Cynthia Barton is the dietitian for the Northside Independent School District—San Antonio’s largest. She's one of 7,000 school lunch professionals who were in San Antonio this week for the School Nutrition Association's annual conference.
“I’ve been with Northside for 24 years, so I’ve seen a lot of change,” Barton says.
One of the biggest changes was the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act—new federal nutrition standards mandating healthier school lunches. It meant more grains and veggies and fewer calories on the school lunch menus.
In recent years, the conference has focused on connecting people like Barton with ideas and recipes to help make healthy options more appealing to kids. The School Nutrition Association is a nonprofit professional organization of 56,000 district nutritionists, cafeteria managers and others across the country.
"It's only healthy if the students eat it, so there's a real focus here on meeting the regulations, but doing it in a delicious, nutritious way," says association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner.
NISD's Barton spent much of her time cruising a massive exhibit hall in the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center, sampling items you wouldn’t find in cafeterias years ago.
“We’re starting to see garbanzo beans and kale, all sorts of ethnic flavors.”
And healthier versions of kid favorites like chicken nuggets and corn dogs. More than 400 vendors hawked their menus at the conference.
Getting students to actually eat food that must be healthy, cheap—and fast—isn’t easy, says Barton.
“How many restaurants do you know that may feed 3,000 meals a day,” Barton asks. “That’s what we do in school lunch, and we do it sometimes in an hour and a half.”
NISD serves lunch to about 83 percent of its more than 100,000 students. About half of them qualify for free or reduced lunch based on family income.
Aside from trying new foods, conference participants attended info-sessions on topics like lunchroom efficiency, menu marketing and accommodating allergies.
Barton says she aims to teach students healthy habits that will last a lifetime, and she has a message for Northside parents.
“Come have a meal with us,” Barton says. “Come check us out, because school lunch has changed.”