Kindly Faces, Plastic Trays and Servings of Sorghum

Team Sorghum is working to put sorghum on plates in public schools.

By Hannah Lipps, Caprock Strategies

Every day, public school children across America line up and move through carefully orchestrated lines and collect trays of colorful, nutritious food to fill their tummies and prepare them for a day’s learning and play. Before sunrise, in almost 100,000 U.S. schools, dedicated food service personnel prepare to serve 15 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches to the bright little faces that move through their lines.

While we may recall fond memories of the grandmas who dished up our peas and carrots at lunch, behind those kindly faces, hair nets and scoops of mashed potatoes is a complex web of federal regulation that determines which foods make their way onto the lunch tables of America’s school children. These 5 billion lunches and 2.5 billion breakfasts every year represent a production cost of $25 billion annually. Or, once discounted for labor and infrastructure costs, about $1 billion per month on food alone.

In this vast market of U.S. government food programs, sorghum has the opportunity to fill critical roles as a nutritionally rich, low-cost alternative to widely consumed grains and proteins. Last year, the United Sorghum Checkoff Program zeroed in on a strategy to move sorghum into the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and onto the lunch and breakfast trays of millions of American schoolchildren.

For an emerging food crop like sorghum, the market opportunity is vast, but so is the underlying policy that determines which foods work their way onto those sturdy plastic trays. In order for the federal government to reimburse schools for the meals they serve, the components of that meal must fit a complex matrix of nutritional data that requires school food service providers to average nutrients over the course of a week.

With that in mind, the Sorghum Checkoff developed a comprehensive five-year plan for moving sorghum into school meals.

The plan includes multi-front approaches to familiarize school nutrition leaders with how to prepare and serve sorghum, plans to help students get familiar with a new food item on their plate, plans for school foodservice providers to offer sorghum to their customers, and the proper presentation for critical nutrition information.

But a critical problem presented itself almost immediately. USDA’s Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs, which serves as the go-to resource when deciding what foods will be reimbursed, does not currently include sorghum, making it difficult for school meals directors to add it to their menus.

National Sorghum Producers stepped in and USDA has recently committed to updating the USDA Food Buying Guide to include sorghum products. In the interim, USDA has approved school nutrition administrators to use a similar product as a nutritional stand-in for menu planning and food purchasing needs.

This means that as the Sorghum Checkoff works to implement its comprehensive plan for school nutrition programming, schools already have a mechanism to add sorghum to their menus. The Kansas State Department of Education has been proactive on this front, informing their school nutrition directors of the new guidance and offering a webinar to highlight a host of school-friendly sorghum-based recipes.


This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.