A Recap of This Week’s Congressional Hearing on Child Nutrition

capitol buildingThose of you following my Twitter and Facebook feeds know that on Wednesday I was watching with great interest the House Education and Workforce Committee‘s Congressional hearing on the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

To bring everyone up to speed, this year marks the every-five-year funding of federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program.  The 2010 CNR saw the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), the landmark legislation which gave school meals their first major nutritional overhaul in decades.  But this year, the HHFKA’s gains are threatened as the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which supported the law in 2010, now seeks to roll back some of its most important nutritional standards.

For those who really want to get into the weeds, here’s a complete video of the hearing:

For those who want the recap, school food reformer Dana Woldow had this piece in yesterday’s Beyond Chron, which is highly critical of SNA President Julia Bauscher’s testimony at the hearing.

Woldow points out, as I did on Twitter, that the SNA completely squandered its opportunity to seek more funding from Congress to finance healthier school meals, instead pushing hard for a weakening of nutritional standards.  In doing so, the SNA confirmed my suspicion (Is the School Nutrition Association’s Request for More School Funding a Priority — or a Ploy? ) that its “ask” for an additional 35 cents per child per meal was never going to be a real priority for the organization.

Other random impressions from the hearing:

1.  I had not been aware of Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe’s work surrounding the healthier school meal standards.  She did a great job testifying at the hearing and is officially my new girl crush.

2.  At the other end of the spectrum, I was stunned by Rep. Glenn Grothman’s  (R-WI) cluelessness about the hard realities of some Americans’ lives.

First, he seemed incapable of wrapping his head around the idea that America could have a problem with childhood hunger and childhood obesity, repeatedly asking those testifying for historical data on the height and weight of five year olds to help explain this mystery.  He mused aloud, “Some of us kind of wonder. . . . we talk about this obesity epidemic and then we say we have this problem with all these people are [sic] hungry. At first blush it’s kind of contradictory.” McAuliffe quickly set him straight, pointing out that obesity, particularly in food deserts, can be as much a sign of malnutrition as being underweight.

Grothman, who seems to have wandered out of 1955 suburbia, also seemed perplexed that kids aren’t just sitting down to family meals with Mom and Dad instead of relying on schools for nutrition.  In this meandering statement, he asked:

I’ll give you another thing to think about. A while back I read something dealing with some of these food programs and that we’re kinda, it used to be it was important for kids to sit around the dinner table at night, I think it’s an important thing to sit around the breakfast table in the morning.  As time goes on it becomes more, where we’re sending a message to parents that it’s more of a government’s concern than their concern.  Does that concern you at all, insofar as you know were kind of taking away a role that’s been the most basic role of parents probably throughout all of history and kind of we’re kinda saying providing breakfast for your kids, dinner for your kids, during the summer period.  We’re beginning to change the nature of life and we’re making it more of a government thing than a  family thing.  Does that —

At this point, Mr. Grothman’s time (mercifully) was cut off.

3.  SNA President Bauscher kept emphasizing the need to supply kids with white flour “regional favorites,” like biscuits in the South and white flour tortillas in the Southwest, as a justification for significantly weakening the current whole grain standard.  But any home cook knows that it’s entirely possible to make an acceptable whole-grain version of those foods using half white flour and half white whole wheat.  If manufacturers need more time to get up to speed, then maybe we need to relax the standard for short time until they catch up.  But SNA’s “baby with the bathwater” approach is so extreme, it does make me wonder if Woldow is right when she speculates that SNA’s corporate sponsors are actually behind this whole grain request.

On a related note, Mission Readiness, the nonpartisan group of retired military leaders, wrote an excellent Reuters editorial  in anticipation of this week’s CNR hearing.  It’s a full-throated defense of healthier school food and well worth a read.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,600 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2015 Bettina Elias Siegel

Why I’m Fed Up With Those Photos of “School Lunches Around the World”

I love being a kid-and-food blogger because I’ll never, ever run out of topics to write about (as evidenced by the fact that this is my 1,178th post to date).  If anything, it’s a real challenge to stay on top of all the latest developments, and I’m indebted to the many friends, family members and TLT readers who regularly take the time to email me news items.

But in the past few weeks, I’ve been just inundated by people sending me this link showing “school lunches around the world” and how poorly America’s lunches fare by comparison. I created a slide show of three of the photos to give you an idea:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Each time someone sends me this link, I thank them politely — and then grit my teeth.  Here’s why:

First, most people understandably but mistakenly believe these photos depict actual lunches served in actual schools.  Even some news outlets seem to have made this error.  Instead, all of these lunches are mock-ups created by Sweetgreen, a “fast casual” restaurant chain which also offers wellness workshops to children in various schools in the Northeast.

Sweetgreen says it based is photos on “some typical school meals around the world,” but it doesn’t tell us how it obtained the information underlying the photos.  Were the meals modeled on public school menus?  Private school menus?  Are the meals depicted typical of what’s served in a given country, or did Sweetgreen cherry-pick the most appealing items?  And on what basis were the elements chosen for America’s school meal?

I don’t have answers to those questions but here are some things I do know.  Let’s start with this mouth-watering “school meal” from Greece:

Photo credit: Sweetgreen
Photo credit: Sweetgreen

According to a 2013 New York Times piece – notably entitled “More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry” — Greek schools actually “do not offer subsidized cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with little or no income.”  So I’m not sure who’s getting the lunch above, replete with fresh pomegranate seeds and just-picked citrus.  But I do know that while Greek school kids were reportedly going hungry in 2013, over 20 million economically distressed kids in this country were being fed nutritious, federally subsidized meals every single school day.

Kinda makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

Then there’s France. . . .  I’ve been blogging about school food for five years and if I had a franc for every time someone’s told me about the superior school meals in that country, I’d have enough money to buy every TLT reader this lunch:

Photo credit: Sweetgreen
Photo credit: Sweetgreen

French school meals are superior to ours – quelle suprise!  According to this report, the amount spent on the food in French school meals can exceed two dollars — twice what American districts are left with after overhead. And I actually suspect that the money available to schools for food may be much higher, given this post by Karen Le Billon which indicates that parents are assessed a price on a sliding scale, with the wealthiest parents paying a whopping $7 per meal.  More importantly, as Le Billon so well documented in French Kids Eat Everything, almost every aspect of French food culture, including widespread nutrition education and early “taste training,” supports better school meals, both their provision by schools and their acceptance by children.

We should learn what we can from France, of course, yet it hardly seems fair to compare its school food to our own when so many factors in this country which thwart better meals aren’t nearly as problematic there: chronic underfunding; the financial competition districts face from home-packed lunches (which are strongly discouraged in France), competitive food, junk food fundraising and open campuses; the $2 billion spent each year on the advertising of junk food to American children; and an American food culture which celebrates junk food instead of actively discouraging its consumption as France does (including by requiring warning messages on junk food ads).

And by the way, apparently not every meal served in French schools is worthy of a Michelin star.  On the What’s For School Lunch? blog, where real people around the world submit their actual photos of school meals, I spotted this French school lunch:

Photo credit: What's For School Lunch? Blog
Chicken nuggets in a French school meal?  Mon dieu!  (photo credit: What’s For School Lunch? blog)

And that leads to another point. How can any one meal accurately represent an entire nation’s school meal program?  For example, let’s assume that some Ukrainian kids really are eating what Sweetgreen depicts:

Photo credit: Sweetgreen
Photo credit: Sweetgreen

That’s great, but other Ukrainian kids, according to What’s For School Lunch?, are getting this dismal meal of hot dog slices, white pasta, broth and bread:

Photo credit: What's for School Lunch? blog
Photo credit: What’s for School Lunch? blog

So which is the “real” Ukrainian school meal?

By the same token, look at some of the American school meals in this slideshow, which I compiled from the School Meals That Rock Facebook page.  They’re all a far cry from the pallid chicken nugget meal depicted by Sweetgreen.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As Dayle Hayes, the registered dietitian who runs the School Meals That Rock Facebook page told me, “Thousands of schools are balancing complex regulations, limited budgets and picky eating habits to serve delicious, healthful real school food that real students eat and enjoy.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we ignore the fact that many American school districts are churning out truly terrible school food. Here’s a photo sent to me just this week by a Lunch Tray reader of her child’s lunch:

sad lunch
But if Sweetgreen’s goal was to raise awareness about school nutrition (and not just garner a lot of publicity for its restaurants, which it did in spades), I fail to see what it accomplished by holding American schools up to an unrealistic international standard  –whether the standard is unrealistic because it’s inaccurate (Greece) or because the country in question invests far more time, money and effort than the United States in feeding its children (France.)

If Sweetgreen really wants to improve school food in this country, I wish it had given the many thousands of people who’ve now seen its mocked-up photos a meaningful call to action.  Why not ask everyone who cares about this issue to sign this school food petition from the Pew Charitable Trusts, or to urge their Congressional representatives to adequately fund school meals in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization?  That’s how we get from chicken nuggets to Greek lemon chicken on orzo.

Or, as Dayle Hayes put it to me, “If you want school meals that rock in all U.S. schools, staged trays that ‘resemble’ school meals are not the way to get there.”

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 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 to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2015 Bettina Elias Siegel

Kathleen Parker on School Lunches: It’s All The Feminists’ Fault

Last Friday, conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial praising the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) current attempts to roll back the nutritional improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), derisively referring to the legislation as “the first lady’s well-intentioned but disastrous school nutrition program, otherwise known as the Dumpster Derby.”

In this regard, Parker is no different from any other conservative pundit or Republican House member persuaded by the SNA’s reports of increased food waste and student rejection of healthier food (reports strongly disputed by many respected school food service directors) to justify a return to daily pizza and fries.

But where Parker really made my head spin is her apparent belief that the entire National School Lunch Program is in place because mothers — specifically feminist mothers — just can’t be bothered to pack a nutritious lunch from home.  To wit:

Obama is merely expanding her maternal focus to include all those public school kids whose mothers apparently have forgotten how to make a sandwich. Or whose fathers have forgotten to say, “Get those plugs out of your ears and make friends with the lawn mower” — or whatever its urban equivalent.

. . . .  and this is where I wish this debate were heading — Mrs. Obama could suggest that parents prepare their children’s meals.

What?! You’ve got to be kidding! We’re too busy!!

Since when were we too busy to scramble an egg or toast a slice of bread? Since the national narrative of women’s liberation concentrated on the kitchen as metaphor for homebound drudgery and oppression, that’s when.

Parker does give a throwaway nod to poor people — “When it comes to home food preparation, the very poor need extra help, obviously” — but then reasserts the notion that “quality nutrition, as most important things, begins at home.”

So, in sum, Parker apparently believes that the majority of children participating in the NSLP come from stable, two-parent households (replete with fancy electronics, lawns, lawn mowers and well-stocked kitchens) and if only mom’s pretty little head hadn’t been muddled by pesky feminists, those children would all be heading out the door with a nutritious, home-packed lunch.

I’m so dumbfounded by this thinking, I don’t quite know what to say.

Let’s start with a simple recitation of the facts:

  • According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) the latest USDA data indicate that 15.8 million (21.6 percent) children live in households “facing a constant struggle against hunger.” And “in Gallup surveys taken between 2008 and 2012, 23.5 percent of households with children responded that there were times in the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food that they needed.”
  • On a typical school day in 2011-12, 19.6 million children, or a full 68 percent of those participating in school meals, received received free or reduced price lunches, and that figure has since increased. To qualify for free lunches this past year, a family of four must be living at 130% of the poverty level, or earning no more than $30,615.  To receive reduced price lunch, a family of four must be earning between $30,615 and $43,568.*
  • One significant gain brought about by the HHFKA is that districts can now”directly certify” the very neediest children for free and reduced price meals, without the need for paperwork, if these children are “homeless, runaway, and migrant children and children from households that receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).”  In the 2012-13 school year, 12.3 million children met one or more of these criteria and received direct certification.

And even the SNA, on which Parker happily relies in dismissing the need for healthier school food, fully recognizes the critical role of the NSLP in feeding America’s hungry children.  In its 2008 report, “Saved By The Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises,” the SNA wrote:

The school nutrition programs are more important than ever, as more students participate in the free and reduced price categories. Nationwide, school nutrition programs serve as safety nets for families that are facing financial difficulties as the economy falters.

In other words, children fortunate enough to have moms who could easily pack a nutritious lunch (but for their feminist ideology) are not the intended beneficiaries of the NSLP.  Instead, the program is intended to serve the millions of impoverished American children whose parents cannot send them to school with a home-packed lunch for a whole host of possible reasons that never seem to cross Parker’s mind: the family’s SNAP benefits fail to cover a month’s worth of healthful food, in light of today’s rising food costs; there is only one parent in the household and he or she works one or more jobs and is not home to pack a lunch; one or both caretakers are drug-addicted, mentally ill, physically disabled or otherwise unable to adequately provide for their children; the family lives in a homeless shelter and lacks access to kitchen facilities; the family lives in a food desert where healthful groceries are scarce, etc. etc.

These are not families, in other words, in which mom is just too focused on her career at a high-powered law firm to get out the peanut butter and jelly each morning.  And when it comes to these children, who are so dependent on school meals for daily nutrition, it’s incontestable that they are better served by the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates than by the SNA’s current desire to return to foods higher in white flour and sodium, fruits and vegetables that kids are able to spurn on a daily basis, and school snack bars replete with pizza and fries.

My goodness!  The solution to childhood hunger has been hiding right here in my Fridgidaire!
My goodness! The solution to childhood hunger has been hiding right here in my Frigidaire!

But maybe Parker’s “Leave it to Beaver” thinking should come as no surprise.  Back in 2011 on this blog, I took issue with another Parker WashPo editorial, this one arguing that the federal government should have no role in solving the obesity crisis. Parker once again harkened back to some earlier, simpler time, and concluded that, “[a]s with most problems, the solution is family:”

Ma would say: “Sit up and eat your vegetables.” Pa said: “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Other common utterances included: “Go outside and play.” And, “After you finish your chores.”

Families may not have been happier . . . but neither were the words “childhood obesity” part of the vernacular.

That’s right.  The historic rise in childhood obesity has absolutely nothing to do with: federal corn subsidies which unnaturally render junk food and fast food the cheaper option for many consumers; the food industry’s intense focus on making junk food hyper-palatable; the almost $2 billion spent each year to aggressively market junk food to kids: the growing ubiquity of junk food in outlets which formerly never sold food (Michael’s craft stores, fabric stores, car washes, etc.); or a host of other factors. It’s just that Ma and Pa are no longer dispensing their homespun wisdom to little Jimmy and Sally around the dinner table.

June Cleaver for Secretary of Agriculture!
June Cleaver for Secretary of Agriculture!

I’ll say one thing for Parker’s world view:  it’s certainly seductive in its simplicity. Instead of having to attack the multiple root causes of two entrenched societal ills, childhood obesity and childhood hunger, we just have to do one thing — roll back the clock to upper middle class suburbia, circa 1955.


* An earlier version of this post contained free/reduced data for 2012-13.  It has been updated to reflect the guidelines in effect in the 2013-14 school year.

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

Getting Ready for “Thanks a Latkes!” (and a Thanksgiving Message Re: Hunger)

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 8.52.17 PMTomorrow’s confluence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah is widely referred to as “Thanksgivukkuh,” but I really wish Lenore Skenazy‘s clever “Thanks a Latkes” had taken hold!

Whatever you choose to call it, this won’t-occur-again-for-79,043-years event raises all kinds of fun possibilities and, for those celebrating, I thought I’d share a few links.

You can:

And for all of us celebrating Thanksgiving, with our without Hanukkah, this is the time of year when I traditionally remind readers (and myself) to consider the millions of American kids currently living in food-insecure households. Just click on the “Help Hungry Kids” tab above for links to reputable charities working to alleviate hunger here in the United States and around the world.   I also provide a link to the addictive Free Rice game, which lets you expand your vocabulary and play other knowledge games while helping to feed the hungry.

Before I sign off, I’ll share two TLT favorite  recipes —  my own jalapeño cranberry relish and crispy/creamy latkes.  (You can eat them together for Thanksgivukkah!)

Wishing you all a safe, happy holiday with much to be thankful for.  See you next week!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 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 join almost 4,000 TLT followers 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!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

Schools Interfere With Home-Packed Lunches and My (Surprising?) Reaction

Who's poking around in your child's lunch bag?
Who’s poking around in your child’s lunch bag?

A few weeks ago, the Internet was buzzing over news reports that an elementary school in Richmond, VA — allegedly in accordance with federal law — is requiring parents to obtain a doctor’s note if they want to send a home-packed lunch to school with their child.   Then, this week, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff reported on his Weighty Matters blog that a Canadian mother was fined $10 under Manitoba’s Early Learning and Child Care lunch regulations for failing to include a grain product in her child’s home-packed lunch of  “leftover homemade roast beef and potatoes, carrots, an orange and some milk.”  (The child was supplied with less-than-nutritious Ritz crackers by the school.)  Both of these stories have gone viral, if my own Facebook feed is any measure.

These two incidents were reminiscent of other, similar stories I’ve reported on in the past:  in 2011, a Chicago school principal at the Little Village Academy placed an outright ban on home-packed lunches, setting off a barrage of criticism, and in 2012 there were widespread reports that a North Carolina “state inspector” had forced a child to give up her packed lunch of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice because the meal did not meet USDA guidelines; instead the child was forced to take the school lunch of chicken nuggets.

Let me say up front that if my own kids’ home-packed lunches were inspected by a school or government official, I’d be quite ticked off.  (Not to mention, on some very rushed mornings in the TLT house, deeply, deeply embarrassed.)  But at the same time, these sorts of incidents just don’t fill me with the horror or outrage that so many have expressed in the blogosphere.  Here’s why.

First, as I’ve learned from experience, the media can often get their facts wrong in covering these instantly-sensational news stories.  For example, if you’d read conservative pundit Michelle Malkin’s account of the Little Village Academy incident, you could easily have believed that the packed-lunch ban extended throughout the city of Chicago  — and you certainly would never have known that the Little Village principal reportedly retracted her controversial edict just one week later.

Similarly, as I shared with you in 2012, an intrepid blogger dug deeper into the alleged “forced chicken nugget swap” and found credible evidence that the story was seriously misreported.  He concluded that:

someone at the school, whether a teacher, cafeteria worker, or a state program advisor (it’s still unclear which, though the first two seem much more likely if you’ve ever seen lunch time at a day care center) observed that the child lacked milk and suggested she go through the line to get some if she wanted it.  The child then mistakenly believed that going through the line meant she had to get an entirely new lunch.

And the most recent “doctor’s note” incident mentioned above?  According to contributors to the Skeptics Stack Exchange, one of whom actually corresponded with Virginia state officials, there is no “federal law” (as had been reported in the media) which mandates this practice.  Rather, the individual investigating the incident concluded:

I think it’s very safe to say this is a (misinterpreted) rule of the facility and staff of this Head Start preschool, rather than a broad requirement/law by the federal government as many of these blogs are implying.

But even when the facts are correctly stated, as I’m assuming was the case with the Manitoba Ritz crackers (for which Dr. Freedhoff actually posts a screen shot of the school’s note to the parent), it’s important to reflect for a moment on why schools might be peering into kids’ lunch boxes.

Underlying all of these incidents — no matter how misguided the particular actions of school personnel —  is a laudable desire to ensure that kids, especially economically vulnerable kids, get a decent meal at school.  In the case of the chicken nuggets, for example, the school in question specifically served at-risk pre-school students and was required to ensure that meals meet federal nutrition guidelines by supplementing home-packed meals that were nutritionally deficient.  In the case of Chicago’s Little Village Academy, a full 99% of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches and, according to a Chicago Tribune report at the time, the principal said “she created the policy six years ago after watching students bring ‘bottles of soda and flaming hot chips’ on field trips for their lunch.”

Moreover, as Dr. Joyce Slater, a guest blogger on Weighty Matters, later pointed out with respect to the Ritz crackers incident, daycare workers are often greatly overburdened and undereducated when it comes to making the decisions required of them under Manitoba’s well-meaning nutrition policies.  The same could likely be said of the Head Start and pre-school teachers in the doctor’s note and nuggets stories as well, with respect to our own state and federal nutrition guidelines for those programs.

But what really upsets me when these stories go viral is how they’re gleefully pounced upon by right wing pundits —  not just as proof of Nanny State over-reach (which arguably they are), but as justification for undermining all federal child nutrition programs.

For example, Michele Malkin, writing for the National Review Online, worked the Little Village Academy story into a larger, angry screed against the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHKA), the 2010 federal legislation which provided a sorely needed overhaul to school meals.  In the Obama administration’s support for that law, she saw a nefarious plot to increase donations from organized labor to Obama’s reelection campaign:

The unwritten mantra driving Mrs. Obama’s federal school-lunch meddling and expansion is: “Cede the children, feed the state.” And the biggest beneficiaries of her efforts over the past three years have been her husband’s deep-pocketed pals at the Service Employees International Union. . . .

Big Government programs “for the children” are never about the children. If they were, you wouldn’t see Chicago public-school officials banning students from bringing home-packed meals made by their own parents.

Rush Limbaugh similarly used the chicken nugget incident to take a swipe at the HHKA’s improved school meal standards by erroneously attributing the “inspection” to “federal agents,” and by linking the incident to the First Lady, one of the HHKA’s most vocal supporters:

Do you believe this? I do! The food Nazis — and, by the way, this is Michelle (My Belle)’s program: No Child’s Behind Left Alone. . . .  I’ll tell you what, this is all coming from Michelle Obama.

And the Virginia school’s doctor’s note requirement has also been erroneously attributed in some conservative quarters to the HHKA, which contains no such provision.

Let me state again that, like most of my readers, I find the notion of school officials rifling through my kids’ lunches abhorrent.  And I also recognize that you don’t have to be a political conservative to object to these incidents; they’ve also been used as fodder for arguing against GMOs (contained in those Ritz crackers) and against the inextricable links between agribusiness and the federal school meals program, among other issues often raised by the political left.

But to the degree these isolated cases of bureaucratic overreach cloud the bigger picture, all I ask is that we step back for a minute and remember some key facts.  Over 16 million American kids are presently food-insecure.  Over 31 million children rely on the National School Lunch program for needed nutrition, and most of them live sufficiently close to the poverty line that they qualify for free lunches or meals offered at a reduced prices.  These are not kids, by and large, who would otherwise come to school with a well-balanced, home-packed lunch.  So if federal nutrition programs are imperfectly administered, and even imperfectly conceived in many ways, they’re also critically important to kids in need.

A few screw-ups here and there seem like a small price to pay to keep millions of kids from going hungry.

[This post also appears on Civil Eats.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 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 join almost 4,000 TLT followers 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!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

Does Childhood Hunger Justify Food in the Classroom?

A reader named Sheri left a thought-provoking comment on yesterday’s post in which I asked TLT’ers to chime in on a parent’s question about eliminating food in the classroom.  Sheri pointed out that many kids come from food insecure households and therefore my desire to eliminate all food from the classroom (articulated most succinctly in my “Food in the Classroom Manifesto“) might be misguided.

Here’s what Sheri wrote:

I understand that some may be frustrated with food in the classroom, however we need to consider that for many, that food may be the only food they receive in a day. I am a mom and don’t agree with the junk food in the classroom either – my child has multiple food allergies, so I have spoken with our teachers about making the party sign-up sheets start off with a list of healthy options. I also educate about label reading and the dangers of processed ingredients.

But there is often other things to consider before you begin a campaign to stop ALL food in the classroom.

Before you begin a crowdsourcing campaign, I would dig deeper in your communities and find some answers (this may be difficult, but worth the trouble).

Did you know?:
Food Insecurity Facts (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx)

– 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011.[i]
– 20% or more of the child population in 36 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2010. The District of Columbia (30.7%) and Oregon (29.0%) had the highest rates of children in households without consistent access to food.[ii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the highest rate of food insecure children under 18 are the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, & Florida.[iii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the lowest rate of food insecure children under 18 are North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, & Massachusetts. [iv]

There was a recent article that addresses the frustrations and push back that breakfast in the classroom is receiving (http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/05/06/teachers-battle-against-kids-free-breakfast-classroom?cmpid=apatt-fb).

If you would like to better understand the full scope of the issue, perhaps a family movie (https://www.facebook.com/aPlaceAtTheTableMovie/app_190322544333196)

And here is my reply to Sheri.  After you read it, please feel free to jump in with a comment of your own on this important question.


Thanks for all of this valuable information

You may be a new Lunch Tray reader, but childhood hunger is a cause close to my heart, and one about which I write often here on TLT (see the many links below). Indeed, just recently I was a “Food Blogger for Hunger” in association with A Place at the Table, the excellent documentary film you cite above.

Here in Houston, over 80% of our students rely on free or reduced price federal school meals and it was precisely that issue of economic dependency which led to my interest in school food reform in the first place — and to the inception of this blog back in 2010.  It was also the issue that motivated my successful campaign against “pink slime” in school food ground beef last year.  And childhood hunger is the reason why I’ve always been a supporter of breakfast-in-the-classroom programs even though they can be, as you note, quite controversial — as such a program was here in Houston ISD when it was first instituted.

But I think it’s very important to make a distinction between “food in the cafeteria” and “food in the classroom.” The former is federally regulated and, thanks to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in late 2010, great strides have been made in the nutritional profile of school meals. While we still have a lot of work to do in terms of reducing schools’ reliance on highly processed foods, children dependent on the federal lunch and breakfast programs (as well as after-school snack and even school supper programs) can and do have access to nutritionally balanced meals each and every school day (and throughout the summer where summer meals are offered.) That access is critical in an age in which so many kids, as you note, live in food-insecure households.

Food in the classroom, however, is another story.  This food tends to fall into three categories: food brought in for classroom celebrations; the use of food by teachers as a teaching tool or manipulative; and food handed out by teachers or principals as a reward for good behavior or academic performance.

In the case of classroom parties, an excellent 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, co-authored by Marion Nestle, found that the majority of items offered for class celebrations were “low-nutrient, energy-dense foods” such as cake, fruit punch, ice cream, Doritos, cheese puffs, and potato chips.  And while I know of no academic studies looking at the latter two categories of classroom food, in my experience (and in the reported experience of my readers), food used as a teaching tool and as a reward also almost always falls into the “junk food” category.

For example, I’ll never forget the day my daughter told me about an elementary school science lesson which replicated the circulatory system by using corn syrup for plasma, red hots for platelets and another candy — I think white Tic Tacs — for white blood cells. After mixing up this concoction for demonstration purposes, all the children were given a cup of it to eat.  Lovely.

Similarly, in prior TLT posts you can read all about how my daughter, now in middle school, was last year regularly handed 12 oz cans of Coke and full-sized packages of gummi bears for good performance in a language class, and how my son was given a jumbo sized Hershey bar for winning a school lottery. Those are just two instances of the many, many times in which my kids have been handed out junk food by a teacher as a reward.

Here’s my point:  I think we can all agree that even children beset by childhood hunger should not be consuming empty calories.  In fact, to the extent children are being fed junk food in the classroom, it’s likely they will then consume less of the nutritionally balanced, taxpayer-subsidized meal offered in the lunch room.  That’s not so critical for kids like mine, who can make up any nutritional gaps at home, but it’s quite detrimental for kids who don’t come from homes well-stocked with healthful food.

So given the almost uniformly poor nutritional quality of food in the classroom, I reject the notion that childhood hunger justifies its use.

That said, there certainly are instances of teachers in impoverished areas bringing nutritious food into their classrooms to feed hungry students, often paying for this food out of their own pocket. That’s entirely different, of course, though it still raises other concerns about classroom food, such as allergy issues.  Similarly, those offerings aren’t subject to any kind of oversight, so we’re relying on a particular teacher’s definition of “healthful food” – one with which we might not all agree.  I also believe that if hungry children have access to school breakfast, school lunch, and after-school snack (if not also supper, as we have here in Houston at some particularly impoverished schools), then even that sort of food in the classroom might not be necessary.

Let me know what you think about all this, and I hope other TLT readers will chime in as well on this important question.

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

“Food Blogger Against Hunger:” A Budget Recipe and a Call to Action

food bloggers against hungerOne in two American children will receive food assistance benefits at some point in their childhoods.  That’s just one of the many startling statistics shared in the new documentary about hunger in America, A Place at the Table.

In response to that film, Nicole Gulotta, founder of The Giving Table, recently launched an effort called Food Bloggers Against Hunger to promote Share Our Strength‘s efforts to protect SNAP (food stamp) funding in Congress.

I told you last week that I’m proud to be one of almost 200 bloggers who today are “donating” our posts to bring awareness to the issue of hunger in America.  You can find all the donated posts on The Giving Table’s Facebook page, on Twitter (hashtag #takeyourplace) and on Pinterest.

My own contribution, suggested by The Giving Table, is sharing a healthful recipe to feed four people for around $4, the amount many families have to work with on their food assistance benefits.

When presented with this challenge, I immediately thought of a potato frittata that I recently served my own family — a filling, protein-rich and inexpensive dinner.  I didn’t have a written recipe when I made it, but here’s my best approximation:

Spinach and Potato Frittata

  • cooking oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 cubes
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • 1 (10-ounce) box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and water squeezed out
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Saute the potato cubes in a bit of oil over medium high heat, then add a little water to the pan and cover it, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes soften.   You can add a bit more water if needed to prevent sticking.
  3. Remove the potatoes to a bowl (drain if needed), then add more oil to the skillet.  Add the onion and saute until softened, then stir in the garlic and spinach and cook for another few minutes, then set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and cheese together, seasoning well with salt and pepper.   Stir in the potatoes and spinach.
  5. In a cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet coated with oil, cook the egg mixture over medium-low heat for one minute. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until eggs are set and center is slightly runny, 6 to 8 minutes. Then broil until the top of the frittata is golden, about one minute.
  6. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

In calculating the cost of this recipe, I assumed that the family already had oil, salt and pepper in its kitchen and I used the prices at my local Target grocery:  eggs, 99¢ a dozen; one Idaho potato, around 75¢; one yellow onion, about 53¢; a head of garlic, 59¢;  a package of frozen spinach, $1.49; and 8 oz. of Market Pantry shredded cheese, $2.25.   The total for these ingredients is over $4, but the family will still have eight eggs, half an onion, most of the garlic and some cheese left over for another meal.  When I prorated the costs to cover only the amounts actually used in the recipe, it came to $4.24.

Living solely on food assistance benefits is a terrible challenge for many families, and far too many American kids go to bed hungry each night.  So to participate in today’s initiative, please take just a few seconds to use this link to ask your Congressional representatives to support anti-hunger legislation.  You can also find a screening of A Place at the Table in your city or view it on demand through iTunes and Amazon.

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

Why I’m a “Food Blogger Against Hunger”

food bloggers against hunger

Back in 2010, a few months after starting The Lunch Tray, I had an epiphany.  As I told you then:

So there I was, contemplating a future blog post on the weighty issue of whether or not you should do cute things with your kid’s food, like making little heart-shaped sandwiches, when a letter arrived in the mail from Action Against Hunger, a charity to which I try to regularly contribute.

And that’s when it hit me.  While I believe all the issues on The Lunch Tray are worthy of discussion (even if some are a little sillier than others), and even though we’ve certainly discussed childhood hunger here and will continue to do so, any site claiming to be dedicated to “kids and food, in school and out” really ought to take affirmative steps to help kids with no food at all.

Ever since that day, I’ve had a “Help Hungry Kids” tab on my site to direct readers to the reputable anti-hunger charities I regularly support, in hopes that you will, too.  And I’ve continued to highlight on a regular basis the critical issue of food insecurity in this country, which presently affects one in four American children.  (See the many “Related Posts” below.)

I’m also proud to participate in this year’s Food Bloggers Against Hunger initiative, created in response to the new documentary about hunger in America, A Place at the Table.  In partnership with Share Our Strength‘s efforts to protect SNAP (food stamp) funding and to make federal anti-hunger legislation a priority, food bloggers from across the country will be “donating” posts next Monday, April 8th, to bring awareness to the issue.

My own contribution on Monday will be sharing a healthful recipe to feed four people costing around $5, the amount many families have to work with on their $4-per-person-per-day food assistance benefits.  And in the meantime, consider taking just a few seconds to use this link to ask your Congressional representatives to support anti-hunger legislation.

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

A Delicious Thanksgiving Recipe for TLT Readers

After this post I’ll be signing off for the week, but before I go I wanted to share a fantastic recipe for your holiday table — or any time.

I was just in New York City and while there my mom treated me to a birthday dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, ABC Kitchen.  And one of the best things we had that night was a dish made of grilled bread topped with ricotta cheese, mashed kabocha squash and mint.

photo copyright New York Times

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  how good could that be?  Well, let me tell you, people, it was moan-out-loud-amazing. But don’t take my word for it.  In a funny coincidence,  New York Times food writer Mark Bittman wrote about this very dish just two days after we had it and said, “Something about it drives me wild.”  I agree!

Bittman notes that the dish would make a great addition to a Thanksgiving  meal and now that he’s published the recipe, I’ve decided to serve it as my appetizer.  But if you do the same, keep the portions small because with the thickly sliced, grilled bread, creamy ricotta, etc., this is a pretty filling tidbit.  As another New York Times food writer, Sam Sifton, recently said in dismissing the whole concept of Thanksgiving appetizers:

I did not sit in my kitchen on Saturday night making lists, and deal with brining a bird on Monday night, and bake pies on Tuesday night, and spend all of Thursday cooking turkey, sides and gravy, then set a table appropriate to presidents and kings, so that you could come into my house and eat a pound and a half of nuts and guacamole before sitting down for the Thanksgiving feast.

Ha!  So true! :-)

And finally, during this holiday celebrating bounty, let’s not forget that almost 1/4 of all American kids are living in food-insecure households.  You can always click on the “Help Hungry Kids” tab above for links to several reputable charities working to alleviate hunger here in the United States and around the world.   I also provide a link to the addictive Free Rice game, which tests your knowledge of various subjects while helping to feed the hungry.

Have a safe and happy holiday!  See you next week.

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

A Teacher Worries About Calorie Caps and His Impoverished, Hungry Students

Every now and then I get a comment from a TLT reader that I want to highlight in a separate blog post so that more of you will see it.  That was the case with this account from a public school teacher named Brian.  Please read on:

I enjoy this blog and read it regularly so I thought I’d share a story from the trenches, as it were.

I am a 1st grade teacher in a southern state, Title I school (95% free and reduced lunch) and here is the reality of the new food guidelines in my school: I know this is true because I eat breakfast and lunch with my kids every day and I eat the same foods they eat.

Funny that I pay an “adult” price for the breakfast and lunch but receive the same portions as the kids receive. I’m not complaining — my waistline is shrinking and that’s a good thing for me — but I’m pained every day watching my hungry kids stay hungry after eating lunch and nearly every day I have to comfort sad children who don’t understand why they can’t eat what they want when they are presented with a long line of choices.

These are children who may not eat an evening meal at home and may not get more than one meal a day on weekends, if that. Some parents are unable (for various reasons) to get their children to school on time for the free breakfast, which is also severely limited in choice, so these children face true hunger every day.

When the children go through the lunch line they are allowed the following choices: 1 entree which is a choice between 2 hot items, or a ham or turkey sandwich with cheese and lettuce on a dry bun, a peanut butter and jelly (prepackaged) sandwich,or occasionally a spicy chicken wrap, a cup of low-fat plain yogurt parfait with grapes and granola topping, or a 2-cup portion salad (usually a chef salad with a smattering of chopped lunchmeat or a chicken Caesar salad). Condiments are iffy but usually available.

There is a choice of up to 2 vegetables, usually one hot vegetable choice and maybe a cold vegetable, such as sliced cucumbers or a very small (1/2 cup?) romaine lettuce salad with 1 or 2 cucumber slices and a wedge of tomato.

There is a choice of 2 fruits. If the child chooses a half-pint juice that is considered one fruit choice. There are usually two whole fruits, such as apples and quartered oranges, and canned fruits such as unsweetened applesauce or diced pears in water. If they choose the yogurt parfait for their entree and a juice they are not allowed another fruit but may choose a vegetable (most don’t).

The children get their entree, a vegetable (most usually skip the vegetable — though I highly encourage it and try to set a good example even when the vegetables are tasteless, unseasoned, and overcooked, which is nearly always), and a juice and a fruit.

Just this week I have had four of my 6-year olds in tears over lunch on more than one occasion. Two were crying inconsolably because they were not allowed to get a juice and 2 fruits and they were very hungry. They eventually confessed that they hadn’t eaten anything since lunch the day before. I keep healthy snacks in the classroom in open containers that they are free to take whenever they choose but even at age 6 pride keeps some from admitting their hunger. The other two children were crying because they didn’t care for any of the choices for entree or vegetable and they weren’t allowed to substitute an extra fruit so they knew they would stay hungry. I bought some extra fruits on my tray and gave it to them when we were seated, along with my juice. We are not allowed to “share” food by state law but I am a maverick and make sure kids get what they want as far as I am able. I also pay if any of my kids’ parents forget or are unable to pay for lunch. None of my kids will ever go hungry while in my care!

This is overlong now so I won’t go into great detail about the breakfast menu — rather bleak by my standards but at least it is free and many of our kids do partake of a choice between a serving of cereal, a whole wheat “donut hole” or pre-packaged breakfast burrito/2 french toast sticks/or 4 mini pancakes. On very rare occasions we have whole wheat biscuits with a breaded chicken patty or a reheated frozen “omelet” (Egg Beaters) with a quarter slice of American low-fat cheese. And bless those cafeteria ladies (I highly respect them all — they are constrained by district and state mandates) 1/2 cup of cheese grits!

I think it is important to point out that this isn’t just an issue for middle class families who care deeply about their child’s diet and are able to provide abundant healthy food choices but school menus have great impact on many, many poor children who, through no fault of their own and often with no agency to change the situation, end up being pawns in the lunch tray wars.

The new 650-calorie limit on a kindergartener’s lunch was set by the Institute of Medicine based on 1/3 of a child’s daily recommended caloric intake. But if a child isn’t getting dinner the night before, or breakfast that morning, of course a 650-calorie meal is not nearly enough to feed that child.

I was relaying Brian’s account to someone who suggested that maybe the new calorie caps shouldn’t apply at Title One schools.  That’s an appealing idea on its face, but it’s important to remember that schools in economically depressed areas can offer free, in-class breakfast and also qualify for the newly expanded federal after-school snack program.  Furthermore, as we’ve discussed here in the past, poverty and childhood obesity are not always mutually exclusive.  It’s notable to me that even the Food Research and Action Center (one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger nonprofits), strongly opposes the recent efforts by Iowa Congressman Steve King to repeal the calorie caps.

But at the same time, Brian’s sobering story makes clear that millions of American children live in food insecure homes, school meals are often their only dependable source of food, yet for a variety of reasons (parental neglect, stigma, etc.) they may not be getting all the food that’s being made available to them at school.  It’s a tragic situation.

This seems like a good time to remind my readers that at the top of every Lunch Tray page is a tab which reads, “Help Hungry Kids.”  You’ll find there a list of charities I particularly like which are devoted to ameliorating hunger, here at home and worldwide.

Thanks in advance to those who contribute to this critical cause, and thanks to Brian for sharing his story.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,100 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

Universal In-Class Breakfast: Can We Feed Hungry Kids Without Overfeeding Affluent Kids?

Here’s an issue I’ve been wanting to write about for a while:  the way in which universal, in-class breakfast programs like the one in my district (Houston ISD), can create a conflict between two equally legitimate goals:  alleviating childhood hunger and preventing childhood obesity.

The National School Lunch Program allows schools to provide breakfast, but it’s long been known that when breakfast is served in the cafeteria, economically disadvantaged students often don’t eat it, either out of fear of stigma or because they have no time to get to the cafeteria before school starts.

To remedy this problem, some districts, particularly those in large urban areas, have adopted universal, in-class breakfast programs whereby all students are able to obtain and eat a free breakfast in their classrooms at the start of the school day.   At my child’s elementary school, this is accomplished by placing several meal carts in the hallways before the first bell rings.  Children who want the meal obtain their breakfast card (which is different from their lunch card) from a volunteer-staffed table and present it to the cafeteria worker manning a cart.  The food is then taken to the child’s desk and eaten in the first few minutes of class time.

When our superintendent, Dr. Terry Grier, first instituted this program here in Houston, it was (and remains for some) a highly controversial move.  There have been legitimate concerns about food waste, sanitation problems, lost instructional time, and the quality of the food served (though it has improved somewhat since the early days of the program, when the inclusion of daily animal crackers in the breakfast was what actually motivated me to start this blog.)  On the other hand, I’m told that principals at Houston schools with large populations of economically disadvantaged children enthusiastically laud the program, citing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems.

But one of the complaints I most often hear from parents at more affluent schools is that their kids are “double-dipping” at breakfast, eating a full meal at home and then eating some or all of the school meal as well.  In an age when childhood obesity is a real concern, giving kids two breakfasts a day is obviously problematic.  And apparently the New York City Council has slowed the roll-out of in-class breakfast in that city for just that reason.  The New York Times reported last Friday:

 The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.

It seems to me that there’s an obvious solution to this problem, one my child’s elementary school principal has employed from the start:  if parents don’t want their child eating the school breakfast for any reason, they have the option to have the child’s breakfast card removed from the stack of available meal cards; without the card, no meal can be obtained.  And if the parent changes his or her mind on a given day, he or she can send a signed note to that effect and a meal will be served.

But what’s troubled me for some time is how rarely this solution seems to be employed in my district.  On a purely anecdotal basis I’ve been told by many parents that the choice to opt their children out of breakfast has never been offered to them by their respective principals.  And the district has done nothing (of which I’m aware) to make the option widely known to the public.

And that leads to the question of money.  School food service departments generally welcome universal breakfast programs because they bring in more federal reimbursement dollars, particularly in districts with large numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches (true of over 80% of students in Houston ISD.)  As the Food Research and Action Center noted in a a comprehensive report on school breakfast:

If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

Thus, districts with in-class breakfast programs have an economic incentive to serve as many meals as possible, regardless of whether some meals are being served to kids who have no need for it — and whose parents would greatly prefer they not partake of it.

I’m going to inquire further in my district about the availability of a breakfast opt-out and will report back here.  And for those of you in districts with universal, in-class breakfast, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the program.


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 3,000 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

A Day Off From Blogging, Thinking About Hunger

Back when I started TLT I was the very model of blogger organization — I went out and bought this official-looking black notebook in which I laid out all my posts, weeks ahead of time.  That lovely system lasted . . . well, not very long.   These days, with a few exceptions, pretty much everything you read here was hastily written that same morning, and I rarely have a backlog of posts to draw from when life gets too busy to blog.

I’m not posting today because I have the chance to prepare and serve meals at a local homeless shelter, something I’m quite embarrassed to say I’ve never done before.  On TLT I try to focus on hunger regularly  — particularly childhood hunger —  but in the past my own efforts to help combat hunger have consisted mostly of donating money to respected organizations (see the “Feed Hungry Kids” tab) and donating food in my community a few times a year.  I’m glad to have the opportunity today to break out of my comfort zone and help serve people in need, one-on-one.

In the meantime, you can visit the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)’s website for the most up-to-date information about hunger in America, including this recent report which indicates that one in four Americans now worry about having enough money for food.   Raj Patel has a short essay in the most recent issue of The Nation on why hunger persists globally.  And if you missed the excellent special report in Parents magazine earlier this year on hunger in America, including hunger among the middle class, the link is included here.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Bettina Elias Siegel

A Poignant Story About Kids and Hunger

Last month on TLT’s Facebook page I shared a link to an eye-opening special report in Parents magazine about hunger in America.  I’d intended to write a full post about the article here, but other news items and ideas kept pushing it off the blog calendar and I started to feel that maybe it wasn’t timely anymore.

But yesterday I happened to see a tweet by Jeanne Ponessa Fratello, blogger at Jolly Tomato, linking to this story.  It’s about poverty-stricken kids in Philadelphia and the emotional scars inflicted when their parents forgo their own meals to be able to feed them:

I get yummy French toast, but when Mommy doesn’t eat, I say, ‘Please eat right now, Mommy,’ ” said Kodi-Cheree Moses, 5, of North Philadelphia. Her mother, Shontaya, 31, a security guard, has three other children, and food is scarce.

The same worries course through the streets of Frankford, where 7-year-old Marcus Gaines Jr. has his parents’ missed meals on his mind.

“When I eat and I see my mom and dad don’t, I say, ‘Why don’t you eat?’ ” he said. “It makes me feel nervous and kind of sad and stuff.

“I worry about them. I try to give them my chicken nuggets.”

Marcus Sr. gently turns down his son’s offers and tells him not to fret. “As long as you guys eat, we’re OK,” he said he tells the boy. “Me and Mommy will find something.”


Moved by the Philly story, I went back and found the Parents magazine link.  In the article you’ll read about people who may be a lot like you — college-educated, living in the suburbs — who suddenly lost their financial footing in today’s bad economy and now struggle to feed their families every day.  You’ll also read about parents like those in the story cited above who forgo meals, leading to depression and irritability that in turn undermines the ability to parent well.

One sobering quote I just couldn’t get out of my head was from Dr. Mariana Chilton, Ph.D., an associate professor of public health at Drexel University and director of Witnesses to Hunger, who said:

This recession will be permanently inscribed in the bodies and the brains of children growing up today.

President Obama made a campaign pledge to end childhood hunger in America by 2015.  One significant victory in that battle was last year’s passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which, among other things, uses Medicaid data to directly certify children for free and reduced price meals; helps states improve the certification process for school meal aid; allows universal free meals for students in high poverty communities; and expands USDA authority to support meals served to at-risk children in after school programs.

But with one in four Americans living in food insecure households, clearly there is so much more to be done.  The Parents article offers excellent suggestions for ways individuals can help through monetary and food donations, as well as through political activism.  You can also always use the “Feed Hungry Kids” tab at the top of every Lunch Tray page to link directly to reputable organizations fighting to alleviate hunger in this country and around the world.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Bettina Elias Siegel