My Promised Rant: Is Nutrition Education Achieved Through Poster or Plate?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on October 21, 2010

[Ed. Note: Remember last week when I posted about the steamed bok choy served in Houston ISD lunch rooms –and the educational flier posted that day?  I told you I felt a serious rant coming on . . . and here, finally, is said rant.]

At our last Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in September, an Aramark executive flown in from corporate headquarters in Philadelphia gave a presentation about the company’s nutrition education efforts.  As part of the company’s new “Healthy for Life” initiative, Aramark has created an array of brochures intended to teach parents about
healthy eating, as well as a special cardboard display box (called a “Wellness Education Center”) that will be used to dispense these brochures to parents from school offices.  The executive also talked about the company’s many other nutrition education programs, including the continued use of their furry mascot, a creature named “Ace,” who visits schools to teach kids about nutrition and exercise, and the use of posters, like the previously mentioned one about bok choy, which feature a fruit or vegetable of the month “to introduce students of all ages to seasonal produce.”

As I watched this executive go through her Power Point presentation, slide after slide testifying to the company’s concern about student health, I really felt I was going to lose it.  When the executive concluded her presentation and asked for feedback, I couldn’t restrain myself.

What I said, in essence, was that nutrition education is all well and good, but what we’re really teaching children about nutrition starts with the food we serve them.  And here’s what Aramark was offering Houston elementary school children for lunch during the week prior to our meeting:   breaded chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy, beef taco nachos, beef taco salad, pepperoni pizza and Frito Pie (the latter two entrees served with mashed potatoes).  That, I said, is your nutrition education. So what if we took all the money for the fliers, all the money for the fancy cardboard boxes and all the money for the Ace costumes and used it instead to actually improve the food?

The room fell silent. I confess I felt terrible.  The executive seemed like a very nice woman, and I had blindsided her.  (I apologized afterward for taking the wind out of her sails, and she was very understanding about it.)

But the truth is, I don’t regret my words.  Call me a pessimist, but I can’t imagine that a significant number of parents will ever take the glossy nutrition brochures home, let alone make meaningful life changes based on their contents.  And student posters like the one about bok choy strike me as worth less than the paper they’re printed on.  Children are not little dietitians.  They don’t look at a poster like that and think, “Hmm, I really have neglected my Vitamin A and folic acid intake in recent days.  I’d better eat some bok choy today.”  (I won’t even mention the actual appearance of the bok choy served – you can see the photo here.)

They do, however, learn something about nutrition every time they sit down for lunch at school.  What they’re learning is that food previously consigned to the category of “occasional treat” in our society is now perfectly acceptable daily fare.  (And don’t tell me that the cheese on the pizza is reduced fat, or the crust has 51% whole grain,  or whatever, because not one kid is aware of those modifications.)  They’re learning that mashed potatoes and pepperoni pizza are a fine combination.  That there’s no problem eating fried, breaded red meat topped with cream gravy, then washing it down with a chocolate milk containing as much sugar as a serving of ice cream.

If we were actually trying to set children on a path toward eventual obesity, we could hardly do better.

I don’t lay these problems entirely at Aramark’s feet.  Aramark is a for-profit business charged with keeping our district’s lunch program financially afloat.  In a system in which a la carte foods like pizza, slushies and chips may be sold in competition with the lunch program, and in which children may also opt out the program by bringing lunch from home, or (in upper grade levels) going off campus, offering brown rice, tofu and broccoli is not a sound business choice.  These are fundamental flaws in the National School Lunch Program that need to be addressed at the Congressional level, if we can ever get that accomplished.

Moreover, I have nothing against nutritional fliers and posters, per se.  I’m sure the executives behind Aramark’s health initiatives are well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe that their efforts will bring about positive change. I hope they do.

But when, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, a child can become obese simply from eating the very lunch offered by the company touting its nutrition initiatives — regardless of the economic and regulatory forces driving that result – that bok choy poster taped to the wall just seems like a sick joke.

OK, rant over.  Thanks for listening.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Bri October 21, 2010 at 11:14 am

Wow! You should definitely not feel any regret over speaking your mind at an open meeting — that’s what those meetings are really supposed to be about, whether most people use them that way or not. And your description of the menu items is truly mind-boggling. There might not be anything more disgusting, in my mind, than the idea of a chicken fried steak finger with cream gravy. (Maybe that’s the Northerner in me?)
It saddens me to read all of this, because I distinctly remember my college dining hall days, when Aramark was our food service provider. Aramark was also the provider for a hospital I once worked at, and in both settings, they had remarkably appetizing healthy choices (yes, alongside the crap food — but still…). Stir-fry stations, make your own pasta bars, omelette stations, and vegetarian and vegan entree lines — which were so good that I actually frequented them in college, even though I was neither vegetarian nor vegan — dominated the offerings. The dining hall was actually my introduction to quinoa and broccoli rabe, believe it or not. Only occasionally do I remember truly disgusting fare being served. It proves to me that it’s not an issue of the food service itself, but rather the way any given institution chooses to USE that food service — a matter of resources and their allocation, perhaps, or shoddy decision-making, or a combination of both. Aramark has the ability to do far better than they are doing, in your district — so how can your district unlock that potential?

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bettina elias siegel October 21, 2010 at 11:20 am

Bri: Hearing that Aramark was your introduction to quinoa and broccoli rabe . . . I’m just speechless. This is really eye-opening to me. The issue, of course, is money, but just knowing that Armark offers those foods in other settings is a ray of hope. Thanks for sharing that. – Bettina

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Christina @ Spoonfed October 21, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I think it’s also the fact that food-service companies think kids want and will only eat certain kinds of foods, otherwise known as crap with a capital “C.” They expect the worst, so they serve the worst.

I also think we underestimate how much food has changed in even the last 10 or 15 or 20 years. So what many of us experienced in college (or school before that) is a far cry from the reality of school food today.

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Ed Bruske October 21, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I certainly feel your pain, Bettina. The level of starch in meals in encouraged by the USDA and also the low level of funding for the program. Potatoes, now considered a vegetable, should be reclassified. Perhaps new standards, as suggested by the Institute of Medicine and required under the pending Child Nutrition Act, would help–at least by lowering the minimum calorie requirements for schools meals. Otherwise, an adequate response would require a book. What is the city of Houston doing to support school meals, other than relying on the federal subsidy?

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Tari October 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm

We have Sodexo for our work caf. and we used to have Aramark. It IS possible to get healthy decent-tasting food out of both companies. I can’t imagine there isn’t something else Aramark could offer our kids, especially when they’re out there selling salad bars, stir fry “noodle bowls”, sandwiches and soups to their corporate customers.

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Adriane Arnold October 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Bettina, so sorry I missed our last PAC meeting! I do not want to be the dummy in the group, though I would have to say I have not spent much time on research. I have enjoyed your input at our meetings – you seem to be so well-reasoned. I look forward to our next meeting – maybe we can talk about quinoa and broccoli rabe.

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bettina elias siegel October 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Adriane – No one’s a dummy when it comes to school lunch – it’s a monumental problem with so much for all of us to learn about! So, which one of us wants to be the first to request that quinoa and broccoli rabe be put on the menu? :-) – Bettina

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Em October 21, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Bravo! I’ll add, too, that I don’t think it would matter if the kids knew that the pizza cheese was reduced fat and the crust was partially whole wheat beacause, as Michael Pollan says, healthier junk food is still junk food.

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Joanne Roach October 22, 2010 at 7:30 am

Spot on!
Not that information is not important. It is key. But it is pointless if it just window dressing for a shop which sells hypocrisy.
Children copy what they see us DOING, not what they hear us saying, or reading.

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NotCinderell October 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I used to feel the exact same way as a student at the University of Missouri. The cafeteria food was, by and large, disgusting, and it only got worse over time. It seemed, however, that we were getting more and more marketing as my college time wore on, and I only wonder why they bothered, since we were a captive audience who couldn’t afford to go out for pizza every night even if we wanted to. We paid for our meal plans up front at the beginning of the semester, and we didn’t get back the money that we didn’t use. If the University was getting paid either way, why convince us to eat the food that we had to pay for whether we ate it or not?

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Mary Lawton December 4, 2010 at 9:48 am

There’s always been a problem with Aramark/HISD food services people thinking that children “will only eat” bad food, I’ve been hearing them say this for years…so they have blamed the kids for their own bad choices. I find that such a huge insult to a child’s intelligence, as all of them will eat well given the chance. Ninety middle school kids devoured pomegranates in our Habitat class yesterday, and begged for more. There was one boy who did not want to try it, and we all singled him out and made him feel ok about trying something new. He did, and then came back for more.

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Anna Rounseville December 23, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Might have been preachin to the choir, sorry-oops.

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Michael Craig May 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Wow! What a fun post. ;)

The purpose of any nutrition education should be to help the student take responsibility for improved nutrition. The result of good nutrition education would be changes in how they eat.

Keep up the good work!

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