School Nutrition Association’s 2015 Position Paper: Weaken School Food Standards

SNA logoThe School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, has just released its 2015 position paper.  The release comes in advance of the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which presents a prime opportunity for the organization to push through its legislative agenda in Congress to weaken the nutritional standards for school meals.

For those following the school lunch battle last year, few aspects of the SNA’s position paper will come as a surprise.  The organization seeks to:

  • Halt further reductions in sodium in school meals;
  • Halt a mandated increase in whole grain levels, meaning that only half, rather than all, grain foods served in schools be whole-grain rich (51% or more whole grain);
  • Change the offer versus serve rules to allow individual school districts to decide whether children must take a 1/2 cup serving of fruits and vegetables with each meal, or instead let children routinely pass up those healthful foods (creating an “all beige” tray like the one shown at right); and
  • Change the rules regarding “a la carte” items to allow districts to serve foods from the reimbursable lunch menu on their a la carte line at any time.  This would mean that items like pizza and fries could be sold to kids daily, without the other meal components (such as milk and fruit) that contribute to a nutritionally balanced lunch.

Three other positions articulated in the SNA paper are:

  • Increasing the per meal reimbursement for school breakfast and lunch by 35 cents, which I wholeheartedly endorse, as school meals have been chronically underfunded;
  • Providing “program simplification,” i.e., asking Congress to “simplify child nutrition programs and ease administrative burdens” on districts.  It remains to be seen what exactly such “simplification” would look like and to what degree, if any, it would affect the nutritional quality of meals; and
  • Create a “Paid Meal Equity” exemption allowing financially solvent school meal programs to be exempt from a provision requiring them to raise paid meal prices until they cover the actual cost of school meals.

The SNA will be holding a Legislative Action Conference on March 1-4, 2015 to push through this agenda in Congress.  According to SNA’s press release, approximately a thousand school nutrition professionals “will descend on Capitol Hill . . . to meet with their representatives to discuss school nutrition issues.”

As I discussed in my piece for the New York Times Motherlode last October (“As Lobbyists and Politicians Shout it Out Over School Lunch, Can Parents Be Heard?“), it will be a serious challenge for ordinary parents who care about school nutrition to counteract this Big-Food-funded lobbying onslaught.  But that doesn’t mean we throw in the towel, by any means.

More to come.  Stay tuned.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2015 Bettina Elias Siegel

A School Nutrition Director Gives Me a Wake-Up Call

Yesterday I attended a Houston ISD Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, something I’ve done almost every month during the school year for the last four and a half years.  And while I sat through the various presentations, I reflected on how much my feelings about school food professionals have changed since I walked into my first PAC meeting in 2010.

Back then, my attitude toward the food services department could fairly be called “openly hostile.”  I knew nothing of how school food programs operated but I did know that what was being served in my kids’ elementary school cafeteria was really dismal.  If HISD’s school food professionals cared at all about kids, how could they possibly serve food like that?

But since then I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the complexities and challenges of running a school food program, which I recently referred to as one of the hardest jobs on the planet.  I’ve also come to personally know and like many of the people now running HISD’s Nutrition Services department, as well as many other school food professionals around the country. As a result, with every reform I seek on behalf of kids, I now can’t help but see other side of the coin: how those improvements will impact (often negatively) the people doing their best to keep their meal programs afloat.

And for a long time now, I’ve wondered if this knowledge is such a good thing.  I do believe that to be an effective advocate for any cause, it’s essential to understand the challenges faced by key decision makers.  But at the same time I worry that this newfound empathy has caused me to lose some of the angry fire that motivated me to get involved in the first place.  I find myself holding my tongue over problems in my own district that the old Bettina would surely have challenged, and I wonder if I’ve been co-opted.

So that’s why I wanted to share a recent exchange on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page.  I had just shared a TLT post criticizing “copycat snacks,” i.e., “better-for-you” junk food like Atomic Cheez-Its that schools can still sell a la carte under the new Smart Snacks rules.  Jeanne Reilly, a school nutrition director, responded:

As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in here for a moment. . . .  If school nutrition was funded appropriately, there would be no need to sell items outside of the meal program, but …until that day, when we are actually funded appropriately to meet the new & changing federal guidelines, we will have to continue to sell a la carte foods , and we have to sell what meets the guidelines and what students want… and what they can afford. Please understand the real complexities of school nutrition programs, inside and out before blaming the poor state of student nutrition on the SNP at your child’s school. . . .

I found myself almost nodding in agreement with Jeanne, fully understanding the financial challenges she’s facing and why she feels the need to sell this highly processed junk food.  It’s the same reason I’ve let myself turn a blind eye to the sale of similar packaged snack items in HISD, as well as our district’s sale of all natural “juice slushies” which, though no longer neon-colored, are still incredibly sugary beverages no child needs to be drinking.

But then school nutrition director Barb Mechura responded.  (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease of reading):

As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in also.

We do not need these products to balance our budgets. Do kids like them, yes. Should schools serve them – generally speaking, no. It is incredibly difficult to develop children’s taste preferences for real food vs heavily processed and marketed food, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, and the level of difficulty shouldn’t be our excuse for us to continue to operate our school nutrition programs as we have.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates

We are all looking at this from our rearview mirror, rather than out the front windshield – when we realize that we need to take our children’s health back into our hands and accept our role as adults and setting limits and expectations about what our children will learn to eat? If we approach the situation with a continued and unrelenting expectation that we WILL find ways to help them fall in love with fruits, vegetables and whole grains – we WILL indeed find ways to remove barriers, and we will change their relationship with food.

There are many, many opportunities outside of schools for children to find and choose these [junk] foods. When they find them offered in schools, there is a message that we are sending them and it’s not moderation – it is over-consumption.

If we placed awesomely-tasty chocolate chip cookies on your desk, on your credenza, on your car dashboard, on your cupboard at home, in your bedroom, in your basement – do you think you would have the will power to resist throughout the entire day? Or, would you decide to have one, which might then lead to another because it tasted so darn good, then to another, and yet still another?

This is not about willpower. Their not-yet-fully developed brains – are held hostage to the constant exposure to these foods, both inside and outside of school. We are sending our youth, our teachers, our administration subliminal messages by what we offer in a very trusted American institution. Then we complain about what the students get in the classroom, of how hard it is to compete with all the junk food in the classroom. What’s the definition of insanity…?

[Wild applause and a standing ovation from this blogger.]

The thing is, we shouldn’t need to have to choose between kids’ health and the needs of school food professionals.  We shouldn’t have to fund meal programs through the sale of sugary slushies and Atomic Cheez-Its.  Schools shouldn’t be burdened with mandates to serve healthier school food without adequate funding for that food.  They shouldn’t be expected to please kids weaned on junk food without resources like nutrition education to ease the transition.

All of that takes money, however, and the only voice capable of asking for that money from Congress is the School Nutrition Association.  But, to use Barb’s metaphor, the SNA has chosen to look in the rear view mirror by not asking for that funding, instead seeking to roll back science-based nutrition standards, as well as opposing the Smart Snacks rules and reasonable curbs on junk food school fundraising.  It isn’t looking through the windshield to seek the resources that would help schools — and students — move forward.  

If you’re an SNA member who feels the same way, please consider signing and sharing this open letter.  And, on my end, I just want to thank Barb for reminding me why I got into this area in the first place — and of where we need to go.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

Atomic Cheez-Its: The Whole Grain Loophole in the Smart Snacks Rules

The new Smart Snacks rules require that snacks sold during the school day must be a fruit, vegetable, dairy or protein food, or be whole-grain rich.  That sounds great on paper, right?

But we’ve discussed before on TLT how that “whole-grain rich” opening allows food manufacturers to keep highly processed snack foods and cereals front and center in school cafeterias.  And because of “copycat” packaging, these products look exactly like their less healthy counterparts sold in supermarkets, so we continue to teach children that these less healthy foods should be part of their regular diet.

Here’s a particularly vivid example  I recently came across:

kelloggs copycat snacks

More on “copycat snacks” — and a proposal to keep them out of schools — here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

More on the School Nutrition Association’s Ties to Big Food

In earlier posts discussing the School Nutrition Association’s push to roll back healthier school meal standards, I’ve noted that the organization receives significant funding from corporate “patrons” such as ConAgra, Kraft and PepsiCo.

pizzasliceYesterday the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) AgMag Blog offered a much closer look at those corporate ties, as well as the role of SNA’s lobbyists which, in addition to representing SNA, boast a roster of Big Food clients that includes General Mills, Kraft Foods, the North American Meat Association, the National Confectioners Association and the National Frozen Pizza Institute (whose members include Con Agra and Schwan.)  

This interlocking relationship isn’t surprising, given how the food industry would clearly benefit from a roll-back of healthier meal standards.  If SNA is successful, Big Food will not incur the considerable expense of reformulating products to further increase whole grain content and lower sodium, all while pleasing kids’ notoriously picky palates.  Perhaps even more importantly, popular “carnival foods” like pizza and french fries will continue to be allowed in school snack bars on a daily  basis, instead of appearing only on the same day on which those same items appeared on the lunch line.  Pizza is a big seller in most cafeteria a la carte lines, and we’ve already seen how ConAgra and Schwan (major suppliers of frozen school pizza) decisively crushed an earlier attempt to limit pizza in cafeterias (i.e., the infamous “pizza = vegetable” debacle in 2011.)

It’s important to note, however, (as I did here), that even if SNA’s legislative agenda is driven by the food industry, SNA’s members’ concerns, such as increased food waste and cost, may still be legitimate. And absent its financial dependence upon the food industry, I’d like to believe SNA would be taking a different approach to solving those problems, such as seeking more funding for healthier food, improved kitchen facilities, logistical support and nutrition education for kids.

Unfortunately, though, as the AgMag post and other reports make clear, that ship has already sailed.  Instead of carrying out its stated mission — “advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy” — SNA has chosen to align itself with Big Food.  That’s a win-win for the food industry and for school food directors solely focused on their financial bottom line.

The only losers are the kids.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

I’m Getting *Really* Sick of Hearing About Those Hard-Boiled Eggs

Earlier this month, a school district in suburban Chicago made news when it announced its plan to opt out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), forgoing $900,000 a year in federal funds.

Hard Boiled eggsDavid Schuler, superintendent of Township High School District 214, made a sympathetic case for the district’s decision, telling public radio’s Here and Now that the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act were just too restrictive to allow the district to serve its students the healthy food they needed.  In explaining “why the federal program doesn’t work for his students,” he said:

It really comes down to the amount. You know, like, a hard-boiled egg can no longer be served because it’s too high in fat. Skim milk over 12 ounces can’t be served. The portion sizes are much smaller than in the past. So for high school athletes who are looking to eat and be full, it’s just not working for us.

As you might imagine, this Illinois district quickly became the poster child of those on the political right who are currently fighting hard to roll back the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements.  For example, in her latest angry screed against Obama-backed school food reform (and she’s written others), conservative pundit Michelle Malkin applauded District 214 for voting itself out of “the unsavory one-size fits all mandate:”

Last week, the state’s second largest school district decided to quit the national school lunch program altogether. Officials pointed out that absurd federal guidelines prevented them from offering hard-boiled eggs, hummus, pretzels, some brands of yogurt, and nonfat milk in containers larger than 12 ounces.

Similarly, on CNN Out Front last night, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), author of a bill which would allow some districts to opt out of the HHFKA, again invoked the sad specter of District 214, a district just trying to offer its kids more wholesome hard-boiled eggs and skim milk but stymied by Big Government regulations.  At the 1:20 mark he says:

Well, the problem is, these rules are so onerous, they really go beyond reason.  I was just reading an article just a couple of weeks ago about a school in Illinois [sic] has decided to get completely out of the program because a boiled egg does not meet the standards that are coming out of USDA, and anything over twelve ounces of skim milk has too much fat in it for these standards.

So we’re not talking about, you know, feeding hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza everyday to kids.  The nutrition workers in these lunch rooms, they want to provide healthy foods for their kids.  They’re wanting to do the right thing. And it’s not like they’re trying to make these kids obese.

But are we sure about that last bit?

Here’s what no one on the right wants to tell you about District 214.  According to the Chicago Tribunethe district is not opting out of the NSLP to give kids more healthy foods like hard-boiled eggs and skim milk, but to preserve the

$2.2 million in annual food service revenue that comes from the a la carte menu, which sells things like pizza, fries and Subway sandwiches. The district also said it gets $543,000 in revenue from vending machines.

In other words, if District 214 stays in the NSLP, starting this July it will have to implement the new Smart Snacks in Schools rules — rules which would bring to a screeching halt its lucrative business of selling fries, pizza and other junk food to its school children.

In a way, though, you have to admire District 214 for being so open about its motivations with the Chicago Tribune reporter:

The district said it is “relatively certain” that Smart Snacks will cause it to lose more than the subsidy is worth because it only gets reimbursed for meals served.

“We could lose (money) even if we stay in if students don’t purchase the food because they don’t like it,” said Superintendent David Schuler.

The district reassured the Chicago Tribune that its non-NSLP menu “will still be healthy,” but given this district’s past, enthusiastic reliance on junk food sales to make millions at the expense of its student health, you have to wonder if it will make good on that promise.  And without the oversight of the NSLP, who will be looking out for the reported 2,800 students in District 214 who qualify for free lunch and are therefore completely dependent upon the district for daily nutrition?

Right wingers like Malkin like to equate the NSLP with Nanny State overreach, but when student health is directly pitted against the financial interests of a school district, isn’t that precisely when we need a nanny  to look out for the welfare of kids?

Whatever you think about District 214’s opting out of the NSLP, though, let’s be clear about one thing:  this isn’t about hard-boiled eggs.

[Ed. Update 5/30/14:  I hadn’t thought to do so when I posted this, but today I visited District 214’s food services website.  Take a look.]

district 214 menu

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

Well, We Saw This Coming

Back in February, when I was asked to write a piece for Civil Eats on the state of school food, it became clear to me that some of the hard-won school food gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are now in jeopardy.  With reports of decreased student participation in meal programs and trash cans full of discarded fruits and vegetables, the climate is ripe for a variety of factions to chip away at the new regulations — and the scheduled reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2015 (commonly referred to as the “CNR”) will give them a prime opportunity to do so. 

Yet even before the CNR is on the table, the wrangling over school food has already begun.  As I reported here back in March, House lawmakers were able to insert language in the Congressional report accompanying the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill advising USDA to grant schools a one-year waiver on two important new school food requirements:  an increase in fruit served at breakfast and the implementation of the widely lauded “Smart Snacks in School” rules.  That effort failed when the USDA ultimately informed lawmakers that the agency’s lawyers found USDA lacking the legal authority to grant such waivers.

But apparently House lawmakers remain undeterred.  As Helena Bottemiller Evich reported in Politico yesterday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture is trying a new tack:  including language in the fiscal 2015 spending bill to again block key school food improvements, this time focusing on certain whole grain requirements as well as the “Smart Snacks in School” rules.  Meanwhile, according to Politco, 41 lawmakers (of which three are Democrats) were planning to send a letter to USDA late last week seeking to achieve the same ends, as well as suspending stricter sodium requirements due to go into effect in 2017.  Congressional representatives interviewed by Politico see these moves as short term strategies to hold the line on school food improvements, until they can be permanently scaled back via the CNR.

I remain disheartened that the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is in support of all of these measures.  In particular, this quote from Politico was especially discouraging:

The association points out that, under the competitive foods rule, items approved to be part of a school meal, like sandwiches, pizzas or fries, can be sold only as à la carte items the day they are also offered as part of a USDA-reimbursed meal and the following day. SNA wants those items allowed for sale five days a week without having to meet much stricter competitive foods standards, which include “extremely aggressive” sodium limits. 

fried chicken junk food competitive greasyThis means the SNA is urging a return to a system in which kids (at least those with some money in their pockets) can make a meal from a slice or two of pizza and some fries from an a la carte line every day of the week.  Yet this is exactly the dismal state of affairs we’ve worked so hard to overcome in the last few years.

Equally disheartening is lawmakers’ politicization of the regulatory process.  As Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, said in Politico:

“These are regulatory questions. Editing regulations via the appropriations process is just bad policy. Anything they do that takes regulatory authority out of USDA and takes us out of the scientific process, is potentially a dangerous precedent.”

I’ll keep you posted on new developments here.

(Hat tip to Nancy Huehnergarth for sharing the Politico story on Twitter.)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

USDA Won’t Delay Healthier School Snacks or More Fruit in School Breakfasts

Starting in 2014-15, two significant changes will be coming to school cafeterias.  First, under the new “Smart Snacks in School” rules, we should see a big improvement in the nutritional content of snack foods and beverages sold to students from outlets like vending machines, fundraising tables and “a la carte” snack bar lines.  Another, less-talked-about change is a new requirement that schools offering breakfast provide students with a full cup of fruit, rather than the 1/2 cup currently required.

But as I told you in my “State of the Tray” piece for Civil Eats last month, the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is pushing back against these changes.  Earlier this year, the SNA successfully lobbied to insert language in the Congressional report accompanying the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, advising USDA to grant schools a one-year waiver on either requirement, if implementing the requirement would result in increased cost.  (In essence, the SNA was seeking a blanket, one-year delay on both changes, since most school districts could easily make the “increased cost” argument.)

The USDA, however, apparently will not go along with this plan.  In a letter sent last week from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the USDA states it lacks the legal authority to grant waivers in either case.  Vilsack wrote:

Our Office of the General Counsel has confirmed that USDA is prohibited by Federal law from waiving these regulations and is also prohibited from authorizing State agencies to do so. . . . Since report language is non-binding in nature, and statutory prohibitions are binding, USDA is respectfully unable to comply with the directive to establish a waiver process.

In a press release following the release of the letter, SNA expressed its disappointment.

With respect to the Smart Snacks in School rules, I’m glad to learn that there will be no delay in the rules’ implementation.  For far too long, schools have balanced their budgets at the expense of student health by selling some of the worst junk food out there, in competition with the healthier, nutritionally balanced school meal.  (Anyone remember this photo, snapped here in Houston ISD?  That’s a pile of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos doused in nacho cheese sauce, a “lunch” concocted by a middle schooler from items bought on the school’s own a la carte line.)

cheetosnacho

When it comes to the increased fruit requirement, however, I might surprise some TLT readers when I say I have sympathy for schools resisting this change.  I’ve talked to many school food professionals and parents who’ve expressed their dismay over the amount of fruit already wasted on a daily basis at breakfast.  And in a large urban district like mine, where over 80% of our kids are economically disadvantaged and a universal, in-class breakfast is the norm among our 300 schools, paying for that 1/2 cup increase is likely to be a big drain on our school food budget.

Regardless, in light of USDA’s legal opinion, it looks like both changes will go forward next year.  I’ll keep you posted on any further developments.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

Do New USDA School Snack Rules = The Death of “Better-For-You” Junk Food?

As I told you last week on this blog’s Facebook page, the USDA has released its interim final rules for “competitive” foods and beverages offered on school campuses.  But I didn’t want to share this news here on the blog until I’d taken some time to parse through the new rules so I could share my own analysis.

Just to bring everyone up to speed, “competitive” food and beverages are those offered in competition with the federally subsidized school meal, and are sold via vending machines, school stores, fundraisers, snack bars operated by the school cafeteria and other outlets.  Back in February, USDA released proposed rules for regulating these items, and overall they were regarded as a big leap forward in fostering children’s health during the school day.  (I won’t recap here all of the details of the proposed rules, but this Lunch Tray post will give you a solid overview.)

After the release of the proposed rules, there was an open comment period in which I submitted my own letter to USDA outlining my top four concerns.  (You can read the full text of my letter here.)  In this post I want to tell you the outcome of those issues:

The Death of “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos With Calcium?”

It the proposed rules, USDA said it hoped to “encourage consumption of whole foods or foods closer to their whole state . . . .”  by requiring that key nutrients in school snacks be “naturally occurring.”  For that reason, under the proposed rules, school snack foods had to fall into one of two categories: they either had to be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food, “whole-grain rich” grain product, or a “combination food” that contains at least 1⁄4 cup of fruit or vegetable; OR they had to contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of naturally occurring calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.

Might this be the end?
Might this be the end?

That was great news, of course.  We all want to see kids eating more whole fruits, whole grains and the like.  But after thinking about this proposed two-tier system, it occurred to me that packaged food companies could shoehorn their highly processed products into the second category simply by fortifying them with a natural ingredient.  In other words, couldn’t Frito Lay add nonfat dry milk powder to Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and then claim they contain “naturally occurring calcium”?

For that reason, in my letter to USDA I advocated what I thought was a rather radical idea — getting rid of the “naturally occurring” standard altogether.  I wrote:

I recommend that USDA simply drop this second, nutrient-only-based category of permissible foods.  If only fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein foods, whole grain rich foods and combination foods are offered to schoolchildren, then we can rest assured that they will certainly be consuming a wide variety of nutrients, including the four nutrients of special concern:  calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber.

But since I didn’t see this idea put forth by any of the leading food policy groups I follow, I assumed my recommendation was such an outlier that it would never be considered by the agency.

Well, lo and behold, the USDA is getting rid of the fortification category — over a three year period.  The interim final rule states:

For the period through June 30, 2016, contain 10 percent of the Daily Value of a nutrient of public health concern based on the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans (i.e., calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber). Effective July 1, 2016, this criterion is obsolete and may not be used to qualify as a competitive food;

(emphasis mine)

USDA made this change for a variety of reasons, but regardless of its motivation, starting in school year 2016-17, the ONLY competitive foods which may be offered to kids are fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grain rich foods, protein foods or combinations foods with at least a 1/4 cup of fruits or vegetables.  (And, by the way, before 2016, the fortification can be from any source, “naturally occurring” or not.)

Now I know the food industry isn’t going to just slink away from the lucrative school snack market, but given the rigorous standard that will go into effect in 2016, it seems to me that any processed foods still sold in schools after that date should no longer fall into the empty-calorie, “better-for-you” junk food category.  That’s cause for real celebration.

“A la Carte” Foods Get a Pass

“A la carte” foods are foods sold in the school cafeteria but in competition with the federally funded meal, such as items sold on a school cafeteria snack bar line.  Here in Houston ISD, I’ve long been distressed by some of the really supbar foods and beverages sold on our a la carte lines, and in my letter to USDA I urged the agency to “hold a la carte foods to the same nutritional standards as other any competitive food, regardless of whether they are also served on school menus.”

However, as was expected, the interim final rule states that an item sold on a cafeteria snack bar line is exempt from all of the nutrition standards we’ve been discussing above, so long as those foods are “sold on the day that they are offered as part of a reimbursable meal, or sold on the following school day.”

My concern about this loophole is that it might encourage school districts to keep what some call “carnival food” — e..g, pizza, burgers, hot dogs and fries — on their federal school meal menus, in part to preserve their ability to sell those items on a rolling basis on their a la carte lines.  And when those items are available a la carte, it means that many kids will make their lunch from them on a daily basis, and without the accompanying and healthful fruits, vegetables and dairy they’d get in the federal meal line.

But on this question, I’m open to input from school food service workers and other experts in the field.  Do you think my concerns are justified?  Or do you think the recent overhaul of the federal school meal regulations will automatically result in relatively healthful a la carte entrees?

Sugary Sports Drinks Are Out — But Diet Sports Drinks Are In

The next issue I raised had to do with sports drinks.  USDA was considering two different calorie caps for certain “other beverages” sold in high schools: either 40 calories per 8-ounce serving or 50 calories per 8 ounces.  Those 10 calories made all the difference to sports drinks manufacturers since, according to USDA:

The higher 50 calorie limit would permit the sale of some national brand sports drinks in their standard formulas.  The lower 40 calorie limit would only allow the sale of reduced-calorie versions of those drinks. The 50 calorie alternative would open the door to a class of competitive beverages with great market strength and consumer appeal. Such a change might generate significant revenue for schools and student groups.

I urged USDA to choose the lower, 40-calorie cap as studies indicate that children are drinking sugar-sweetened sports drinks with greater frequency and in greater amounts than ever before, yet are not engaged in more physical activity.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that USDA chose the lower cap, which would have the effect of banning the highest-calorie versions of sports drinks.  However, beverage companies have reformulated– or likely soon will reformulate –diet or reduced-calorie versions of their sports drinks to continue to be able to sell to schools.  Whether you regard this as a victory depends how you feel about making non-nutritive sweeteners available to kids on a widespread basis.  (You already know what I think about that.)

Exempt Food Fundraisers – Up to the States

Finally, USDA offered two schemes for regulating the use of junk food in school fundraisers.  One proposal left it entirely up to the states to determine how often such exempt fundraisers can take place, and the other allowed some USDA oversight.  Because I have seen firsthand here in Houston ISD how fundraisers selling junk food can have a real and negative impact on student health, I endorsed the second approach.

Instead, USDA left this issue up to the states, with the vague caveat that such fundraisers must be “infrequent” along with a statement that the agency expects that “the frequency of such exempt fundraisers . . .  [will] not reach a level to impair the effectiveness of the competitive food requirements in this rule.”

My concern is that in this era of draconian state education budget cuts (here in Texas, we rank second to last in per-student spending), state agencies, under pressure from cash-strapped districts, might be far too liberal in allowing these exempt — but often quite lucrative — fundraisers.

Only time will tell, and I’ll have more to say about this knotty issue in a future post.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Have you taken the Lunch Tray’s reader survey?  It just takes 2-3 minutes to fill out and will help me with a redesign of the site.  Thank you! :-)
Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

I’m Profiled Today in Beyond Chron!

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.59.03 AMAs you may know from the many times I link to her writing on TLT’s Facebook page, Dana Woldow of PEACHSF (Parents, Educators & Advocates Connect ion for Healthy School Food) writes a regular and informative column in Beyond Chron, an online daily in San Francisco, in which she tackles all manner of food-related topics, from school food reform to childhood hunger.

Recently Dana and her husband visited Houston, and I was honored to be interviewed for her column.  Her profile of me appears today.

You can read why I’m referred to as a “reluctant school food advocate,” my thoughts on school food reform in private versus public schools, and what I hope to accomplish here in Houston ISD before the youngest of my two children graduates.

Thanks to Dana for the opportunity!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

My Own Letter to USDA re: The Competitive School Food Rules

Well, nothing like waiting until the last minute. As I’ve been telling you all repeatedly, USDA’s deadline for submitting comments on the proposed competitive school food rules is 11:59 tonight, but I only just finished writing my own letter this morning!   :-)

I thought you all might be interested in reading my letter, the text of which is reproduced here:

April 9, 2013

Ms. Julie Brewer
Chief, Policy and Program Development Branch, Child Nutrition Division
Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 66874
Saint Louis, MO  63166

Docket ID: FNS-2011-0019

Re: National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program:  Nutrition Standards for All Foods Sold in School as Required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

Dear Ms. Brewer:

I am the Chairperson of the Nutrition subcommittee of the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) for Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest school district and the largest school district in Texas.  My colleague on the SHAC, Mike Pomeroy, has already submitted to this agency a letter on behalf of our entire SHAC outlining our collective comments on the proposed USDA competitive school food rules, all of which I endorse fully.  This letter is submitted in my personal capacity, as a parent of two children in Houston public schools and as the writer of The Lunch Tray, a blog focusing on food policy issues relating to children.

For the reasons well articulated in another letter submitted to this agency, written by Michele Simon and Andrew Kimbrell on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, I believe that our children would be better served if competitive foods and beverages were entirely eliminated from school campuses.  As that option is not currently under consideration by the agency, however, I list below my primary areas of concern with respect to the proposed rules: 

The “Naturally Occurring” Nutrients Standard May Be a Hollow One

I’ve long assumed that once this agency released its competitive food rules, the packaged food industry would simply work around those rules by reformulating existing snack foods to artificially fortify them with key nutrients.  I was therefore pleased to see that USDA hopes to “encourage consumption of whole foods or foods closer to their whole state . . . .”  by requiring that key nutrients be “naturally occurring.”

However, upon reflection, I’ve become concerned that even the “naturally occurring” standard could easily become a hollow one in the hands of the food industry.  To cite the agency’s own example, a food producer can add to its product a single natural ingredient for fortification purposes, such as nonfat dry milk powder for its calcium content, and the food will pass muster under the proposed rules.

But if the foods in question are highly processed, “better-for-you” junk foods —  “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with Calcium” –  the sale of such items still falls far afield of the agency’s laudable goal of encouraging children to enjoy more natural foods in their whole state.  Moreover, as USDA as anticipated — and as the School Nutrition Association has noted in its own comments on the proposal —  it will place an unreasonable burden on school districts to determine the source of various nutrients in a given packaged product, absent standardized labels offering this information.

Accordingly, I recommend that USDA simply drop this second, nutrient-only-based category of permissible foods.  If only fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein foods, whole grain rich foods and combination foods are offered to schoolchildren, then we can rest assured that they will certainly be consuming a wide variety of nutrients, including the four nutrients of special concern:  calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber.

Exempt Food-Based Fundraisers Should Be Limited — With USDA Oversight

Here in HISD and in many districts around the country, it is not uncommon to see on high school campuses numerous, daily fundraisers conducted during the lunch hour, most of which offer foods of poor nutritional value.  These sales greatly undermine participation in the federally subsidized school meal program, have a real and negative impact on student health and they undercut whatever nutrition information students are receiving in the classroom.

I understand that USDA will allow states to set their own limits on fundraisers offering foods and beverages which do not meet its proposed nutritional guidelines.  However, I’m concerned that cash-strapped school districts may successfully prevail upon states to grant liberal limits with respect to such fundraisers.  It is my recommendation, therefore, that the second of USDA’s two options be adopted, i.e., the option which allows for some USDA oversight on the frequency of such exempt, food-based fundraisers.

“A la Carte” Foods Should Be Treated Like All Other Competitive Food

It is distressing to see students in my district making their daily lunch from a la carte foods of relatively poor nutritional value.  I’m concerned, therefore, by the proposal which would exempt from the competitive food nutrition standards those a la carte items which have appeared on school menus within a set time period.

Pizza and fries offered as part of a balanced school meal are not problematic, but a child being able to regularly make lunch out of foods like pizza and fries – and nothing else –would undermine the goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  I therefore urge USDA to hold a la carte foods to the same nutritional standards as other any competitive food, regardless of whether they are also served on school menus. 

Sports Drinks Have No Place in Schools

Finally, USDA is offering for comment two different calorie caps for beverages sold in high schools, one of which would permit the continued sale of sports drinks.  However, as USDA itself noted, the Institute of Medicine excludes sports drinks from both its Tier 1 and Tier 2 lists of beverages and only recognizes their value for “student athletes engaged in prolonged physical activity for ‘facilitating hydration, providing energy, and replacing electrolytes’  . . . . In these limited circumstances, IOM would endorse the decision of an athletic coach to make such drinks available.”

As noted in the letter submitted by the HISD SHAC, studies indicate that children are drinking sugar-sweetened sports drinks with greater frequency and in greater amounts than ever before.  Yet we know that children are not engaging in “prolonged physical activity” in greater numbers.  Accordingly, by IOM’s own standards – and at a time when  childhood obesity is a matter of serious concern — the widespread sale of sugar-sweetened sports drinks has no place in our schools.

*  *   *

Thank you for your consideration of these comments on the proposed competitive school food rules.

Respectfully submitted,

Bettina Elias Siegel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

The Time Is NOW to Tell USDA We Want Junk Food Out of Schools

I wanted to remind TLT readers that midnight tomorrow, April 9th, marks the end of USDA’s public comment period on its proposed  “competitive” school food rules.

For those needing a refresher, “competitive food” is food that competes with the federally subsidized breakfast and lunch programs.  We’re talking about the snack foods and beverages offered on school campuses through outlets like vending machines, school stores, snack bars, cafeteria “a la carte”  lines and more.   As part of the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act  in late 2010, USDA was directed to issue rules governing the nutritional content of these foods and beverages and the proposed rules were finally released in February of this year.

Many kids get the majority of their calories at school, so when campuses are awash with junk food and sugary drinks it can have a very real impact on student health.  The presence of junk food also undermines participation in the nutritionally balanced federal meal program and it undercuts whatever nutrition information kids may be getting in the classroom.

While USDA’s proposed rules do leave some room for improvement (I highlighted the key issues for you the day the rules were released), overall they represent a huge leap forward in bettering our kids’ school food environment.  So please consider taking one moment today or tomorrow to either leave a comment with USDA or to sign a petition indicating that you support the new rules.  Two petitions I like are this one from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and this one from Prevent Obesity.net.

If you’d like more information, here’s a brief summary of the MomsRising Tweetchat on the rules in which I participated a while back (and to those of you who asked to see this after the chat, sorry for the delay!).  Also, here’s my radio interview with MomsRising about the rules (look for the show titled “Wake Up!” – my segment starts at the 20:05 mark.)

Thanks, all!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 5,400 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

No Tater Tots for The Poor Kids: Socioeconomic Stigma In The Lunchroom

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the intense backlash against the new, healthier school food regulations, I received a reader comment on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page that I’ve been meaning to share with you.   The reader describes how her school district took less healthful items off the lunch menu, which most of us would regard as a positive development, but now foods like tater tots have been moved to an “a la carte” line.  This means that only kids with money in their pockets can buy these popular items, creating a stark class distinction in the lunch room.  Read on:

I’m a resident of Suffolk County, NY and my kids attend local schools in our area. Recently the kids came home informing me that certain food items were no longer available to them. I called our local School Lunch Manager who informed me of new policy changes. The Federal Government subsidizes the National Free Lunch Program, and they changed the Free Lunch kids lunch menus to EXCLUDE “a la cart”  items such as tater tots etc. They want the kids to have more fruits, veggies, and grains. Which is great but it limits their choices. Anything else is paid for..so they are LIMITING the kids choices on what they eat because they “claim” it has no nutritional value. Hey I’m all for nutrition but I’d rather my kids sit in school all day happy knowing he/she can decide for him/herself on what to have for lunch rather than them BEING TOLD by the US Government what they can or cannot have vs going hungry because they dont like whats on the menu…Its so not fair. Less privileged kids like those on the Free Lunch Program are being segregated into a group with a stigma, like they dont deserve to eat what the other kids who can pay for lunch choose to have for lunch.

The kids tell me the food sucks now lol but they dont see the bigger picture either…while it was a different era for us when us parents were in school; the fundamental rights shouldve remained the same…which is give the kids their choices…the Federal Gov can INCLUDE nutritious items on the free lunch menus while including more choices for them instead of reducing them to avoid social stigmas within the student body of the schools…Kids can be so cruel…Ive lived that first hand…I’m wondering who to contact to protest these changes.

I’ve been writing for over two years on this blog about the economic divide created when schools set up “a la carte” lines.  (Rather than trying to create links to those older posts here, I’ll refer you to the “Related Posts” section below.)   And it works both ways: a la carte lines can mean that poor kids lose access to less-than-healthy but highly-kid-popular junk food like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and tater tots, and it can also mean that only kids with money can access better food, like yogurts, salads and fresh sandwiches that are only offered a la carte.

That latter permutation has really been sticking in my craw ever since I saw last year a beautiful, made-to-order “panini” bar at a local Houston high school, where the  free/reduced population was so high that only a fraction of the kids could afford this a la carte luxury.   I’m pleased to report that at our last Houston ISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, our food services director told me that these panini bars and other meal “concept” lines are now (with the exception of four high schools) available to all Houston kids, regardless of socioeconomic level.   But Houston ISD still has a la carte lines at most middle and high schools for other foods (pizza, slushies, nachos, etc.) and they seem unlikely to go away any time soon.

As Janet Poppendieck wrote about the a la carte system in her invaluable book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America:

We would never, I would think, allow a system in which admision to an expensive academic course — one that requires laboratory supplies and equipment, like chemistry – was based on ability to pay.  That we have been willing to do this with school food reflects, in part, I believe, our failure to perceive it as an integral part of education

Food for thought.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel

Schools Ban Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, But Why Stop There?

On my Houston ISD school food blog, The Spork Report, I once shared a candid photo of a Houston middle schooler’s “lunch:”  a bag of  Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos doused in cheesy nacho sauce:

 

Both of those items were purchased by the student from one of my district’s cafeteria a la carte lines (to be accurate, I think HISD actually sells a “knock-off” brand of Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos), and the photo caused a bit of an uproar here in Houston.  It prompted many people, including one of our school board trustees, to ask: why are schools in the business of selling this sort of non-nutritive junk food in the first place?

So I was interested to read recently that various schools around the country — in Pasadena, New Mexico and Illinois – are banning Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from their campuses.  The reasons for the bans range from the product’s poor nutritional value (26 grams of fat per bag for the non-baked version) to the fact that kids are leaving hard-to-clean, bright red fingerprints all over classrooms.  (Ick.)

But Monica Eng of The Chicago Tribune, who broke the story on the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bans, also examines the potentially addictive properties of the product, a product which her interviewed expert describes as a “hyperpalatable” food.

“Hyperpalatablity” is a term first coined by Dr. David Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, who in 2010 wrote a provocative book describing the methods used by the food industry to stimulate demand for its products.  According to Kessler, processed food companies and chain restaurants carefully calibrate fat, sugar and salt to trigger the brain’s reward system, leading eaters to consume more and more of the food, often well past physical fullness, in a manner that resembles (or might actually be) an addiction.

When I first heard about Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating, I totally pooh-poohed the notion of food addiction.  Back then I felt that anyone complaining of a food addiction just lacked basic willpower and was looking for someone else to blame.  But then I encountered a food product which sent my own synapses firing wildly, causing me to abandon all control.  I wrote a semi-facetious post about that experience — “My Love Affair With Stacy and What It’s Doing to the Kids;” here’s an excerpt:

These days, when I think no one in my family is looking, I like to slip discreetly into the pantry to pay Stacy a little visit.  I’m in control here, I tell myself every time. I’m not going to let things go too far.  But then later, many long, delicious moments later, I emerge from the pantry — guilty, ashamed, and with salty crumbs all over my face and shirt that are as telltale as any lipstick on a collar.  Yes, there will be an extra five pounds on my hips by the pool this summer, but that’s a small price to pay for a love like this.

All kidding aside, what Stacy taught me is that all of us are potentially vulnerable to the potent allure of processed snacks.  So what makes Flamin’ Hot Cheetos so different from other junk food that it deserves its own special ban in schools?

My answer:  nothing.

Yes, Flamin’ Hots have an aura of “danger” which fuels their wild popularity with kids — and which other food companies have shamelessly copied (e.g., here and here) — but when it comes to “addictiveness” and to poor nutritional quality, one kid’s Flaming Hot Cheetos is another kid’s Cool Ranch Dorito.  All of these snacks are quite deliberately designed to have that “betcha can’t eat just one” quality and none of them contribute positively in any way to a child’s diet.

And that returns us to the question posed at the outset:  why are schools in the business of selling this stuff?

That very question is about to become part of the national conversation when USDA soon releases proposed nutritional standards for “competitive” school food, i.e., all the foods and beverages sold in campus vending machines, cafeteria snack bars, at fundraisers and the like.  My fear, discussed often on this blog, is that the processed food industry will exert its tremendous lobbying power to keep these regulations as weak as possible.   Down the road we may no longer have chips with 26 grams of fat sold on school campuses, but I have little doubt we’ll still see rejiggered, “lite” versions of these same products.

Is that really where we want to end up?  Couldn’t we do better?  Is it remotely possible that Congress will follow the lead of San Francisco USD and require snack products sold on campus to not only be low in fat and salt but to also contain naturally-occurring positive nutrients?  (That “naturally-occurring” qualifier is essential if we’re to avoid the inevitable “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — now fortified with Vitamins B, C & E!”).

I’ll let you know when the proposed competitive food rules are released for comment, and then let’s see what we can do to get our voices heard.

[*Ed. Update:  Post updated on 11/19/12 at 5:oopm CST to credit The Chicago Tribune, versus other news outlets, for the original reporting on the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bans.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 4,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel