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.

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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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.”

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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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?

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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.

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School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?

When I walked into my first Houston ISD School Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, I knew next to nothing about school food except that my district seemed to be doing a pretty poor job of preparing it. But in the intervening four years, in which I educated myself about the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), started this blog, continued to work closely with my district, and also met school food professionals around the country, I’ve come to believe that there are few jobs on this planet harder than managing a district’s school food program.

School food directors have to contend on a daily basis with extremely tight budgetary constraints, reams of regulations, innumerable logistical issues and the intense pressure of retaining student participation in the program, all while dealing with a lot of well-meaning (but generally uninformed) parents who want to tell them how to do their job.  While some school food out there is still worthy of criticism, I have only the greatest respect for those willing to take on this challenge.

But now school food professionals, under their umbrella organization, the School Nutrition Association, are leading the charge against many of the hard-won school food improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  Specifically, the SNA is asking to: keep the level of whole grains in the total number of grain foods served at 25%; avoid further reductions in sodium; eliminate the requirement that kids take fruit or a vegetable with their meal (returning to the old system in which kids could — and often did — pass up those healthful foods); and allow schools to sell on a daily basis a la carte items like pizza and fries, as opposed to the current plan which would allow these items to be sold only on the same day they appeared on the main lunch line. This means kids could (and likely will) make an entire meal out of such foods on a regular basis, without the addition of items like milk, fruit and vegetables to nutritionally round out the meal.

Meanwhile, there are also efforts in Congress to pass a law under which schools could simply ignore any requirement of the HHFKA if compliance would result in increased cost.  Since most districts do have to spend more to pay for healthier food, such a bill, if enacted, would be the death of the HHFKA.  While the SNA has told me it’s not “taking a position” on this pending legislation, it certainly hasn’t said anything to oppose it.  

School food reform advocates, myself included, are deeply worried about these developments and we’ve begun to ratchet up our response to SNA’s efforts on social media.  And, predictably, I’m now seeing some scuffling on Twitter between the two sides in which each accuses the other of not really caring about kids.

But how did this debate devolve into an either/or proposition in which school food professionals are pitted against the very children they serve with such dedication?

Many of my fellow food advocates have pointed to the fact that the SNA takes a significant amount of money from corporate “patrons” like ConAgra and PepsiCo, and they therefore allege that SNA’s entire effort is being directed by Big Food.  I, too, dislike the fact that  SNA takes handouts from the food and beverage industries, and I have no doubt that these industries have driven or supported at least some of SNA’s goals.  For example, SNA previously requested (USDA denied the request) that schools be allowed to delay for one year the implementation of the new “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules.  That request certainly aligned well with the interests of manufacturers faced with reformulating all of those “Smart Snacks.”  Similarly, Big Food likely also supports the cap on sodium reductions (salt is 1/3 of Big Food’s palatability arsenal; see: Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat) as well as the requested change to a la carte rules (who profits from all that frozen pizza schools want to serve every day?)

But just because some of SNA’s goals align with Big Food’s doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons why SNA is asking for these changes.  And these other reasons are entirely logical and legitimate — if you look at running a school food program solely as a business.

Just think about it:  if you were trying to balance a very tight budget in an operation which lives or dies based on how well students accept your food, and if many (sometimes, the vast majority) of those students came from homes in which nutritionally balanced, home cooked meals are far from the norm, and if the food industry was bombarding those kids with almost $2 billion a year in advertising promoting junk food and fast food, and if you had no money of your own for nutrition education to even begin to counter those messages, and if some of those kids also had the option of going off campus to a 7-11 or grabbing a donut and chips from a PTA fundraising table set up down the hall, wouldn’t you, too, be at least a tiny bit tempted to ramp up the white flour pasta, pizza and fries and ditch the tasteless, low-sodium green beans?

It would take an entire book to explain how flawed the NSLP has become, how, starting in the 1970s and 80s, the program morphed from an anti-hunger initiative into one in which school districts were so starved of cash by the federal government (thank you, Ronald Reagan) that school children came to be seen as “customers” whose palates must be pleased at all costs, with heavier reliance on junk food a la carte sales and “carnival food” menus. (And there is such a book, by the way, which is excellent:  Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.)  But because of those flaws, we now find ourselves in a situation in which the health of school children and the financial burdens placed on school food service directors do not properly align.

And yet, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have.”  So if this is the system under which we operate and I’m forced to choose a side, then I have no choice but to side with the kids.  31 million economically disadvantaged kids rely on school meals five days a week for breakfast and lunch (and sometimes even supper) and for those kids, what we put on those trays really matters.  It matters not only for the needed nutrition but also the implicit education school meals provide.  When kids can buy and eat garbage like this from their very own school cafeteria, they are without a doubt imbibing the message that this (or this) is what a meal should look like.  And that harmful messaging sets them up for a lifetime of health-related problems.

This is not theoretical, by the way.  Only two years into the new meal improvements, the Harvard School of Public Health has already found that the new school food standards have significantly increased kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption.  Just think where we might be in five years, or ten, if we can only stay the course.

The real moral failing of the SNA is not that it’s trying to protect the interests of its members, which is its mission, after all, but that it’s doing so through the path of least resistance.  Instead of asking Congress to throw in the towel on healthier school food, why isn’t the SNA asking for more help in serving that food?  We’ve known from the start that the HHFKA was grossly underfunded, so why isn’t the SNA getting in there and fighting hard for more money, logistical help, better kitchen equipment, nutrition education and all of the other factors that would support better school meals?

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the SNA, told me in prior correspondence that:

Although SNA is emphasizing the extremely limited funding under which school meal programs must operate, members of Congress and their staff on both sides of the aisle from key authorizing committees have made it extremely clear that additional funding will not be available for child nutrition programs as part of reauthorization.  It’s important to keep in mind that Congress has just cut funding for SNAP and advocates for child nutrition programs will need to fight to protect current funding in this difficult budget environment.

That all may be true, and what I’m suggesting might well be a doomed effort.  But even as we speak, the SNA is proving (to school food reform advocates’ dismay) that its voice carries a lot of weight on Capitol Hill.

So why isn’t it willing to step up and try?

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Giving Kids Junk Food “Treat Bags” for Standardized Testing?

This morning I belatedly opened an email from my son’s middle school, which last week asked parents to donate items for “treat bags” for the 6th graders taking our district’s standardized tests.

Here’s what volunteers were asked to bring:  Goldfish, Blow Pops, peppermint candies, Hershey’s kisses, bite-size Snickers, 100-calorie packs of cookies, Starburst candies, clementines and cheese sticks.  (Hmm.  What do you think the ratio of clementine-to-Blow-Pop-consumption will be among most sixth graders?)

peppermintAlthough the email wasn’t clear about the purpose, I’m pretty sure these treat bags are being handed out not so much to reward kids for taking the test as to make sure they’re awake for the test itself.  I’m inferring this from the fact that peppermint candies are included in the bags; you might remember that one of the events that led me to pound out my “Food-in-the-Classroom” manifesto in 2012 was my son’s elementary school giving every kid peppermint candies and juice pouches on standardized testing days based on a theory that peppermint makes kids more alert for exams.

People, everything about this episode saddens me:   That public schools now live or die based on standardized test results, so they will do anything to boost scores.  That kids are being taught that when they need to be at peak mental performance, they should load up mostly on refined sugar.  Or, if I’ve misinterpreted what’s going on here and these bags really are an after-test “treat,” that we’re using not just food as a reward (already considered a bad idea by leading medical organizations) but the worst junk food to boot.

Does your public school hand out food on standardized testing days?  Are the offerings in line with my son’s middle school’s?  Let  me know what’s going on at your school in a comment below.

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Did Obesity Really Drop 43% Among Young Children?

Hat tip to Dana Woldow for sharing with me a new Reuters article casting doubt on a recent, much-heralded study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (summarized on TLT) which had found a 43% drop in obesity among children ages 2 to 5 over an eight year period.

According to the obesity experts quoted by Reuters, the JAMA study may have been hampered by a small sample size and could be a statistical fluke.  Specifically, the experts point out that there are no similar studies finding a decrease in obesity among this age group over the same time period and that, to the contrary, other studies find that the rate may have increased.  Moreover, there is no documented evidence of the types of major behavioral changes researchers would expect to see if the 43% decline is valid, such as improved eating or exercise habits among preschoolers.    

You can read the Reuters piece in full here.

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Study: Early Childhood Obesity Drops 43%

By now you may have heard about surprising and welcome results from a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found a 43% drop in childhood obesity among American children aged 2 to 5.    In 2012, about 8%  of 2- to 5-year-olds were obese, decreasing from a rate of 14% in 2004.   The New York Times gives a solid recap here.

As always, it’s important to keep in mind that childhood obesity is just one symptom of larger problems in our food environment, as even thin children can suffer the ill effects of a junk-food laden diet or chronic inactivity over the course of their lives.  And experts admit that we can’t pinpoint with perfect accuracy the particular factors which may have caused the 43% drop.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to characterize this study’s results as anything but good news.

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