Cooking the Healthiest School Lunch Around

Trent Taher brings nutritious, creative cuisine to school cafeterias

As time goes by, the old stereotypes surrounding school cafeteria food continue to dwindle. While those who came of age decades ago will surely recall the iconic lunch lady dishing out such standbys as sloppy joes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and tater tots, there are some students today who sit down with a spectrum of nutritional foods that could, if Taher, Inc. is the vendor, include pork belly ramen, fresh slices of mango, and yucca, a South American tuber.

This notion isn’t new. It started to gain traction back when Trent Taher’s father, Bruce, founded the food service company in 1981. It was then that the company began focusing on health, an initiative that was set in place well before the wave of nutrition consciousness hit—especially after former First Lady Michelle Obama’s changes to the requirements in the federal government’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 2012. The NSLP is a longstanding program through which the government subsidizes the cost of food for schools, so they can sell it at reduced or no cost to low-income students.

Trent Taher of Taher, Inc. | Photo by Ilisa Ailts

Today, Taher serves as director of wellness, nutrition, and culinary development for the company, where he is in charge of developing the menus and working with on-staff nutritionists to green-light every ingredient that goes into the recipes. When working with production partners, Taher checks ingredients against a long list of banned items, including certain artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated oil. If a food contains any of these ingredients or others on the list, Taher won’t accept it. Meat has to be free of antibiotics and hormones as well.

At the same time, Taher also works with a list of artificial ingredients that are considered less harmful and acceptable in the short-term, but still result in being flagged. The offending ingredients are then replaced as soon as possible. The company’s nutritional policies fall under the umbrella of their Food4Life initiative. Not only does Taher make sure to meet the requirements of the NSLP—which postdates the company’s initiative—but it continues to push the envelope. Case in point: in 2008, the company voluntarily ceased using all foods with trans fats not only for school lunches, but also for the corporate clients they serve. As Taher explains, making all this happen often requires educating the company’s manufacturing partners.

“As the NSLP has taken off, producers and manufacturers are more versed in what the requirements are and are catching up,” Taher says. “But we always meet with producers about what they need to change in the project. One group was trying to sell us a packaged snack, but it contained red dye. I told the CEO that they were standing outside of our Food4Life initiatives and that we’d have to flag it. A month later, he told me that based on our conversation, they had changed their formula and also pulled corn syrup.”

As part of the changes to the NSLP in 2012, every two years in some states or every three in others, any school that is being funded by the program has to open up the bidding process to other vendors. In many cases, the current operator will put in a bid, and quite often, other vendors will choose to bid against it. In one such case, Taher was ousted by the lowest bidding vendor. But a few months into the school year, the community was disappointed with the new company’s products and Taher returned.

“You have districts that look at the school lunch program as a profit center,” he explains. “A portion of the sales that come from the lunch and breakfast program are commissions you pay to the school; the percentage is determined in the bidding process. Schools badly in need of money use these programs to generate income. Others are more focused on being healthy and clean. Those are the ones we prefer to work with. We thrive when we find ourselves in a community that wants healthy, diverse food, and the school administration is on board as well.”

This can tend to lead to contracts with private and charter schools, though the company still works with a greater number of public schools. The ones the company avoids are the ones deemed to be mired in the “race to the bottom”—those looking for the cheapest execution possible to increase their bottom line.

“We are constantly finding ways to make what we have healthier and cleaner.”

In addition to the health focus, Taher spends an abundance of time and energy diversifying its menus through its Chef’s Council. The program was started about fifteen years ago to explore new geographical areas and find new foods. They started with trips to major cities in the United States, such as New York and San Francisco, and then began taking international trips. The group has gone on discovery missions to a variety of countries, including India, Italy, Israel, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Peru, Argentina, and Turkey.

Taher says that the international trips are considered a corporate expense under innovation. Variety comes in a close second to health considerations in the company’s hierarchy. For the upcoming school year, Taher will launch more than twenty new menu items. “Whether it’s internationally driven or from menu teams I work with here, we’re always coming up with new things,” he says. “Kids recognize repetition. If they keep seeing the same fifteen items, they see the pattern and basically say, ‘What are you going to show me that I haven’t seen yet?’ We have to introduce new items throughout the year so it doesn’t become repetitive.”

Each month, the company features a different fruit or vegetable, a different grain or legume, and an alternate herb as part of the Harvest of the Month program. In any given month, the Taher team will prepare a meal that mixes them all together, such as mango with cilantro. The company will also put up fliers in the school touting the health benefits of the featured items and do blind taste testing with students.

Taher says that food services is easily one of the most competitive industries in today’s business world. The way the company stays on top is by keeping its focus on health and variety and finding the schools and districts that are like-minded. “Our drive as an organization is to always get the freshest and best food we can buy,” he says. “We are constantly finding ways to make what we have healthier and cleaner.”