Student Well-Being

School Nutrition Workers Learn to Take Better Food Photos With Their Phones

By Evie Blad — July 15, 2014 2 min read
Leonardo Guerra, who works for a food vendor, holds a school lunch tray featuring his company's whole wheat tortillas at the School Nutrition Association conference in Boston earlier this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutritional standards for schools, which took effect in 2012, require schools to serve more fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and to limit calories, fat, and sodium in their federally subsidized meals.
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I hit Instagram after a long weekend, and I’m bound to see dozens of poorly lit, blurry shots of my friends’ brunches. While I’m sure those stacks of out-of-focus blueberry buckwheat pancakes were delicious, they don’t usually appear so in hastily snapped cell phone photos. Need I remind you that carefully marketed domestic diva Martha Stewart once tweeted this photo of her lunch?

It’s easy to make yummy food look disgusting if you don’t know some photography basics. Informal food photos have gotten so ubiquitous that some New York restaurant owners have banned them, arguing the practice ruins the dining atmosphere, the New York Times reported last year.

So it’s with great interest that I note that today’s schedule for the School Nutrition Association’s annual conference in Boston includes an education session on taking better food photos with a phone. From the program:

“If you own a smartphone, you have an effective marketing tool right in the palm of your hand. The old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is even more accurate in today’s social media world. Learn to use your smartphone for taking/sharing photos and getting healthier results from every marketing effort. Bring your smartphone to this session and discover 12 easy ways to take better school food photos every day after.”

It’s not surprising that school nutrition workers—on the front lines of the war over what’s yummy and what’s yucky to our nation’s pickiest eaters—would take an interest in snapping more tweetable shots of what’s on that plastic tray. Such a skill could tip the scales of public opinion, for both children and adults. And many school nutrition departments now operate their own Twitter accounts, like this excellent Minneapolis school food feed, currently boasting about the city’s summer food efforts.

School food is a contentious issue, especially now. A major topic of conversation at the association’s convention this week will be a fight over a proposed waiver that would exempt some schools from heightened nutrition standards. Strong public outreach couldn’t hurt school food leaders who support that effort: “Look! We made your child this beautiful black bean enchilada! Under heightened nutrition standards and with a tight budget! Don’t you want to be on our side?”

But, perhaps more importantly, a winning iPhone shot of that apple edamame salad might help win over that picky middle school student (or that picky middle school student’s mom, who has had to rely solely on her child’s reviews of the school cafeteria fare in the past). And, up to this point, kids have been dominating the social media documentation of school lunches.

Regular Rules readers might remember the questions I raised in December about’s Fed Up campaign, which urged kids to share shots of their school lunches, allowing their peers to vote whether they would “Eat It” or “Toss It.” I said then that it might be problematic to rely on the photos from Johnny’s scratched up Android to judge the success of school food efforts. (I shared Martha’s yucky salad tweet then, and I plan to keep on sharing it because it fascinates me.)

So how does a good phone food photo look? It looks like this.

Food blogger Ashley Rodriguez uses an iPhone to fill her Instagram feed. Make no mistake about it, this toast covered with what appear to be peas and prosciutto would look much less appealing in the hands of a less-skilled phonetographer.

Are you a school food worker who couldn’t make it to Boston? Here’s a whole blog about food styling and photography, including this post about the basics. Or, for more phone-focus, check out this blog, which digs into the details of focus, staging, and the use of natural light.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.