A Closer Look at Michelle Obama’s Anti-Childhood-Obesity Legacy

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 9.20.35 AMIn case you missed it, be sure to check out this Monday’s Washington Post feature providing an in-depth (and, to my mind, fair) evaluation of Michelle Obama’s progress in seeking to reverse childhood obesity.

While there will always be food advocates who criticize the First Lady for her partnerships with major corporations like Wal-Mart and for not pushing the food industry harder for reform, I’ve long praised her here on TLT for accomplishing all she reasonably can from the East Wing.  (Then again, I apparently regard Mrs. O as my “one-way BFF,” so maybe I’m a little biased.  :-) )

Take a look at the article and let me know what you think.

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The Specter of the Starving Student Athlete

fried chicken junk food competitive greasyWhen I started writing The Lunch Tray in 2010, an actual week’s menu in Houston ISD included breaded chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy, beef taco nachos, beef taco salad, pepperoni pizza and Frito Pie (fried corn chips topped with chili and cheese).  The latter two entrees were served with mashed potatoes, dessert was offered on most of those days, and it could all be washed down with chocolate milk.  Indeed, that same year I shared here a mathematical experiment in which I proved that a child could easily gain weight from eating HISD’s school meals.

Those highly caloric meals made perfect sense, though, when you understand that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was instituted to combat hunger after too many World War II recruits were found to be malnourished. But given the growing concern regarding childhood obesity, in 2012 the NLSP’s old calorie minimums were replaced with common sense calorie limits on each meal served.

Unfortunately, though, common sense doesn’t always prevail into discussions of school meals.

Though it had a long history of bipartisan support, the NSLP has become highly politicized ever since First Lady Michelle Obama made its overhaul one of her signature issues.  So when much-needed reforms were instituted two years ago, one of the first complaints from the political right was that big, strapping football players were going hungry due to Mrs. Obama’s Nanny State school meal calorie limits.  (See, “The Right Wing and the School Food Calorie Kerfuffle.”)

But is the specter of of the “starving student athlete” real?  And even if very athletic kids need an usually high number of calories, should their unique needs dictate calorie limits for the rest of the student population, which is unfortunately quite sedentary?

I urge you to read Dana Woldow’s excellent piece in today’s Beyond Chron, “Are School Lunches Starving Student Athletes?,” which asks and answers those very questions.

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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.

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How You Can Help Improve Daycare Meals

Last fall I wrote a piece for Civil Eats about the low nutritional quality of food served in some federally funded daycare meal programs, and how concerned parents actually need a doctor’s note if they want to send in healthier food for their child.

In a follow-up Civil Eats post in February, I told you how new proposed USDA rules would give daycare food its first major overhaul since the Johnson administration, but that the rules still have some glaring deficiencies.  For example, if a daycare provider chose to ignore the proposed rules’  “best practices,” an acceptable breakfast could still look like this:

CACFP Breakfast NO TEXT

The comment period on the proposed rules ends on April 15th and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has made it easy for you to weigh in.  By clicking on this link and sending the pre-written email, you’ll be telling USDA that you support stronger standards for daycare food.

The CSPI requests are not pie-in-the-sky; as noted in my most recent Civil Eats piece, the lack of adequate funding for daycare meals unfortunately does impose some limits on how nutritious those meals can ever be.  But, if adopted, CSPI’s proposed changes to the rules would at least close some of the worst loopholes, such as one which allows children to be served juice at every single meal to satisfy their fruit and vegetable requirements.

If you care about daycare food, please take a moment to sign and send the CSPI email to USDA.  Thank you!

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District “Celebrates” Child Nutrition Roll-Back With Free Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits and GravySo, remember last year’s “CRomnibus” spending bill?  It ended, at least for fiscal year 2015, the ongoing battle between the School Nutrition Association, which wants to roll back key school food nutritional standards, and the many school food and public health advocates who want to keep those standards in place.  Under this temporary compromise, schools still must serve kids fruits and vegetables, but any district which can show “hardship” may be allowed to waive out of the requirement that all grain foods served be 51% whole grain.  Instead, such districts will be allowed to serve these “whole-grain-rich” food only half the time.

This waiver provision is important because if SNA has its way in Congress this year, that weaker whole grain standard will soon be in place nationwide, even for the 90% of schools already meeting the higher standard.  A standard which, I’d like to remind everyone (for the four thousandth time) was set by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine to ensure the long-term health of America’s kids, approved in Congress in 2010 with bipartisan vote  — and supported at the time by the SNA itself.

Apparently the majority of districts in North Carolina are planning to seek the waiver, in part because the current federal standard messes with a regional favorite: the white-flour buttermilk biscuit.  From a piece written late last year:

Lynn Harvey, chief school nutrition services director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said she heard complaints from many public school districts about the 100-percent whole grain requirement because the reformulation has affected a regional favorite.

“A biscuit is by definition light and fluffy. Whole-grain biscuits are hard, heavy and chewy,” Harvey said.

She said she expects the majority of North Carolina’s school districts to ask for the whole-grain exemption that Congress permitted in the cromnibus.

Now one of those North Carolina districts, the Haywood County school district, has succeeded in showing the requisite hardship, reportedly because participation in its program has dropped by five percent in recent years. This news was trumpeted yesterday by the SNA as the top story in its “Smart Brief” newsletter.

biscuits
Photo: WLOS ABC 13

Both the SNA and Haywood Country are clearly viewing this turn of events as a victory.  In fact, on April 1st, there will be a “big celebration” in Haywood County in which every student and staff member in the district will be receiving free biscuits and gravy. Thereafter, the white flour biscuits and white flour pasta macaroni and cheese (along with, presumably, other white-flour foods) will be returning to Haywood County lunch trays.

Now, I totally understand regional food loyalties and I love a good buttermilk biscuit as much as the next person.  I’d even be fine with tweaking the school nutrition standards to allow districts to offer regional favorites like white tortillas or white biscuits on a limited basis, like once or twice a month.  And maybe, if we’re lucky, that’s the way the current Congressional battle over whole grains will be resolved.

But here’s what’s so troubling to me about this biscuit story.

One only has to watch the local news coverage of the Haywood County waiver to understand that this isn’t just a fight about biscuits. Instead, it’s abundantly clear that the administrators in this district resent what they view as undue federal interference with their lunch program.  One associate superintendent quoted in the news story says the current nutritional standards are “just an unnecessary set of regulations.”  He adds, “Whole grains or ground grains — we’re not so sure that should be a federal regulation,” and suggests, “Let’s leave food selection to parents and let’s not try to manage that from Washington.”

I can’t help but point out the obvious disconnect here: when you’re already talking about a massive federal program like National School Lunch Program, it seems a little misplaced to be complaining about federal regulation of that program.  But let’s say we do want to cede more local control to districts. What happens when we let local entities set child nutritional standards?

It doesn’t always go so well for the kids.

Here in Texas, our legislators actually passed a law in 2013 to try to keep the worst junk food in our schools. And our Big Government-hating new Agriculture Secretary is currently attempting to return deep fat fryers to our schools, an effort which scored big points for him on Fox News but might be a tad less beneficial for the 36% of kids in my state who are already overweight or obese.

Over in Georgia, where 35% of school kids are overweight or obese and where obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually, the school board succeeded in gutting the new “Smart Snacks in School” rules so that junk food can now be sold to kids one-half of the school year.

Meanwhile, in Haywood County, 61% of the adults were overweight or obese in 2013 and in 2011 (I could find no more recent data), 39% of its children were overweight or obese.  The leading cause of death in the county is heart disease.  In a 2010 community health survey, when asked what keeps people from being healthy in the county, the number one response was “unhealthy food.”

So when a Haywood County food services director declares in the news report that the federal government’s new nutrition standards are “backfiring,” I can’t help but ask:  from a public health perspective, isn’t it actually the status quo in this county that’s backfiring?

Moreover, given the hostility these local officials seem to feel toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards, just how hard were these North Carolina school districts trying to make the standards work before asking for a waiver?  Are they using the Smarter Lunchroom techniques, giving active encouragement to get kids to try new foods, offering student sampling programs, or implementing any of the other strategies being successfully used in hundreds of districts around the country?

The occasional biscuit is one thing and, as noted above, I’d have no problem with a change to the school food rules to allow such foods as a treat.  I’d also be fine relaxing the whole grain rules for another year, if that’s what’s needed for manufacturers to tweak their grain formulations.

But if the SNA has its way in Congress this year, white flour foods will once again become prevalent in school meals, contradicting prevailing scientific guidance on child nutrition.  In other words, the Haywood County model will soon be coming to a district near you.

And that, in my opinion, is hardly a development worthy of “celebration.”

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!

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Help a TLT Mom Out: Advocating for Change in a Hostile Food Environment

candyI once attended a conference for food advocates from all over the country and one of the break-out sessions was specifically for those of us working in politically conservative states.  The joke was that wine and sympathetic hugs would be on offer as we shared our sob stories with each other.

That experience reminded me of a TLT reader, whom I’ll call Ellen, who wrote to me a few months ago seeking my help.  I actually shared a bit of Ellen’s story in my new (free!) 40-page ebook, The Lunch Tray’s Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.  I wrote:

While parents should feel free to advocate for the healthiest classroom environment possible, there may come a point when you hit the limits of what your particular community will accept. Here’s what I mean:

You might live in a health-conscious, progressive city and/or your children might attend a school (public or private) in which the parent community is well educated about nutrition — or at least open to nutrition education. Or you might be like one Lunch Tray reader who recently wrote to me in despair. In the small, rural area in which she lives, the school is awash in junk food for every occasion, from parties to fundraisers. Overweight children in her community are generally looked upon as “healthier” than children of normal weight (who are called “pencil-necked” or “beanpole”), and a fellow PTA member once literally told her, “We don’t care about nutrition!”

If you live in the former environment, asking fellow parents to bring in only organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables for birthdays might be met with excited enthusiasm. In the latter environment, it might get you run out of town by an angry mob.

When I corresponded with Ellen I promised to share her story on the blog to solicit advice from other readers, and I’m doing that belatedly today.  Here are the other pieces to her story:

Fifty percent of the kids in her rural district are on free or reduced price lunch.  At first she was told outright that the district had no wellness policy, but she was intrepid in trying to locate it:

After speaking with the Superintendent’s office twice, several elementary teachers (including P.E. teacher), and the District School Nurse, I called the Students Services Director in the Superintendent’s office- they put me on speakerphone to have me explain to them what a wellness plan is.  Then said they’d look around and get back with me. Sure enough, they found one! Or what they’re calling one.  I now have a hard copy in my possession.

The wellness policy, like most policies written when they were first mandated back in 2004, is quite weak (more on that in my ebook) and the district isn’t even complying with its own low standards. For example, the policy encourages teachers to solicit healthy food for classroom use, yet on her own child’s class supply list parents were asked to bring “a bag of candy” for use as rewards.  She also says preschoolers in the district are given snacks like “brownies, cupcakes, chocolate pudding and pop tarts.”

Ellen has spoken about this a PTO meeting (where she was told, “We don’t care about nutrition!”), she has attended a board meeting to learn more about her district’s policies, and she has taken a school tour with her principal to discuss these issues. Here’s how the talk with the principal went:

When I brought up the idea of wellness, nutrition and obesity, he scoffed and said he didn’t believe in BMI, and said, “Look at Shaquille O’Neil!”. . . . He told me that they don’t really have many celebrations anyway- He said “Just Christmas parties and Valentines, not Easter… Oh except the Kindergarteners and 1st grade- they go to the Nursing Home for an Egg Hunt.”  I just nodded and kept to myself the other celebrations that I know are occurring- Halloween parties in each classroom from 1:30-2:30 today (listed on the website), Veterans Day Breakfast (mentioned at the PTO meeting, planning who will supply the donuts), Donuts with dads, Muffins with Moms (mentioned at the PTO meeting).

Ellen and I have talked about the importance of finding fellow parents who can stand with her in this effort, but she writes:

I would like to try to change my own school district, and have looked for allies, but have come up with no one. Not one person who is willing to help or even feels there’s a problem.

She and I have talked about other things she can do, including seeking support outside the school environment from health professionals and community leaders.  We also talked about how the new USDA wellness policy rules will require schools to be more proactive about student health, including having to report on their progress each year in meeting specific health-related goals.  All of that said, though, I fully recognize that sometimes a school or district is just so mired in the junk food Stone Age, even these sorts of external pressures won’t do much good.

But before Ellen throws up her hands in defeat or moves her kids to another district (something she’s considering), I told her I’d share her story here.  Any additional advice, TLTers?  Please share your thoughts in a comment below or on TLT’s Facebook page.

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!

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Texas Ag Commissioner: Bring Back Sodas and Deep Fat Fryers to School

Yesterday I told you that Texas’s newly elected Agriculture Commissioner chose, as his first act in office, to grant “amnesty” to classroom birthday cupcakes in our state.

As I explained in yesterday’s post, not only was this a head-scratcher given the many more pressing problems facing Texas’s farmers (starting with a serious water shortage and including a rampant feral hog population that’s destroying our ecosystems and crops), Commissioner Sid Miller’s publicity stunt didn’t even make sense legally: since 2005, the right of a parent or grandparent to bring any type of food, including cupcakes, to classroom parties and celebrations has actually been guaranteed by law under the so-called “Safe Cupcake Amendment.”

Photo credit:  Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Photo credit: Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Nonetheless, Mr. Miller did everything he could at yesterday’s press conference to convey the impression that there had been some “repeal” of restrictive regulations barring such treats, again making the world safe for cupcakes.

But the “repeal” of which Mr. Miller speaks had nothing to do with birthday cupcakes.  Rather, in response to the new federal Smart Snacks rules governing competitive foods and beverages (the snacks and drinks sold to kids during the school day, not the treats given to them in classrooms), our state repealed its own (and far less nutritionally stringent) rules which had been in place since 2004.

In other words, the “repeal” characterized by Mr. Miller as somehow courageously bucking restrictive regulations was actually a show of appropriate deference by our state to the federal government.  In this regard, I can’t tell whether Mr. Miller and his advisors are being intentionally deceptive or are just plain ignorant.  Either proposition ought to seriously trouble the citizens of Texas.

One aspect of our old nutrition policy which was not repealed was the prohibition on using deep fat fryers in our school cafeterias for preparing foods served in the reimbursable school breakfast or lunch, or sold in cafeteria snack bars.  But at yesterdays’ press conference, Mr. Miller reportedly told those in attendance that he also plans to reinstate the use of deep fat fryers in Texas schools, as well as allowing schools to once again sell soda to students.  Both of those practices have been banned in Texas since 2004, and the sale of deep fried food or soda to kids would directly run afoul of the federal regulations for school meals and competitive foods and beverages.  But, of course, those federal rules are administered and enforced here in Texas by, yes, our Department of Agriculture.

Put simply, the state agency which, according to its own website, “striv[es] to put Texans on the path to wellness” is now being led by an individual who seems bizarrely determined to fatten up Texan children as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Or, to use Mr. Miller’s own words from yesterday’s press conference: “ “We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for nearly 200 years. We don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”

People, it’s going to be a very long four years. . . .

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“Cupcake Amnesty:” Childhood Obesity and the Political Divide

american cupcakeThis morning in Austin, our state’s newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is holding a press conference to announce his first official act in office.  But Miller won’t use the occasion to address Texas’s troubling water shortage, which he had promised to make his “top priority” if elected, nor will he discuss any other issue of pressing concern to the state’s farmers or economy.

Rather, Miller will kick off his four-year term as Agriculture Commissioner by “declaring amnesty for cupcakes across the state of Texas.”  According to Miller’s press release, “We want families, teachers and school districts in Texas to know the Texas Department of Agriculture has abolished all rules and guidelines that would stop a parent from bringing cupcakes to school.  This act is about providing local control to our communities.”

Whatever you think of Miller’s administrative priorities, there’s actually no legal need to “declare amnesty” for school cupcakes here in Texas.  A parent or grandparent already has the right to bring cupcakes (or any other food) to a school birthday party or classroom celebration, a right guaranteed by our state legislature with the 2005 passage of “Lauren’s Law,” better known as the “Safe Cupcake Amendment.”

So no cupcake-related “rules or guidelines” were in fact “abolished” by the Texas Department of Agriculture, which oversees our state’s child nutrition programs, but Miller likely cares little about the specifics.  His cupcake stunt is more likely a response to the new federal Smart Snacks rules, which set forth stringent nutritional standards for foods and beverages sold to children during the school day, apart from the school meal. Nothing in the Smart Snacks rules affects classroom or birthday treats (since they’re not offered for sale) but the rules did effectively put an end to junk food fundraising during school hours, a development which hasn’t been popular with some Texans.

Given that Miller was once named the “second most conservative” member of the Texas legislature – not an easy status to achieve in these parts — it’s not surprising that he wants to be the standard-bearer for local control against a meddling federal government’s anti-childhood obesity measures.  And Miller isn’t even the first conservative to raise aloft a classroom birthday treat to rail against governmental interference.  Sarah Palin made headlines back in 2010 when she brought 200 sugar cookies to a Pennsylvania fundraiser to protest that state’s proposed guidelines for classroom parties, which would encourage parents to send in healthy snacks like fruits or vegetables.  Palin tweeted that day: “2 PA school speech; I’ll intro kids 2 beauty of laissez-faire via serving them cookies amidst school cookie ban debate;Nanny state run amok!”

The irony, of course, is that the states most adversely affected by the obesity crisis (i.e., conservative Southern states) are often the least amenable to policies which might ameliorate that crisis.  This phenomenon is consistent with a 2011 Pew Research Center poll which found that 80% of liberal Democrats felt the government should play a “significant role” in fighting childhood obesity while only 37% of conservative Republicans and 33% of those aligned with the Tea Party agreed with that statement.  (Interestingly, the ethnic groups most affected by obesity – Hispanics and African Americans  – were far more likely than whites (89% and 74% versus 49%, respectively) to support governmental intervention.)

These differing political philosophies will matter greatly in the year ahead, when the Republican-controlled Congress will square off against the Obama White House over a likely effort to permanently weaken school food nutritional standards.  In leading a similar campaign during the 2015 appropriations process last year, Rep. Robert Adherholt (R-AL) predictably couched the rolling back of the standards as a matter of creating “flexibility” in onerous federal regulations and returning local control to school districts.  But let’s be blunt: many of the states most ardently in support of “local control” seem to be doing the least effective job in combatting childhood obesity, if statistics are any guide.

For example, the conservative National Review gleefully declared Miller’s cupcake amnesty announcement to be “further proof that Texas is the greatest state in the union.”  No good Texan would never argue with his or her state’s greatness, but we do also hold the distinction of ranking fifth in the union for obesity among high school students, and thirteenth in the union for our climbing diabetes rate, which is predicted to reach almost three million cases by 2030.  Over 36% of our kids aged 10-17 are overweight or obese, and that number is likely to grow as they age:  in 2009, almost 67% of Texas adults were either overweight or obese, a figure which could reach an astonishing 75% by the year 2040, if present rates persist.

Against that backdrop, let’s examine those unnecessarily “pardoned” birthday cupcakes a little more closely.  In my children’s crowded Texas public elementary school classrooms (some of which had up to 27 kids), students’ birthdays could be celebrated well over 20 times a year.  Putting aside all the other sugary treats kids receive at school from teacher rewards or classroom parties, not to mention illegal junk food fundraising, that’s 6,000 extra calories per child per year (20 x 300 calories). Multiply that figure by six years of elementary school and, assuming a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, a child in Texas public school could gain over 10 extra pounds from birthday cupcakes alone.

The debate over the proper role of government will rage eternally, of course.  But when it relates to child nutrition, the argument is not just theoretical.  Sid Miller can polish his conservative bona fides by granting “amnesty” to cupcakes, but wrongheaded policies relating to school meal standards and classroom junk food adversely affect the health of real children every day.  When, down the road, those policies manifest themselves in the form of obesity-related diseases and shorter lifespans for those children, I won’t be as generous as Mr. Miller in handing out pardons.

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Girl Scouts Under Fire for Lending Name to Sugary Drinks

In recent years, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) has come under fire for a variety of issues related to the organization’s annual cookie sales.  Among other things, parents, bloggers and food advocates have questioned the cookies’ inclusion of trans fats and eco-unfriendly palm oil, as well as the organization’s lame attempt last year to pass off their (now discontinued) Mango Cremes as a substitute for real fruit.  (The latter campaign inspired me to write “A Girl Scout Cookie Gets ‘Healthwashed,’ and Some Musings About Nutritionism and Our Kids.”)

girl scout beverage nestleBut last week GSUSA ruffled even more feathers when Nestlé announced a new line of “limited-edition Nesquik Girl Scout Cookie Beverages,” flavored to taste like Thin Mints and other Girl Scout cookies.  This isn’t the first licensing deal between the Girl Scouts and Nestlé – there’s also a series of Girl Scout-branded chocolate bars on the market – but given the growing concern over the role of sugar-sweetened beverages as a primary driver of childhood obesity and disease, for some critics this was the last straw.

Laurie David, co-producer of Fed Up, a documentary focusing on the prevalence of sugar in our food supply, had a scathing piece about the beverages in yesterday’s HuffPo.  After noting that the drinks contain up to 48 grams of sugar per bottle — three to four times the amount of sugar a child can safely consume each day — David writes:

Girl Scout president Anna M. Chavez, the first Latina woman to lead this organization of more than 3.2 million girls and adults, surely has heard about the dramatic rise in kids getting adult-type 2 diabetes, a phenomenon virtually unheard of a decade ago–perhaps in conversation with the country’s leading childhood obesity advocate AND former Girl Scout Michele Obama before she addressed the organization in honor of its one hundredth anniversary? Given the sad fact that Hispanic kids are at even greater risk of diabetes (they are marketed more to than their white counterparts), Chavez’s decision to use the Girl Scout brand to help promote the very thing that’s making them sick is truly baffling.

Now Monica Serratos, a mother of four and a Girl Scout troop leader, has just launched a Change.org petition asking GSUSA to end the beverage partnership with Nestlé.  She posted the petition on TLT’s Facebook page this morning and I’m glad to share it here with you.

Ironically enough, GSUSA actually refers to itself as “the leading authority on girls’ healthy development,” and its website offers numerous fact sheets and reports relating to childhood obesity.  Yet this purported focus on “healthy development” doesn’t seem to extend to the group’s own fundraising tactics.  In that regard, the Girl Scouts seems no different from many schools and PTAs around the country, which likely care about kids’ health but still inevitably take the easiest path for raising revenue: selling junk food.

On that note, let me remind everyone of a Tweetchat starting in just a few hours on healthy school fundraising, hosted by Moms Rising and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  It will take place between 1-2pm EST, using the hashtag #FoodFri.

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Military Leaders Urge Staying the Course on Healthier School Food

In 2008, a group of retired four-star generals, admirals and other senior military leaders banded together out of a growing concern that a significant segment of America’s youth are unfit to serve in the armed forces, presenting a serious long-term threat to our national security.  Now with over 450 members, Mission Readiness has since proven to be a credible, bipartisan voice on various issues relating to childhood obesity.

Back in 2011, before President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) into law, I shared here a two-part interview with retired Air Force General Norman Seip, who expressed the group’s strong support for that law’s school meal reforms.  But just three years later, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals and a past supporter of the HHFKA, is now working hard to persuade Congress to gut many of the law’s key provisions. Specifically, the SNA is seeking to weaken a requirement that all grain foods served in school meals be “whole grain rich,” that sodium levels be further reduced and that kids are actually served fruits and vegetables instead of being able to pass them by on the lunch line.

Mission Readiness report retreat not an optionAlthough it never overtly names the SNA, Mission Readiness is now fighting back against this assault on healthier school meals in a report issued last week, “Retreat is Not an Option.” After sharing some alarming statistics about the unfitness of both potential military recruits and a significant portion of those already in the military, Mission Readiness argues that “[w]ith children consuming up to half of their daily calories while at school and out of sight of their parents, schools should be a focal point in the nation’s effort to combat childhood obesity.”  To that end, the organization urges that Congress stay the course on healthier school food standards.  Its report states:

We understand that some schools need additional support to help meet the updated standards, such as better equipment and more staff training, and that support should be provided. At the same time, moving forward with implementation of the standards for all schools is paramount. Students depend on schools to reinforce efforts by parents and communities to put them on track for healthy and productive lives. Healthy school meals and snacks are a vital part of that effort. When it comes to children’s health and our national security, retreat is not an option.

On a related note, earlier this month the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids Safe and Healthful Foods Project released the results of a poll which found that parents of school-aged children also overwhelmingly support the improved school meal standards.

But will the support of parents and retired military leaders be enough to overcome the significant influence of the SNA in Congress as we approach the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization?  Unfortunately, supporting healthier school food with training, equipment and funding is a harder road than simply rolling back standards.  But the long term health of our kids — and our national security – depends on it.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 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!”

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Stunning and Perverse: SNA Challenges a Study Finding That Kids Like Healthier School Food

Imagine a restaurant getting a great review, only to have the chef call the newspaper to complain that the critic was sorely mistaken and the restaurant’s food isn’t as good as the review made it out to be.

That bizarre scenario was all I could think of when I received an email yesterday from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), relaying SNA president Julia Bauscher’s refutation of a new, peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity finding that kids actually like the healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

Specifically, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers asked school administrators at 537 elementary schools about their students’ reactions to school meals after the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements went into effect.  Just over half of the respondents said their students initially complained about nutritionally improved school meals, but 70% agreed their students now actually like the lunches.  Even more encouraging, the study found that at socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance to student health), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”

For anyone who cares about school food reform and the health of America’s school children, these findings are great news.

But, perversely, this good news actually poses a serious threat to the SNA, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals.  That’s because, despite having supported the HHFKA’s passage back in 2010, the SNA is now fighting vigorously to roll back in Congress many of the law’s key nutritional requirements — and it is doing so on the grounds that kids are allegedly rejecting healthier school food en masse.

The organization has so become entrenched in promoting this pessimistic view of student acceptance (despite contrary evidence from school districts around the country), that it raised eyebrows even among some of its own members by refusing to allow Sam Kass, former White House chef and Executive Director of Let’s Move!, to speak at its annual national conference in Boston last week.  And the SNA previously saw 19 of its past presidents break ranks in an open letter to Congress — an extraordinary, public display of the internal strife over the SNA’s current legislative agenda.

It was hard for me to imagine the situation getting much uglier, until yesterday’s email presented the truly bizarre spectacle of the very people dedicated to preparing healthful school meals seeking to discredit reliable evidence that kids actually like those meals.

I’m disgusted and saddened by this turn of events.  Back in May, I wrote a post (“School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?) to convey my respect and empathy for school food service directors (FSDs) around the country, who I sincerely believe have one of the hardest jobs imaginable.  Through no fault of FSDs, the National School Lunch Program, as it is currently conceived, often directly pits their legitimate financial concerns against the nutritional needs of the children they serve. But instead of trying to bridge that gap by fighting for funding and other support for struggling school districts, the SNA, which claims in its mission statement to be “committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs,” chose to take the easy way out.

Just imagine how differently things would look today if the SNA had decided to stay the course on healthier school food. Instead of engaging in an unseemly, public battle with the White House, the organization could be closely allied with a still-hugely popular First Lady to jointly advance the cause of improved school nutrition, able to take advantage of all the prime PR opportunities only someone like Michelle Obama can offer.  Instead of using its considerable muscle on Capitol Hill to weaken or kill hard-fought legislative gains, the SNA could be using its clout to push Congress into helping the schools that need it.  And instead of churlishly lobbing criticism at this latest school food study, it could rely on the study to support its efforts — as well as joining with the rest of us in celebrating what is, unequivocally, very good news.

Nonetheless, despite this study’s encouraging findings, I’ll be keeping my champagne on ice.  Because regardless of what happens with SNA’s desired one-year waiver language in the pending 2015 appropriations bill, the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is looming large and the SNA clearly views the CNR as its best chance to permanently roll back key HHFKA nutrition standards relating to sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and a la carte offerings.

So, all those elementary school kids* who grew accustomed to — and eventually grew to like — healthier school food?  If the SNA has its way, they might not be seeing it for much longer.

_________________

* Many of us in the school food reform world have long predicted that elementary school kids would be the first to come around to healthier school food because they haven’t had years of seeing junk food in their cafeterias. More here: “Putting My Money on the Class of 2024.”

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Will Change in House Leadership Affect the School Food Debate? (And More Kid-Food News)

With all that’s going on in the kid-and-food world these days, I’m getting sucked back into my old five-day-a-week posting schedule against my will!  :-)  Here’s the latest:

SNA Asks For A Sit-Down with FLOTUS

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has asked for a meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss school meal waivers. Because new school breakfast standards go into effect on July 1, the SNA characterizes its request for a meeting as “urgent.”  The full text of the SNA’s letter is here (hat tip: Politico Morning Ag).

Will New House Leadership Influence the Current School Food Fight?

Following the stunning primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the House yesterday elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to the position.  Today’s Politico Morning Ag reports that McCarthy’s election is being “well received” by the produce industry and:

it’s no wonder. The district he represents, the 23rd in California, includes the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural growing regions in the world. . . .

McCarthy “understands the importance of the fresh produce industry to his state’s economy and of the nation,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication at the United Fresh Produce Association, in a statement to MA. “We look forward to working closely with the new House majority leader to address produce industry priorities on immigration reform, nutrition and other issues.”

Meanwhile, as you know, SNA is on record as championing a return to “offer versus serve” for produce in school meals (meaning that kids could pass up fruits and vegetables instead of being required to take them each day), a position that has been strongly opposed — for obvious reasons – by the produce industry.  Furthermore, if SNA’s current request for school meal waiver language in the  2015 appropriations bill is successful, schools obtaining such waivers are very likely to return to the old system, causing harm to the produce industry.

So could this change in House leadership tip the scales against SNA’s campaign for waiver language in the House appropriations bill?  This is just speculation on my part, but it seems possible.

Detroit’s School Food Director Makes the Case for No Waivers

Meanwhile, Betti Wiggins, executive director of the Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition, makes the case for staying the course on healthier school food in the Detroit News.  It’s a strong op-ed worth reading.

FLOTUS Champions Home Economics Classes

The Wall Street Journal reports that the First Lady is working with the Department of Education to help schools provide kids with cooking literacy.  I’m thrilled to hear this, as a return of Home Economics is one of the key elements in the “Rx for Childhood Obesity” discussed this week in my post “A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow.” (BTW, that post is now on the HuffPo under a new title and in a slightly edited form.)

My “Rx for Childhood Obesity” – Now Free of Typos! 

And speaking of that “Rx,” I was mortified this morning when a TLT reader pointed out that my graphic misspelled, yes, the word “education.”  O.M.G.  Here’s a corrected version for anyone who still wants to share it.

rx

Have a great weekend, all.  More TLT coming your way next week.

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!”

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A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow

Many years ago, I mentioned to a doctor friend that a woman I knew — a Seventh Day Adventist who never touches alcohol — had been told she was at risk for cirrhosis of the liver due to her poor diet and excess weight.  My doctor friend looked at me skeptically and said I must have misunderstood the diagnosis — one could not get cirrhosis that way, she said — and since I’m no medical expert, I assumed I’d been misinformed.

But while “nonalcoholic fatty liver” was so rare thirty years ago there was no medical name for it, the New York Times reports it now affects one in ten American children, with the rate among children and teens more than doubling in the last two decades.  Of those afflicted, 10 to 20 percent will eventually develop the liver scarring that can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure, requiring a transplant for survival.  The condition is also a risk factor for developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The cure for nonalcoholic fatty liver is quite straightforward: improving one’s diet by cutting out fast and processed foods and sugary beverages.  But despite incredibly powerful motivators  —  “crippling” abdominal pain (one patient referred to it as “being stabbed in your stomach with a knife”) and the possibility of needing a liver transplant (or, far worse, needing a transplant and and being unable obtain one, as demand outstrips the number of organs available) — many patients still find this “treatment” just too difficult:

Yubelkis Matias, 19, . . .  was told she has NASH several years ago. She is reminded of the trouble brewing in her liver by the sharp abdominal pains that come and go. . . . [S]he has been told by her doctors that diet and exercise may be her only shot at reversing the disease. But at 5-foot-5 and 200 pounds, she finds every day a struggle.

“I’m on a roller coaster,” she said. “I eat healthy, then not healthy — pizza, McDonalds, the usual. My doctor told me I have to quit all of that. But it’s cheap, and it’s always there.” . . . .

“A lot of times when I see a patient with fatty liver,” [Dr. Shahid M. Malik of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] said, “the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Well, is there a pill for this?’ And there’s not. There just isn’t. You have to make lifestyle changes, and that’s a much more difficult pill for people to swallow.”

One could attribute the inability of these patients (or anyone suffering from weight-related disease) to improve their diets to a lack of individual willpower, but this conclusion ignores a whole host of societal factors that make eating healthfully on a regular basis extremely difficult for many.  As Dr. Thomas Friedan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once memorably said:

. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese.  That is not a reflection of individual personal failing.  It’s a reflection of the structure of our society. . . . [T]he popularity of weight loss programs is a reflection of both the intense desire of many people to lose weight as well as the great difficulty of doing so.  [Emphasis mine]

Meanwhile, when you have a condition like fatty liver disease that’s growing ever more prevalent, and patients clamoring for “a pill” instead of weaning themselves off their unhealthful diets, it’s predictable that drug companies would see the potential for huge profits.  The Times reports that at least two companies are now scrambling to develop drugs which will help treat the disease, and one of those companies saw its stock price “soar” when its first clinical trial showed promise.

Too bitter a pill for our elected leaders to swallow?
Too bitter a pill for our elected leaders to swallow?

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course.  Food companies profit from our dependence on their products while drug companies reap the profits on the other side of the equation.  But somehow the prospect of kids doubled over with liver pain and facing potential liver failure, entirely due to Big Food’s grip on our palates and our lifestyles, got to me on a visceral level.

I’m reminded of this quote in the film Fed Up from Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at the Harvard Medical school and a pediatric obesity expert:

What does it say about our society if we would rather send children to such mutilating procedures but yet lack the political will to properly fund school nutrition and ban junk food advertising to children? It reflects a systematic political failure. We’re the richest society in the world. We’ve failed because we’ve placed private profit and special interests ahead of public health.

Dr. Ludwig was referring to a morbidly obese teen undergoing gastric bypass surgery, but he could just as well have been referring to an overweight child needing a liver transplant.  And, indeed, we are clearly in the midst of a “systematic political failure,” because just as we already know the “cure” for fatty liver disease, we also already know the the “societal cures” for all obesity-related illnesses:

  • Restructuring the agricultural subsidies that make fast food and processed food unnaturally cheap, while inadequately supporting farmers growing fruits and vegetables;
  • Banning the advertising of junk food to children;
  • Taxing and/or placing health warning labels on non-nutritive, sugar-sweetened beverages;
  • Investing more money in federal school meal reimbursement, so schools can afford to buy healthier food and pay for the increased labor needed to prepare it;
  • Investing in school infrastructure, both to build school kitchens in which scratch-cooked meals can be prepared, as well as home economics classrooms where children can acquire basic cooking literacy and skills; and
  • Requiring and funding meaningful nutrition education curricula, including home economics, throughout the K-12 school years.

And yet, like a fatty liver patient addicted to fast food, our elected leaders are currently too addicted to Big Food’s and Big Soda’s lobbying dollars, and/or too afraid of “nanny state” rhetoric from the right, to muster the political courage to fulfill that Rx.

For four years now, I’ve been saying on this blog that some day the costs of obesity, both financial and personal, will be just too high for our legislators to continue to ignore.  But when you read about one in ten kids facing the possibility of a liver transplant due solely to the unhealthful American diet, you really do have to wonder:  where on earth is the tipping point?

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!”

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