School Food Reform: Enter the Lobbyists

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

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

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

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

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

So sad, and so true.
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School Lunch Prices on the Rise Nationwide

For a long time now I’ve wanted to alert TLT readers to an important development — the rising price of school meals — but, frankly, out of sheer laziness that post has languished in my Drafts folder for months.  Today I got the impetus I needed when the New York Times published a front section story on this very issue.

The bottom line facts you need to know:  under the new school food law passed last year, school districts must bring the price for a paid lunch (that is, a lunch purchased by a student who does not qualify for free or reduced price meals) into line with what the meal actually costs, eventually charging an average of $2.46 per lunch.  Districts can raise their prices gradually, by as little as ten cents a year, until the meal price and costs are in line.

As the New York Times article discusses more fully, the impetus for the price increase was a finding by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington, that by keeping the price of the full meal too low, the paid meals were effectively being subsidized by the federal dollars which are supposed to be allocated to the meals provided to kids who are on free/reduced lunch.  In other words, if paid meals better represented the costs to produce them, there would be more money in the system to improve the overall quality of meals.

The concern, however, is that the price increases, though modest, will adversely affect the many families who have an income level just above the cut-off for reduced price lunches; for these parents, even an additional ten cents a year could make the difference between being able to buy lunch for their children or not.   Late last year, fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske (aka The Slow Cook) published a post on Grist examining that question in much more detail.   The Times article also notes that a price increase could drive more parents to simply fail to pay for the lunches their children take, which creates a significant financial burden for large urban districts in particular.  A price increase could also decrease overall participation in districts’ programs, thus depriving districts of much needed revenue.

Even though the law contemplates a gradual increase in lunch prices, here in Houston my district decided to raise its paid meal price far more dramatically this year, from $1.85 to $2.25.  When I asked at a Parent Advisory Committee meeting this summer how this price increase would likely impact participation in the program, I was told that the increase affects only about 8% of the students in our district, because the vast majority of kids here — almost 90% — are on free/reduced lunch.  I was also told that a similarly large price increase years ago did not have any adverse effect on participation.  I was a bit skeptical of that latter statement; I’ll try to get an update on participation rates at our next PAC meeting, for interested Houston readers.
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My Problem With Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk

As those who’ve followed “Food Revolution” know, Jamie Oliver has decided to make flavored milk Public Enemy Number One.

In the first episode of this season, J.O. filled a school bus to near-bursting with white sand to demonstrate how much sugar is in the flavored milk offered to Los Angeles USD students each week.* He’s also circulating an online petition to get flavored milk out of American schools, a petition that’s heavily promoted on his Food Revolution Facebook page and Twitter.  (Faced with this pressure, and perhaps also to resuscitate LAUSD’s public image — which has been battered quite a bit on “Food Revolution” – the new Los Angeles schools superintendent announced yesterday that he’ll ask the LAUSD board in to consider a flavored milk ban.)

Of course, Jamie Oliver is not alone in wanting flavored milk out of schools.  Many other people (whom I respect) also argue for a flavored milk ban – including Chef Ann Cooper (who famously refers to flavored milk as “soda in drag”) and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.  (The recent coverage by the mainstream media of sugar’s alleged toxicity has only added fuel to the fire.)  But it’s Jamie Oliver, with his winning personality and broad media reach, who has suddenly made the issue a topic of national conversation.

At times like this, when the populace is out with pitchforks and torches, it feels safer to lay low until the commotion dies down. Moreover, anyone who comes to the defense of flavored milk is often accused of being co-opted (or haplessly brainwashed) by the dairy industry, which obviously has a vested interest in keeping flavored milk in school cafeterias.

But I have some niggling concerns about JO’s War on Flavored Milk and finally decided I was being a wimp by remaining silent. Keep in mind, I’m not pro-flavored milk by any means.  I’m just anti-ban, and here’s why:

Lack of Consensus

While everyone agrees that lowering kids’ sugar intake is a good idea in this age of childhood obesity, things get a little trickier when it comes to flavored milk.  On one end of the spectrum, there are parents who feel strongly that milk is an important part of a child’s diet and they’re willing to overlook the added sugar if necessary to get their kids to drink it.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are parents who feel the added sugar is a terrible thing and insist that kids will drink plain milk if no flavored milk is offered.  There are parents in the middle (like me) who allow flavored milk as an occasional treat.  And then there are parents who believe that neither flavored milk nor plain milk is a necessary part of a child’s diet and that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods by the dairy industry.

Meanwhile, there’s no clear consensus in the medical/nutrition community to settle the debate.  Whatever you may think of the scientific validity of their positions, or the degree to which they have, or have not, been influenced by the nefarious dairy lobby (and I offer no opinion on either point), here are some leading organizations that currently support flavored milk in schools:  the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the National Medical Association, the National Hispanic Medical Association and the School Nutrition Association.  In addition, the Institute of Medicine, whose recommendations will form the basis of the new, forthcoming school food regulations, also accepts the presence of flavored milk in schools.  (Dentists, apparently, can’t reach a consensus on the issue.)

I mention these organizations not as an endorsement of their views but merely to point out why a well-meaning parent could easily feel conflicted about flavored milk, getting one message from Jamie Oliver and another, diametrically opposed view from a trusted pediatrician or pediatric dietician.

Milk Consumption Drops When Flavored Milk Is Banned

My fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske, aka The Slow Cook, has written many posts in support of a flavored milk ban (which I encourage you to read as a counterpoint to this piece).  In one such post, Ed cites a recent Institute of Medicine report which concluded that most Americans are getting sufficient calcium, with the exception of one subset of the population, girls aged  9-18.

One could conclude from that sentence that we don’t have a problem with calcium consumption in America, but here are two questions that came to my mind when I read it:

First, would children currently getting sufficient calcium continue to do so if flavored milk were removed from schools?  A recent study which looked at 58 elementary and secondary schools found that on days when only white milk was offered in cafeterias, milk consumption dropped an average of 35 percent.  Yes, yes, I know that study was funded by the dairy industry, and maybe it’s all bunk.  But on a purely anecdotal basis, I have never heard of any school district that did not see a significant, lasting drop in milk consumption when flavored milk was discontinued.  (If any of you have data to the contrary, please do let me know.)

If you don’t believe me, check out this photo taken in Houston schools documenting children’s refusal to drink white milk as part of our universal, in-class breakfast program (in which only white milk is offered.)  Each and every day, carton after carton of unopened milk is thrown away (and cannot be donated to food banks under a local city ordinance).  And in a meeting yesterday, HISD indicated that — almost one year after the breakfast program was fully rolled out — kids still don’t want the white milk, disproving the notion that children inured to flavored milk will eventually drink plain if they have no choice.

Second, what about those girls aged 9-18 who were found by the IOM study to be getting insufficient calcium?  There’s probably no subset of the population for whom calcium consumption is more important, given that women’s long-term bone strength is dependent, in part, upon calcium consumption during these exact years of critical growth.  Shouldn’t we be worried about taking away a one of the best dietary sources of calcium from their school meals?  And that leads me to my next concern . . .

Reliance on Other Sources of Calcium May Not be Reasonable

I’m not a dietician and don’t even play one on TV.  But just looking at the major dietary sources of calcium, I worry about kids who stop drinking all milk after a flavored milk ban, yet still need a recommended 1300 mg of calcium a day.   To make naturally sour yogurt palatable to a broad population of children, you have to add quite a bit of sugar.  An over-reliance on cheese would most likely exceed existing fat limits for school food.  Dark, leafy greens at least when ineptly prepared, as they are by most school cafeterias (see this sad picture of bok choy served in Houston ISD) and sardines or canned salmon with bones are nonstarters.

In his above-cited post, Ed Bruske argues that a fortified cereal like Total can supply necessary calcium that’s lost when milk is no longer consumed at lunch.  But what about the millions of American school children who eat lunch at school but not breakfast?

I guess I’m just not confident that kids will get necessary calcium without drinking milk, and whether we like it or not, a lot of them will only drink it when flavored.

But let’s say I’m wrong about everything I’ve said so far – and I certainly might be as I claim no expertise in these areas.  Now let’s turn to my last, and most important, concern about JO’s Chocolate Milk War.

Is a Flavored Milk Ban the Best Use of Our Energy Right Now?

I recently met (via email) Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch, a California school food catering company mentioned on TLT last week.  Somehow he and I got to chatting about flavored milk, and Justin summed up beautifully my overall feeling about Jamie Oliver’s crusade:

I’ve walked the floor of the CSNA [California School Nutrition Association] and SNA [School Nutrition Association] national show multiple times, and I’m frankly a little bummed that the best Jamie came away with was chocolate milk.  What about “Uncrustables”?  Or “pancake and sausage sandwiches”?  Or “commodity processors”?  Processors are in business simply to take your government chicken and grind it, pump it with soy fillers to offset fat, and mold it into a dinosaur.  These are kinds of issues are far more problematic than flavored milk in my view. . . . I get that chocolate milk is an easy target – there’s a viable alternative (white milk), there’s a singular enemy (sugar), and there’s a like for like comparison to another villain (soda, when compared strictly on a gram by gram basis).

Seemingly low hanging fruit here, and I get it.  I don’t want my daughter drinking chocolate milk, and if so, only sparingly.  But on the macro level, instead of addressing what I feel are much larger issues, we’re bringing the fight to something kids love, and quite frankly, parents are split in terms of their position (even those who are adequately armed with all of the facts).  In my view, this is a bad play that is only further polarizing parents on sides of the issues instead of unifying.

To Justin’s list of issues on which Jamie Oliver might have focused this year (complete with an online petition and calls to action) I would add:

  • the woeful inadequacy of school food funding – ie., the fact that far more than a six cent increase is needed to “revolutionize” school food;
  • the legality of incorporating ammonia-treated “pink slime” in ground beef sold to schools;
  • the need for Congress to provide funding to upgrade school kitchens around the country, many of which can do little more than deep fry and reheat;
  • the lack of access to drinking water in school cafeterias and the degree to which the new requirement to provide water is an unfunded mandate many schools will have trouble meeting;
  • the complete junk sold on cafeteria a la carte lines that passes for “healthy” (even under the new IOM standards) like Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats.

and on and on  . . .

What About Finding a Middle Ground?

It seems to me that there’s enough disagreement among parents and professionals on the flavored milk issue that a middle ground solution is called for.  For example, what about flavored milk with significantly less sugar?  I recently interviewed School Food FOCUS (post forthcoming), a group that brings together the largest school districts in America to demand better products from food producers.  Using their considerable market power, some districts have been able to force dairies to make lower sugar flavored milk, and I’ve been told that my own Houston school district (7th largest in the country) is embarking on a similar effort.  Wouldn’t that be an idea worth considering before we ban a beverage that so many people seem to want to keep around?

And finally, there is the issue of parental choice.  When it comes to something utterly non-nutritive in schools, like sodas in vending machines or sugary birthday treats in the classroom, I’m not cool with the argument that says,”Just tell your kid not to eat/drink it.”  That approach, in my opinion, puts an unfair burden on children for no good purpose.  But there’s enough room for debate on the flavored milk issue that in this case, I, for one, am willing to live and let live.

* * *

Given the current anti-flavored milk fervor out there, I’m going to hit the “publish” button on this post and then run for deep cover.  I’ll tiptoe back later and read your comments, of which I’m guessing there will be many.  And I’ll let you know if the JO camp decides to strip me of my Food Revolution November Blog of the Month honor.  (They can’t do that, can they?)

* School food advocate Dana Woldow pointed out in a comment on TLT that the sugar in Jamie’s school bus “represents the sugar available to the 650,000 kids in the LAUSD, a population large enough to fill 7 stadiums (stadia?) the size of the approximately 92,000-seat Rose Bowl. So to get a true picture of the amount of sugar per kid per week, you have to imagine the sugar pile cut into seven parts, then each part divided by the number of people in the Rose Bowl picture. . . .”  Whatever you think about the present level of sugar in flavored milk — and I agree it’s too high — definitely click on the Rose Bowl picture to get some perspective on the school bus stunt.

[Ed Update:  I didn’t realize that Ed Bruske has another anti-flavored-milk post today (I think we must have published within a few hours of each other!) that could have been written as a direct response to this post.  You can check it out here.]


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Taking on Cookies and Milk

Two interesting posts from fellow bloggers to share with you.

Christina Le Beau of Spoonfed wants to talk about that sacred cow, the Girl Scout cookie.  Although they’re beloved by many, the trans fats and other suspect ingredients in the cookies conflict with Chris’s nutritional and environmental philosophies, yet she has a daughter who’s now old enough to join the Girl Scouts (and would surely be asked to sell them).

And Ed Bruske of Better DC School Food has an interesting report on chocolate milk in schools.  According to Ed’s post, the Institutes of Medicine have cast doubt on how much calcium and vitamin D our kids really need, in conflict with the dairy industry’s heavily promoted message that milk – even if it must be highly sweetened to get kids to drink it — must be part of the school meal.

Both are thought-provoking posts worth taking a look at.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to work, everyone!  :-)

Deep Breath In, Deep Breath Out: It’s a School-Food-Reform-Free Day on TLT!

I hadn’t gotten a chance to share it on TLT, but earlier in the week, fellow school-food blogger Ed Bruske had a rather pessimistic post on the whole issue of school food reform.

He was reporting on a Wash Po poll which showed that 47% of D.C. respondents are opposed to a new program that will feed dinner to 10,000 needy school children in the district.  Apart from the poll results, the story was accompanied by some pretty nasty reader comments, many of them racially-tinged.

Ed was clearly dispirited by the whole thing, and concluded his post this way:

Sentiments like these explain perfectly why the U.S. Senate, in approving a re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act that fund school meals, could only find six additional cents to help support the perpetually underfunded school lunch. School food advocates–myself included–who would love nothing better than to see re-heated chicken nuggets and tater tots replaced with fresh food cooked from scratch, need to wise up to the fact that most Americans just don’t care. They grow up in a junk food culture, and do not buy into the idea that children–least of all poor black children–should be eating better than everyone else.

In short, there is no political mandate for spending more money on school food. Maybe it’s time for advocates of better school meals to take stock and adjust their message accordingly.

Both Mrs. Q and I responded to Ed, and you can see the whole exchange here.

I’m not sure that Ed’s pessimism is totally justified — I can see why the thought of “dinner at school” says Nanny State to some people more than lunch, a social benefit to which our society is now accustomed.  But then again, I, too, was on the receiving end of similar comments when I had my op-ed in the Houston Chronicle this past August, so maybe I’m being too forgiving of these readers.

At any rate, after Ed’s glass-half-empty post, which has been sort of echoing in my mind these past few days, and after a rather exhausting day yesterday of ranting about, and protesting for, school food reform, I feel thoroughly sick of the whole topic.  I imagine maybe you do, too.

Thus I hereby declare October 22, 2010 an Official School-Food-Reform-Free Day on TLT.   Let’s talk about kids-and-food topics that are entirely frivolous, shall we?  Any thoughts?

Ed Bruske on the CNA Authorization – Keep Your Lousy Six Cents

Ed Bruske has a thought-provoking opinion piece on Grist regarding the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

Rather than taking money from food stamps to fund the negligible six cent increase for school meals, let Congress keep the money, says Bruske.  It’s far more important to pass the bill because it contains

a provision that would, for the first time, give the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in schools, possibly meaning an end — finally — to so-called “competitive foods,” such as sugary drinks and candy in school vending machines and ice cream bars and fruit rollups in the deli line. That would go a long way toward addressing the obesity epidemic that Michelle Obama has pledged to end.

Definitely take a look at the full post.

“School Food Superheroes” — Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook) Responds!

[Ed. Note: Recently a Lunch Tray reader asked a very basic question — how can one parent begin to change school food?  I responded to the reader in a series three posts: Part One offered advice for bringing about change at the classroom level (e.g., teacher rewards and snacks); Part Two dealt with changing the school-wide food culture (fundraisers, wellness programs, etc.); and Part Three talked about change at the district level.

Now I’m yielding the floor to my personal school food “superheroes” — Janet Poppendieck, Mrs. Q, Chef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — to get their thoughts.]

Today, we hear from Ed Bruske, aka “The Slow Cook.”  Ed previously worked for twelve years as an award-winning reporter at the Washington Post (he was hired by none other than Bob Woodward).  These days, Ed tends an “urban farm” in D.C., works as a personal chef for clients with special needs, and teaches “food appreciation” to school children.  He was a co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners , sits on the advisory board of the D.C. Farm to School Network and contributes to food policy blogs such as Grist and La Vida Locavore, as well as the gardening blog Garden Rant. He is a contributing editor for the food access blog, DC Food for All, and is the blogger behind The Slow Cook and Better DC School Food.

Ed Bruske, aka “The Slow Cook”

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

So, how much time do you have to change the food your school serves?

I wasn’t even paying attention to the food at my daughter’s elementary school here in the District of Columbia until I had an opportunity to spend a week as an observer in the kitchen. Being a former newspaper reporter, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d stumbled into one of the most compelling stories of our times.

At the same time an epidemic of childhood obesity threatens to rob a generation of its health and bankrupt the nation with a $147 billion annual tab for weight-related illnesses, agribusiness and corporate food processors are making out like bandits. How could the federal government allow this to happen? Perhaps we’re all to blame for not paying closer attention. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actually complicit in the trend toward processed junk served as food in school. How can that be?

Yet, for all its faults, the school meal program is one of the most successful federal social endeavors of all time, right up there with Medicaid and Social Security. It started in the Great Depression as a means to help farmers sell their surplus, then morphed in the 1960s into an anti-hunger crusade. Now some see school food as a teachable moment in which the first lady grows a vegetable garden at the White House and kids learn life lessons in how to eat better and stay healthy.

The problem, of course, is that school food operations nationwide have been allowed to slip into a state of perpetual poverty, making them easy prey for corporate vendors and food processors. Meanwhile, our first inclination is to heap more government standards onto the program in the mistaken belief that we can somehow legislate our way out of this mess without providing the money schools need to serve healthy food.

What I’ve learned over a period of months photographing school meals, blogging about them and traveling around the country investigating the school meals program is that while the movement for healthier school food has clearly identified where cafeteria meals go wrong, it has failed to articulate a clear message about what a healthy school meal should look like and how it’s to be paid for. Too many Americans see this movement as “elitist” and unnecessary. They need to be convinced otherwise. In our current economic and political climate, moms need talking points they can take to their PTA meetings and win with.

For starters, the trend toward sugary, processed foods in school has been in place some 30 years now and the results are clear for anyone to see: it’s killing our kids. Sugar, sodas and junk foods made of refined grains are directly responsible for an epidemic of obesity and realted diseases: diabetes, hypertension, athereosclerosis and a surge in cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children. If this continues, the nation will go bankrupt trying to pay its ever-growing health care bills and we won’t have enough healthy young people to defend the country. This can’t go on.

The first order of business should be to remove unhealthy foods from schools, which makes it vitally important that Congress pass the Child Nutrition Act re-authorization currently before it. This legislation would require the USDA to adopt standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that would lower calorie requirements for school meals, meaning schools would no longer be so pressed to use sugar as a cheap calorie boost. The IOM has also recommended bigger helpings of vegetables and whole grains that will help push sugar off the menu. In addition, this legislation would give the USDA for the first time authority to remove all non-nutritious foods from schools, meaning not just in the subsidized meal line but in vending machines, snack bars, school stores and a la carte lines. Parents need to contact their Congressmen and demand passage of this legislation immediately.

On the home front, every school district is required to have a wellness committee and wellness committees can control which foods are served in school. Parents should insist on a seat on their local wellness committee and participate in the deliberations.

In addition, federal law requires that any school district that hires a professional food service management company must establish a committee of parents, students and others to adivse on the menu. Parents should insist that these committees be established and that they be given a seat on them.

Where flavored milk is concerned, parents need to stand up against it and the dairy industry that is trying to scare schools into serving it. So far, the dairy industry is winning the propoganda war on chocolate and other sugary milk drinks by suggesting kids will collapse in a heap of osteoporosis and rickets if they are denied access these products. In fact, research shows that physical exercise–not milk–is the best way to build strong bones and exposure to sunlight is the best way to get Vitamin D. The dangers of sugar–and teaching kids to expect sugar with their food–far outweigh the benefits of drinking chocolate milk. Schools need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and should be trying harder–along with parents–to teach kids to drink milk responsibly.

The best and easiest way to teach kids how to appreciate fresh produce may be to install salad bars in every cafeteria. As any parent can tell you, kids generally aren’t crazy about vegetables and are especially turned off by vegetabless cooked to death–the kind they most often see in the cafeteria. Many prefer their produce closer to a raw state, and they can get downright enthusiastic about creating their own meals. But salad bars are an additional expense. Parents need to work with their local schools to see how salad bars can be adapted to individual situations. There’s nothing to prevent local PTAs from raising the funds schools need to install salad bars.

Finally, local and state governments can contribute more financially to making school meal finances healthier. Here in the District of Columbia, a recently passed “Healthy Schools Act” makes our city one of the most generous in the country. The school system already supports the meal program with nearly $7 million in deficit food services spending every year, 25 percent of the budget. D.C. schools banned soft drinks in 2006, and serve free breakfast to any student who wants one. “Healthy Schools” upped the ante by picking up the tab for all students eligible for reduced-price meals. To the federal subsidies already in place, it added 10 cents for every breakfast, 10 cents for every lunch and a five-cent bonus for every lunch meal that contains a locally-grown component.

D.C. parents were involved in the drafting of the “Healthy Schools” legislation. We also were instrumental–along with a newly hired food services director who shares our views–in removing flavored milk, sugary cereals and breakfast treats like Pop-Tarts and Giant Goldfish Grahams from the menu. That’s the power of our daily blog–Better D.C. School Food–and proof of what Margaret Mead said: Never underestimate what a few determined individuals can accomplish.

Still, D.C. schools do not have an overarching plan to teach nutrition education. We’ve recently formed a Healthy D.C. School Food Committee to address that and to lobby for other changes that advance the aims of the “Healthy Schools Act.”

So don’t just complain about the food at school. Get busy and be part of the solution. And by all means keep blogging.

*  *  *

Thank you, Ed, for this thoughtful, informative — and inspiring — post.  I encourage Lunch Tray readers to regularly check out Ed’s Better D.C. School Food.  As I’ve said here many times, his blog is not only of interest to DC parents; it’s become one of my go-to sources for information on school food reform.

As the rest of my team of experts shares their thoughts in this “Superheroes” series in the coming days and weeks, I’ll post their responses here.

[Marvel Characters are TM & © Marvel Characters, Inc.]

“School Food Superheroes”: Change at the District Level

I recently announced that I and a team of school food “superheroes” — Janet PoppendieckMrs. QChef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — are banding together to answer a Lunch Tray reader’s simple yet profound question — how does one parent begin to bring about change in school food?

I’m responding in a series of three posts and then the others will chime in.  You can read the reader’s question and Part One of my answer (change at the classroom level – snacks, treats and teacher rewards) here, and Part Two (change at the school level – fundraisers, school policies, school-wide wellness programs, and more) here.  Today, Part Three.

Change at the District Level

School districts are typically responsible for top-level decision-making when it comes to food:  they oversee the food services group that determines breakfast and lunch menus; they set the district-wide wellness policy, which usually covers the food that may be sold or distributed during the school day; and they decide whether vending machines may or may not be placed in schools (although in some cases this is decided at the level of the state board of education).

Parent (or Menu) Advisory Committees

If your concern is cafeteria food, find out if your district’s food services has a “Parent Advisory Committee,” a “Menu Advisory Committee,” or some similarly named group.   I’m on the Houston ISD Food Services PAC but only recently found out — thanks to fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske — that if your district has outsourced its food services to a food service management company (as mine has), federal regulations actually mandate the formation of such a committee.

So if there is no committee in your district, find out if your food services are being handled by an FSMC (the biggest ones are Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo).  If so, contact your school board trustee and insist that a committee be formed, as is legally required.   Even if your district doesn’t use a FSMC, you may still want to agitate for a committee. After all, parents (through their children) are the direct consumers of the food and are paying for it with their tax dollars.  You have a right to be heard regarding school food menus.

Student Health Advisory Committees or Councils

As discussed in Part One, every school district participating in the National School Lunch Program is required to have a wellness policy in place.  This policy is usually created by a committee of parents, district employees, health service providers and community members.  In my own state of Texas, our state legislature mandated that the Texas Education Agency promulgate regulations requiring the formation of a Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) in each district, and our SHAC drafted our district’s wellness policy.

I recently attended my first SHAC meeting and plan on becoming a regular guest at future meetings.  This group has access to the school board and is composed of like-minded individuals when it comes to student health issues.   Call your district and find out if there is a similar group with which you can raise your concerns.

Going Through Your Principal

As noted in Part Two of this series, I have heard of principals who were able to convince their district’s food services to change the lunch room offerings at their individual school.  E.g., one principal demanded that flavored milk no longer be served and the district agreed to set up a “pilot program” in her school for this purpose.  Principals may also be able to eliminate objectionable a la carte foods, and, in some cases, they may have control over whether vending machines are placed within their schools.  (More on working with one’s principal in Parts One and Two of this series).

Influencing Your School Board

Finally, of course, there is your school board.

With respect to cafeteria food, if your food services are being outsourced, your school board is likely the contracting entity with the FSMC. Each time the FSMC contract is renewed, your school board has the chance to build in contractual conditions that could (theoretically) ensure better food on lunch trays, within financial constraints.  If no FSMC is used, then the district itself operates food services, likely under the board’s supervision.  In either case, the school board is a logical place to share your views about school cafeteria food.

School boards also enter in contracts with third party vendors that can affect the school food environment.  For example, Houston ISD has an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola regarding “pouring rights”  – i.e., the sale of Coke products (which include Dasani water, Capri Sun juices, etc.) at school events and in vending machines.

Whatever your district-level concern, write a letter or email to your own trustee, and/or show up at school board meetings and use the open time for audience members to speak your piece.  As always, there’s strength in numbers:  if your letter is signed by many parents, or if a group of parents show up together at a meeting, you’re far more likely to be heard than if you’re acting alone.

Consider Using the Media

A well-organized group of parents with a specific food-related issue — and a specific proposal for change — can be an appealing story to local news media.  For more on how to contact and work with media, see the MPHA guide in the resources listed below.

A Final Note: Educate Yourself

Before taking any of these steps, be sure to educate yourself about your issue.  If it relates to the school lunch program, for example, nothing will undermine your credibility more than offering suggestions for menu improvements that simply won’t fly under USDA regulations and budgetary constraints.  You can read my School Lunch FAQs as a cheat sheet, but to truly get the big picture, read – yes, you guessed it — Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All:  Fixing School Food in America.  Or if your issue relates to vending machines, e.g., find out what state regulations or district policies may already be in place regarding such sales before you attempt to get the machines removed or their offerings improved.

*   *   *

I’ve only just scratched the surface of the issue of district-level change, but I’m going to stop here and invite our “School Food Superheroes” to add their advice and comments to this, and to the other two parts of my answer to our reader.  In the meantime, here are some valuable links:

Resources for Change at the District Level

Improving School Food Environments Through District Level Policies (Samuels & Associates)

School Foods Tool Kit: A Guide to Improving School Foods & Beverages (CSPI)

Community Action to Change School Food Policy:  An Organizing Kit (Massachusetts Public Health Association) (courtesy of Better School Food)

The Transformation of the School Food Environment in Los Angeles:  The Link Between Grass Roots Organizing and Policy Development and Implementation (Occidental College)

Improving the School Food Environment: Results from a Pilot Study in Middle Schools (Journal of the American Dietetic Association)


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Why Current USDA Nutrition Standards Result in Sugary School Meals

I’ve written quite a bit here about the reliance of my school district on items like graham crackers to meet the high caloric requirements set by the USDA for school breakfasts.  I’ve also been surprised as I do my “Notes from the Field” features to see how often dessert is served as part of the school lunch in my kids’ cafeteria.

At both breakfast and lunch, processed foods that are high in sugar show up on kids’ trays for no other reason than compliance with outdated governmental regulations, a practice that flies in the face of reason as we face a childhood obesity crisis.  Ed Bruske, blogger at Better DC School Food, has a great post up today clearly explaining the sugar/calorie problem — and offering a glimmer of hope for the future.  It’s well worth reading.

“School Food Superheroes”: Change at the School Level

Last week I announced that I and a team of school lunch reform luminaries — Janet PoppendieckMrs. QChef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — are going to band together to answer a Lunch Tray reader’s simple yet profound question — how does one parent begin to bring about change in school food?  I’m taking on three aspects of this question – change at the classroom, school and district levels, and then I’ll ask this team of “School Food Superheroes” to chime in.

You can read Part One of my answer (change at the classroom level) here.  Today, Part Two.

Change at the School Level

While the issues we discussed in Part One (junk food kindergarten snacks and candy being given as a reward) are taking place in the classroom, they also reflect the larger food culture of the school, which extends to customs regarding birthday treats, items sold for fundraisers, food served at class parties, and more.  (I regard the food on the cafeteria menu and the issue of vending machines as primarily district-level issues, to be discussed in Part Three).  So how do you go about changing that culture?

Enlist Your Principal

As discussed in Part One, a sympathetic and like-minded principal opens the door to all sorts of possibilities.  For example, our district serves flavored milk in the cafeteria (my views on that here, although I’m possibly reconsidering) and I’d always assumed that individual schools had no choice in the matter.  Then I heard about an elementary school principal who, after seeing a presentation by Chef Ann Cooper, simply marched up to the General Manager of Food Services and demanded (successfully) that the district stop sending flavored milk to her school.   This same principal also succeeded in drastically reducing the number of “a la carte” foods (chips, dessert, etc.) sold on the lunch line.  Similarly, I once met a dynamic culinary arts teacher in my district, Kellie Karavias, who worked with the principal at her former school to completely integrate health and nutrition programs throughout the day, including the building of an in-school, instructional kitchen, “Five a Day Fridays” where children bought fresh fruit and vegetables from a cart each week, and an after-school program that offered counseling and exercise to obese children and their families.

And what if your principal has no interest in such improvements?  That’s where parental pressure comes in.  As we discussed in Part One, a single parent agitating for change is easily dismissed, but a large group of parents is much harder to ignore.   Start by speaking to your own friends to see how they feel about these issues.   Get on the agenda at the next PTA meeting to raise your concerns and offer your proposals.  Ask if you can send out a survey to the school at large to see how other parents feel about your issues.  If that’s rejected, privately circulate a petition and collect names that way. Whatever it takes, the more people on your side, the more you can accomplish.  (And don’t forget to include teachers.  They’re often on the front line, dealing with children who are tired and/or excitable after a lunch of empty calories from the a la carte line, and they may be your best allies.)

Also, as discussed in Part One, your district’s wellness policy, while not backed by penalties for violation, can still give you something to hang your hat on when you’re trying to justify the need for change.  In addition, many of the resources listed below provide ample statistics and support for the need to reduce childhood obesity and its associated diseases, all of which can be included in your presentation to the principal and/or to parents.

What Exactly Can We Change?

Because I’m trying to keep this post a readable length, here’s just a bullet point list of ideas I’ve heard or read about that are changing schools’ food culture around the country.  Resources are listed at the end of the post:

  • Create the role of “Wellness Coordinator” at your school and have this person (maybe you?) take steps to enforce the wellness policy and oversee related programs, like the ones discussed below.  A similar idea is creating a Wellness Committee as part of the PTA, to be charged with these same issues.   Either way, consider coming up with written, school-wide policies regarding what constitutes an acceptable birthday treat, classroom snack, fundraising item and/or holiday party offering.
  • Start a kids’ wellness club, an after-school activity that teaches kids about fitness and nutrition, and possibly even cooking if facilities exist.  Such a group enlists kids themselves in spreading the word about good eating habits, thus changing the school’s culture from within.
  • Start a school garden and enlist parents (or outside community volunteers) to help work in it with children and cook up the harvest.  Or, better yet, see if your area already has a gardens-in-the-schools program that might work with you on this project.
  • Volunteer to work fruits and vegetables into the school day.  My fellow HISD Parent Advisory Committee member, Mary Lawton, arranged for the donation to her school of free fruits and vegetables from a local grocery chain, which parent volunteers then cut up and served at Field Day and other events.  Mary also got permission to teach kids in the classroom about the “Five a Day” program, using materials provided by Dole.
  • Take on the issue of candy fundraisers.  Candy is a cheap and easy sell, and it’s hard to wean a school off such fundraisers, but there are many other cheap and attractive items that can be sold.  See resources below for ideas.
  • Assuming your district is offering healthful foods on the lunch line, consider gathering a group of parent volunteers to act as new food “boosters” in the cafeteria – handing out “I Tried It” stickers and praise for kids who taste new, healthful foods.  (More on that in my Houston Chronicle op-ed, here.)
  • Contact your district’s food services and ask if your school can be part of a pilot program to eliminate whatever is bothering you in the cafeteria, whether it’s flavored milk or chips and desserts sold “a la carte.”  This is a long-shot, but, as noted, I’ve seen it happen in my own district.  (More on this in Part Three.)

Be Prepared for Opposition

As I discussed in my post, “Why Kids + Food = Conversational Hot Potato,” you may find to your surprise that the loudest opponents to change are actually other parents.  Just the other day, a parent wrote me and expressed shock over the reaction she’d received in some quarters when she tried to reduce sugary treats at school.  But keep in mind two things: (1) the cultural tide is clearly moving in your direction — not theirs; and (2)  “libertarian” arguments in this context just don’t hold up.  As I told a pro-birthday-cupcake reader in “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,” you can smoke all you want in our free society, but you can’t do it in an elevator or office where others have no means of escape.  Similarly, while my child is captive to a school environment for seven hours a day, I have every right to ask that you keep your sugary and processed treats at home.

A Confession

I’ll end with a confession.  To date, my forays into school food reform have been at the district level (through our PAC), and through the writing of this blog and newspaper pieces.  With the exception of sending some plaintive emails to our principal about teachers handing out candy, I’ve been pretty quiet about things I see happening at my own school.  But now it’s time for me to walk the walk, too.   My school’s next PTO meeting is at the end of September and I plan on proposing the creation of a Wellness Committee to address many of the same issues discussed here.  I’ll let you all know how it goes.

*   *   *

After I post Part Three of this series next week, I’ll invite our “School Food Superheroes” to add their thoughts.  And please, if you have a story to share about change in your school, take a second and post it in a comment.

Resources for Change at the School Level

Make a Difference at Your School (CDC)

Community Action to Change School Food Policy:  An Organizing Kit (Massachusetts Public Health Association) (courtesy of Better School Food)

Sweet Deals:  School Fundraising Can Be Healthy and Profitable (Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI))

School Foods Tool Kit (CSPI)

Better School Food Action Plan (Dr. Susan Rubin) (check out this entire site for great resources, including the Tools section)

The Lunch Box (Chef Ann Cooper) (another site full of resources)

Changing the Scene: Improving the School Nutrition Environment (USDA)

Making It Happen:  School Nutrition Success Stories (USDA)

School Food Policy Resources (Public Health Nutritionists of Saskatchewan Working Group)

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“School Food Superheroes”: Change at the Classroom Level

Yesterday I announced that I and a team of school lunch reform luminaries — Janet PoppendieckMrs. QChef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — are going to band together to answer a Lunch Tray reader’s simple yet profound question — how does one parent begin to bring about change in school food?  I call this group of experts my “School Food Superheroes” and after I respond to the reader, they’ll each chime in.

To recap, the reader’s child has just entered public school and she’s dismayed by the cafeteria food, the snacks in the kindergarten classroom (Rice Krispie Treats and Cheetos), and the fact that her son is receiving Dum-Dums as rewards from the gym teacher.   (You can refer to the earlier post for the full text of the reader’s email to me).  She asked where to begin to remedy this situation.

I could devote a book to this topic, and I know from experience that once you dip your toe into the waters of school lunch reform, you can easily drown.  So, on the assumption that the reader isn’t looking for a second career as a reformer, my goal here is just to provide some basic advice on getting started.  Also, in the interest of brevity, I’m going to divide my answer into a series of three posts:  change at the classroom level, change at the school level and change at the district level.  Today, Part One.

Change at the Classroom Level

In some ways, making change at the classroom level ought to be the easiest thing to do because there’s the least amount of bureaucracy involved.  On the other hand, it can be harder because you’re dealing one-on-one with people (teachers, principals and other parents) who may not feel as you do about kids and nutrition.

Snacks Provided by Parents

The first question I asked this reader is, who is supplying the Rice Krispie Treats and Cheetos in the kindergarten classroom?  The reader wasn’t sure – parents have been asked by the teacher to supply snacks (pretzels and goldfish, e.g.,) but the teacher might also have supplied these particular snacks.

Let’s assume for the sake of this post that the parents are the culprits here.  Navigating these waters can be tricky, and no one — especially a kindergarten parent who’s new to a school — wants to be seen as a strident Food Nazi, critical of what other parents feed their kids.  (I’ve written about this sticky issue before in Why Kids + Food = Conversational Hot Potato, and even here on The Lunch Tray, we’ve seen sparks fly when parents start judging each other about kids and food).

The first step is to approach the teacher directly, express your concerns, and ask him or her to make another, firmer announcement to parents regarding snack parameters.  I’d add here that this would be a good opportunity to suggest to the teacher other, better snacks for the classroom besides pretzels and goldfish.  I’m assuming the teacher has no place to store perishables like fruit and cheese, but other, nonperishable snacks might include dried fruit, turkey jerky, whole grain crackers, whole grain pretzels, whole grain cereals that could be divvied up in paper cups when served, etc.

Of course, sometimes the teacher is not your ally.  I’ve personally been dismayed by a teacher who handed out jumbo boxes of candy (the kind you get at the movies) to my child for good behavior, and in this case the teacher may actually be the source of the Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats.  In that case the next step is the school principal.  Again, you never know who you’re dealing with and your principal may look at you blankly and ask what’s wrong with Cheetos.  But the hope is that you’ll find a sympathetic ear and he or she can speak to the teacher about snacks.

Both principals and teachers may swayed by anecdotal reports from schools which have seen an improvement in academic performance and a reduction in disciplinary problems when junk food is reduced in the school environment.  When teacher and principal bonuses are tied to standardized testing, that may carry some weight.

The key throughout — and this is critical — is garnering support from other parents.  When I first got involved in school food reform, I learned that many parents are often stewing in silence, deeply concerned about the state of food affairs in the classroom or the cafeteria but feeling too powerless (or just too tired) to do anything about it.  But once they get wind of another parent taking action, they suddenly wake up and say, Yes!  Me, too!

So I’d start asking around to see if there are like-minded parents in the class.  (Or, to the extent the classroom snack issue is more widespread at the school, you may want to raise the issue at PTA meeting and see if support can be found there.)  The bottom line:  whether you’re approaching the teacher or the principal, a united front of several parents is much harder to ignore than the single parent who can be written off as some wacky “health nut.”

School Wellness Policies

Under the prevailing federal child nutrition legislation, every school district must issue a wellness policy.  Without revealing the reader’s particular school district, I was able to find its wellness policy online without much trouble, along with guidelines promulgated under the policy.   (If you’re looking for your own district’s policy, start with the district’s website and if you can’t find it there, call the district or ask your principal).  Under the reader’s district wellness guidelines, recommended classroom snacks are listed and, needless to say, Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats are not among them.  In addition, the policy makes clear that the use of treats as classroom rewards is strongly discouraged (more on that below).

Unfortunately, district wellness policies are not backed up by penalties if they’re violated.  But at least they provide the official mandate of the district and that fact alone should carry at least some weight with the teacher and principal.

Candy as a Classroom Reward

Now let’s turn to the Dum-Dums that are handed out by the school’s gym teacher as a reward.  I really hate this practice of giving tiny bits of sugar out for good behavior or good work (e.g., one of my son’s teachers gave just one or two M&Ms or one Hershey’s Kiss for correct math answers).   The trap here is that the amount of sugar involved is so small that you feel slightly ridiculous for even complaining.  But don’t lose sight of the real issue here.  What does it say that the gym teacher (of all people!) is handing out sugar as a reward?  Why are we setting kids up to think that they should treat themselves with a sweet for every good deed or consequence — and without regard to hunger?

To try to end this practice, I’d advise essentially all the same steps outlined above.  Start by politely asking the gym teacher if other, non-food rewards might be offered instead — and be prepared to offer suggestions (see the resources below for many great ideas).  Depending on your success, you may need back-up from other parents, you may need to seek out the principal, and you may need to start waiving around the wellness policy.

I recognize that none of this is easy.  For a long time, I gritted my teeth about things I didn’t like in my kids school food environment and I’m sure that by speaking up (and by writing this blog), I’ve earned the reputation among some people as a card-carrying member of the Food Police.  But do you know what?  Among a whole other set of parents, all I get is gratitude and support.  So keep that in mind as you take your first baby steps into school food reform.

OK, those are my two cents on effectuating change at the classroom level.  After I post Parts 2 and 3 of this series, I can’t wait to see if my team of school food superheroes has anything to add — or any critiques of my advice.  In the meantime, here are some helpful links:

Resources for Change at the Classroom Level

Healthy School Snacks (Center for  Science in the Public Interest (Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI))

Constructive Classroom Rewards: Promoting Good Habits While Protecting Children’s Health (CSPI)

Alternatives to Using Food as a Reward (Michigan State University Extension)

We didn’t address the huge amounts of junk food often served at school holiday and birthday parties, but that’s a classroom issue, too.  Here are some resources on that topic:

Healthy School Celebrations (CSPI)

Food-Free Celebration Ideas (CSPI, courtesy of Massachusetts Public Health Association)

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