By: Bessie O'Connor, RDNand Meggan Rush
At the 2022 California School Nutrition Association Conference in October, attendees had the opportunity to network with Dairy Council of California in the exhibit hall and participate in a session called “Be in the Know: 2022 Nutrition Trends for Foodservice Professionals.” If you missed this session, I encourage you to read the full Trends publication at HealthyEating.org/Trends.
The conference session sparked robust conversation about milk and dairy’s role in the plant-based movement, the vital contribution of school meals to nutrition security, and how collaboration can help overcome challenges. School foodservice professionals from across California asked questions and shared nutrition trends they were experiencing, including concern about an increase in doctor’s notes requiring vegan meals for students.
Although a variety of nutrients are needed to prevent deficiency and promote optimal health throughout the life span, healthy eating guidance is shifting away from nutrient-focused food groups to food-based dietary patterns. The three eating patterns recommended in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize consuming a variety of plant-based foods, but they also include dairy to meet nutritional needs and reduce the risk for chronic diseases—which is why federal child nutrition programs include dairy. While these recommendations are clear, many Americans are under consuming vegetables, fruits and dairy, resulting in nutrient gaps.1
The shift in dietary guidance is influenced by research on the unique aspects of whole foods and their interaction as part of dietary patterns. The food matrix concept helps address why different foods and various levels of processing affect health differently. The unique structures and composition of whole foods provide functional health benefits beyond the nutrients contained in the foods.
The dairy food matrix is one of the most complex and diverse food matrices, and research continues to explore its unique health benefits, which include optimal growth, cognitive development,2 gut health3 and prevention of chronic diseases. 4 Dairy milk, in comparison to plant-based alternative beverages, offers the most balanced distribution of energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat; coupled with its unique nutrient package, dairy milk can be difficult to replace in a healthy dietary pattern.5 As foodservice programs develop plant-forward menu items, milk and dairy remain unique and essential nutrient-dense contributions to support students’ proper growth, development6 and academic success.7
Dairy Council of California’s Trends report can help school foodservice professionals navigate a changing environment while prioritizing the nutritional needs of growing students. Programs go beyond serving nutritious and delicious meals to also provide nutrition education and support staff professional development, and Dairy Council of California’s Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative can provide tangible strategies to achieve foodservice goals. Let’s Eat Healthy envisions a future of nutrition equity, where each and every child has access to the healthy foods and supports necessary to reach their full potential. Join the Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative at HealthyEating.org/Join, and let’s work together to end hunger and increase healthy eating.
Originally published in Poppy Seeds Magazine, the original journal for the California child nutrition profession, for the Winter 2023 issue.
Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Bessie is a practicing Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the Community Nutrition Adviser for California’s Central Coast region.
Meggan Rush has over 20 years of experience in the field of media and communications and serves as the Communications Program Manager.