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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Sweetgreen
Photo credit: Sweetgreen

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

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

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

Photo credit: Sweetgreen
Photo credit: Sweetgreen

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Sweetgreen
Photo credit: Sweetgreen

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

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

So which is the “real” Ukrainian school meal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Report Debunks Notion That Kids Are Running From Healthy School Food

For the last year or so, the School Nutrition Association has been intent on creating the impression that school children are running away in droves from the new, healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  This characterization, if true, would provide the food-industry-backed SNA with a strong justification for rolling back several key nutritional standards in Congress in the coming year.

fraclogoBut a new report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) turns the SNA’s story on its head.  FRAC’s long-term data analysis finds that school meal participation among low-income children — the very children the NSLP was designed to serve — has actually increased significantly in recent years, while participation among higher income children has dropped, likely due to changes in meal pricing and the lure of competitive foods.  Most importantly, both of these trends, according to FRAC’s analysis, were well in the works many years before the new school meal standards were introduced in the 2012-13 school year.

Reports like this will be critical in fighting back against SNA’s high powered lobbyists, who are already gearing up to weaken meal standards during the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization in Congress.  But as FRAC’s data show, low-income children need school meals that are as nutritious as possible – now more than ever.

I encourage you to read the whole report, here.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

kelloggs copycat snacks

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

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Invoking the Cherished Bake Sale to Undermine the Smart Snacks Rules

american cupcakeBack in November, 2010, only a few months after starting The Lunch Tray, I wrote about running my children’s elementary school Election Day bake sale.  In that post I expressed a little bit of ambivalence about selling sweets to raise money  — ambivalence that would evolve over the next four years into outright activism against junk food in schools  —  but at the time I was clearly charmed by the old-timey, innocent feel of the event.  I wrote:

. . . . the bake sale I’m running today couldn’t be more Norman Rockwell: there are flags and buntings everywhere, kids clamoring to take a turn behind the cash box, and almost all the goods are homemade. 

It’s just that sort of nostalgia for the old-fashioned bake sale that’s now being cynically exploited by those seeking to undermine the new Smart Snacks in School rules.

Promulgated under the 2010 the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) and becoming effective this past July, the Smart Snacks rules greatly improve the nutritional profile of foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day in outlets like school stores, vending machines, cafeteria snack bar lines — and yes, school fundraisers.  These rules impose sensible limits on fat, calories and sodium, while requiring that school snacks be fruits, vegetables, whole-grain or dairy products, or a combination of those foods.

But right from the start, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack knew he would have potential public relations disaster on his hands if he didn’t reassure the American public that the cherished school bake sale would survive the HHFKA’s passage.  So many right wing politicians (including Sarah Palin) and conservative outlets like Fox News were erroneously claiming that the law would “ban bake sales at schools” that Vilsack felt the need to write a letter to Congress to assure the public that the USDA would “consider special exemptions for occasional school-sponsored fundraisers such as bake sales.” Nonetheless, Fox news still warned its viewers to “[s]ay good-bye to homemade brownies and Rice Krispie treats” when President Obama signed the HHFKA into law.

Fast forward to 2014 and the bake sale furor still hasn’t died down.  A few weeks after the Smart Snacks rules went into effect this summer, Secretary Vilsack again felt the need to reassure the public, writing a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Healthy School Meal Rules Allow for Bake Sales.”  In that post he reminded readers that:

USDA has given states complete authority to set policies on fundraisers and bake sales that work for them. States are free to allow fundraisers and bake sales featuring foods and beverages that don’t meet the new standards during the school day if they choose. They, not USDA, are responsible for determining the number and the frequency of these events each year.

But granting this freedom to states that are hostile to federal regulation puts the Smart Snacks rules at risk. For example, Georgia’s Board of Education, claiming that the rules are an “absolute overreach of the federal government,” voted 9-1 this summer to allow Georgia schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days.  This means that, despite the Smart Snacks rules, any type of junk food may sold to Georgia school kids for fully one-half of the school year.  And at the time of the vote, Dr. John Barge, the state’s schools superintendent, again invoked the cherished “bake sale” when speaking to the press:

 “We don’t have enough teachers in our classrooms and now we are expected to hire some type of food police to monitor, whether we are having bake sales or not. That is just asinine.”

But perhaps no one has exploited the symbolism of the bake sale more effectively than Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who yesterday announced his introduction of H.R. 5417, i.e., “the Bringing Awareness and Knowledge to Exempt Schools Against Legislative Encroachment Act,” or, the BAKE SALE Act.  According to Poe, this legislation, if passed, would “prohibit any funds from being used to implement USDA’s new, unrealistic rule for school fundraisers and bake sales.”  And in an email to supporters announcing the BAKE SALE bill, Poe raised the specter of the federal government reaching right into the kitchens of brownie-baking moms:

In order to comply with the new rule, parents across the country will have to figure out the calorie, sugar, sodium, and fat count for the goods they prepare for a school bake sale.

But now let’s ask ourselves why the Smart Snacks rules were drafted to regulate school fundraisers in the first place.  Was it because a few times each year, parents were setting up tables of homemade Toll House cookies and muffins to raise a little money for the school dance or to send the band to Disneyland?  Or was it because the trade in highly processed, competitive junk food on school campuses was brisk, profitable, and often took place on a daily basis?

A few examples from my own district, Houston ISD, might be instructive.

Here in HISD, for years it has been common practice for high school PTAs, student groups and sports teams to set up fundraising tables at lunch — every single school day — to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to doughnuts to Chinese food.  These veritable “food courts” of junk food have proven so lucrative that many principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when our state (which used to have its own competitive food rules) issued hefty fines after audits of school campuses.  The money flowed in so fast from junk food sales — literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively — that principals often simply regarded those fines as the cost of doing business.

Does that sound like a quaint “bake sale” to you?

Or let’s talk about the school nurse with whom I served on HISD’s School Health Advisory Council several years ago, before Texas’s draconian education budget cuts eliminated his nursing position.  At this nurse’s particular elementary school, the student population was overwhelmingly Hispanic (an ethnic group predisposed to diet-related diseases) and he told me how he routinely examined the necks of those small children and found the tell-tale dark stripe on their skin that’s the first sign of Type 2 diabetes.  But the principal of that school, faced with the same state budget cuts that would result in the nurse’s dismissal, was so pressed for funds that he egged his students on to buy and sell chocolate bars from each other each week, holding out the allure of a “free dress” pass or homework pass for kids who made their sales quota.

Is there anything quaint about that story?

Ultimately, what’s shocking to me is that the adults so passionately fighting to undermine the Smart Snacks rules are making no secret about why they’re doing it.  It’s all about the money.

For example, here in HISD, I was dismayed when a school board member who is otherwise committed to student health expressed discomfort at the idea of banning junk food sales at his/her own child’s high school because the money from such sales was so significant.  When Georgia passed its 30-fundraisers-a-year exemption, the school board chairperson and superintendent issued a joint statement which read:

These fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs. . .

And yesterday in his email, Congressman Poe wrote that if the Smart Snacks rules are not defunded:

Bake sales and other food-based school fundraisers will be regulated to extinction, leaving schools without funds for certain school programs, field trips, athletic competitions and other activities.

What’s stunning here is the short-term thinking so vividly on display.

In junk-food-fundraiser-happy Georgia, the state ranks 35th in per-student spending, 35% of Georgia school kids are overweight or obese, and obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually.  Here in Texas, we rank a dismal 46th place in per-student spending, our high schoolers are among the most obese in the nation, and, by one estimate, obesity will cost Texas employers a stunning $30 billion a year by 2036.  Yet in 2013, Texas state lawmakers passed a law intended to protect daily high school junk food fundraising from the reach of the HHFKA.  But wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars that will be spent on obesity-related healthcare toward school funding, which would eliminate schools’ dependence on the junk food fundraising that contributes to obesity?

As was the case in Georgia’s so-called “bake sale showdown” this battle tends to be framed as “a decision that weigh[s] federal school nutrition regulations against local districts’ efforts to raise funds,” but let’s be utterly clear about what’s really going on here:  it is a decision that weighs student health against local districts’ efforts to raise funds.  And the only reason why that trade-off is palatable for so many adults is because the most serious health consequences of a junk-food-rich diet generally won’t manifest themselves until long after kids graduate from the schools they helped fund with their junk food purchases.

And, at that point, they’re conveniently going to be somebody else’s problem.

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 Some States Try to Undermine the “Smart Snacks in School” Rules?

When the “Smart Snacks in School” rules went into effect on the first of this month, it was good news for the health of school children. These rules, which were mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, represent the first significant federal effort to regulate “competitive food,” i.e., the foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day through outlets such as vending machines, school stores, cafeteria “a la carte” (snack bar) lines and school fundraisers.

But even as the federal government took a big step forward in improving school snacks, it appears that some states may be determined to undermine these rules in any way they can.

Here’s the background.  In recognition of the long tradition of food-based school fundraisers such as the bake sale (and likely also to minimize backlash from cash-strapped school districts), the USDA planned to have a provision in the Smart Snacks rules allowing each state to determine a maximum total number of “exempt” school-sponsored fundraisers per year, i.e., fundraisers held during the school day at which junk food can legally be sold.

While the Smart Snacks rules were still in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for how this would work in practice. In the first proposal, states would be required to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion over the number, with no federal oversight.

In my own letter to the USDA commenting on the draft rules, I wrote:

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

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

Nonetheless, despite receiving many comments like mine, the USDA ultimately chose to give states complete autonomy over fundraiser exemptions.  So the Smart Snacks rules now provide that if a state takes no action, the number of exempted fundraisers will be zero. And for states wishing to set their own maximum number of exempt fundraisers per year, the USDA has issued a guidance document in which it cautions:

… it is expected that State agencies will ensure that the frequency of such exempt fundraisers on school grounds during the school day does not reach a level which would impair the effectiveness of the Smart Snacks requirements.

From my own (admittedly cursory) research, it appears that only a handful of states have yet issued policies setting the number of maximum allowable exempt fundraisers for this coming 2014-15 school year.  A few states (Texas, Arizona and Michigan) have affirmatively set the number at zero, even though this is already the baseline when no state action is taken. Other states have conducted surveys of school administrators to find an acceptable number; based on such feedback, Indiana will allow two exempt fundraisers per school per year and Idaho will allow ten per school per year.

And then there’s Georgia.

fried chicken junk food competitive greasy
Even after new federal snack rules are in effect, will this be a weekly sight in Georgia schools?

Earlier this week, Stacy Whitman of School Bites alerted me and a few other food advocates to this rather alarming press release from the Georgia Board of Education, in which Georgia state officials decry the Smart Snacks rules as “federal overreach” and, in a clear effort to thumb their noses at the USDA, indicate that they plan to set the number of exempt fundraisers at 30 per school per year (which comes out to, approximately, one junk food fundraiser per school per week).  If that weren’t troubling enough, the state also plans to evaluate on a case-by-case basis any school’s request to hold even more junk food fundraisers per year.  (You can listen to Georgia state officials criticizng the Smart Snacks rules in this local news segment.)

It remains to be seen if other states, also chafing at what they consider to be federal “nanny state” interference, will follow Georgia’s lead and set their number of exempt fundraisers at the same — or even higher — level.  It also remains to be seen if the USDA, in keeping with its “expectation” that schools won’t use this loophole to effectively gut the Smart Snacks rules, will attempt to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, for an excellent discussion of how parents and other advocates can combat efforts like Georgia’s to unreasonably exploit the exempt fundraiser loophole, be sure to check out Nancy Huehnergarth’s excellent new post here.

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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Well, We Saw This Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll keep you posted on new developments here.

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

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

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School Nutrition Association Seeks Roll-Back of Healthier School Food Standards

My colleague Dana Woldow has a new piece in Beyond Chron that’s well worth reading.  In it, she takes issue with a position paper just released by the School Nutrition Association (“SNA”), the leading organization of over 55,000 school food professionals around the country.

This is what lunch looked like in my district before kids were required to take  fruits & vegetables. Do we want to go back to this?
This is what one lunch looked like in my district before kids were required to take fruits & vegetables. Do we want to go back to this?

Woldow tells us that the SNA is seeking to roll back some of the hardest-won gains of the new school meal regulations, namely, the requirement that children actually take servings of fruits or vegetables with their meal, and the requirement that all grains in school meals meet “whole grain-rich criteria.”

The SNA is also asking USDA to extend the comment period on the new competitive food rules which, if they go into effect as planned on July 1st, will represent the first meaningful regulation of snack foods on school campuses, everything from vending machine offerings to the items offered in cafeteria “a la carte” lines.   On this latter SNA request, Woldow muses:

The USDA already received 250,000 comments during the 2013 comment period prior to finalizing the new regulations, including extensive comments from the SNA, so why do they think that even more public comment is needed?

Maybe it is because more public comment would give SNA’s patrons – some of whom are major food companies like Coca-ColaPepsicoKraft, and ConAgra – more time to lobby for weakening the regulations and allowing more junk food to continue to be sold to children at school.

Woldow recognizes that SNA makes these recommendations with an eye to the fiscal bottom line of school meal programs, and that schools need more federal funding to carry out the mandates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  But she and I are in complete agreement that the answer to this problem is not taking a giant leap backwards from the recently improved school meal standards.

I encourage you to read Woldow’s piece, as well as the SNA position paper.  SNA is likely to respond to Woldow, and I’ll share that response here as well.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Texas Lawmakers: Working Hard To Keep Schools Safe For Junk Food (TLT EXCLUSIVE)

The USDA earned praise this past June when it released its ground-breaking new rules for “competitive” school food – the snacks and beverages offered to students through school stores, snack bars, vending machines and other outlets.

But it might surprise readers to know that my adopted home state of Texas, a place hardly known for its progressive policies, is among the states that already had competitive food regulations in place.   Promulgated by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), the agency which administers the state’s federal school lunch program, the “Texas School Nutrition Policy” regulates the time and place in which competitive foods and beverages may be sold and also sets nutrition standards for those items. Texas’s nutrition standards are pretty lax when compared to the new federal rules (allowing, for example, 28 grams of fat in a given item), but the TDA has relied upon them since 2009 to curb sales of the worst junk food on Texas school campuses.

But now, in a rather bungling fashion, Texas legislators have significantly gutted those state regulations.  In doing so, they may also have primed the state for a conflict with the federal government next year.

Texas: making our schools safe for fried chicken
Fundraising at the expense of student health?

Here’s the background.  When it comes to the sale of junk food on campus, high schools tend to be the biggest offenders. Here in Houston ISD, for example, high school students, PTOs and coaches often set up fundraising tables at lunch to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to Chinese food, creating veritable “food courts” of junk food.  Students often prefer to buy these items rather than eat in overcrowded cafeterias or go off campus, and the fundraisers are so lucrative that some principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when TDA fines the school for a violation.

Last spring, though, TDA got serious and imposed fines totaling $73,000 on eight Houston high schools for illegal competitive food sales.*  Those eye-popping fines made headlines and local TV news, and apparently motivated someone to head up to the state house in Austin to successfully lobby on the issue.

Alluding to the recent TDA fines imposed in Houston, Republican House Representative Ken King introduced in the last legislative session HB1781 which “ensure[s] that Texas high schools have the freedom” to continue junk food fundraisers and which expressly forbids the TDA from fining those schools based on the food’s nutritional content.  Six Republican and two Democratic representatives joined King in co-sponsoring the bill, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 14th.  The law is now in effect statewide.

So while the nation as whole is moving forward on issues relating to childhood obesity and poor nutrition, Texas has taken a big leap backward in protecting fundraising that directly and adversely impacts student health.  That development is disheartening enough, but here’s where it gets really messy.

Whoever drafted HB1781 decided to use some legislative shorthand to describe the types of foods that high schools may continue to sell.  But instead of referring back to the state regulations the bill is trying to thwart, HB1781 instead allows Texas high schools to sell “foods of minimal nutritional value” (FMNV), as that term is defined by federal law.

The federal definition of FMNV harks back to the 1970s when there were virtually no rules regarding competitive food and the government was trying to keep the “worst of the worst” out of school cafeterias during meal times.  FMNV is defined generally as foods providing less than 5% of the daily value of certain nutrients and specifically as: sodas and other carbonated beverages; water ices; chewing gum; and certain types of candy — hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallows, fondants, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

Way to go, Texas!

Based on the bill analysis, the Texas legislators behind HB1781 seemed to care only about bucking state nutrition policy, but they have also put the state in direct conflict with the new federal competitive food rules.  When those rules go into effect in the 2014-15 school year, sales of FMNV will certainly be barred, as will almost all of the competitive food currently sold in high school “food courts.”  And while the new federal rules do make an exception for occasional junk food fundraisers, such as a bake sale, HB1781 has no such limitation, allowing high school junk food fundraisers every day of the school year.

All of this means the TDA will face a big choice starting in the fall of 2014:  follow the federal regulations or follow a Texas law which expressly flouts them.

I asked Bryan Black, Director of Communications at the TDA, for comment.  He told me the agency agrees that HB1781 is in conflict with the new federal regulations and added:

Over the next year, the Texas Department of Agriculture will work with legislators, parents, school districts and the federal government to figure out solutions that solve the conflict between state law and federal rules.

Stay tuned.

_____

*  I’ve had a Public Information Request pending with the TDA since July 3rd seeking documents related to the $73,000 in fines recently assessed by the TDA.  It’s my understanding that TDA’s actions were successfully appealed by the Houston ISD high schools and the fines waived or reduced.  I’ll report back here once I receive the documents.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(emphasis mine)

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

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

“A la Carte” Foods Get a Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exempt Food Fundraisers – Up to the States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 9, 2013

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

Docket ID: FNS-2011-0019

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

Dear Ms. Brewer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports Drinks Have No Place in Schools

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

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

*  *   *

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

Respectfully submitted,

Bettina Elias Siegel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, all!

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BREAKING: USDA Issues Proposed Rules for School “Competitive Food” and My Analysis

After months of delay, the USDA today released its proposed rules governing the nutritional quality of so-called “competitive” foods and beverages offered on school campuses.

To refresh everyone’s memory, competitive food and beverages are those offered in competition with the federally subsidized school meal, and are sold via vending machines, school stores, fundraisers, snack bars operated by the school cafeteria and other outlets.  Back in 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act gave the federal government the authority — for the first time ever —  to regulate these foods and we’ve been waiting ever since to see what the rules might look like.

A PDF of the proposed rules may be accessed here.  Here’s an overview of the rules’ key provisions and my take on some of the big issues to watch in the next 60 days, after which the rules will be finalized:

Nutritional Standards for Competitive Foods

Under the new rules, foods sold at school outside the meal program must:

  • Be either a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a “whole-grain rich” grain product (50% or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient), or a combination food that contains at least 1⁄4 cup of fruit or vegetable; OR
  • Contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of naturally occurring calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.

In addition, there are limits on fat total fat (≤35% of calories), saturated fat (<10% of calories) and trans fat (0g as stated on the label), and sodium is capped at 200 milligrams for snack items and 480 milligrams for entrees.  When it comes to sugar, the USDA offers two options for comment.  One is to cap sugar at ≤35% of calories and the other is ≤35% of weight.  (Exemptions are provided for fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and for certain yogurts.)  Snack items are limited to 200 calories per portion, and entrees limited to 350 calories per portion.

Key Food Issue:  Fortification and “Naturally Occurring” Nutrients

This is where I expect to see the biggest fight between food advocates and industry.  Under USDA’s proposed rule, a food that is NOT “a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, or a ‘whole-grain rich’ grain product” can still be sold in schools if it contains 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of naturally occurring calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.

I’ve long expressed on The Lunch Tray my concern that the food industry will try to get around any new competitive food rules by simply fortifying its existing, highly processed snack products.  USDA clearly also anticipates this defensive maneuver and therefore floats the idea that:

in order to be allowable, food items must contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of a naturally occurring [emphasis mine] nutrient of public health concern: calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and dietary fiber.  . . .

The rationale to limit the products to the naturally occurring nutrients is to limit the consumption of products to which specific nutrients of concern have been added and encourage consumption of whole foods or foods closer to their whole state . . . .

In my view, this proposal would be a fantastic development, preventing the otherwise inevitable “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Now With 10% of Your Day’s Fiber Requirement.”

But USDA doesn’t seem particularly wedded to this concept.  It goes on to say:

The Department is interested in receiving comments from the public as to whether or not food items that contain only naturally occurring nutrients should be allowed in this rule, or whether food items to which specific nutrients of concern have been added should also be allowable.

You can be quite certain that Big Food is more than willing to provide its views on this issue, and I can assure you they won’t be in favor of whole foods over fortified snack foods.  Get ready for a big fight on this one, and be sure to tell USDA how you feel about it (see below on how to comment.)

Key Food Issue:  A la Carte Foods

School cafeterias often sell food items on an “a la carte” basis, i.e, separately from the federally reimbursed school meal and exempt from that meal’s nutritional requirements.  Here in Houston ISD, I’ve been dismayed to watch high school kids take from cafeteria snack lines plates of fried chip, cheesy nachos or slice after slice of pizza as their daily lunch.

The new rules propose three different ways of regulating a la carte foods.  One standard would only limit the fat and sugar content of these foods, while second standard would allow an a la carte food item to be sold so long as it is also offered that same day as part of the school meal.  In other words, a kid could buy extra slices of pizza or a basket of fries only so long as those items are also on that day’s school meal menu.  A the third option would allow the purchase of such items so long as they appeared on the menu within the prior four days.

While the proposed fat and sugar limits are a start, I prefer a rule that ties a la carte offerings to the school meal menu, whether on the same-day or four-day schedule.  This requirement would prevent kids from eating one or two a la carte items (such as nutritionally doctored pizza or a burger) every single day as they are currently able to do in many schools.  Furthermore, under the new, more stringent school meal nutritional requirements, it seems to me that a la carte items taken from the school menu aren’t likely to go too far off the rails nutritionally.

Competitive Beverages

When it comes to beverages, the rules propose that all schools be able to sell plain water, plain low fat milk, plain or flavored fat- free milk and milk alternatives, and 100% fruit/vegetable juice. Elementary schools are capped at 8-ounce portions, with middle schools and high schools selling up to 12-ounce portions.

In addition to these drinks, high schools can offer up to 20-ounce servings of calorie-free, flavored and/or unflavored carbonated water and other calorie-free beverages with 5 calories or fewer per serving.   And the proposed rules also would allow 12-ounce servings of “other beverages” within a specified calorie limit of either 40 or 50 calories per 8 ounces.  What’s that about?  See below.

Key Beverage Issue: The Fate of Sports Drinks

As noted, USDA is offering for comment two different standards for certain “other beverages” sold in high schools, with calorie caps at either 40 calories per 8-ounce serving or 50 calories per 8 ounces.  So what’s the big deal over 10 extra calories?  In  USDA’s own words:

The higher 50 calorie limit would permit the sale of some national brand sports drinks in their standard formulas.79 The lower 40 calorie limit would only allow the sale of reduced-calorie versions of those drinks. The 50 calorie alternative would open the door to a class of competitive beverages with great market strength and consumer appeal. Such a change might generate significant revenue for schools and student groups.

USDA leaves the window open for the continued sale of sports drinks despite the fact that:

IOM [the Institute of Medicine] specifically excludes sports drinks from both its Tier 1 and Tier 2 lists of beverages. However, IOM does recognize their value for student athletes engaged in prolonged physical activity for “facilitating hydration, providing energy, and replacing electrolytes”  . . . . In these limited circumstances, IOM would endorse the decision of an athletic coach to make such drinks available.

But of course the vast majority of kids guzzling sports drinks on a regular basis are not doing so after “prolonged physical activity;” rather, they are simply drinking empty calories.  Nonetheless, you can bet there will be significant lobbying by the beverage industry — and schools — in favor of allowing the continued sale of hugely popular sports drinks.

Bake Sales and Other Fundraisers

Clearly anticipating a public outcry if the new rules banned the beloved school bake sale, the rules allow the states to permit a limited number of fundraisers per year involving food and beverages which don’t meet the proposed nutritional requirements.  There are two proposals on the table for how states will determine the limit on such fundraisers.

Rules Only Cover the School Day

Not that anyone expected otherwise, but it’s important to note that the rules don’t apply to activities which take place during non-school hours, on weekends or off-campus.  So setting up a table of donuts and candy bars for kids to buy on their way out of school, after the last bell rings, is still an acceptable fundraiser with no yearly limits.

Comment Period Begins – Speak Out!

It remains to be seen whether and how hard the food industry will try to chip away at these proposed nutritional guidelines but if past experience is any guide, it is likely to fight hard.  It’s therefore critically important that private citizens and advocacy groups in favor the improved nutritional standards publicly register their support.  You can easily leave your own comment on the rules via this link.  And remember, the comment period closes in a mere 60 days.

I’ll update you further on these rules, and their public reception, as warranted.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 5,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My answer:  nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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