Eight-year-old Erik Schneider is a picky eater.
That can pose a challenge for Marla Schneider, his mother. She's picky about nutrition.
Schneider typically packs the third-grader's lunch. But, like most other busy families, sometimes they run late, and she tells him to buy lunch in the cafeteria.
“There's been times when he comes home and says, 'I didn't like what they had, so I didn't eat all day,' ” Schneider said with a sigh.
The new school year is bringing new options for Schneider and other parents of children enrolled in Northwest Allen County Schools. Lunch menus now include chicken chips, a flattened, potato chip-shaped version of chicken nuggets covered in whole-grain breading and baked, not fried.
The product represents Maple Leaf Farms' foray into the lucrative school lunch market. The Leesburg company best known for selling duck launched a chicken division, Milford Valley, about 30 years ago. But it only recently started making food that appeals to children and meets schools' strict nutritional requirements.
“We have some very aggressive goals for the product,” said Carmen Darland, Milford Valley's marketing director.
“There is room to grow” the chicken division, which was created about five years ago and includes Milford Valley, Sandra's and Wentzel Farms brands, Darland said. But the privately owned company doesn't release sales figures or projections.
Darland revealed, however, that 37 percent of the cases shipped by the company contain chicken.
Duck or chicken?
Maple Leaf Farms has sold chicken since the 1980s, when it started offering chicken cordon bleu and breaded chicken breasts with broccoli and cheese centers to catering companies.
The food processing company now offers about 25 different chicken products, including breaded chicken breasts with stuffing, chicken with spinach (chicken Florentine), chicken breasts with an herb butter in the middle (chicken Kiev), chicken with onions, peppers and cheese (chicken Philly) and orange-glazed chicken.
Four years ago, Milford Valley, the chicken division, started making appetizers. The first was the stuffed Buffalo chicken stick, which places chopped chicken mixed with spices wrapped around a cream cheese center. The product is now sold nationwide in ballparks, gas stations and other outlets.
About a year ago, Milford Valley started selling chicken products at the Fort Wayne TinCaps and South Bend Silver Hawks' minor league baseball stadiums. Stuffed Buffalo chicken sticks and chicken chips were big hits.
In the ballpark version, the chicken parts are covered in Japanese breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
Feedback from Maple Leaf Farms employees was great, especially from those with children. Company executives began to wonder aloud whether the school systems would put the items on their menus. Their kids liked the products, and it made sense that other children would, too.
In July 2013, the company sent samples and representatives to the National School Nutrition Association Show in Kansas City, Missouri, to get feedback from the lunch ladies in attendance, Darland said.
“It was very well received, but we had to hit the nutrition criteria,” she said.
Milford Valley's staff had to reduce the amount of sodium, substitute a whole-grain breading and bake the products to meet the schools' requirements.
“What started in the stadiums, we were able to bring into several area school systems fairly quickly,” said Darland, who led the team that developed chicken chips when she was in the research and development department. She transferred to the marketing department three years ago.
The company's sales force has focused on Indiana schools first.
School officials in Fort Wayne, Warsaw and South Bend have all embraced Milford Valley's chicken chips, which are made in Milford, a small town in northern Kosciusko County. Fort Wayne Community Schools was among the most recent school systems to place an order.
“Word of mouth has really helped us locally,” Darland said, adding that district and statewide meetings allow food service leaders to share stories about new products their students really like.
“It really is a huge deal” to offer food that kids will eat, she said. “The goal is to minimize what goes into the trash cans and maximize what goes into their bellies.”
A child might eat one or two bites of a chicken sandwich, but that child will eat all the chips, said Leeanne Koeneman, food service director for Northwest Allen County Schools.
She first heard of Milford Valley's chicken chips about a year ago. Northwest Allen County Schools had been buying a similar product, but it was taken off the market, and the kids missed it.
“It's like a flattened-out chicken nugget or a very small, thinned-out chicken patty,” Koeneman said of the Milford Valley product. “The students absolutely loved them.”
Younger kids, especially, love to dip them in ranch dressing, ketchup and barbecue sauce, she said.
All age groups like chicken chips, which isn't true of every menu item, Koeneman said.
In kindergarten through eighth grade, students receive eight chicken chips per serving. In high school, students are given 10 chips per serving.
Waiting in wings
Koeneman and Darland are both excited about the newest item coming from Milford Valley: Chicken and waffles.
A chicken nugget, as opposed to a chip, is coated with waffle batter that has a maple syrup flavoring in it. Koeneman described the product as amazing. She loves the flexibility of having a product that can be served for breakfast or lunch.
Milford Valley, which launched the chicken and waffles product in August, has to establish distribution logistics. So schools are waiting for it to show up on their order forms.
Koeneman takes a philosophical approach to coaxing children to eat nutritious food. The challenge, she said, isn't anything new.
“This dates back to probably Adam and Eve,” she said. “When they had their children, they probably couldn't get them to eat their vegetables.”
Schneider, Erik's mom, agrees.
“You just try and do the best that you can, as much as you can,” she said.