District Ditches Seven Problematic School Food Ingredients (But Who Pays for It?)

A school district in Minnesota has made news for removing seven problematic ingredients from its school food: artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial preservatives, trans fats/hydrogenated oils, antibiotics and hormones in meats, and bleached flour. As a result, kids there are now eating entrees like grass-fed beef hot dogs on whole grain rolls, with the ultimate goal of bringing more scratch cooking, and fewer “carnival food” entrees, to their lunch rooms.

That’s great news, of course, but these menu improvements come at a cost — reportedly, 35 cents more per meal per child, a deficit that’s being privately funded by an outside organization, the Lifetime Fitness Foundation.

How many more pennies per kid will it take to fund healthful school food?
How many more pennies per kid will it take to fund less processed, “clean label” school food?

Thirty-five cents might not sound like a lot to most people.  But after paying their overhead, school districts are usually left with about one dollar per child per meal from their federal reimbursement to spend on food.  This means that “real food” meals with “clean” labels, like those in this Minnesota district, can cost over one-third more than the school meals containing more highly processed food.

This funding gap is why, at least in my observation, districts doing the best job of feeding kids healthfully almost invariably rely on outside funding, including Chef Ann Cooper‘s district in Boulder, Colorado and the Orfalea Foundation-funded school meal program in Santa Barbara, California.

But, as I noted in my recent piece on the New York Times Motherlode, relying on outside funding is not a true solution to improving school food in this country.  Instead it creates what I called “a nationwide patchwork of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,'” in which the kids who most need healthful school food — the ones living in economically impoverished areas – may be least able to round up private money to help pay for it.

Yet it’s sobering to realize that, in most experts’ estimation, Congress hasn’t yet fully funded school meals as they’re currently conceived, replete with all kinds of highly processed, heat-n-eat foods. So before we ever see federal funding levels adequate to finance “real food,” “clean label” meals like those in this Minnesota district, it’s going to take a truly seismic shift in how our nation thinks generally about food and the feeding of its school children.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime.

[Hat tip:  School Nutrition Association newsletter for alerting me to the Minnesota story.]

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Chef Ann Cooper: Why (and How) We Should Stay the Course on Healthier School Food

Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Civil Eats called “State of the Tray” in which I explained how some of the key gains of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) may be rolled back when the Child Nutrition Reauthorization comes before Congress in 2015.

Eat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per DayOne of the most contentious issues under consideration is the current mandate that children take a fruit or vegetable at lunch, a break from past regulations which allowed kids to spurn those healthful foods if they took the requisite total number of meal requirements.  Since the implementation of the new fruit and vegetable rule, districts around the country have been reporting greatly increased food waste as students take the required food and then toss it in the trash.

This food waste may only increase when, starting next year, schools will also have to increase the amount of fruit served at breakfast from 1/2 to one full cup.  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, that additional food waste and expense for my district is likely to be considerable.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, has asked USDA to revert to the old system under which children can pass on fruits and vegetables at lunch.  But the SNA is not alone in advocating for this roll-back.  Numerous conservative politicians and pundits (perhaps seeing a prime opportunity to attack an initiative so closely tied to the Obama administration generally, and the First Lady in particular) have also vocally criticized the new school food rules and are pushing for revisions to (or even a complete gutting of) the HHFKA. (You can read more about those efforts, including new, Republican-introduced legislation, here.)

On a personal level, I abhor food waste as much as anyone.  And, having now worked closely with Houston ISD’s Food Services department for the last four years, I feel only sympathy for school districts trying to balance their budgets while meeting the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates, all in the face of insufficient funding and negative student reactions to the food.

That’s why I and many others have argued that the HHFKA simply can’t succeed unless it’s bolstered by widespread nutrition education to prime children for the healthier food they’re now encountering in the cafeteria.  But no one makes that case more articulately than Chef Ann Cooper in a new U.S. News & World Report opinion piece.  Cooper, one of the true pioneers in school food reform, writes:

Why would a child choose an apricot over hot Cheetos or a Pop-Tart when he doesn’t understand the consequences of his daily choices? Why would anyone choose salad over nachos if they’ve developed a taste for salt and fat, while fresh greens are a mystery? 

Cooper goes on to describe how, after improving the school food in her district in Boulder, CO, there was a predictable drop-off in student participation. But with consistent, dedicated nutrition education in the Boulder Valley schools, Cooper reports that meal participation in her district is now at a higher level than before the new changes were implemented.  Cooper’s nutrition education isn’t free, however, and she acknowledges that her district must raise funds from third parties to cover the costs.

As I’ve already argued here on The Lunch Tray, it’s incumbent upon Congress to step up and fund similar nutrition education around the country if the HHFKA is to succeed in its goals.  And it’s deeply disheartening, in my opinion, that the SNA — arguably one of the most influential voices on school food issues — is not leading the charge to obtain this funding but is instead essentially throwing in the towel by advocating a return to the old school food rules on fruits and vegetables.

If the SNA won’t take a stand on this issue, the rest of us need to get our voices heard.  I’ll have thoughts on that down the road, but in the meantime, I think this quote in Cooper’s piece puts the issue squarely in perspective:

It’s not fair to expect children to switch from cookies to kale without telling them why it’s important and giving them a chance to get used to it. But it’s also not fair to give up on their ability to make that switch. Let’s give them the education they need to make the right decisions. Let’s make sure all schools institute food literacy as part of the core curriculum; it’s the only way we’ll change our children’s relationship with food, cultivate their palates and save their health.


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Your Monday Kids and Food News Round-Up

As is often the case, sometimes there’s so much news out there that I have to share it all in one post!  Here goes:

Michelle Obama Muddies the Waters

The latest campaign from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, which encourages Americans to drink more water, is being glassofwatermet with howls by food policy critics.  With her characteristic insight and concision, Marion Nestle explains why the Drink Up! campaign leaves much to be desired.

Chef Ann Cooper Defends Healthier School Meals

Last week, school food reformer Dana Woldow published an excellent take-d0wn of a widely circulated AP story that left most readers with the impression that the new healthier school meal standards are a big flop.  Woldow’s post got a lot of traction, including a share by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, and it also led other writers and advocates to publicly defend the improved lunch program.  One of those advocates is Chef Ann Cooper, aka The Renegade Lunch Lady.  Please take a moment to read her U.S. News & World Report piece, which urges us all to take the long view when it comes to changing the eating habits of a generation of kids.

Boston Institutes Universal Free School Meals

I’m belatedly reporting that at the start of the school year, Boston Public Schools announced that it will be providing free breakfast and lunch to all of its students, regardless of income status.  In doing so, Boston is taking advantage of the “community eligibility option” in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which allows schools with relatively high populations of socioeconomically disadvantaged students (40% or more) to do away with individual paperwork filings and simply provide free meals to all.  (This option has been granted to a handful of states since the passage of the HHFKA, and will be open to all qualifying schools and districts in the next school year.)

Why Shaming Hungry Kids Is a Bad Idea

Quite a few of you shared with me this recent interview on Fox News in which a school counselor said it was fine to deprive students of their lunch to create a “teaching moment” for parents who had neglected to refill their lunch accounts.   The interview was in response to a letter sent home by the Willingboro, NJ school district informing parents that children with empty lunch accounts would see their meals dumped in the trash.  Today on BeyondChron, Dana Woldow discusses the Willingboro incident, the very real problem of unpaid lunch tabs and what schools should do about it.

NRDC Takes on Food Additives

Many parents are worried about the possible effects of certain food additives on their children, and they’re often surprised to learn that the FDA does not test and approve each of the literally thousands of additives in our food supply.  Rather, a large percentage of these chemicals are allowed to be added to foods and beverages so long as manufacturers attest to the fact that they’re “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.  (To learn more about this surprisingly lax system, I highly recommend Melanie Warner’s page-turner, Pandora’s Lunchbox.  My recent interview with Warner is here.)  Now the National Resources Defense Council is getting involved in a new campaign to strengthen FDA’s oversight.  You can read more on Politico here.

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An Open Letter to FDA From 29 Organizations and Experts re: Dairy Products and Non-Nutritive Sweeteners

chocolatemilkIn late February, I alerted you to an FDA citizen petition which would allow the dairy industry to add non-nutritive sweeteners (such as aspartame) to milk and 17 other dairy products without the prominent front-label “nutrient content claims” currently required by FDA regulations — phrases like “reduced sugar” or “reduced calorie.”  I explained to you in detail why, as a consumer and as a public school parent, I’m deeply opposed to this plan.  Not only will it confuse consumers in the supermarket, it’s very likely to result in the increased consumption of potentially questionable artificial sweeteners by millions of American school children – without their parents’ knowledge.

As soon as I learned of the petition, I submitted my own personal letter of protest to the FDA but I really wanted to do something more.  So I asked some of my food policy colleagues if they’d be willing to sign an open letter to the FDA and, even before I’d drafted the letter, I was gratified to get the support of many leading food and health experts and organizations.  I received invaluable assistance from the Center for Science in the Public Interest in getting the letter circulated, and it has now been signed by 29 organizations and individuals, including: CSPI; the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity; the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation; the Environmental Working Group; Healthy, Child, Healthy World; The Healthy Schools Campaign; Chef Ann Cooper; Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and many more.

The full text of the letter, which was filed electronically with the FDA this morning, is reprinted below.  It’s my hope that it will persuade FDA to deny the dairy industry’s request, but your help is needed, too.  Between now and May 21st, please submit your own comment on FDA’s website and also take a second to sign an online petition protesting the dairy industry’s plan.

Thanks, all!

April 15, 2013

Margaret A. Hamburg, MD
Food & Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993

Re: Docket No. FDA-2009-P-0147

Dear Dr. Hamburg:

We, the undersigned, oppose the Citizen Petition (Docket No. FDA-2009-P-0147) filed by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) seeking to amend the standards of identity for milk and 17 other dairy products.  We urge you to deny that petition.  That petition, if granted, would allow the use of non-caloric sweeteners in these dairy products without any front-label nutrient content claim (such as “reduced sugar” or “reduced calorie”) presently required by FDA regulations.

While the dairy industry is already free to add non-caloric sweeteners to flavored milk, it claims (without any supporting evidence) that “use of the phrase ‘reduced calorie’ is not attractive to children and contributed to the overall decline in milk consumption.”  And in a public statement, IDFA indicated that this “petition was and continues to be a direct attempt to keep flavored milks in school cafeterias.”  Accordingly, it seems clear that if the petition is successful, there would be a dramatic increase in the volume of artificially sweetened flavored milk offered in U.S. schools, in packages that omit material information.

Industry Does Not Need Artificial Sweeteners to Keep Flavored Milk in Schools

IDFA and NMPF point to the current childhood obesity epidemic as a rationale for granting their request.  We, too, agree that overly sweetened beverages are a matter of concern.  However, the dairy industry has already demonstrated that it can effectively reduce sugar in its products without using artificial sweeteners.

In their 2009 citizen petition, IDFA and NMPF point to various state policies and proposed national guidelines restricting the number of calories and grams of sugar in flavored milk in school, and then conclude that, without the use of artificial sweeteners, flavored milk will be barred from school meal programs.  But in the intervening four years — which have included the passage of the landmark Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act — the landscape has changed significantly.  Many school districts have since worked with their suppliers to lower the sugar content in flavored milk, and many of these milks now contain around 130 calories and 22 grams of total sugar per serving (12 grams of which are naturally occurring).  Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest district, offers flavored milk with only 18 grams of sugar per serving.  These reductions in sugar are consistent with what the Institute of Medicine recommended in its 2007 report, “Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools.”  Moreover, the new national school lunch standards and the proposed national competitive food and beverage standards do not include sugar or calorie limits for fat-free flavored milk.  So while we applaud dairy industry efforts to develop lower-sugar products, these efforts demonstrate that there is no need to amend the current standard of identity for flavored milk in order to keep flavored milk in school.

Questions Regarding Artificial Sweeteners

We acknowledge that the artificial sweeteners intended to be used by the dairy industry in flavored milk have been approved by this agency.  That said, there have been legitimate questions raised about the safety of some of them – particularly aspartame and acesulfame-potassium –  and we are troubled by any plan to increase their availability in school cafeterias.  Children are our most vulnerable population and the dairy industry’s desire to increase flavored milk sales in schools is not a sufficient justification for increasing any potential risks to students’ long-term health.

The Proposed Labeling Changes Will Mislead Parents

Petitioners’ request, if granted, would leave parents uninformed about what their children are drinking at school.  Very few school districts offer full ingredient disclosures on their websites, but the majority of them use FDA nutrient content claims (“low-fat” milk, “fat-free” milk) to describe milk on their menus.  If artificially sweetened chocolate milk can still be called “chocolate milk,” without a qualifier such as “reduced sugar” or “reduced calorie,” parents will not know that the product contains an artificial sweetener unless they are in the cafeteria at the time of meal service and are able to read the ingredient label – an unlikely scenario.

A spokesman for the National Dairy Council, seeking to address this concern, indicated to a media outlet hat “school administrators would likely inform parents of the change by putting it on menus, websites and newsletters.”  There is no basis for that statement and the petition does not include any information about school-based communication mechanisms.  In addition, the use of menus, websites and newsletters would in all probability be unreliable and inconsistent across the 14,000 school districts and 100,000 schools throughout the country.  Current labeling laws, if left unchanged, would better ensure that parents know exactly what kind of flavored milk their children are consuming at school.

The Proposed Labeling Changes Will Mislead Other Consumers

IDFA and NMPF maintain that “updating the food standard of identify for ‘milk’ in this way would promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of milk consumers” because “consumers do not recognize milk or even flavored milk as a beverage that contains substantial amounts of sugar.”  Not only did the petitioners not offer any supporting evidence for this statement, one has only to taste flavored milk, as compared with regular milk, to understand that it is sugar-sweetened.

Without the front-label nutrient content claims currently required for artificially sweetened milk, consumers have no reason to check ingredient listings for what they already assume: that “milk” does not normally contain non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame or acesulfame-potassium.  Accordingly, if petitioners’ request is granted, a great many American consumers are likely to be unfairly confused or misled.

Moreover, IDFA and NMPF are also seeking to amend the standards of identity for an additional 17 dairy products.  Permitting products like artificially-sweetened sour cream and nonfat dry milk to be marketed without the required front-label nutrient content claims seems to have nothing to do with the petitioners’ purported concern for the health of school children.  Granting this wide-ranging request would further compound confusion in the marketplace and lead to more misleadingly labeled dairy products.

For the foregoing reasons, we respectfully request that the IDFA and NMPF petition be denied.


AllergyKids Foundation 

CA Center for Public Health Advocacy 

California Food Policy Advocates 

Center for Communications, Health & the Environment

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Defeat Diabetes Foundation

Earth Day Network

Environmental Working Group 

Farm Sanctuary

Healthy Child, Healthy World 

Healthy Schools Campaign

Jamie Oliver Food Foundation

Real Food For Kids 

Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior 

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity 

Kate Adamick, Co-Founder, Cook for America®

Andy Bellatti, M.S., R.D., Creator & Co-Founder, Dietitians for Professional Integrity

Gracie Cavnar, Founder & CEO, Recipe for Success Foundation  

Ann Cooper, Founder, Food, Family, Farming Foundation

Karen Devitt and Lindsey Parsons, Co-Founders, Real Food For Kids – Montgomery 

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine, University of Ottawa, Medical Director, Bariatric Medical Institute 

Justin Gagnon, CEO, ChoiceLunch

Casey Hinds, Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition

Nancy Huehnergarth, Nutrition Advocate/Food Reformer and Founder, Nancy Huehnergarth Consulting 

Chery Kline, Clinical R.D., Dignity Health Hospital

Jeffrey B. Schwimmer, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, University of California, San Diego

Bettina Elias Siegel, J.D., School Food Activist, Writer – The Lunch Tray

Michele Simon, J.D., M.P.H., President, Eat Drink Politics 

Dana Woldow, School Food Activist and Founder, Parents, Educators & Activists Connection for Healthier School Food  (PEACHSF)[

[Editorial Update:  In my original post, I neglected to list another signer of the letter, Kate Adamick, Co-founder of Cook For America®.]

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Pink Slime: More On Why USDA’s “Solution” Needs Work

I was traveling to all day yesterday for a media appearance (more on that when I’m allowed to share), which was extremely frustrating because all I wanted to be doing was speaking with school food sources to get their reaction to USDA’s announcement about school choice and pink slime.

Fortunately, though, my online colleague and friend Nancy Huehnergarth of NYSHEPA was diligently on the case.  Please read her post from yesterday in which she digs into the practicality (or lack thereof) of USDA’s solution.  Here’s an excerpt, quoting Chef Ann Cooper:

 . . . Cooper believes that market limitations and peculiarities in how the USDA commodity food system works practically ensure LFTB beef in schools for the foreseeable future. “If a school district wants to purchase ground beef from an approved vendor, without LFTB, it’s practically impossible because it’s just not available – most of the beef contains the low-grade filler,” Cooper says. “Plus, if the school purchases bulk ground beef without pink slime, they still have to send it out to a third party processor like Tyson to be made into hamburgers, meatballs, etc. Currently, the third party vendors do not have to use the actual beef ordered by the school – they could use any beef. So a school could order LFTB-free beef sent to the processor, and it could get back hamburgers and meatballs with the ammonium-hydroxide processed filler.”

I’m also in touch TLT’s Mystery Food Services Director (remember him/her?) and getting additional info which I hope to share here.

What this all means is that USDA has (1) heard our concerns and (2) budged, all of which is enormously significant, but there are clearly details to be sorted out and more work to be done before any school district wishing to go “slime-free” can actually do so in a reliable and affordable manner.

More tomorrow.


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A Little More Thanksgiving Gratitude . . .

Following the lead of other bloggers and writers in the past few days, I thought I’d share my list of some people (and organizations) for whom I’m truly thankful  . . . .

People Who Inspire and Challenge Me to Be a Better Blogger

  • Dana Woldow of PEACHSF, for her unfailingly insightful and hard-hitting analyses of school food issues, and for always keeping me on my toes;
  • Michele Simon of Appetite for Profit, for shining a much-needed spotlight on the powerful corporate influences affecting food policy — and our kids.

Sites I Rely on For Solid Information About Kids and Food

People Working Hard Every Day to Improve School Food:

Sites and Blogs That Inspire Me as a Parent, and as a Cook

And Of Course . . .

 YOU, the TLT readership!  ♥

I’ll be taking a holiday break and will see you back here on Monday the 28th.  (I’ll announce the winner of the Turkey Day Bon Appétit magazine giveaway just after noon CST tomorrow on TLT’s Facebook page and in the comments section of that post.)

Finally, before I sign off, the Food Research and Action Center reports that almost 1/4 of all American kids are currently living in food-insecure households.  So at this time of year I like to remind readers that you can always click on the “Feed Hungry Kids” tab above for links to three reputable charities working to alleviate hunger here in the United States and around the world.   I also provide a link to the very addictive Free Rice game, which tests your knowledge of various subjects while helping to feed the hungry.

Have a wonderful holiday, everyone!


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School Food Reform: Enter the Lobbyists

The New York Times has an excellent article today describing the stiff opposition of the food industry (along with some Congressional representatives of potato-producing states) against current attempts to improve school food nutrition standards.  According to the report, over $5.6 million has been spent to date by lobbyists opposing the proposed school food rules to be promulgated under last year’s passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

At particular issue are proposed reductions in sodium (which, according to the food industry, will make food unpalatable to children) and a reduction in the amount of starchy vegetables (read: potatoes) that may be served to school kids.  Needless to say, potato-producing states are not pleased and have been successful so far in attempting to block that particular proposal.

For more, check out this recent New York Times report on the potato controversy specifically, along with blog posts about it by Ed Bruske (Better D.C. School Food) and Chef Ann Cooper and Chef Beth Collins. (And I can’t leave the potato topic without sharing Stephen Colbert’s humorous take as well.)

As Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in today’s Times story:

This whole fight obscures the fact that the U.S.D.A.’s proposal is about helping kids eat a wide variety of vegetable and make lunches overall healthier. . . . It’s about our children’s health. I think that point has long since been lost.

So sad, and so true.
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Some Thoughts from a Lunch “Lady” Named Ryan

Chef Ann Cooper’s The Lunch Box organization recently shared with me a post from their blog and offered to let me repost it here.  It’s written by Ryan Andrews, a registered dietitian who, according to The Lunch Box,

was impressed with the daily need to consult his adult clients on healthy eating habits they should have learned as children. He was so inspired that he began interning with The School Food Project in Boulder, CO in 2009, and then going as far as to become a lunch lady with the district in the Fall of 2010. He was then able to work with the students at his chosen middle school for an entire school year – teaching and learning, and experiencing what school lunch struggles are like on the ground.

Ryan worked for ten months as a “lunch lady” in Boulder, CO and here are his thoughts on the experience, followed by some commentary of my own:

 Ryan Andrews, Lunch Lady

Ryan Andrews badge
Me for the last 10 months.

Summary: It’s easy to be a school cafeteria know-it-all.  That is, until you actually see what happens each day in a school cafeteria. Here are 18 lessons Coach Ryan Andrews learned during his one year stint as a school cafeteria worker.

If it’s Monday through Friday, 32 million children across the U.S. are eating a meal served at school.

I just spent the last 10 months contributing to this daily food party… as a lunch lady.  (Here’s why I did it.) And here’s what I learned.

1. We can’t let kids dictate things

“Ryan, kids want cheesy pizza, burgers, and chocolate milk.” Great. When did we start letting kids make life decisions?

When I was a kid, if I dictated how my day went, I would have eaten Cinnamon Toast Crunch for all meals and played Donkey Kong instead of doing homework.

Think modern kids have evolved? They haven’t. Check out these videos I shot with students at the school:

But some kids had constructive ideas…

2. Keep school food simple

To get serious about school food and its consequences, policy makers need to focus less on tinkering with funding formulas, surplus agricultural commodities, and % of calories from fat while focusing more on stopping kids from devouring plate after plate of hamburgers and cheesy noodles.

We’re trying to serve nutritious foods to kids. This food exists. Let’s make it happen.

3. Kids learn at school

There’s a strong disconnect with kids and food.

Example #1: I heard two students talking about factory farm video footage and how disturbed they felt after seeing a worker stomp on a calf’s head (see here). They both looked at each other with mouths agape. And then they both proceeded to get beef nachos with cheese.

I’m sure they figured the footage wasn’t real — like Transformers or Toy Story 2Kids aren’t making the connection between what they see and what they eat.

Example #2: This year we served sweet potatoes. Lots of kids had never seen them. This is fine; it’s not a requirement to eat sweet potatoes for optimal health. But – I can assure you that the same kids who cannot identify a sweet potato can list all of the value meals at McDonald’s, candy bar brands, and soda flavours.

Why does learning take a hiatus at lunch? Let’s use this time to inform kids about food. You know, stuff like where it comes from, how it influences our bodies and the planet, and how to prepare it and treat it with respect.

Let’s have DVDs, posters, pamphlets, farmers, gardeners, chefs, dietitians, doctors, flat screen TVs with slide shows, and so forth. Side note: none of this would be funded by the food industry (e.g., dairy council, beef council, soy council, etc.).

If we don’t inform kids about food during lunch – where will they get this information? Parents? TV advertisements? Diet books?

4. Kids won’t change until we (adults) change.

I’ve had countless discussions over the past year with adults about school lunch. Not one adult has been against nutritious and sustainable food options for kids.

But the same adults who want better school lunches for kids are crushing triple stack burgers during their lunch break and take medication for nutrition-related diseases. Apparently the adults don’t believe in nutritious/sustainable food enough to partake themselves.

School lunches won’t change until we (adults) make a genuine change.

There isn’t enough support to make healthful school lunches happen right now. If there were, it would be happening. Parents are unhealthy, school administrators are unhealthy, and now kids are unhealthy. Surprised?

I can assure you that if most parents, teachers, cafeteria workers (the front lines of school food), and school administrators believed in nutritious food (and physical education programs) and participated in it themselves, things would have changed by now.

5. It takes work to prepare nutritious foods (and compost)

Get ready U.S. cafeterias, it takes more time and effort to prepare nutritious whole foods, wash real utensils/plates, and handle food waste. Get used to it.

6. Nutritious school lunches cost more money

Cheap food is an illusion. The real cost is paid somewhere. If we don’t pay at the cafeteria cash register, then we pay with our kid’s health, the planet, the animals, and/or public funds.

Where will we get this money?

My genius ideas:

a) Nix dieting and supplements

American consumers spent $61 billion on diets and supplements last year. That’s $200 for every man, woman and child. So, instead of buying a low-carb diet book and/or the latest appetite suppressant, buy vegetables and beans for your local school.

b) Nix the new cell phone and/or car

The new ride looks pretty sweet, but it doesn’t help to prevent heart disease. Are you willing to forgo the upgraded cell phone plan or new car payment so your kid can have a few extra bucks for nutritious food? I am.

7. When kids are hungry, they’ll eat

Funny – when I was serving beans, rice and bananas to kids in Uganda (see photos below), I don’t remember any of them turning me down. Why? If kids are hungry – they will eat.

Nope, no picky eaters here

8. Serve one entrée

The more choices, the more exhausted we get. Ever used a thesaurus? Good luck making a final word selection.

Let’s keep it simple and serve one entrée each day. This means less food prepared, less potential waste, less dishes to wash, and less money dedicated to the kitchen staff.

Kids don’t stand in the lunch line thinking about the long-term repercussions of their food choices (health, planet, animals, etc.). The smart option needs to be the only option. If it smells good, looks good, and tastes good – the kids are most likely going to eat it.

9. Let’s fundraise for school lunch

We’ve all experienced it: The middle schooler selling candles, candy or wrapping paper to raise money.

What about a fundraiser featuring baked goods the kids made (with decent ingredients)? Or a farmers’ market with produce grown at the school garden? All proceeds go to buying nutritious foods for lunches.

Another way to make extra money – let eco-friendly companies advertise on compost bins and recycling containers in schools.

10. Get some garden and farming action started

Our disconnect from food can decrease our respect for food. When a veggie burger doesn’t taste quite like a Big Mac, kids throw it out and complain. If we valued our food more, it would yield less unused food, reducing our excess.

What if school lunch prep and clean up was part of class time? If kids helped in the process, this could increase respect for the food (and food prep). Food wouldn’t just be an object that magically appears, and food servers wouldn’t just be robots who dish out pizza.

11. Handling money during lunch is a pain

Worrying about exchanging money each day distracts from what lunch is about – eating quality food. We want kids to have time to eat (instead of waiting to pay for lunch). And we want a staff dedicated to preparing and cleaning up from the meal, not counting quarters.

Students should pay one flat fee at the beginning of the school year (based on if they are low income, regular income, etc.). And that’s it. They can get lunch each day (or not).

12. Serve familiar (but slightly better) foods

I’m cool with serving a tempeh ginger stir-fry, but kids aren’t. We need to be careful with food descriptions.

If we have hamburgers and veggie burgers, the kids are going to buy hamburgers, even if they can’t taste a difference. Veggie burgers have a negative reputation.

If it tastes good, kids won’t know or care. It’s up to the lunch staff to make it more nutritious/sustainable.

Continue serving common foods, with a few tweaks:

  • Burritos – made with beans and grilled vegetables
  • Nachos – made with beans, salsa and avocado
  • Pizza – made with whole grain crust and vegetables, non-dairy cheese
  • Chili – with beans and veggies
  • Lasagna – with whole grain pasta and veggies
  • Burgers & hot dogs – plant-based
  • Falafel and hummus

13. Lunch needs to follow recess

This simple change can decrease food waste by 30%. Kids won’t be rushing to get out and play, and they’ll be a lot more relaxed after some activity.

14. No lunch trays

When trays aren’t used, kids take less (they can always come back for more). This means less food waste and water used for washing trays.

15. Give away extra food

Each day, extra food that cannot be served again could be dropped at a food bank or homeless shelter.

Stores are allowed to deduct the fair market value of goods donated. Schools can do this too. Schools can donate extra food thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (excluding self-serve foods from salad bars).

16. Nix drug-like foods

You know how addicted you are to _______ (fill in the blank with your addictive food of choice)? This probably started in childhood.

Even the brightest students started to get a glaze in their eye when we served foods like pizza and hot dogs. When I distributed “seconds” of biscuits and carrot cake, I thought I was going to be ambushed.

17. Nix drinks

Yeah, I said it. This includes milk, juice, soda, etc. Kids can use the water fountain or bring a reusable water bottle. This will save cups (less waste) and likely improve health.

Liquid calories aren’t satiating. Kids can easily guzzle hundreds of excess (and often nutrition-free) calories every day.

Choosing unflavoured milk over flavoured milk is a step in the right direction. But in America, about 1/3 of cow’s milk isn’t consumed, giving it the second highest loss rate of any food. Who knows how much this loss rate goes up when you factor in school lunch programs?

Further, the environmental demands of dairy production can be substantial. Lactose intolerance will continue to be an issue, there are increasing concerns about hormones and drugs in milk, and dairy isn’t necessary for improving health.

Oh, and memo from the dish room – cheese isn’t worth it. High temps cook the cheese on pans. Nix dairy for the sake of the dishwashers.

18. Meat is a downer

Preparing, serving, and throwing away leftover meat gave me a negative karma punch each day. I didn’t think I would be overly distraught about serving meat – but I was. For each burger and chicken wing I served, it was another reminder that kids have minimal connection to where food comes from and how their choices impact others.

If you care about kids’ nutrition, get involved

Why did I get involved in the school lunch program?

Two words: Ann Cooper.

Ann cares about kids, nutrition and the planet. So do I. When Boulder recruited her to help with school lunches, I had to get involved. If you care about kids, nutrition and the planet, consider getting involved with a local school lunch program.

Volunteer. Work. Donate. Do what you can.

*  *  *

I’m always interested in reading the accounts of school food service workers, who often have a much more realistic take on improving school food than the armchair commentator (and I include myself in that category.)  So many of Ryan’s suggestions are great ones, like limiting entree choices and incorporating nutrition education into the lunchroom.

But Ryan’s plea for generous souls to kick in their cell phone or car money for school food reminded me of a quote in Janet Poppendieck’s excellent book, Free for All: Fixing School Lunch in America:

I found the individuals and groups working for school food change – both paid staff and parent and citizen activists — to be so extraordinary, so dedicated, patient, persistant and creative that there seems to me little likelihood that more typical communities will achieve such improvements under current federal rules and within current funding constraints. . . . It shouldn’t be so hard.  One should not have to be a superhero, a magician or a saint to get healthy, tasty food into the school cafeteria. . . . Counting on saints and heroes is not good public policy.

In other words, it would be great if every American did kick in an extra $200 a year for better school food, but should we really have to rely on private, ad hoc donations to adequately fund a public, governmentally-run service like the school food program?  Call me a dreamer, but I like to think that it’s Congress’s responsibility to provide those funds, instead of making schools hold out their hats or run a bake sale just to feed their students adequately.

At any rate, what did you think of Ryan’s post?

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How Houston ISD Plans to Meet the Drinking-Water-in-Cafeterias Mandate

Last week we talked about how hard it might be for some school districts to follow the new federal mandate to provide free drinking water to students during meal times (“Getting Water Into School Cafeterias:  Not As Easy As It Sounds“).  If you haven’t read the comments on that post, I encourage you to do so — many readers, including school food service worker Maggie — had lots of insights into why getting water into schools is more challenging than you might think.

Prompted by my own post, I wanted to find out how my district (Houston ISD) plans to handle the new drinking water requirement in the coming school year.  Our Senior Administrator of Food Services, Brian Giles, told me that HISD is:

currently getting quotes on 3-gallon dispensers that would be placed in the cafeteria area or serving line.  Dispensers and cups would be used in the majority of schools that don’t have drinking fountains immediately available to students in the lunchroom. . . .

A representative of Chef Ann Cooper’s Lunch Box group had told me via Facebook that in Boulder, CO they spend three cents per waxed paper cup to distribute water in schools where disposable cups are used (some schools use washable cups).  But when I did the math for HISD —  one three-cent cup for each of the 200,000 kids in HISD times 180 school days — it came to over one million dollars a year for cups!  So I went back to Brian Giles for more information, and also asked whether

in the schools with existing water fountains, is the district confident that a single fountain can meet the need of a given lunch room?  It seems like it might take a long time for hundreds of kids to get their water from one fountain in one lunch period.

Brian responded:

We spend 1.9 cents ($0.019) per Styrofoam cup.  If every student were to take a cup every day, it would cost $684,000 annually.  We also plan to purchase at least one water dispenser per campus ($20 x 300 campuses=$6,000).  That being said, I’m sure that every student will not take a cup every day.  I’m also confident that some students, because they choose water, will not choose milk ($0.27 per serving).  If we see savings from students who do not choose milk, providing water actually becomes much less expensive.  However, we won’t know until we actually see it in action.

On a recent visit to [a local elementary school], I didn’t see any logjams at the drinking fountain.  When kids were thirsty, they typically rose from their seats and took a drink.  Elementaries also have staggered lunch schedules so all classes will not be eating lunch at the same time.  If a particular campus needs an extra dispenser, we can make that decision on an as-needed basis.

I take Brian’s point about paper cups and the possible cost savings if less milk is served — I’ll be curious to see how that shakes out at the end of this year.  I didn’t ask Brian the questions raised in my prior post (and by readers) regarding some of the complications of coolers, like the need to store and properly sanitize them.  I’m going to assume that if HISD Food Services is choosing to use coolers, it can handle those issues.  But one question does remain, and that’s how water from a cooler will taste to kids.  On that issue, I’ll try to pay a visit this fall to some schools using coolers and report back.

Meanwhile, though, I’m still worried about Houston schools with water fountains in their lunch rooms.  After sending my question to Brian, I’ve actually grown less concerned that water fountains will be mobbed at lunch and more concerned that they’ll go mostly unused.

First, as discussed in my original post on this subject, the water from water fountains in many schools, particularly those with old plumbing, may be unpalatable.  When I asked my son about the water fountain in his elementary school cafeteria, he said — totally unprompted by me — “The water is HORRIBLE!  There’s mold growing in the drain!”  Even if there’s some nine-year-old-boy hyperbole going on there (and I’m sure there is), I don’t think he’s alone in thinking the water tastes bad.

Another problem is going to be student re-education about the use of water fountains at lunch, at least at the elementary school level.  In my own children’s cafeteria, kids have been told for years that they’re not allowed to get up from their table without permission.  Unless there are going to be multiple announcements (or signage) telling kids they now can freely get up to use the water fountain, many young children will simply stay put out of habit.   And absent the “visual” of a cooler or pitcher on the lunch line, will kids even think to get water with their meal, especially if another drink (flavored and plain milk) appears to be the only beverage “officially” offered?

And finally, there’s a categorical difference in my mind between having a cup of water placed next to my meal versus eating a meal with no beverage but in a room that happens to have a water fountain.   In the former case, I’m likely to drink the entire six or eight ounces in the cup.  In the latter case, I’m likely to take just a few sips of water at the end of my meal — if I even think to go get water at all.

I understand that reliance on water fountains to meet the federal mandate may be the only option for some school districts, and Houston is lucky in that we apparently do have the considerable funds for cups and coolers where needed.  But I’m coming to see that there might be as many obstacles to kids drinking water in a lunch room with a water fountain as in one where no fountain exists and other arrangements have to be made.

Do you know how your own school district is planning to meet the federal water mandate in the coming school year?  If so, I’d love to hear about it.  Feel free to leave a comment here or contact me directly (via the Contact tab above) to share what you know.


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USA Today Offers Two Views on Improving School Food

USA Today has an op-ed this morning entitled “Want Fries With That?  Not  at These Schools.”  In it, the newspaper is critical of those, like the School Nutrition Association (which represents school food directors), who worry that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is underfunded and that schools will not be able to meet its mandates without more time and more money than the six cent increase allowed by Congress.  Says USA Today:

This ignores the fact that there is no more money, and delay is the enemy when it comes to childhood nutrition.

All the players would do better keeping Congress’ mandates in place and looking to the schools that are already doing it right.

Instead, the paper highlights schools like one in St. Paul which uses a central kitchen to bake breads from scratch or one in Denver which used the services of school food consultant Kate Adamick (interviewed by TLT here) to greatly improve its menus.

As a counterpoint, Dana Woldow was asked to submit her  views, which appear in a shorter piece entitled “Pay Now or Pay More Later.”  In it, the veteran school food reformer points out that:

While some school districts already serving better food might appear to be “doing more with less,” they usually have extra funding or costly resources, such as a central kitchen for scratch cooking, which other districts lack. In reality, they are “doing more with more.”

It all goes back to a question that’s been debated hotly on this blog for a long time (see “Why I Rained on Someone’s School Food Reform Parade” and the posts linked to it):  can a school district ever “get it right” using just the federal reimbursement rate? Or, if you dig deeper at a “miracle” school, will you always find that there’s some outside or community raised funding, such as the $2 million San Francisco USD gives to subsidize the the reforms Dana Woldow and her peers have brought about, or the outside, community funding Chef Ann Cooper is seeking in Boulder, CO?

Moreover, no two districts face the same issues — some are small, with lower labor costs and a population that can support a higher price for lunch, and some are huge, comprised of mostly kids on free and reduced price lunch, and in an area where unionized workers can demand more pay.  Some have huge central kitchens (like Houston’s, which cost $52 million to build), and some have seen their cooking facilities reduced to equipment that can only heat and serve.

No one loves school food success stories more than I do, but I agree with Dana that they need to be taken in context so we can learn which miracles can be reproduced elsewhere and which cannot.



Chef Ann Cooper Feels “Wilma’s” Pain

Last week I introduced to TLT readers an anonymous school food professional named “Wilma” who let me share a frank email regarding the difficulties she faces in trying improve school food.  In that email, she noted that parents hold a wide range of views about what school food should look like and expect her to somehow please all of them — on a severely limited budget, no less.

After I ran the post, Chef Ann Cooper contacted me to ask if she could repost Wilma’s email on her Lunch Box blog and the Lunch Box’s Facebook page.  I of course agreed (the blog link is here) but I also wanted to share Chef Ann’s message to me (with her permission):

. . .Wilma’s story feels so similar to mine – even here in Boulder.  From a parent’s point of view – we’re either not organic/vegan/dairy free/wheat free, etc. enough, OR, where are the chocolate milk & chicken nuggets, and who am I to tell kids what to eat?

It’s disheartening to realize that a leading school food reformer like Chef Ann faces the same problem, even in a place like Boulder, which has shown clear community-wide support for reform.

I’m not sure what the answer is — if there even is an answer.  But I can report that it made Wilma feel better to know that someone like Chef Ann is in the exact same boat.

Chef Ann Cooper’s Boulder District Seeks Donations for School Food Program

I noted today that Chef Ann Cooper posted on her Facebook page a request for donations to keep her innovative school food program, the School Food Project, afloat in the Boulder Valley School District.

This article from a local Boulder, CO paper discusses the newly-launched fundraising campaign, and points up the very issue we’ve been talking about so much in recent weeks here on TLT: namely, can a district offer the kind of healthful food that Chef Ann champions without extra funding (over and above what the USDA reimburses schools)?

The article makes clear that, at least in this case, the answer is no.  The Boulder program has relied on outside (community-raised) funding from the start, and the current campaign seeks $150,000 to be used alongside a $100,000 matching grant from a private foundation.

Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook) has written extensively about Boulder, if you’d like to learn more about the program.  And if you’re interested in supporting the School Food Project, donations may be made here.

School Food Reform: Can’t We All Get Along? (We Can and We Have To)

In the last few weeks I’ve been surprised to find myself in the role of School Food Reform Naysayer, which isn’t what you’d expect from someone who serves on her district’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and its Student Health Advisory Council and who is a daily kid-and-food blogger.  If I really thought that school food reform was a nonstarter, believe me, there are other ways I could be spending my time.

The shift began two weeks ago when I objected to an interview with Jane Hersey (over at Kelly the Kitchen Kop) which, in my opinion, too blithely dismissed the difficulties many districts face in trying to bring about school food reform.  But in taking on Ms. Hersey’s position, I found myself in the undesirable (and uncharacteristic) role of saying “No, We Can’t!” to someone else’s “Yes, We Can!”

That post led to a lot of back and forth on TLT about what reform is possible (and what’s not) under current USDA reimbursement rates.  As a result, I decided to ask Dana Woldow, a school food reformer in San Francisco, to guest blog about the realities her community has faced (financial and otherwise) in trying to improve school food there.  Dana’s primary point is that places like Boulder, CO (Chef Ann Cooper’s current district) and Berkeley, CA (Chef Ann’s former district) use outside and/or community-raised funding to bring about change, and her own San Francisco district operates at a deficit that’s grudgingly paid by the school board.  Therefore, she felt, the successes in these districts may not be replicable everywhere in the country.

Dana’s post drew a long string of comments, including some from Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook), who has written extensively about Boulder and Berkeley.  Several people involved in Berkeley’s school food program, including Bonnie Christensen, executive chef in Berkeley’s school district, were also kind enough to stop by and leave their thoughts.  And the debate may continue to rage on in the comments section of that post.

After all this back-and-forth, what’s my own personal takeaway?

I wholeheartedly agree with Dana Woldow that we have to continue to fight hard for increased funding at the national level.  If we rely on local communities to raise funds to improve food, we’ll soon have a patchwork of wealthier (or more committed) districts with good food, and poorer districts (where, I would note, more children are reliant on school food) with less healthful offerings.  As Dana succinctly put it: “I worry about what happens to the poorer parts of America when the wealthier communities take a ‘I’ve got mine, now let everyone else go get theirs’ attitude.”  So as discouraging as it can be to try to bring about change in Congress, we can’t give up.

That said, I’m deeply impressed by the people of Berkeley and Boulder who are willing to put their money where their mouth is to fix school food, and the dedication and ingenuity of the people they’ve hired to do it.  Bonnie Christensen described in a few comments the financial and professional sacrifices she’s made to take on her current job (after working in prestigious restaurants) and the challenges she still faces — regardless of funding — in improving school food.  She also praised the professionalism of her well trained staff in dealing with those challenges.

I guess my conclusion would be, then, that we don’t have to pursue one path to the exclusion of the other.  Those who live in commuities fortunate and forward-thinking enough to self-fund school food shouldn’t forget those in less affluent districts for whom such funding is a pipe dream — nor should they neglect to mention that funding when they tout their achievements, lest they create false expectations.  Similarly, those who live in districts dependent on federal reimbursement should learn what they can from more successful districts — the reduction of inefficiencies, etc. — that may be replicable even without additional funding.  Successful school food reformers, even if they are working with more money than most, still have much to teach us.

The bottom line, of course, is that we all want the same thing: fresher, less processed school food for our children.  Debate over our differences shouldn’t be squelched — we learn from that debate — but neither should we let our differences divide us or distract us from the task at hand.

So, with that said, I place myself firmly back in the camp of “Yes, We Can.”

And now, back to work, everyone!  :-)