First published on School Lunch Talk. Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Imagine if Las Vegas built a Costco-themed hotel with a particular emphasis on chicken nugget samples and then filled the building with lunch ladies. That’s the best way I can describe the School Nutrition Association’s annual food expo, which is taking place right now in Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Every summer, thousands of lunch ladies flock to the show to sample the newest industry products for school lunch. They stroll through over 800 booths, tasting everything from popcorn chicken and mini cheeseburgers, to whole-grain doughnuts and blue-raspberry slushees. Forget flipping through cookbooks — today, this is the menu planning process for your kid’s school cafeteria.
If you want a bird’s eye view of the problems plaguing school food, this is the place to go. The expo boasted 40 booths showcasing ice cream, cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts. Over 20 booths peddled poultry (mostly breaded) and 20 more featured beef products. Pizza showed up at 12 booths. Fresh fruits and vegetables showed up at only 10.
I accumulated a thick stack of spec sheets and brochures during my four-hour stroll through the booths this morning. Here’s just a random sampling of the products on display: