whole grain rich bread items, freshly baked in-house. The breading used for chicken products, like these nuggets, is also whole grain.

The updated mandate states that at least half of all grains offered in schools must be whole grain rich. More than 70 percent of districts responded that three-quarters or more of the grains offered will be whole grain rich. The previous regulations, which were challenging in some districts, required all grains offered in schools to be whole grain rich. Many schools encounter strong regional and cultural preferences for a few specific items like white rice, tortillas or bagels, similar to what they get in restaurants and at home. More than 80 percent of districts surveyed identified at least one barrier to increasing whole grain options, with student acceptance ranking as the top challenge. These flexibilities are meant to help alleviate that challenge.

“There were a few items that our students stopped eating once all grains had to be whole grain rich,” said Sharon Glosson, executive director of school nutrition at North East Independent School District (TX). “We know how important school meals are to our community and we wanted to make sure that students consumed the healthy food that was being served. We switched a few items back to an enriched grain version and our meal participation has increased for these items.”



According to Glosson, the permanent flexibilities means they can now continue to offer students the choices that they have always enjoyed, such as enriched biscuits, tortillas and spaghetti. Many of the staple whole grain items that students  enjoy will  continue to be served, such as pizza and scratch-made breads. They are also introducing a new whole grain cherry crisp this year, which was taste tested among students last year to rave reviews.

Similar to NEISD, Gwinnett County Public Schools (GA) have also switched back to refined grains for biscuits, pasta and dinner rolls, but have added three more whole grain rich options to their 2019-20 school year menu, a deep dish pizza, French bread pizza and stuffed pasta shells. Their biggest challenge was making a breakfast biscuit that students would actually eat.



“Being a southern district, biscuits are an important part of breakfast and they
must meet student expectations around flavor, appearance and texture,” said Karen Hallford, director of school nutrition program at GCPS. “With the new whole grain flexibility, we were able to bring back a more popular, traditional biscuit.”

In addition to their numerous whole grain pizza options, healthy brown rice and whole grain-rich breaded chicken products continue to be popular among Gwinnett students of all ages.

The flexibilities have changed almost nothing in some districts, like Hamburg Central Schools (NY), who have continued to offer whole grain options as a first choice.



According to Anne Rich, director of Food & Nutrition Services at Hamburg Central Schools, their district will be introducing a couple of new whole grain rich items this school year, including arepas (a local corn flatbread made with whole corn masa) and whole grain rich tortellini.

“The flexible guidelines have not changed how we serve whole grains,” said Rich. “What it did help with is taking away the need for us to request whole grain exemptions. Now we don’t have to worry about requesting exemptions. If a quality, tasty, whole grain option is available – we go with that choice first.”

Other trends that came out of the school meal survey include a variety of ethnic-inspired foods, like Asian Bowls and Greek Gyros, and a wide range of customizable and clean label options, with antibiotic-free meat options and local organic produce. SNA’s 2019 School Nutrition Trends Report is based on survey responses from 812 school districts nationwide. The survey was distributed in May/June 2019.


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