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May 2012: Ethnic Chicken Extras

In the May 2012 issue of School Nutrition, the article “‘Hen-Picked’ Specialties” by Cecily Walters examined the popularity of ethnic cuisine among all ages and offered a look at the intersection between chicken and the interest in global menu items.

Following are some additional observations from school nutrition operators interviewed for this piece, as well as insights from several companies that have introduced ethnic chicken offerings for the K-12 audience.

Adventurous Eaters

What makes students choose ethnic chicken dishes at school, especially those menu items that may not be a part of a child’s own cultural background? In Highline School District, Burien, Wash., School Nutrition Director Chris Neal, SNS, believes that many students have become familiar with ethnic menus and items through their growing availability at quick-serve franchise restaurants. Along similar lines, Boston Public Schools’ Michael Peck, food and nutrition services director, speculates that some students are more accepting, because “their parents do a good job of exposing them to ethnic foods or different foods.” And still others simply have an adventurous spirit when it comes to trying things that they may not have tasted before.

Socio-economics surely plays a role, as well. In Dallas, Executive Director for Food and Child Nutrition Services Dora Rivas, SNS, notes that her team has observed more requests for ethnic menus at schools with higher incomes than at schools with lower incomes. According to Rivas, “these families might go out more often and try new restaurants, and this does influence what students may expect to see on our cafeteria lines.” She also points to age as a factor, with a higher percentage of older students being willing to try new foods than their younger counterparts.

And, as any school nutrition professional can attest, students often are influenced by the habits and interests of their peers. If they see their friends and classmates trying a new ethnic menu item, they might be encouraged to give the dish a try. That’s why it’s important, when developing any new menu item for the serving line, to consider providing a taste testing opportunity for your students to weigh in with their own opinions. Do they like the flavor? Would they order it instead of a more traditional favorite such as pizza if it appeared on the menu? What other types of ethnic items would they like to see featured in the cafeteria?

Even armed with valuable student feedback, you may discover that finding the right ethnic items to incorporate in your own operation is not easy when you add in budget and labor as decision factors. For example, though Peck says that the popularity of and requests for ethnic chicken items remain at about the same level as they have in the past, the Boston district still faces challenges when it comes to serving ethnic options. “Finding the right items that fit into our operation and meet students’ acceptability, as well as our budget” can be difficult, Peck reports.

On the Market

School nutrition operations aren’t the only ones responding to student interest in ethnic tastes and flavors. Numerous food companies are discovering an excitement for ethnic items among consumers of all ages, including children, and have worked to appeal to this desire by developing products that meet the demand for something just a little different.

Tyson Foods is one such company. Tyson’s FlavorEase™ product line features such products as chicken taco meat, flour and whole-grain tortillas and dark meat chicken strips that can be used in a variety of ethnic menu items. Separately, the company’s Crispitos® product line features tortillas filled with chicken chili, chicken and cheese and breakfast ingredients. Tyson Foods decided to pursue creating ethnic items for its K-12 audience after company research indicated that Chipotle, the fastfood Mexican chain, had the fastest growth rate in the parents-with-children segment, details Gary Hamm, senior customer development manager for Tyson Food Service.

Another research finding revealed the extreme popularity of Mexican, Italian and Chinese/Asian entrée foods in the restaurant segment among children ages 6-12 and 13-17, Hamm cites. In creating ethnic items with kid appeal, Hamm explains that Tyson works “to deliver restaurant-inspired food products kids crave that are nutritious.” The products have been tested by students across the nation to receive endorsement straight from members of the K-12 target audience.

Minh® stir-fry kits and chicken fried rice are among the ethnic options for K-12 students offered by Schwan’s Food Service. The company recognizes the importance of giving students what they want, emphasizes Carol Willenbring, senior marketing director for innovation and research. “Young people today are much more sophisticated about food in general [than they have been in the past]…For students, their school cafeteria is, in essence, their restaurant. We want to help create restaurant experiences for students. That includes reflecting what they’re eating when they dine out with their families,” she states.

“Schools are a prime focus for Precision Foods,” says Luann Schafer, senior marketing manager. The company offers a variety of ethnic sauces for K-12 school meals as part of its Asian Passport line; these include Sweet and Sour, Sweet Thai Chili and Kung Pao. Schafer notes that the company chose to develop products for the K-12 audience after viewing SNA’s research that indicated the popularity of ethnic foods in schools (specifically, Mexican items, offered by 99% of respondents, and Asian items, offered by 84% of respondents). Soon to be added to Precision’s product line are Latin sauces and seasonings inspired by the success among kids of the company’s other ethnic products.