POLL: Americans Overhwelmingly Support Healthier School Meals

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.14.29 PMAs we approach the Child Nutrition Reauthorization in Congress – the every-five-year funding of child nutrition programs – lawmakers will have the opportunity to weaken some of 2010’s biggest school meal improvements with respect to sodium, whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

We already know how the big players feel about this. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food workers, has been leading the charge for school meal roll-backs and, so far, it seems to be getting a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill. On the other side of the equation, numerous leading public health advocates and organizations are strongly opposed to weakening school meal standards.

But what about ordinary Americans?  Do they particularly care about any of this?

According to a new poll released yesterday by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”

In a phone survey conducted this past May, 1,200 randomly selected adults were asked their feelings about school food and other food-related topics.  The big findings:

  • 93 percent of respondents say it’s very important or somewhat important to serve nutritious foods in school;
  • 67 percent say the nutritional quality of food served in public school cafeterias is excellent or good — up 41 percent from a national survey conducted by the foundation in 2010, before the new healthier standards were adopted;
  • 86 percent say school food nutrition requirements should stay the same or be strengthened; and
  • 83 percent would support increased government funding for kitchen equipment and training to help schools serve healthier meals.

(You can read more here.)

These findings are great news for those who support staying the course on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  But will Congress pay attention to ordinary Americans’ support for strong school food standards, or will their voices be drowned out by lobbyists and powerful organizations like the SNA?

Stay tuned.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 10,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join almost 6,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Youth of Color Speak Out In Support of Healthier School Meals

Students of color are the largest demographic served by the National School Lunch Program, yet as we gear up for the fight over healthier school meal standards in Congress this fall, the voices of these critical stakeholders can easily be drowned out by politicians, lobbyists and the School Nutrition Association.

But that may be changing.

I recently learned about Youth for Healthy Schools (Y4HS), an organizing network of fifteen different youth and parent organizations of color in ten states, all focusing on school and community wellness.  Y4HS members recently teamed up with the American Heart Association to serve as “youth ambassadors” to lobby members of Congress over the school meal issue.  Following a recent “convening” in California, the network’s constituent organizations are fired up to do even more to defend healthy school meals.

I recently had the chance to interview three Y4HS members about their mission; my questions were collectively answered by Melissa Aros, Youth Leader with Inner City Struggle in Los Angeles; Andrea Boakye, Youth Leader with Youth Empowered Solutions in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Ariana Marrero, Youth Leader with Grow Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut.

Here’s a slightly edited version of our interview:

TLT:  How would you characterize the overarching goals of Y4HS?

Y4HS:  The goals of Y4HS are to build youth power in organizing for healthy and fresh school meals and snacks, safe places to play and exercise, strong school food standards and school wellness policies. Another important goal is to amplify the voices of young people, particularly young people of color, who are directly impacted by these issues. Broadly, our work centers around youth voice, school nutrition and student health, and community wellness.

TLT:  What role does school food play in the organization’s mission?

Y4HS:  We believe that school is a great place for youth to develop healthy eating habits that follow them for the rest of their life. School food connects directly to our mission to make schools healthier places to be, and to make sure that students have the voice and the power to help make that possible.

TLT: The current, stronger nutritional standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are currently being threatened in Congress. How does Y4HS feel about this and what is it doing to defend those standards? 

Y4HS:  Our organization is passionate about protecting the progress made by the act and keeping school nutrition standards strong, because the new school meal standards are working.

We are each doing work in our own regions, and then work all together through the national platform of Youth for Healthy Schools. In our local communities, we are meeting with principals, nutrition directors, superintendents, and school boards to ensure that the standards are being met and discuss ways to collaborate on taking full advantage of stronger standards to get fresh, healthy, and local food. We are organizing for salad bars and scratch kitchens in our schools. We are communicating with our elected officials to get support and funding for farm to school programs and making sure they know that we want healthy food in our schools.

All of our organizations have campaigns to build the power of youth of color to access fresh and healthy food in schools through research, negotiation, and direct action. We are educating young people to make sure they understand that high standards are not the problem – school cafeterias where no cooking takes place, the power of processed food industries, and lack of control over our food systems are the real problems.

Collectively as Youth for Healthy Schools we are working to have an impact on the national conversation. We just finished a convening with all of our members and partners from 12 states to move this work forward.  We want to make sure that Congress knows young people not only support the standards but demand healthy food in our schools.

TLT: Do you believe that kids of color are uniquely underserved when it comes to the school food environment?  If so, why do you think that is?

Y4HS:  Through research, personal experiences, and surveys, we have learned that kids of color and low-income kids are uniquely underserved when it comes to school food. Our school funding system itself is inequitable. Schools in low-income communities have less money than schools in wealthier ones. Youth of color are disproportionately represented in low-income schools. So there is less money to supplement* the budget for school lunch and provide fresh products that are more expensive. Our communities also aren’t surrounded by many places where we have access to high quality foods and fruits and vegetables.

TLT: Do you think prejudices about students/parents of color (or low-income students/parents) play into this? Or is it a matter of scarce resources in these communities? Or perhaps the two factors are intertwined? 

Y4HS: There is prejudice involved, but also structural racism. What we mean by that is that our food system and our educational system are set up in ways that produce different and worse outcomes for students of color and low-income students. All parents want their children to be healthy. Parents at schools in lower income areas are often times not given fair opportunities to voice their opinion on school food or other school related subjects.

Consider this: most parent meetings are scheduled during working hours, childcare is usually not provided, and transportation to attend meetings or to visit schools is usually very unstable. All of these barriers contribute to the stereotype that parents of low-income students “don’t care” as much in comparison to other demographics. School lunch is so important because in the community, many parents of color have problems purchasing healthy food because they are already struggling with other bills they have to pay for. There aren’t many resources and people don’t have enough money to have access to healthy food.

TLT:  Y4HS says on its website, “Personal choices alone are not enough to ensure that communities of color and low-income communities are healthy and well. We need strong policy as well.”  What do you mean by this? What are the barriers in these communities that make healthful living difficult?

Y4HS:  Race, income, social environment, culture, physical environment, genetics are some of many factors that contribute to obesity beyond personal choices. Although, these factors can contribute to personal choices there are some factors such as environment that play a much bigger role and cannot be altered by one person alone. Low-income communities lack access to affordable healthy food and that is one of the most critical social justice issues today. Barriers in communities that make living a healthy lifestyle difficult are lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, lack of transportation to stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables, lack of merchants that accept SNAP, WIC, and EBT, overabundance of cheap processed foods, lack of parks, sidewalks, playgrounds that would provide space to exercise, schools that simply do not have enough food to serve children in school, and mass marketing of processed foods and detrimental goods such as cigarettes. Therefore, we need to make sure that schools are serving students healthy meals, and we also need policies that make the community.

TLT:  Is there anything else you’d like TLT readers to know about Y4HS and how they might support your mission? 

Y4HS:  We would like to let TLT readers know that you aren’t fighting the injustices in the world alone. You just need to persevere. Join this movement. Please help us get our voices heard to counteract the false narrative that young people don’t want healthy food in our schools!  You can join our efforts to by emailing your elected representatives and letting them know that you want them to protect school lunch.  Click here to take action.

* * *

I’d like to thank Melissa, Andrea and Ariana for taking the time to answer my questions today. To find out more about the Y4HS network, visit the organization on Facebook and/or follow it on Twitter @YoutHealSchools.

[*Editor’s Note: All school districts receive the same federal meal reimbursement based on each participating student’s socioeconomic status.  Moreover, in particularly low-income areas, the Community Eligibility Provision now allows all students in a given school, group of schools or school district to be served free breakfast and lunch, without needing to submit paper applications to establish need. So, just to clarify, the financial disparities referred to by my interviewees relate to the private supplementation of federal funds.]



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“This Isn’t Applebee’s” — A School Food Update

I feel like I’ve been failing you, TLT’ers! I aim to keep you informed of the latest school food news, but due to travel and other real life intrusions I’ve fallen a bit behind.  And that’s unfortunate because there’s a lot going on these days with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

Just to remind everyone, the CNR is the every-five-year refunding of child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).  That gives Congress a prime opportunity to modify existing school food regulations and, as you know, the more stringent school meal standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are now at risk.

Here’s a round-up of the latest:

The Most Recent CNR Hearings

The House Education and Workforce Committee continues to hold hearings on the CNR, and there have been two more hearings since the one I recapped for you in April:

You can watch the archived webcasts and/or read testimony from hearings using the above links, but for the non-wonks among us, Education Week has a good recap of the June 16th hearing, as does The Hill, and Agri-Pulse‘s has a good summary of the June 24th hearing.

Vilsack Stands Firm on School Meal Standards

At the June 16th hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the full committee and answered members’ questions, offering a staunch defense of the HHFKA.  He responded well to criticisms of the law’s meal standards, including allegedly increased plate waste (debunked by the Harvard School of Public Health) and tales of districts leaving the NSLP in droves (actually, only 59 out of 99,000 have left, according to Vilsack, and Dana Woldow has reported they often suffer financially as a result).

But my favorite Vilsack line came in response to committee chairman John Kline’s (R-MN) characterization of school meals as too skimpy to feed hungry athletes, a common refrain from opponents of reform (which Woldow also recently debunked.) After pointing out that the new meals are a mere 25 calories lighter, on average, than the old ones, Vilsack added, “This is not, in fairness, all-you-can-eat at Applebee’s. This is a school lunch program.”

But Meanwhile, Over in the House Appropriations Committee . . .

. . . the fiscal 2016 agriculture discretionary spending bill was released, and it includes a provision to “defund” any further school food sodium reductions (see Section 733) and contains the whole grain waiver language (see Section 732) we’ve discussed quite a bit on this blog.  If ultimately adopted, these provisions would be a blow to those who favor robust school nutrition standards.  

On the upside, the spending bill also contained language which, if adopted, would continue to keep Chinese-processed chicken out of school meals.  (That’s the cause I and fellow food activist Nancy Huehnergarth spearheaded via a successful Change.org petition last year.)  Many thanks to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a tireless food safety champion, for continuing to fight that battle to protect our kids.

What’s the Timing on the CNR?

No one can say for sure, but school meals aren’t in jeopardy even if the September 30th deadline for the CNR passes. Politico‘s Morning Agriculture report helpfully explains:

House Republicans continued to apply their scrutiny on child nutrition programs in a hearing Wednesday but gave no hint of a potential timeline for getting a bill out to change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act as the law is set to expire Sept. 30. . . .

School lunch and breakfast programs are permanently authorized to continue after the Sept. 30 date. Other programs, like the Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Women, Infants, and Children Program, are set to expire, though an extension is likely.

So, What Can I Do to Keep School Meals Healthy?

Chef Ann Cooper is asking people to go to Causes.com and pledge to tell their Congressional representatives that they care about kids’ health and want to keep the school meal standards of the HHKFA intact.  Or, take a moment to sign and share one of the many petitions now circulating to achieve that goal, such as this one from Food Policy Action and this one from the American Heart Association.

And if you need some more inspiration to take action, check out Chef Ann’s latest post on US News & World Report, “The Five-Year Plan for National Childhood Nutrition: Don’t Undo the Progress.”

*  *  *

And with that, TLT’ers, I’m going to be offline again for two to three weeks, absent any big breaking news.  I hope you’re having an enjoyable summer and I’ll see you back here in mid-late July!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join almost 6,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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A Recap of This Week’s Congressional Hearing on Child Nutrition

capitol buildingThose of you following my Twitter and Facebook feeds know that on Wednesday I was watching with great interest the House Education and Workforce Committee‘s Congressional hearing on the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

To bring everyone up to speed, this year marks the every-five-year funding of federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program.  The 2010 CNR saw the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), the landmark legislation which gave school meals their first major nutritional overhaul in decades.  But this year, the HHFKA’s gains are threatened as the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which supported the law in 2010, now seeks to roll back some of its most important nutritional standards.

For those who really want to get into the weeds, here’s a complete video of the hearing:

For those who want the recap, school food reformer Dana Woldow had this piece in yesterday’s Beyond Chron, which is highly critical of SNA President Julia Bauscher’s testimony at the hearing.

Woldow points out, as I did on Twitter, that the SNA completely squandered its opportunity to seek more funding from Congress to finance healthier school meals, instead pushing hard for a weakening of nutritional standards.  In doing so, the SNA confirmed my suspicion (Is the School Nutrition Association’s Request for More School Funding a Priority — or a Ploy? ) that its “ask” for an additional 35 cents per child per meal was never going to be a real priority for the organization.

Other random impressions from the hearing:

1.  I had not been aware of Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe’s work surrounding the healthier school meal standards.  She did a great job testifying at the hearing and is officially my new girl crush.

2.  At the other end of the spectrum, I was stunned by Rep. Glenn Grothman’s  (R-WI) cluelessness about the hard realities of some Americans’ lives.

First, he seemed incapable of wrapping his head around the idea that America could have a problem with childhood hunger and childhood obesity, repeatedly asking those testifying for historical data on the height and weight of five year olds to help explain this mystery.  He mused aloud, “Some of us kind of wonder. . . . we talk about this obesity epidemic and then we say we have this problem with all these people are [sic] hungry. At first blush it’s kind of contradictory.” McAuliffe quickly set him straight, pointing out that obesity, particularly in food deserts, can be as much a sign of malnutrition as being underweight.

Grothman, who seems to have wandered out of 1955 suburbia, also seemed perplexed that kids aren’t just sitting down to family meals with Mom and Dad instead of relying on schools for nutrition.  In this meandering statement, he asked:

I’ll give you another thing to think about. A while back I read something dealing with some of these food programs and that we’re kinda, it used to be it was important for kids to sit around the dinner table at night, I think it’s an important thing to sit around the breakfast table in the morning.  As time goes on it becomes more, where we’re sending a message to parents that it’s more of a government’s concern than their concern.  Does that concern you at all, insofar as you know were kind of taking away a role that’s been the most basic role of parents probably throughout all of history and kind of we’re kinda saying providing breakfast for your kids, dinner for your kids, during the summer period.  We’re beginning to change the nature of life and we’re making it more of a government thing than a  family thing.  Does that —

At this point, Mr. Grothman’s time (mercifully) was cut off.

3.  SNA President Bauscher kept emphasizing the need to supply kids with white flour “regional favorites,” like biscuits in the South and white flour tortillas in the Southwest, as a justification for significantly weakening the current whole grain standard.  But any home cook knows that it’s entirely possible to make an acceptable whole-grain version of those foods using half white flour and half white whole wheat.  If manufacturers need more time to get up to speed, then maybe we need to relax the standard for short time until they catch up.  But SNA’s “baby with the bathwater” approach is so extreme, it does make me wonder if Woldow is right when she speculates that SNA’s corporate sponsors are actually behind this whole grain request.

On a related note, Mission Readiness, the nonpartisan group of retired military leaders, wrote an excellent Reuters editorial  in anticipation of this week’s CNR hearing.  It’s a full-throated defense of healthier school food and well worth a read.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,600 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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An Encouraging School Food Story From Maine

Earlier this week, I received this lovely email:

Hello Bettina,

Our entire office follows your blog, we love your perspective and energy.

Your recent posts inspired us to send an opinion piece to our our local paper, which resulted in today’s front page story about Maine’s successful implementation the current nutrition standards.

We just wanted to pass along and share our support for the standards.


The Let’s Go! team

Please take a minute to read the Portland Press Herald article and learn about Let’s Go!, a public/private partnership of health organizations helping Maine successfully implement — and exceed — the new federal school meal standards.

From the Portland Press Herald:

So far about 93,000 schoolchildren, more than half the total public school population in Maine, are eating Let’s Go! lunches that exceed federal nutrition standards. Compared with the national average, Maine has more than triple the percentage of schools that have achieved a “U.S. Healthier Schools” designation – meaning schools that served meals well above the federal nutrition minimums.

Accounts like these (and my post on Monday about the USDA Team Up program) show that successfully meeting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards is entirely possible when schools receive adequate support.  So let’s put our effort into finding and funding that support — instead of rolling back the nutritional standards which improve kids health.

Thanks to the Let’s Go team for taking the time to write and sharing your story.  You made my day!  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,600 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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My Interview With USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon

Back in November, I was contacted by a Public Affairs Specialist at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services asking me if I’d like to conduct a 15-minute phone interview with USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.  Given that Mr. Concannon’s job includes overseeing federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, I was very excited to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

usda logoA few days later, I was told to email my questions in advance of the call.  I knew this would take some of the spontaneity out of the phone conversation, but I nonetheless complied.  Some time later I received the news that there would be no phone call with Mr. Concannon after all, and instead I would receive his written answers to my questions.  Then, over a month after I was first contacted by USDA, I received a set of written responses which at first I was told to attribute only to an “unnamed USDA spokesperson.”  When I expressed my surprise at this condition, I was told that a mistake had been made and that I am allowed to attribute the answers to the Under Secretary. When I asked whether he wrote the answers himself, I was told that he reviewed and approved them.

I’m sharing all of this background because the end result of this interview process is not quite what I had hoped for.  In particular, the answer to the first (and, to my mind, most important) question was not particularly responsive, but due to the changed format I was unable to ask any follow-up questions.  Nonetheless, I do want to express my sincere appreciation for the initial offer to interview the Under Secretary, the time spent by USDA staff preparing the answers and the time taken by the Under Secretary to review them.

Here is the Q&A:

TLT:   I and many of my readers are very concerned about current attempts to weaken school food standards.  What do you think the fate of the HHFKA standards will be, both after the FY2015 appropriations process [Ed. Note: by the time I received the answer to this question, the appropriations process was concluded] and the CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization] in the coming year?  What, if anything, is the USDA currently doing to defend the current standards?   And do you think there’s anything we parents can do, or is this now out of the hands of ordinary citizens?

Under Secretary Concannon:  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has made a difference across our nation, with more than 90 percent of schools certified as adhering to the healthier standards and students receiving more nutritious meals as a result. These changes are working, and we expect to see continued improvements over time. Change can be difficult for anyone in any situation; we know that the generational changes we are seeking take time to implement.

We will continue to work with State and local partners to provide training and technical assistance to schools so they are equipped with tools and resources needed to prepare and serve meals and snacks that meet the new standards, and more importantly are accepted and consumed by students. We are also listening closely to feedback from schools as they implement these changes, and have provided policy flexibilities as a result. We will continue on this path. Our goal is to ensure the next generation has access to nutritious foods, along with proper education about healthy eating.

Parents have many opportunities to be involved in promoting and supporting the new standards. We encourage parents to work with their school district and local school wellness committee and learn more about the child nutrition initiatives and opportunities in their school. They may also become involved through the local PTO/PTA, participating in school board meetings, or volunteering in other capacities at school. Parent and student input can be an important tool for school food service operators to successfully implement the standards and provide acceptable meals that students will consume.

TLT:  As you’re likely aware, I and a fellow advocate, Nancy Huehnegarth, are leading a campaign to keep chicken processed in China from being used in all federal child nutrition programs, including the NSLP.  [Ed. note: by the time this question was answered, Nancy and I had already declared victory.] Our Change.org petition currently has over 328,000 signatures in support of this goal. Given China’s abysmal food safety record and the fact that no USDA inspectors will be on site, do you share our concerns about feeding kids chicken processed in that country?

Under Secretary Concannon:  USDA is committed to ensuring that food served through the National School Lunch Program is both healthy and safe. Chicken provided to schools through the USDA Foods program is required to be processed in the United States per program regulations. Further, the substitution of non-domestic product is not allowed for any USDA Foods product. Schools can also purchase chicken items for their school meal service outside of USDA foods, from a variety of commercial vendors. The Buy American provision requires that for commercially-purchased foods, schools utilize foods where a substantial amount (51% or more) of the final processed product consists of domestically grown products. Schools with concerns about receiving products processed to any degree outside the United States may elect to draft their bid specifications to specifically request that their chicken products be processed 100% domestically. As a result of the fiscal year 2015 appropriations directive recently passed by Congress, the USDA is working with state agencies to provide additional guidance.

It is also important to know that all domestic and imported poultry must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public.  USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a stringent inspection system in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken. The Food and Nutrition Service will continue to ensure State compliance with all applicable statutes and laws, including the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, as we work to ensure the provision of nutritious school meals to children across America.

TLT:  The Smart Snacks rules have been a huge step forward in getting junk food off of school campuses.  However, as you know, when the rules were in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for “exempt fundraisers.”  In the first proposal, states would have had to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion, with no federal oversight.  The USDA opted for the latter, and now some states are exploiting this loophole to the fullest.  For example, Georgia recently voted to allow its schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days, which means any junk food may be sold to Georgia kids during the school day for fully one-half of the school year.  What do you think about states like Georgia and, in retrospect, does the USDA now regret giving states so much autonomy?

Under Secretary Concannon:  USDA thoughtfully considered and responded to public input on the Smart Snacks in School proposal, resulting in even stronger standards. USDA received nearly 250,000 stakeholder comments from parents, teachers, school food service professionals, and the food and beverage industry. Based on that feedback, the rule carefully balances science-based nutrition standards with practical and workable solutions to promote healthier eating on campus. As a result, USDA has provided flexibility for states to manage fundraisers at the state level. This is a local decision, as USDA understands that fundraisers are time-honored traditions that support local school activities, including class trips, athletic programs and the purchase of school supplies. States also have the flexibility to modify their fundraising policy at any time during the school year should they wish to do so, or in future years. USDA/FNS has been and will continue to work with our  State partners to reach out to schools and other stakeholders in the school community to provide training, technical assistance and resources to ensure that they understand the new rules, and have the tools and information they need to succeed.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join almost 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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What the “CRomnibus” Spending Bill Means for School Food

Cream DoughnutTo fund the federal government and avoid a government shutdown, while also specially carving out funding for the Department of Homeland Security,* this week Congress is on track to pass the so-called “CRomnibus” — a combination of a continuing resolution and an omnibus spending bill.  (I thought I was the only person who, upon hearing “CRomnibus” could only think of a “cronut,” but apparently I’m not alone.)

Worked into the CRomnibus are several important provisions regarding school meals.

First, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog or following news reports, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, has long been fighting to allow school districts to entirely opt-out of the new, healthier school meal standards for one year if they can show prior financial distress in meeting those standards.  This so-called “waiver” provision has been enthusiastically supported by the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, despite the fact that the SNA supported these same healthy nutritional standards when they were first adopted.

The good news is that the waiver provision did not make it into the CRomnibus, which means that, as of now at least, schools must continue to abide by all of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s regulations, including the hotly contested provision which currently requires students to take 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables with their lunch instead of being able to pass those foods by.

However, the SNA and House Republicans were still able to work some of their desired provisions into the bill.  Specifically, school districts which can demonstrate hardship in meeting the HHFKA’s new, 100% “whole-grain-rich” standard (which requires that all grain foods served contain at least 51% whole grain) will not be penalized for failing to meet this standard.  It’s not yet clear, however, how schools are to make this showing of hardship, and in any case they’ll still need to meet the lower standard of 50% of grain foods being “whole grain rich.”  In addition, the CRomnibus language freezes current levels of sodium in school meals until the USDA can demonstrate that scheduled, further reductions in sodium are beneficial to children’s health.

But before anyone concludes that the battle over school meal standards is now over, it’s important to remember that absence of the controversial waiver language in the CRomnibus only reflects the fact that the Senate is still controlled by Democrats, which will no longer be true come January.  And next year also marks the every-five-year re-funding of federal child nutrition programs, commonly known as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, or the CNR.  That’s when the war over school meals will heat up considerably, and I’ll have more thoughts in the coming weeks on what parents can do to help preserve healthier nutrition standards.  (In the meantime, I’ll link to my New York Times piece from October, “As Lobbyists and Politicians Shout It Out Over School Lunch, Can Parents Be Heard?”)

And now let’s turn to the issue of Chinese-processed chicken in school meals.  As you know, I and my colleague Nancy Huehnergarth started a Change.org petition seeking to prevent the use of such poultry in all federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, due to serious concerns about China’s food safety record.  As of today, almost 330,000 people have joined us in this effort, and we are beyond pleased to report that — thanks to the efforts of Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) — the CRomnibus currently contains this language:

SEC. 736. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to procure processed poultry products imported into the United States from the People’s Republic of China for use in the school lunch program under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.), the Child and Adult Food Care Program under section 17 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1766), the Summer Food Service Program for Children under section 13 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1761), or the school breakfast program under the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (4223 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.).

It’s our hope that this language will go unchallenged and appear in the final bill to be signed into law by President Obama.  We will of course keep you posted, and thank you all for your support of this important campaign.


* This relates to the fight between Congressional Republicans and President Obama over immigration; you can read more here.

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You may have already heard about a new Twitter hashtag that’s making national news: disgruntled kids are taking photos of their unappetizing school lunches and sharing them on Twitter with a sarcastic #thanksmichelleobama.  A recent Buzz Feed post about the trend has already received an astonishing two million views.

Some of the photos shared by students are indeed stomach-turning.  This one in particular has received a lot of attention, for obvious reasons:

gross lunch
click on the photo to enlarge

I have a few things to say about all this:

  • First, a word to the kids tweeting these photos.  Um, guys, you know Michelle Obama’s not actually in your school kitchen, right?  The First Lady supports common sense nutrition standards, like “kids need more fruits and vegetables,” but she has nothing to do with school menus (that would be your district) and she’s never instructed anyone to put disgusting glop on your tray.  Whoever prepared the travesty pictured above probably should be publicly shamed — but that person isn’t Michelle Obama.
  • This isn’t the first time photos of unappetizing school food have gone viral; last year I wrote a post (“School Food Gets Its Close-Up, But Is It a Fair One?”) about another, similar campaign.  Kids griping about school food is a time-honored tradition that’s likely been going on for as long as we’ve had school food, and certainly well before we had cell phones, but that doesn’t mean all school meals are bad.  In fact, some are pretty great.
  • As I wrote in the post mentioned above, if you’re using a cell phone camera to make food look as disgusting as possible, you’re likely to succeed.  Even when I use my cell phone camera to make food look good, I sometimes fail miserably. Here’s an Indian dinner I once cooked for my family including chana masala, whole wheat naan, homemade raita and chutney:


You’ll have to take my word for it when I say this meal was delicious, but I’m guessing few of you would want to try it based on this photo.  And you can imagine how much worse this nutritious, home-cooked and mostly organic meal would have looked slopped onto a styrofoam tray and photographed under a cafeteria’s fluorescent lights, especially if the photographer were trying to make it look terrible.

  • Here’s another example.  This #thanksmichelleobama photo appeared in the New York Daily News and many other outlets and, at first glance, it looks awful.
click on the photo to enlarge
click on the photo to enlarge

But if you take a minute, you’ll realize you’re looking at some pretty benign refried beans with melted cheese, next to a tortilla.  I happen to live in Tex-Mex country and can tell you that no extreme close-up of refried beans (especially when served with an ice-cream scoop) is ever going to look much better than that.

  • But what annoys me most about the #thanksmichelleobama hashtag is how, predictably, it’s been seized upon by some on the political right in their never-ending campaign to demonize the First Lady for – gasp! – supporting science-based nutritional standards for school food.  These standards were not her creation; rather, they were recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and are considered the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.” And, by the way, when Congress authorized the USDA to improve school food (which led the USDA to commission the IOM report), the sitting president at the time wasn’t Democrat Barack Obama.  It was Republican George W. Bush.

Now let me tell you why I’m saying, without a trace of sarcasm and with profound gratitude, #Thanks4RealMichelleObama:

  • In 2010, Congress passed the most sweeping overhaul of school food in decades, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  That landmark event might not have happened without the First Lady’s determined and vocal support of the law in the months leading up to its passage.
  • Under the HHFKA, kids are now being served less sodium, fat and sugar and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, all of which is consistent with those IOM recommendations.  Those changes are critical if this and future generations are to reverse current trends toward obesity and diet-related disease.
  • According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “Our nation’s schools and schoolchildren are thriving under the new standards. School lunch revenue is up.”
  • A recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed that kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch — and that figure is likely to go up significantly as the new standards become more familiar to students over time.
  • A peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity found that, after initial complaints, kids now actually like the healthier school food.  It also found that among socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”
  • Under the HHFKA’s direct certification and community eligibility provisions, more economically disadvantaged kids than ever now have easy access to school food, which for many is their primary source of daily nutrition.

If you’re a Twitter user and agree that these significant accomplishments are worthy of some gratitude, please click here to automatically send this message to the First Lady, or use my hashtag #Thanks4RealMichelleObama with your own text:

Thanks @FLOTUS for championing healthier school food for all kids! http://ctt.ec/X418t+   #Thanks4RealMichelleObama #thanksmichelleobama

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My Piece in the New York Times Motherlode Re: The School Food Wars

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine will feature a major story on school food, “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” and I was honored to be asked to interview the Times reporter, Nicholas Confessore, for a piece on today’s New York Times Motherlode.

Sarah Anne Ward for The New York Times
Sarah Anne Ward for The New York Times

For those of you who regularly follow this blog and other sources of school food news, the broad outlines of Confessore’s story will be all too familiar.  His piece traces the evolution of the School Nutrition Association, the largest organization of school food professionals, from one-time supporter of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to its current role as a vocal critic of school food reform on Capitol Hill.  It’s also a richly detailed, if depressing, behind-the-scenes account of how Big Food’s lobbying dollars and the rancorous atmosphere in Congress have made healthy school food, once supported by both sides of the aisle, a deeply partisan issue.

Lost in the shuffle, though, are the kids who actually eat school food and, by extension, the parents of those children.  So in today’s Motherlode piece I ask Confessore what, if anything, parents can do to be heard on this issue over the powerful voices of lobbyists and politicians.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, too, either in a comment here or on the Motherlode post.

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Houston ISD to Provide Universal (Free) Meals at 166 Schools

I’m back from summer vacation in time to share some nice news:  Houston ISD, the seventh largest district in the country, has announced that it’s taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to provide universal (free) school breakfast and lunch to every student at 166 of its schools, regardless of economic status, and without the need for meal applications or other paperwork.  These schools represent approximately 55% of the total number of schools in our district, with an estimated combined population of over 100,000 students, and the free meals will become available when our school year begins a week from today.

The Community Eligibility Provision means school meals are free for all
The Community Eligibility Provision means school meals are free for all

The CEP was one of the less publicized gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), allowing schools to provide universal meals to an entire school based on “direct certification” data, such as how many children live in households receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits), without also requiring annual paper applications submitted by parents.  The CEP program has been rolled out gradually since 2011, starting in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, then expanding to D.C., New York, Ohio, and West Virginia, and last year including Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, and Georgia. The option is now open to all schools around the country, but they must apply by August 31st to implement the program this coming year.

The CEP is strongly supported by anti-hunger groups such as Project Bread and No Kid Hungry because it accomplishes several important goals, including reducing administrative burdens on parents and districts, targeting needy populations and increasing meal participation, especially at breakfast.  That in turn can lead to higher academic performance and improved classroom behavior, as children who aren’t distracted by hunger pains are clearly in a better position to learn.

The CEP also has the added benefit of reducing social stigma in the cafeteria, a very real problem that often prevents kids who qualify for free and reduced price lunch from actually eating those needed meals.  Some of you may remember my 2011 Lunch Tray post (“Social Media and Social Stigma on the Lunch Line“) in which I reported that students in HISD were taking cell phone pictures of kids standing in the federally reimbursed school meal line, then sharing these photos on social media with disparaging comments.  Not surprisingly, many students were willing to skip lunch rather than risk this kind of exposure.  But when meals are “free for all,” regardless of economic status, any stigma associated with eating a school meal is lessened or eliminated.*

Pursuing the CEP is not always an easy sell for food services departments, since other district administrators are long accustomed to relying on data from paper meal applications for the purposes of receiving funding under Title I and other programs.  But that data overlap isn’t an insurmountable problem (the USDA has issued a guidance document to help districts sort through the issue) and taking advantage of the CEP makes good sense in a district like ours, where over 80% of our children live close enough to the poverty line to qualify for school meal assistance.

So, kudos to HISD for making it happen.  And it will be interesting to see how many other districts around the country take advantage of the CEP this year, now that it’s open to all.  I’ll share that information here when it becomes available.


*Of course, as Matt Breunig recently noted in Salon, stigma in the lunchroom is likely to be even worse at schools where the number of poor kids is outweighed by the number of paying kids, and those schools would not qualify for the CEP.  For this reason and others, advocates like Janet Poppendieck and Alice Waters support universal free lunch at every school, which is the practice in many other countries around the world.  But as much as I, too, support this idea, I don’t believe it can gain widespread political traction in this country, at least for the foreseeable future.  So far, it’s been impossible to obtain adequate Congressional funding even for the current meal program, and I suspect that using taxpayer dollars to provide meals to those who could otherwise afford them would be abhorrent to many Americans, even those who aren’t inherently distrustful of sweeping government programs.

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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.]

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How Did the School Nutrition Association Lose Its Way?

How did the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, go from being a vocal supporter of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to the moving force behind current efforts to gut that legislation?

Even the First Lady finds this flip-fop perplexing, reportedly saying at a recent gathering of school nutrition leaders, “Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards. … If anyone can help me understand how we wound up here.”

Now two new articles shed some light on that question.  Jerry Hagstrom’s piece in the National Journal, “It’s Time to Protect School-Cafeteria Workers From Their Own Food Fight,” and Helena Bottemiller Evich’s piece on Politico, “First Lady vs. Lunch Ladies: Behind the Scenes,” both describe dramatic changes in SNA’s top leadership and platform, changes which are causing considerable dissension among SNA’s membership.

This background helps explain why 19 past SNA presidents recently took the highly unusual step of publicly breaking with their own organization to urge Congress not to roll-back healthier school food standards.  It’s also quite encouraging to me, as a school food advocate, to learn that SNA’s troubling positions are not necessarily shared by the organization’s members at large.

It remains to be seen if SNA’s efforts to weaken school meal standards are successful, something we may not be able to fully assess until the Child Nutrition Reauthorization is completed in 2015.  But developments like the past presidents’ letter, press reports like the ones above, and now-frequent discussions in the media of the organization’s ties to Big Food, all may leave the SNA wishing it never picked this food fight in the first place.

[Ed Update 6/4/14:  The Politico link was changed to give readers access to the free version of the story.]

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Kathleen Parker on School Lunches: It’s All The Feminists’ Fault

Last Friday, conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial praising the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) current attempts to roll back the nutritional improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), derisively referring to the legislation as “the first lady’s well-intentioned but disastrous school nutrition program, otherwise known as the Dumpster Derby.”

In this regard, Parker is no different from any other conservative pundit or Republican House member persuaded by the SNA’s reports of increased food waste and student rejection of healthier food (reports strongly disputed by many respected school food service directors) to justify a return to daily pizza and fries.

But where Parker really made my head spin is her apparent belief that the entire National School Lunch Program is in place because mothers — specifically feminist mothers — just can’t be bothered to pack a nutritious lunch from home.  To wit:

Obama is merely expanding her maternal focus to include all those public school kids whose mothers apparently have forgotten how to make a sandwich. Or whose fathers have forgotten to say, “Get those plugs out of your ears and make friends with the lawn mower” — or whatever its urban equivalent.

. . . .  and this is where I wish this debate were heading — Mrs. Obama could suggest that parents prepare their children’s meals.

What?! You’ve got to be kidding! We’re too busy!!

Since when were we too busy to scramble an egg or toast a slice of bread? Since the national narrative of women’s liberation concentrated on the kitchen as metaphor for homebound drudgery and oppression, that’s when.

Parker does give a throwaway nod to poor people — “When it comes to home food preparation, the very poor need extra help, obviously” — but then reasserts the notion that “quality nutrition, as most important things, begins at home.”

So, in sum, Parker apparently believes that the majority of children participating in the NSLP come from stable, two-parent households (replete with fancy electronics, lawns, lawn mowers and well-stocked kitchens) and if only mom’s pretty little head hadn’t been muddled by pesky feminists, those children would all be heading out the door with a nutritious, home-packed lunch.

I’m so dumbfounded by this thinking, I don’t quite know what to say.

Let’s start with a simple recitation of the facts:

  • According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) the latest USDA data indicate that 15.8 million (21.6 percent) children live in households “facing a constant struggle against hunger.” And “in Gallup surveys taken between 2008 and 2012, 23.5 percent of households with children responded that there were times in the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food that they needed.”
  • On a typical school day in 2011-12, 19.6 million children, or a full 68 percent of those participating in school meals, received received free or reduced price lunches, and that figure has since increased. To qualify for free lunches this past year, a family of four must be living at 130% of the poverty level, or earning no more than $30,615.  To receive reduced price lunch, a family of four must be earning between $30,615 and $43,568.*
  • One significant gain brought about by the HHFKA is that districts can now”directly certify” the very neediest children for free and reduced price meals, without the need for paperwork, if these children are “homeless, runaway, and migrant children and children from households that receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).”  In the 2012-13 school year, 12.3 million children met one or more of these criteria and received direct certification.

And even the SNA, on which Parker happily relies in dismissing the need for healthier school food, fully recognizes the critical role of the NSLP in feeding America’s hungry children.  In its 2008 report, “Saved By The Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises,” the SNA wrote:

The school nutrition programs are more important than ever, as more students participate in the free and reduced price categories. Nationwide, school nutrition programs serve as safety nets for families that are facing financial difficulties as the economy falters.

In other words, children fortunate enough to have moms who could easily pack a nutritious lunch (but for their feminist ideology) are not the intended beneficiaries of the NSLP.  Instead, the program is intended to serve the millions of impoverished American children whose parents cannot send them to school with a home-packed lunch for a whole host of possible reasons that never seem to cross Parker’s mind: the family’s SNAP benefits fail to cover a month’s worth of healthful food, in light of today’s rising food costs; there is only one parent in the household and he or she works one or more jobs and is not home to pack a lunch; one or both caretakers are drug-addicted, mentally ill, physically disabled or otherwise unable to adequately provide for their children; the family lives in a homeless shelter and lacks access to kitchen facilities; the family lives in a food desert where healthful groceries are scarce, etc. etc.

These are not families, in other words, in which mom is just too focused on her career at a high-powered law firm to get out the peanut butter and jelly each morning.  And when it comes to these children, who are so dependent on school meals for daily nutrition, it’s incontestable that they are better served by the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates than by the SNA’s current desire to return to foods higher in white flour and sodium, fruits and vegetables that kids are able to spurn on a daily basis, and school snack bars replete with pizza and fries.

My goodness!  The solution to childhood hunger has been hiding right here in my Fridgidaire!
My goodness! The solution to childhood hunger has been hiding right here in my Frigidaire!

But maybe Parker’s “Leave it to Beaver” thinking should come as no surprise.  Back in 2011 on this blog, I took issue with another Parker WashPo editorial, this one arguing that the federal government should have no role in solving the obesity crisis. Parker once again harkened back to some earlier, simpler time, and concluded that, “[a]s with most problems, the solution is family:”

Ma would say: “Sit up and eat your vegetables.” Pa said: “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Other common utterances included: “Go outside and play.” And, “After you finish your chores.”

Families may not have been happier . . . but neither were the words “childhood obesity” part of the vernacular.

That’s right.  The historic rise in childhood obesity has absolutely nothing to do with: federal corn subsidies which unnaturally render junk food and fast food the cheaper option for many consumers; the food industry’s intense focus on making junk food hyper-palatable; the almost $2 billion spent each year to aggressively market junk food to kids: the growing ubiquity of junk food in outlets which formerly never sold food (Michael’s craft stores, fabric stores, car washes, etc.); or a host of other factors. It’s just that Ma and Pa are no longer dispensing their homespun wisdom to little Jimmy and Sally around the dinner table.

June Cleaver for Secretary of Agriculture!
June Cleaver for Secretary of Agriculture!

I’ll say one thing for Parker’s world view:  it’s certainly seductive in its simplicity. Instead of having to attack the multiple root causes of two entrenched societal ills, childhood obesity and childhood hunger, we just have to do one thing — roll back the clock to upper middle class suburbia, circa 1955.


* An earlier version of this post contained free/reduced data for 2012-13.  It has been updated to reflect the guidelines in effect in the 2013-14 school year.

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