Concerned School Nutrition Association Members Send Open Letter to Their Board

SNA logoIf you’ve been following the fight over school food, you know that the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals, is the main force behind current efforts to weaken the new healthier meal standards.  It’s a rather surprising position for an organization with the stated mission of “advancing the quality of school meal programs,” especially since the SNA itself supported the healthy meal standards when they were first adopted back in 2010.

The organization’s stunning about-face was examined in depth in a New York Times story last fall; the factors leading to the reversal include a recent change in SNA’s leadership and its choice of a new lobbying firm.  Another factor is the SNA’s cozy relationship with Big Food, which funds at least half of the organization’s operating budget.  For more on that troubling arrangement, be sure to read this Beyond Chron piece by school food reformer Dana Woldow, this HuffPo piece by food advocate Nancy Huenergarth, and this critical post from Food Politics‘ Marion Nestle.

The SNA maintains that its position is justified because kids just aren’t eating the healthier school meals, causing districts to waste food and lose revenue.  That’s an appealing argument, but when Woldow probed more deeply into SNA’s own data, she found that the decline in school meal revenue started well before the new healthier meal standards were adopted.  Consistent with Woldow’s findings, the Food Research and Action Center recently released a study which found that the recession and an increase in school meal prices have been the true forces driving paying students from school meal programs.  Meanwhile, among kids on free and reduced price lunch — i.e., the ones who need the most nutritious meals possible — meal participation has actually increased.

Nonetheless, the SNA is likely to get a sympathetic hearing in a Republican Congress during this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization (or CNR), which funds the school meal program every five years.  Indeed, during the 2015 appropriations process at the end of last year, the SNA found allies among several conservative legislators, including Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who, at the organization’s behest, sponsored a “waiver” provision to weaken nutrition standards.

But not all SNA members agree with their leadership.  Last May, nineteen past SNA presidents took the extraordinary step of breaking with the current SNA board by writing their own open letter to Congress urging it to stay the course on healthier school food.  (You can read my interview with one of these 19 past presidents, Dora Rivas, here.)

Yet there was no way for ordinary SNA members who also disagreed with their board to have their voices heard in this debate.  So Nancy Huehnergarth and I created an open letter for any interested SNA members to sign, which I posted it The Lunch Tray last October.  It was a move that clearly rattled the SNA leadership:  within just 24 hours of my posting the letter, the board sent an “urgent message” to its entire 55,000 member base urging them not to sign it.  The clear implication of SNA’s “urgent message” was that anyone who did sign was not a team player and would seriously undermine the organization.

Nonetheless, despite this pressure from the SNA board, 86 courageous school food directors still stepped forward to sign.  (Their names may be seen here.)  The final, signed letter was sent yesterday to the SNA board by Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutrition services for the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, and Allyson Mrachek, nutrition supervisor at Fayetteville Public Schools in Fayetteville, Arkansas.   The letter reads:

We, the undersigned members of the SNA, respectfully urge the Board of Directors to withdraw support for any provision in Agriculture Appropriations or other legislation that would waive school nutrition standards.

We are deeply concerned that the reputation of our organization and its members are being damaged by the ongoing requests to weaken or waive school nutrition standards. While we agree that some aspects of the updates to the standards are challenging, we favor targeted and constructive solutions that do not involve Congress waiving school meal or snack standards.

We urge the Board to work with USDA and other stakeholders to identify and adopt solutions to challenges encountered by school food professionals.. We also encourage SNA to work with USDA to pair districts, which are succeeding, with those that are struggling in order to assist districts in continuing to move forward.

Thank you for your consideration of our concerns.  We stand ready to support you as you identify practical and long-term solutions that serve both the needs of school districts and the health of our schoolchildren.

If the SNA responds to this letter, I’ll certainly share its statement here.

Finally, if you are a past or current SNA member and would like to stand with these 86 brave men and women, Nancy and I have created a nearly identical version of the letter which now speaks to the upcoming CNR.  The link to this new letter is here, and any new signatures it garners will be added to the current count.

Please consider signing and sharing this letter with your colleagues to stand up for healthier school meals at this most critical time.   Thank you.

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In the Worry Over Halloween Candy, Are We Missing the Bigger Sugar Picture?

This Halloween is a bittersweet one for me and Mr. TLT:  for the first time, neither of our kids are going trick-or-treating!  Our 14-year-old daughter will be out of town but doesn’t seem especially bothered that she’ll miss the ritual, and our son, aged twelve, declared he was “over it” and that he’d rather pass out candy at our front door.

That’s a big change from years past, when I fretted, as many parents do, over what to do with the massive amounts of candy my kids would bring home on Halloween night.  Should you let your kids eat all they want and hoard the rest?  Should you have them throw out all the candy that doesn’t meet certain nutritional standards?  Does the Switch Witch come by your house and leave a present in exchange for the candy?  (Or do you dislike the idea of the Switch Witch?)  Do you take the candy to the dentist’s office as part of a “buy back” program?  Do you send it to the troops?  Do you make a gingerbread house out of it?

In prior TLT posts I’ve told you how, when I was a kid, I was given total control over my candy bag — my mom came by to comment on that post, explaining her rationale – and that’s pretty much what we’ve done with our kids, too.   Each parent has to find the solution they’re most comfortable with, of course, but the fact that my kids aren’t missing the candy this year makes me think our laissez-faire approach paid off.

All of that said, though, maybe the attention we devote each year to Halloween candy is misplaced. As dietitian Andy Bellatti noted last year, if our kids’ diets were lower in sugar overall, a little candy binging wouldn’t be such a big deal.  But take a look at this startling new infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

UCS infographic sugar

In light of current World Health Organization and American Heart Association recommendations for much lower daily sugar consumption, that’s a real problem. So here are some things you can do to help your kids cut back on sugar year-round:

Go Halfsies

I love this recent post from Sally Kuzzemchak at Real Mom Nutrition sharing her easy “fixes” — such as mixing quick cooking oats with flavored oatmeal packets —  to cut in half the sugar in many kids’ favorite foods.  These tweaks are a great way to significantly improve your child’s diet, likely without your kid even noticing the change.

Cut Back on Sugar in Baking

Even sugar’s greatest nemesis, Dr. Robert Lustig, admits his family eats sugar-sweetened treats at home.  But as he points out in this interview, his baking enthusiast wife has found that cutting back sugar by 1/3 not only doesn’t adversely affect most recipes, the flavor is actually improved.  I’ve found that to be the case in my own baking, too. (Remember these once-very-sugary pumpkin muffins?).

Kick Sugar Out of the Classroom

Many of us know first hand that school classrooms can be an unexpected source of sugar in our kids’ daily lives, whether due to parents bringing in birthday cupcakes, junk-food-heavy classroom celebrations or teachers handing out candy rewards.  I’m currently working on compiling into one document a huge trove of resources to help with these issues, but here are a few favorites to share right now:  School Bites’ awesome guide to healthier classroom parties, US Healthy Kids’ white paper advocating against the use of food rewards, and my Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto.

Watch Fed Up With Your Kids

If you’re kids are older (say, fourth or fifth grade and up), you may want to sit down as a family and watch the recent documentary Fed Up, now on DVD (disclosure: I’m on the film’s advisory board).  The film was criticized by some as being a bit too focused on excess sugar in our food supply but, putting that criticism aside, I found that it was useful way to get this message across without having to be the messenger — in which case my kids would likely have tuned me out! My 14-year-old is now an avid reader of labels, sometimes putting sugar-filled products back on the store shelf without even asking me if we can buy them.  It’s a relief to have the burden of saying “no” to such foods taken off my shoulders.

And Speaking of Labels….

If you haven’t yet seen it, definitely take a few minutes to watch this recent and hilarious segment from comedian John Oliver, in which he skewers the food industry for trying to obscure on the new nutrition facts label just how much sugar it adds to our food. (Note: the clip contains some off-color language and humor.)

Have a safe and happy Halloween, all!  And let me know in a comment below how you manage your kids’ sugar intake, whether on Halloween or year-round.

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My Interview with Dora Rivas, Former President of the School Nutrition Association

Dora Rivas, Executive Director, Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services
Dora Rivas, Executive Director, Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services

Several weeks ago, 19 past presidents of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) made news by sending an open letter urging Congress to stay the course on healthier school meals.

In doing so, these individuals publicly broke rank with their own organization, which is currently urging Congress to include in the 2015 appropriations bill language which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier meal standards.  (Though such waivers would be for only one year, many advocates view this effort as a first step toward permanently rolling back key nutritional requirements.)

One of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter is Dora Rivas, MS, RDN, SNS and Executive Director of Dallas ISD’s Food & Child Nutrition Services. Rivas has worked in school food for 34 years, winning a number of awards for the district meal programs she’s supervised.  She served as SNA president from 2009-10 and is recognized as a leader among school food professionals.  In fact, when I spoke to Rivas yesterday she was in Washington, D.C. as an invited guest of the First Lady for her Summer Harvest in the White House Kitchen Garden, one of just three school food professionals invited by the White House to the event.

Despite the big day ahead of her, Rivas was kind enough to grant me an interview.  Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

TLT:  Yesterday I was on the SNA’s conference call and I had the chance to ask SNA CEO Patti Montague about the letter you and the other 18 past presidents sent to Congress.  Montague told me that only the current board speaks for the SNA and she seemed to imply that the past presidents are out of touch,  in that she said you “aren’t speaking to the members.”  Do you have any comment on her statement?

DR:  I talk to colleagues across the country and I belong to a number of different school food organizations, such as the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group.  I’m not in isolation. I think I understand and am sensitive to the struggles a lot of food service directors are experiencing, and even though I’m from a large district, I’ve worked in a small district, I still stay in touch with that district, and I know their concerns.

TLT:  To what degree is there a rift between the past presidents and the current SNA leadership?

DR: I think SNA agrees that we’ve made a lot of progress.  The majority of districts are doing an amazing job and have worked very, very hard to meet the standards.  I think that there’s a lot more that we agree on than disagree on. The same concerns that SNA has, I share.

TLT:  But you do disagree about the request for waivers?

DR: I can’t speak for the entire group of past presidents but I’ve heard a number say that they are concerned with the fact that it would be very difficult for the USDA to administer these opt-outs.  For example, in Dallas, I’m able to break even, but even I could make my program look like it was not breaking even for six months [a requirement for districts seeking a waiver].  So I think it would be hard to administer.

The other thing the SNA and the past presidents disagree on is strategy, more than on nutrition standards.  The SNA’s interest is not to “roll back” the standards, but that may be the intent of Congress.  And that’s a concern: putting this in the hands of Congress [versus working with USDA] is a little risky.  The past presidents feel there’s still an opportunity to work with USDA on sodium, whole grains and competitive foods.

To slow things down and ask for “flexibility” for a certain segment of school food professionals is a Band-Aid. We should be asking for help on finding solutions and working together toward what these districts need to break even or to meet the standards, or to help industry meet the standards.  And so I think we [the past presidents] are looking more for a solution as opposed to delaying.

TLT:  Do you feel the SNA should be asking Congress for more funding to implement healthier school meals?

DR: Yes, healthier meals do cost more money.  The SNA says it was told it [more funding] was out of the question.  But we [the past presidents] have asked for money in the past.  And the whole NSLP [National School Lunch Program] costs the country money as an investment in raising healthier adults.  It’s an investment.  Right now we have a national obesity problem, so why aren’t we asking for money to raise healthier students, to support coordinated school health, for more nutrition education, more collaboration with partners, parents and the community to encourage children to try new foods, to develop recipes, to provide technical assistance and set professional standards?  All of those things together cost more money, but it’s an investment in having healthier students and reducing childhood obesity.  Saying, “let’s give schools more time” is only a short-term solution, not a long-term solution.

And I know there are a lot of allied organizations that would support SNA to achieve the common goals we share.

TLT:  You mean, other organizations would support SNA in a request to Congress for more money?

DR:  Yes.  When I see FRAC [Food Research & Action Center] and so many other allied associations taking a different position from SNA, I think they would support SNA in asking for more investment in our school meal programs, for technical assistance and for helping states help districts.

Let’s identify the districts that are struggling and let’s help them be successful.  We need to all sit down at the table and figure out a strategic plan to get there, with solution-based proposals rather than short-term solutions.  Because those districts will still be struggling a year from now.  The solution for them is more money.  If we really want more fruits and vegetables, that does cost money.

Also, [with respect to a requirement that breakfasts next year must include a full cup of fruit], there have never been any commodities or additional funds allocated for the additional fruit, so I think that’s another area where SNA should be asking Congress for money. Even if the additional fruit is provided through the commodity program, that would help the farmers and the school districts.

The SNA has been given the impression that asking for any money out of the question.  But the position of the past presidents is, why is it that off the table?

TLT:  There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the fact that SNA gets much of its funding from the food industry.  To what degree do you feel the food industry is driving SNA’s current agenda?

DR: I think it’s a partnership.  The food industry has been very supportive of achieving these standards and many companies have already invested a lot of money to meet the standards.  So some companies would actually stand to lose if the standards are rolled back.

And I don’t question SNA’s integrity.  I’ve been involved in the board and am familiar with their protocols for sponsorship, and they try to be equitable and fair. I don’t think the SNA is driven any more strongly by the food industry than by other lobbyists for other initiatives.  A lot of members can’t afford high memberships, so the SNA has the lowest income of most organizations, and they’re strongly subsidized.  But the decision-making at the SNA is made by the board and the executive team together.  I’m not able to answer for how much influence the industry has, but I don’t have any reason to question their integrity.

TLT:  What are your predictions about the outcome of the current school meal debate?

DR:  I’m concerned about it.  I think school districts will have done a lot of work to improve their meals but their community will not know whether or not they’re going backwards.  The perception in the media right now is that school meals are going to be less healthy, and parents won’t know which districts are still meeting the standards [and which have sought waivers].  And that’s bad, because we were already having trouble promoting a healthy image for school food.

TLT:  Do you have any final thoughts on the relationship between the SNA and the past presidents, or where you go from here?

DR:  I think the position between the past presidents and the SNA has been perceived to be adversarial when really the relationship is misunderstood.  We’re trying to see how we can support the standards and find solutions instead of delaying and creating more confusion.

There is absolutely some tension and there are different personalities at work.  Patti [Montague] is very passionate.  But we have not all sat down to talk because this has moved so quickly.  The SNA put out its position paper and we knew these were the things they were asking for.  But it wasn’t until the House bill that we understood the implications, and that’s when the 19 of us got together to say, this isn’t the solution.  This was going on on the Hill very quickly and there was no time for debate or discussion, so there has been no dialogue [between the SNA and the past presidents].

But I’m hopeful that we can have that dialogue, because we’re members as well and there’s a number of past presidents who are not retired, who are still in the trenches, so that dialogue has to continue.  We can’t stop talking to each other, and there’s still an opportunity to talk to USDA.

SNA may be too entrenched now to want to modify their position, and they’ve got different counsel, and it takes a lot to change positions once they’re approved by the board.  But I’m hoping we can move forward and have discussions, because we all share common goals.

* * *

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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An Update on (What Else?) the School Lunch Fight

SNA logoYesterday, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) held a conference call to defend its support of a legislative amendment which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier school meal standards.  Such waivers would be for only one year but the amendment, if passed, is widely seen as a first step in chipping away permanently at the nutritional advances of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

The SNA call featured eight school food service directors who described how various HHFKA provisions have negatively impacted their programs.  Most of the complaints were by now familiar – namely, increased cost, reduced revenue and food waste, with “it’s not nutrition unless the child eats it” a frequent refrain.  But one or two speakers offered more novel arguments, such as increased stigma for children on free and reduced price lunch (when paying students leave the program) and attempting to draw a connection between California’s drought and wasted fruits and vegetables.

I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the speakers or the accuracy of the data they presented, but, like many school food advocates, I continue to be disappointed that SNA seeks a roll-back of healthier meal standards as the solution.  When asked by a reporter why SNA has not instead sought increased funding from Congress, SNA CEO Patti Montague offered the same response I received months ago from SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner, i.e., that the SNA “was told”  that such a request was a nonstarter on Capitol Hill.

A few points in particular caught my attention during the call:

  • In defending the SNA’s desire to return to “offer versus serve,” i.e., the old system in which kids could choose (or not choose) to take fruits and vegetables at lunch, one school food director said “we trained them to make healthy choices [under OVS] but now we’re forcing them to take items they will not eat.”  Does anyone else see a disconnect there?  If the kids were enthusiastically taking fruits and vegetables under the old system, why is it a problem that those foods are now required meal components?
  • Two of the food service directors complained that new sodium requirements will keep schools from serving turkey or roasted chicken sandwiches on whole grain bread as “a la carte” items.  That does seem unreasonable, but I’d be interested to know what percentage of a la carte (snack bar) revenue nationwide is currently derived from the sale of healthful turkey sandwiches, versus relatively non-nutritive foods like chips and other salty snacks?  This sounds to me like the spurious “hard boiled egg” talking point all over again, but I’m open to receiving any data to the contrary.
  • SNA CEO Montague, in attempting to correct what she described as gross inaccuracies in the media, said it’s a “fallacy” that 60 to 70 percent of the SNA’s funding comes from food industry sponsorships.  Instead, the correct figure is . . . 50 percent.  Somehow that clarification didn’t reassure me that the food industry has no influence over SNA’s legislative agenda.
  • A reporter mentioned that many of the districts she’d spoken to in Minnesota were not having any particular difficulty meeting the healthier standards.  The SNA reply (and I’m sorry that my notes don’t reflect the particular speaker) was rather surprising: “If they’re not asking for relief, it’s because they don’t know what’s ahead of them.”  In other words, only an ignorant or incompetent school food service director could possibly oppose SNA’s agenda.  On behalf of the many districts around the country which are successfully meeting the current meal requirements and are fully prepared to meet the forthcoming ones, I found that statement insulting.
  • I asked CEO Montague for comment on the fact that 19 past SNA presidents have taken the rather extraordinary step of publicly breaking rank with the organization by urging Congress to reject the waiver amendment.  Montague’s reply was that “only the board speaks for the organization and they [the 19 past presidents] aren’t speaking to the members.” When I asked in a follow-up if she could explain the cause of this obvious rift in the organization, she simply said, “We don’t know,” followed by a long silence.

On that latter point, I’m due to speak today with one of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter to Congress.  If he/she agrees to be interviewed on the record, I’ll certainly share our conversation here.

And now a few other items to keep you abreast of the school meal controversy:

Debate on Waiver Continues in the House

Yesterday marked the beginning of House debate on the waiver language, with Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) seeking to strip the waiver from the House spending bill.  He was joined in the fight by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), along with chef Tom Colicchio.  More here.  As of last night, no vote had been taken.

White House Threatens Veto

In a statement issued on Tuesday, White House threatened to veto the spending bill if it contains the school meal waiver, saying that such a bill would be “a major step backwards for the health of American children by undermining the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food.”

Senate Holds First Child Nutrition Reauthorization Hearing Today

The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold its first hearing today on the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, well ahead of schedule and no doubt in response to the roiling school food debate.  Details at Obama Foodorama.

fed upFed Up Producers Make a Special Delivery to Congress

To coincide with debate on the waiver, Laurie David and Stephanie Soechtig, co-producers of the new documentary film “Fed Up,” delivered red and blue M&M’s to the 29 House members who voted in favor of the waiver in committee last week.  In a statement, the producers said of these legislators:

They might be out on the town today enjoying a leafy salad, followed by a leisurely trip to the Congressional gym, but once they get back to their office they’ll have a reminder on their desk that the policies they support would give kids garbage to eat five days a weeks, 200 days a year.

More here.

[Ed Update: This post was updated on 6/12/14 at 10:15 CST to add mention of the Senate CNR hearing.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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More on the School Nutrition Association’s Ties to Big Food

In earlier posts discussing the School Nutrition Association’s push to roll back healthier school meal standards, I’ve noted that the organization receives significant funding from corporate “patrons” such as ConAgra, Kraft and PepsiCo.

pizzasliceYesterday the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) AgMag Blog offered a much closer look at those corporate ties, as well as the role of SNA’s lobbyists which, in addition to representing SNA, boast a roster of Big Food clients that includes General Mills, Kraft Foods, the North American Meat Association, the National Confectioners Association and the National Frozen Pizza Institute (whose members include Con Agra and Schwan.)  

This interlocking relationship isn’t surprising, given how the food industry would clearly benefit from a roll-back of healthier meal standards.  If SNA is successful, Big Food will not incur the considerable expense of reformulating products to further increase whole grain content and lower sodium, all while pleasing kids’ notoriously picky palates.  Perhaps even more importantly, popular “carnival foods” like pizza and french fries will continue to be allowed in school snack bars on a daily  basis, instead of appearing only on the same day on which those same items appeared on the lunch line.  Pizza is a big seller in most cafeteria a la carte lines, and we’ve already seen how ConAgra and Schwan (major suppliers of frozen school pizza) decisively crushed an earlier attempt to limit pizza in cafeterias (i.e., the infamous “pizza = vegetable” debacle in 2011.)

It’s important to note, however, (as I did here), that even if SNA’s legislative agenda is driven by the food industry, SNA’s members’ concerns, such as increased food waste and cost, may still be legitimate. And absent its financial dependence upon the food industry, I’d like to believe SNA would be taking a different approach to solving those problems, such as seeking more funding for healthier food, improved kitchen facilities, logistical support and nutrition education for kids.

Unfortunately, though, as the AgMag post and other reports make clear, that ship has already sailed.  Instead of carrying out its stated mission — “advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy” — SNA has chosen to align itself with Big Food.  That’s a win-win for the food industry and for school food directors solely focused on their financial bottom line.

The only losers are the kids.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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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.

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New Study: Parents Support Restrictions on The Marketing of Food to Kids

I’m catching up on news items from last week and wanted to share an important new study from The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity regarding how parents view food industry marketing practices targeted toward their children, a study which, according to the Rudd Center, is the first of its kind.

Surveying 2,454 parents with children aged 2 to 17, the Rudd Center found that:

Parents were as concerned about junk food marketing to children as they were about alcohol and tobacco use in the media. The surveyed parents were highly aware of the “pester power” of food marketing and its effects on their children’s food preferences.

Photo credit: Yale Rudd Center

The report also found relatively high parental support for a variety of policies to promote healthier eating among children, including some restrictions on the advertising of food to kids.  Specifically, the report found that:

The majority of parents surveyed . . . endorsed policies to restrict food marketing to children, with highest support for prohibiting advertising on school buses (69%) and requiring companies to fund advertising for healthy and unhealthy foods equally (68%). Parents also approved of regulations to limit specific types of unhealthy food marketing to children under 12, including advertising/sponsorships in schools (65%), mobile marketing (65%), TV commercials (63%), viral marketing (62%), and internet advertising (61%).

There is much more to be learned from this groundbreaking study, including the environmental factors parents cite most often as obstacles to healthy eating and analyses of the responses along ethnic and political lines.  The entire report is found here.

Given that food industry self-regulation in this area has been almost comically weak, and given how hard (and successfully) the industry lobbied last year against purely voluntary federal advertising guidelines, it’s clear that only political pressure from consumers and parents will bring about real reforms.  In quantifying parents’ views about these issues for the first time, the Rudd Center brings us a step closer to making those reforms a reality.

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The Nation: Thumbs Down On Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move?”

I wanted to share with you a very good article in an upcoming issue of The Nation which assesses the progress – or lack thereof – made by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative in combating childhood obesity.

In a balanced and thorough assessment of the First Lady’s efforts, the article highlights both her early gains as well as her initiative’s seeming retreat in recent months as Let’s Move! shifted its focus from food reform to exercise.  That change in course is seen by some critics (rightly, I think) as a desire to avoid conflict with Big Food – and its powerful lobbying arm – in the midst of a presidential election year.   The article also pointedly asks whether Let’s Move! has provided political cover and invaluable PR to corporate actors like Walmart and Disney without getting sufficiently meaningful reforms in return.   The Nation piece ultimately concludes that few if any truly significant changes have been made by the food industry as a result of Ms. Obama’s program.

But the fact that Ms. Obama can’t (or won’t) wage war with Big Food has never surprised me.  Above all else, the First Lady strikes me as a savvy pragmatist, pushing for reforms only where there are clear openings and likely pay-offs.  That explains her active involvement in the child nutrition bill reauthorization in 2010 which led to dramatic improvements in school food this year.  But she also backs off when she deems the political price too high, as when the White House summarily caved in to industry demands in the battle last year over the voluntary regulation of children’s food advertising.  That latter episode was deeply disheartening to those of us who care about our children’s food environment, but at the same time I never expected Ms. Obama, a First Lady whose hands are tied by her husband’s political aspirations, to be the rabble-rousing activist of our dreams.

For me, the bottom line is this:  no one in the country has done more than Ms. Obama to bring the issue of childhood obesity front and center in the national consciousness.   That she can’t fix the problem from the East Wing is unfortunate, though predictable, and it doesn’t negate the importance of what she has been able to achieve in the last four years.

Take a look at the Nation piece and let me know what you think in a comment below.

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Weighing In on “Weight of the Nation”

Just before the holiday weekend I finally finished viewing all four installments of the HBO documentary on obesity, “Weight of the Nation.”

I’d been contacted by one of the show’s producers months before and was eagerly anticipating the show’s debut.  So I was surprised to encounter so much negative feedback about it before I watched.  One friend of mine pronounced the show “boring,” particularly the first episode on “Consequences,” and some TLT readers told me they were disappointed with the lack of meaningful solutions offered.  Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon (who originally refused to watch the show on principle) strongly criticized the documentary in “Uncle Sam and HBO Team Up for Fat Shaming, Avoiding Politics,” as did the Crunk Feminist writer “sheridf,” in “The Wait of the Nation.”  [Hat tip to Dana Woldow for pointing me to the latter.]  And here’s a good round-up of many more critiques of the show.

It seems that a lot of commentators took issue with the very premise of “Weight of the Nation” — an examination of weight and obesity —  by equating it with “bullying,” “weight-shaming” or just  plain being “mean.”   One writer (who felt justified in critiquing the show even before watching it) likened the show’s focus on obesity to encouraging racial or class discrimination:

The real message of all the hand-wringing is not that obesity is a risk for health and the GDP. It’s that fat is a cultural signifier: Just as swarthy skin and accents marked the lower classes 100 years ago, today we identify the Other by waistlines and thigh bulges. And that’s what you’ll be seeing on HBO this week.

But I feel this particular attack on the show was entirely unjustified.  Rather than enforcing negative stereotypes that “fat people are just lazy and lack willpower,” I thought the interviews with overweight or obese individuals were respectful, dignified and gave needed human faces and voices to what sometimes feels like an abstract, statistical issue.   Personally, I was left with only greater compassion for those adversely affected by this complex problem, with roots at both the individual and the societal level.

“Fat stigma” aside, other critics felt the focus on obesity — rather than just health generally — provided political cover for those fueling the crisis.  As Michele Simon put it:

Continuing to focus on obesity is problematic for numerous reasons. As this program painfully demonstrates, it’s too easy to place the blame on individuals, to make them the sole locus of change instead of fixing the systemic problems with our food system. Also, exercise is a powerful and safe distraction for policymakers.

Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs!

Instead of talking body size, (don’t thin people get sick?) let’s garner the political power we need to focus squarely on fixing the food system, which is admittedly more complex than calories in, calories out but is also more compassionate.

But I was actually pleasantly surprised that the documentary didn’t just gloss over the role of Big Food and its stronghold on our nation’s politicians and food policies, as I feared it might.

For example, as someone who has written extensively about governmental efforts to rein in the advertising of junk food to children, I found it fascinating (in a perverse sort of way) to watch Congressional hearings I’d only read about, in which Republican lawmakers put the kibosh on purely voluntary reforms in this area.  Similarly, the show offered a reasonably good primer on the role of agricultural subsidies in distorting our food supply and the outsized power of huge agribusiness companies.  In both cases, the message to any viewer was clear:  food companies do not have your (or your kids’) best interests at heart and they will do whatever is necessary to preserve profits, even at the expense of our nation’s health.

At the same time, I thought the show’s focus on obesity at the individual/local community level had its own value.    Yes, we certainly do need to fix large scale flaws in our food system, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore individuals trying to effectuate their own change.  For example, observing the incredible vigilance required to maintain a healthy weight after weight loss (as shown by the two women on the National Weight Control Registry) will likely serve as both a cautionary tale for those yet to gain excess weight and be instructive for those struggling to maintain their weight after a diet.  (For more on the science of weight maintenance, see my post “The Latest Science on Obesity  – and Why Early Childhood Intervention is Critical“).  Meanwhile, many viewers seeking to improve their own health might also benefit from the research presented on “mindful eating” and the chemical role of stress in overeating.  And I thought it was useful to see local efforts (both in workplaces and cities) which have been successful in improving health so that interested viewers can replicate those efforts more widely.

So overall I felt the documentary did a good job of providing information and advice for the individual viewer and giving at least a broad strokes outline of the societal and political underpinnings of this public health crisis.  But the show’s greatest weakness, in my opinion, was the lack of any real public policy solutions to address the latter.

For example, the final installment of the show ended with rosy but vague predictions that obesogenic foods will someday be viewed as we now view cigarettes — and that food companies will be “part of the solution.”  Yet, to date, industry efforts at self-regulation have been ineffectual and Big Food has repeatedly and successfully blocked any actual regulation of its activities.  (See “Big Food’s Money vs. Children’s Health:  Guess Which Wins?“).   So having already been shown by the filmakers the food industry’s entrenched power and its widespread predatory practices, the viewer is left scratching his or her head.  What on earth is going to account for the food industry’s supposed future role as promoter of good health?  On that critical question, I thought “Weight of the Nation” proved to be very much a lightweight.

So, what did you think of the show?  I’d love to hear your views about it in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Does the First Amendment Bar Regulation of Kids’ Junk Food Advertising?

Just before the “slime wave” hit, I was in the middle of a draft TLT post analyzing a scholarly article proposing that tighter restrictions on the advertising of junk food to kids are not barred by the First Amendment, a key defense offered by the food industry against such restrictions.

As a former lawyer — even, at one time, a food advertising lawyer for a huge conglomerate  — and as someone who has written extensively on industry regulation in this area (see, “Fox Guards Henhouse:  Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising” and all the related posts linked thereto), this is something I wanted to think and write about in depth.

Well, it looks like I’ve been scooped today by Mark Bittman who has his own “Opinionator” piece in the New York Times on this question.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Bittman seems to accept the premise of the scholarly piece that the First Amendment poses no bar to greater regulation.  If after I finish my own analysis I have nothing more to add, I’ll just give you a quick “What he said.”  If not, I’ll share my own post with you as planned.

On a personal note, I was taken aback to see that my much beloved, former-Harvard Law School constitutional law professor Kathleen Sullivan (the kind of prof who kept you enraptured for an entire class) was hired to represent the food industry’s views on the issue.  But I suppose I can’t take Professor Sullivan to task until I’ve had a chance to evaluate her arguments.

Stay tuned.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 2,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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