A School Nutrition Director Gives Me a Wake-Up Call

Yesterday I attended a Houston ISD Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, something I’ve done almost every month during the school year for the last four and a half years.  And while I sat through the various presentations, I reflected on how much my feelings about school food professionals have changed since I walked into my first PAC meeting in 2010.

Back then, my attitude toward the food services department could fairly be called “openly hostile.”  I knew nothing of how school food programs operated but I did know that what was being served in my kids’ elementary school cafeteria was really dismal.  If HISD’s school food professionals cared at all about kids, how could they possibly serve food like that?

But since then I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the complexities and challenges of running a school food program, which I recently referred to as one of the hardest jobs on the planet.  I’ve also come to personally know and like many of the people now running HISD’s Nutrition Services department, as well as many other school food professionals around the country. As a result, with every reform I seek on behalf of kids, I now can’t help but see other side of the coin: how those improvements will impact (often negatively) the people doing their best to keep their meal programs afloat.

And for a long time now, I’ve wondered if this knowledge is such a good thing.  I do believe that to be an effective advocate for any cause, it’s essential to understand the challenges faced by key decision makers.  But at the same time I worry that this newfound empathy has caused me to lose some of the angry fire that motivated me to get involved in the first place.  I find myself holding my tongue over problems in my own district that the old Bettina would surely have challenged, and I wonder if I’ve been co-opted.

So that’s why I wanted to share a recent exchange on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page.  I had just shared a TLT post criticizing “copycat snacks,” i.e., “better-for-you” junk food like Atomic Cheez-Its that schools can still sell a la carte under the new Smart Snacks rules.  Jeanne Reilly, a school nutrition director, responded:

As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in here for a moment. . . .  If school nutrition was funded appropriately, there would be no need to sell items outside of the meal program, but …until that day, when we are actually funded appropriately to meet the new & changing federal guidelines, we will have to continue to sell a la carte foods , and we have to sell what meets the guidelines and what students want… and what they can afford. Please understand the real complexities of school nutrition programs, inside and out before blaming the poor state of student nutrition on the SNP at your child’s school. . . .

I found myself almost nodding in agreement with Jeanne, fully understanding the financial challenges she’s facing and why she feels the need to sell this highly processed junk food.  It’s the same reason I’ve let myself turn a blind eye to the sale of similar packaged snack items in HISD, as well as our district’s sale of all natural “juice slushies” which, though no longer neon-colored, are still incredibly sugary beverages no child needs to be drinking.

But then school nutrition director Barb Mechura responded.  (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease of reading):

As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in also.

We do not need these products to balance our budgets. Do kids like them, yes. Should schools serve them – generally speaking, no. It is incredibly difficult to develop children’s taste preferences for real food vs heavily processed and marketed food, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, and the level of difficulty shouldn’t be our excuse for us to continue to operate our school nutrition programs as we have.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates

We are all looking at this from our rearview mirror, rather than out the front windshield – when we realize that we need to take our children’s health back into our hands and accept our role as adults and setting limits and expectations about what our children will learn to eat? If we approach the situation with a continued and unrelenting expectation that we WILL find ways to help them fall in love with fruits, vegetables and whole grains – we WILL indeed find ways to remove barriers, and we will change their relationship with food.

There are many, many opportunities outside of schools for children to find and choose these [junk] foods. When they find them offered in schools, there is a message that we are sending them and it’s not moderation – it is over-consumption.

If we placed awesomely-tasty chocolate chip cookies on your desk, on your credenza, on your car dashboard, on your cupboard at home, in your bedroom, in your basement – do you think you would have the will power to resist throughout the entire day? Or, would you decide to have one, which might then lead to another because it tasted so darn good, then to another, and yet still another?

This is not about willpower. Their not-yet-fully developed brains – are held hostage to the constant exposure to these foods, both inside and outside of school. We are sending our youth, our teachers, our administration subliminal messages by what we offer in a very trusted American institution. Then we complain about what the students get in the classroom, of how hard it is to compete with all the junk food in the classroom. What’s the definition of insanity…?

[Wild applause and a standing ovation from this blogger.]

The thing is, we shouldn’t need to have to choose between kids’ health and the needs of school food professionals.  We shouldn’t have to fund meal programs through the sale of sugary slushies and Atomic Cheez-Its.  Schools shouldn’t be burdened with mandates to serve healthier school food without adequate funding for that food.  They shouldn’t be expected to please kids weaned on junk food without resources like nutrition education to ease the transition.

All of that takes money, however, and the only voice capable of asking for that money from Congress is the School Nutrition Association.  But, to use Barb’s metaphor, the SNA has chosen to look in the rear view mirror by not asking for that funding, instead seeking to roll back science-based nutrition standards, as well as opposing the Smart Snacks rules and reasonable curbs on junk food school fundraising.  It isn’t looking through the windshield to seek the resources that would help schools — and students — move forward.  

If you’re an SNA member who feels the same way, please consider signing and sharing this open letter.  And, on my end, I just want to thank Barb for reminding me why I got into this area in the first place — and of where we need to go.

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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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“Copycat” Junk Food in Schools – Why Is Anyone Surprised?

I couldn’t make it to last week’s School Nutrition Association (SNA) annual national conference (ANC) in Boston, but I closely followed reports coming out of the convention via Twitter and other social media. And one common refrain from some food advocates and reporters in attendance was surprise and concern over the glut of junk food promoted by some food manufacturers at the ANC.

These highly processed foods — sometimes referred to as “copycat” junk food by school food reform advocates – bear all the same logos and brand names as their supermarket counterparts, but are nutritionally tweaked to comply with the USDA’s improved school meal standards and/or its new “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

Kiera Butler, writing for Mother Jones, walked the ANC convention floor and found out that “Yes, Cheetos, Funnel Cake, and Domino’s Are Approved School Lunch Items.”  Here’s a flier she took from a PepsiCo vendor:

Photo courtesy of Mother Jones
Photo credit: Kiera Butler for Mother Jones

And here’s a post from Time magazine (“There’s a Lot of Junk at the School Nutrition Conference“) which features photos tweeted from the ANC by Eat Drink Politics‘ Michele Simon, such as this one:

simon smart snacks ANC

But I have to confess that I’ve been surprised by …  well, the surprise … caused by “copycat” junk food.

To be sure, the new federal Smart Snacks and meal standards are a huge improvement in school food, and the passage of those rules is an achievement that shouldn’t be diminished (or rolled back – ahem, SNA).  But as Michael Pollan has observed of all processed food, “You can tweak it, reformulate it and reposition it ad infinitum,” and that includes rejiggering fat, sodium and whole grain levels to meet whatever standards the USDA adopts for school meals and snacks, no matter how stringent those standards may first appear.

And whatever R&D expenditures are required to reformulate their products, food manufactures are willing to make the outlay in exchange for something extremely valuable:  the opportunity to instill on a daily basis lifelong brand loyalties among a highly impressionable population, i.e., school children.

So it should come as no surprise that Big Food will always find a way to get into school cafeterias.  But it also shouldn’t surprise us that many school food service directors embrace these products.  The chronic underfunding of the National School Lunch Program creates ongoing challenges that highly processed, “better for you” school junk food can help meet.  Such food is cheap, easily stored, requires no labor, is guaranteed to meet USDA requirements and, most importantly, it’s instantly popular with kids, thanks to careful food engineering and billions of dollars in kid-directed advertising to create brand trust and familiarity.  If offered on the meal line, it can boost participation, and if offered on the for-cash a la carte (snack bar) line, it generally results in higher sales than healthier offerings.

But, of course, “copycat” school junk food causes two significant problems.  First, it impedes efforts to redirect kids toward the fresh, whole foods that would better serve their longterm health.  Second, children have no clue that the branded foods being served in the cafeteria are somehow “better” than the standard formulation of those foods, so they continue to receive the implicit message that items like Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (whole-grain rich or otherwise) and Domino’s pizza (ditto) are acceptable, daily lunch fare.  And that’s a terribly destructive lesson that may never be unlearned.

So what, if anything, can be done to get “copycat” junk food out of the cafeteria?  In my opinion, not much at the present time, given the incentives that drive Big Food and some food service directors into each other’s arms, as well as the food industry’s influence over the SNA and Congress.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by one clever idea to keep “copycat” junk food out of schools.  The Public Health Advocacy Institute (“PHAI”) has urged the USDA to put a provision in the agency’s proposed wellness policy rules that would prohibit companies from using brand names, logos, characters, etc. on school product packaging if those same marketing elements are also used on products which don’t meet the Smart Snacks nutritional requirements.

In other words, because unhealthy fried Cheetos are sold elswhere, none of the Cheetos design elements could be used on the packaging of the school-version of Cheetos.  Thus, Big Food’s ability to use school sales as a brand marketing tool would vanish overnight:

It remains to be seen whether PHAI’s proposal makes it into the final version of the wellness policy rules. Given the huge blow this would inflict on the food industry, I think it’s unlikely.  And even if it does show up in the final rule, it would still take serious commitment on the part of local school districts to adopt and enforce such language in actual practice.  More likely, any local community already so committed to student health wouldn’t allow a lot of  “copycat” junk food in the cafeteria in the first place.

But you have to give PHAI credit for trying.  Because as my school food reform colleague Dana Woldow once memorably wrote, cleaned-up junk food products “are ‘better for you’ only in the sense that it is ‘better for you’ to be hit in the head with a brick only twice, rather than three times.”  Ouch.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

 

 

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Houston ISD Offering Meatless Entrees on Mondays

With all the school food developments happening on the federal level these days, I’m a bit late in reporting some nice news from my own backyard.

Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation, recently announced its new “Lean and Green” initiative: offering its students meatless school meal entrees on Mondays.

Elementary and middle school students can now choose a vegetarian entree each Monday, and on the second Monday of the month only meat-free options are offered.  Meatless items have included bean and cheese burritos, cheese enchiladas, pasta with marinara sauce, and spicy grilled cheese sandwiches.  (The district has actually been serving meatless entrees for several months but waited to confirm student and parent acceptance of the new menu before announcing the effort publicly.)

daniella monetDaniella Monet, a 25-year-old actress and singer best known for her role on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious” and the host of the Kids’ Choice Awards, came to Houston as a guest of the Humane Society to promote the program.  Monet, a long-time vegan, visited HISD’s Gregory Lincoln Education Center where she toured the school’s garden, spoke in a culinary class (taught by the dynamic Kellie Karavias) and ate lunch with the students.  I was able to stop by during Monet’s appearance and listened in as she answered middle school students’ questions about how she maintains a plant-based diet.

Here are some photos from the day:

 

 

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USDA Won’t Delay Healthier School Snacks or More Fruit in School Breakfasts

Starting in 2014-15, two significant changes will be coming to school cafeterias.  First, under the new “Smart Snacks in School” rules, we should see a big improvement in the nutritional content of snack foods and beverages sold to students from outlets like vending machines, fundraising tables and “a la carte” snack bar lines.  Another, less-talked-about change is a new requirement that schools offering breakfast provide students with a full cup of fruit, rather than the 1/2 cup currently required.

But as I told you in my “State of the Tray” piece for Civil Eats last month, the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is pushing back against these changes.  Earlier this year, the SNA successfully lobbied to insert language in the Congressional report accompanying the 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, advising USDA to grant schools a one-year waiver on either requirement, if implementing the requirement would result in increased cost.  (In essence, the SNA was seeking a blanket, one-year delay on both changes, since most school districts could easily make the “increased cost” argument.)

The USDA, however, apparently will not go along with this plan.  In a letter sent last week from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the USDA states it lacks the legal authority to grant waivers in either case.  Vilsack wrote:

Our Office of the General Counsel has confirmed that USDA is prohibited by Federal law from waiving these regulations and is also prohibited from authorizing State agencies to do so. . . . Since report language is non-binding in nature, and statutory prohibitions are binding, USDA is respectfully unable to comply with the directive to establish a waiver process.

In a press release following the release of the letter, SNA expressed its disappointment.

With respect to the Smart Snacks in School rules, I’m glad to learn that there will be no delay in the rules’ implementation.  For far too long, schools have balanced their budgets at the expense of student health by selling some of the worst junk food out there, in competition with the healthier, nutritionally balanced school meal.  (Anyone remember this photo, snapped here in Houston ISD?  That’s a pile of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos doused in nacho cheese sauce, a “lunch” concocted by a middle schooler from items bought on the school’s own a la carte line.)

cheetosnacho

When it comes to the increased fruit requirement, however, I might surprise some TLT readers when I say I have sympathy for schools resisting this change.  I’ve talked to many school food professionals and parents who’ve expressed their dismay over the amount of fruit already wasted on a daily basis at breakfast.  And in a large urban district like mine, where over 80% of our kids are economically disadvantaged and a universal, in-class breakfast is the norm among our 300 schools, paying for that 1/2 cup increase is likely to be a big drain on our school food budget.

Regardless, in light of USDA’s legal opinion, it looks like both changes will go forward next year.  I’ll keep you posted on any further developments.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join 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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Was I Too Quick to Condemn Ms. Obama’s School Junk Food Ad Ban?

Two days ago, I told you about proposed USDA rules, promoted by the First Lady and released on the fourth anniversary of her Let’s Move! initiative, which would curb the marketing of foods and beverages on school campuses.  Specifically, if adopted, the new rules would restrict on-campus advertising during the school day to foods and beverages meeting the relatively stringent nutritional requirements of the new interim “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

While I applauded any effort to get junk food ads off of school campuses, I was particularly critical in my post of the proposed mechanism to bring about this result, namely, school wellness policies.  I questioned why USDA didn’t just directly regulate on-campus advertising (they way it directly regulates school snacks, for example) and I worried that wellness policies are too often ignored by school districts to do much good in this area.

As soon as I posted on Wednesday, I started to receive quite a lot of feedback, most of it supportive but some less so.  Wilma (TLT’s resident, anonymous school food professional) contacted me by email to politely point out the many ways in which the rule would also strengthen wellness policies and their oversight (more on that below).  Then on Twitter, Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics speculated that USDA may lack the rule-making authority to directly regulate advertising on campus.  (Michele has a record of opposing any advertising to children, even for fruits and vegetables, so it sounds like she’s not a fan of the proposed rule for different reasons.  She  indicated that she’ll be writing her own post on the proposed rule, which I’m eager to read and will share with you as well.)  And Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy and Communications at the Healthy Schools Campaign left a comment here in which generally agreed with me but still noted:

USDA has such limited authority over this issue and they got really creative in getting this issue onto the table. I commend USDA and FLOTUS in taking steps to make sure schools, at minimum, start talking about this issue (hopefully schools will do more, but I too am skeptical). I’d love to see a real ban on junk food marketing (or all advertising for that matter) but with limited federal levers, and with a culture of local control of our schools, it seems that USDA pushed the envelope of their authority, and did it quite creatively. I think this is an important early step.

Meanwhile, last night happened to be Houston ISD’s monthly School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) meeting and that committee, on which I serve, is very much in the thick of re-writing our district’s wellness policy. So in preparation for that meeting, I really delved into the proposed rules in great detail (in a way I now wish I had done before writing Wednesday’s post) and I’ve come to agree with Wilma that, if the rules are adopted in their entirety, wellness policies around the country will be substantially improved.

Right now, in most districts, wellness policies are vaguely written, purely aspirational documents that few people in the district even know about.  But USDA is now asking schools to get surprisingly specific, asking them to set:

“Strong, clear goals with specific and measurable objectives and benchmarks stating who will make what change, by how much, where, and by when, with attention to both short term and long term goals.  . . . . Most measurable goals, objectives and benchmarks will include numbers.”  [emphasis in original]

That’s a radical change from past practice, and the commentary on the rules offers even more specifics in terms of the types of implementation USDA would like to see.  Moreover, USDA would also now require each individual school within a district to annually report on its progress in meeting those goals, including giving a summary of the school events or activities that facilitated wellness policy implementation in the prior year.  That’s another big change, since in the past only the district had to report on overall compliance and it could offer vague assurances rather than specifics.  (Districts themselves will continue to report, but on a triennial basis.)  All of that is great news, not just for the narrow issue of the junk food marketing rules but all facets of promoting student wellness on school campuses.

Ultimately, the strength of any wellness policy will still always depend on the commitment of the district issuing it.  But since posting on Wednesday I’ve also been reflecting on the fact that even more direct legislation (the solution I wanted to see for junk food advertising on campuses) can be ineffective if a district is dead set on ignoring it.   Who can forget how here in freedom-loving Texas, our legislators were so outraged when Texas’s Department of Agriculture tried to enforce our state’s competitive food rules that they actually passed their own conflicting law to guarantee the rights of kids to sell junk food on school campuses?  That kind of recalcitrant attitude is hard to change, whether via a district wellness policy or a federal law.

So those are my further thoughts on Wednesday’s post, and I’m grateful to all of you who took the time to share your views, even when some of you gently chastised me for missing the boat on the wellness policy-related aspects of this issue.  I do continue to have lingering concerns about the proposed food marketing rules per se, as I noted in Wednesday’s post:

The remaining areas of concern, in my opinion, are the more subtle ways in which food and beverage manufacturers reach our kids:  sponsorship of scoreboards and securing the soda “pouring rights” at after school sporting events; reward programs like reading books in exchange for restaurant coupons; industry created, in-class curricula using branded product names; brand-sponsored contests; off-site events such as a fast food restaurant donating a portion of receipts from a given night; and the ubiquitous “box top” programs.  Of those, marketing at after school sporting events (and all other after school events) is already exempt from the proposal and as for the rest, USDA “invites the public to submit research findings and other descriptive data” as it finalizes the rule.

The comment period for these proposed rules ends on April 28th, so I urge you to share your thoughts with the USDA.  When I submit my own comments, I’ll post them in an open letter here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,200 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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Michelle Obama’s School Junk Food Advertising Ban: Why I’m Not Thrilled

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and the USDA made headlines by announcing a proposal to ban the marketing of junk food and sugary beverages on school campuses.  Timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Ms. Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, the proposal would restrict on-campus advertising to only those products meeting the relatively stringent nutritional requirements of the new, interim “Smart Snacks in School” rules, and it would cover branded marketing on school vending machines, posters, menu boards, cups, food service equipment and more.

This move was described by Politico as “an unusually aggressive position for the administration,” and it was praised by food policy advocates.  But as much as I support curbing junk food ads on school campuses, I’m not cheering this news with the same enthusiasm as some of my colleagues.  Here’s why.

To read some of the press reports, like this one in the Washington Post, one could easily conclude, as I first did, that USDA is actually imposing regulations on school districts to limit on-campus branded marketing.  But instead USDA is requiring school districts to include the requisite language regarding junk food marketing in their wellness policies, which is not quite the same thing.

Here in Houston ISD, I’m currently serving my fourth year on our School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), the group of parents, district employees, public health experts and other concerned citizens responsible for writing and updating our district’s wellness policy.  (Coincidentally, at last month’s SHAC meeting, our food and nutrition subcommittee was hashing out language to curb both overt and incidental brand advertising on our school campuses.)  But even as we engage in this important work, I’m mindful of the fact that wellness policies can only go so far without active support from the school board, superintendent, and committed school principals.

As Stacy Whitman noted in a 2013 post on School Bites:

All too often, par­ents and school staff, all the way up to the prin­ci­pal, don’t even know that their school well­ness pol­icy exists. . . . And since there’s no penalty for fail­ure to com­ply with the USDA reg­u­la­tions? Yup, you guessed it: After being writ­ten, many school well­ness poli­cies are set aside and for­got­ten.

It’s true that the new proposed rule would attempt to strengthen wellness policy enforcement by requiring districts to designate an official to ensure local school compliance.  But, at least at present, the ultimate check is a triennial audit by the state agencies overseeing federal school meal programs; this audit covers hundreds of items, everything from food safety to sanitation, and also includes determining whether a district has a wellness policy in place that’s being enforced.

Yet, at least here in Texas, that particular inquiry is a pretty meaningless exercise.   According to one knowledgable person with whom I spoke, when the Texas Department of Agriculture (which administers the state’s school meal programs) audits Houston ISD’s food services operations, it only “makes sure you have a wellness policy and asks to see the school board meeting minutes where it was voted on.  Then they just assume it’s implemented.  There’s never been any enforcement at all on that.”

An excerpt from a self-assessment tool for school districts preparing for a Texas Department of Agriculture audit.

So if we really want to get junk food marketing out of schools, wouldn’t it send a stronger message if USDA regulated it directly, rather than using the weaker mechanism of a wellness policy to do so?  Was Let’s Move! worried that the former avenue would receive more food industry pushback?  When I raised this issue with the First Lady’s press office, I was referred to the USDA, which then declined to comment publicly on the matter.

Even apart from the use of wellness policies to achieve its goals, it’s not clear how comprehensive the final rule will be.  It’s laudable that overt on-campus marketing would be restricted to foods and beverages meeting the Smart Snacks in School rules, but since those are the only foods and beverages which may be sold after July 2014, that was likely to happen anyway.  (In other words, why would a cafeteria put up signage for a product it can’t even sell?)

The remaining areas of concern, in my opinion, are the more subtle ways in which food and beverage manufacturers reach our kids:  sponsorship of scoreboards and securing the soda “pouring rights” at after school sporting events; reward programs like reading books in exchange for restaurant coupons; industry created, in-class curricula using branded product names; brand-sponsored contests; off-site events such as a fast food restaurant donating a portion of receipts from a given night; and the ubiquitous “box top” programs.  Of those, marketing at after school sporting events (and all other after school events) is already exempt from the proposal and as for the rest, USDA “invites the public to submit research findings and other descriptive data” as it finalizes the rule.  (I certainly intend to do so.)

As I’ve said many times on this blog, I’m a realist, not an idealist and so I remain eternally grateful that we have a First Lady willing to take on these issues.   But in this case, it remains to be seen how effective her efforts will be.  Forward-thinking districts will curb junk food marketing, and probably would have done so regardless of the USDA proposal.  But those districts most in need of reform may just maintain the status quo, even as their well crafted wellness policy sits in a file drawer, gathering dust.

[Editorial note: This is true of everything I write on The Lunch Tray, but let me be clear that all opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of the Houston ISD School Health Advisory Council or any of its members. ]

[Editorial Update 3/7/14:  After a lot of feedback from readers, I’ve changed some of my views on this issue.  More here.]

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The Spork Report: A Food Day Panel on School Food

For TLT’ers in the Houston area, please check out my post on today’s Spork Report with details of an exciting line-up of Food Day events tomorrow night, including a panel discussion (in which I’m participating) on school food.

Hope to see some of you there!

 

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School Kitchen or Janitor’s Closet? You Decide.

Back in July, 2010, I was about two months into writing The Lunch Tray and had been involved in school food reform activities here in Houston for about five months.

Due to the impending passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school food reform was frequently in the national news.  In particular, there were many glowing reports about Michelle Obama’s various Let’s Move! school food reform initiatives, including “Chefs Move to Schools,” a campaign to encourage chefs to adopt their local schools for cooking demonstrations and nutrition advice, and a school food recipe contest for kids.  Like everyone else, I applauded those efforts.

And then I happened to come across a CNN piece interviewing Dana Woldow, a San Francisco school food advocate (now a friend of TLT but, back then, an unfamiliar name to me).  Dana said:

You can talk all you like about chefs moving to schools and sharing their expertise and that would be great, but we don’t have any place for those chefs to cook. And you can have kids developing recipes from scratch with dark green leafy vegetables and that’s wonderful, but where are these recipes going to be cooked if there is no kitchen?”

As I’ve written about before (most recently in a Houston Chronicle op-ed), here in Houston ISD we have one of the nation’s most advanced central kitchens for the preparation of school food:  a state-of-the-art, $51 million facility that takes up 15-acres, with 95,000 square feet devoted to baking, “cook/chill” and cold food preparation, as well as football-field-sized freezer and dry storage areas.  (But whether the kitchen’s capabilities are being used to their best advantage is another question entirely.)

So I confess I’d given little thought at the time to the fact that many schools around the country not only lack my district’s extraordinary resources, but literally have no place to do anything more than reheat frozen, processed foods.

I’m remembering all this now because Dana recently sent me a photo from one of San Francisco USD’s largest elementary schools.  Take a look at the school’s “kitchen:”

If we ever want schools to prepare healthful, “scratch-cooked” school food, not only will schools need extra funding to buy the fresh, whole raw materials and hire the labor needed to prepare them, but there is also the very real issue of infrastructure.  As a retired Air Force General from Mission Readiness mentioned in my interview with him last year:

Since 2009, Congress has appropriated $125 million for equipment upgrades. During that time period, there were more than $600 million in grant requests for this need.

Could there be a better illustration of that unfulfilled need than the picture above?

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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Spork Report: A Nice School Food Story from My District

After a long holiday break I’ve resumed posting on The Spork Report, my Houston ISD school food blog which also appears on the Houston Chronicle‘s chron.com site.

Today I share a story about a dedicated elementary school principal who eats the school lunch with his students everyday and who, when hearing complaints about a particular entree, worked to get the problem solved.  In other words, a positive school food story for a change!  :-)

 

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Spork Report: Yes, More About Those Cheetos in HISD (And the News May Not Be Good)

[Ed. Note:  This post appears on today’s The Spork Report, my new HISD school food blog, as well as the Houston Chronicle‘s Chron.com]

My first post on this blog contained a disturbing photo of one child’s meal in HISD: baked Flaming Hot Cheetos covered with nacho sauce, items the student purchased separately in his/her middle school cafeteria’s “a la carte” line and mixed together for his/her lunch:

hot fries and nacho cheese

I chose to lead off with this topic because I’ve long been concerned about the nutritional quality of the foods HISD offers to students for profit, in competition with the federally subsidized school meal, on the district’s a la carte lines.

Shortly after that post was published, an alarmed school board trustee contacted Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of Food Services, to express concern and obtain more information about the foods in the photograph.  In his response (to which I was later given access), Giles reassured the school board trustee:

The picture features “queso” sauce made at the Food Service Support Facility and some baked snacks.  These items, as well as all items approved for “a la carte” sale at schools, individually meet standards for Calories, Fat, Sugar, and Sodium as defined by the HealthierUS School Challenge.  These voluntary nutrition standards exceed current standards mandated by USDA for all school districts.

Based on this representation, I told Spork Report readers the same thing in my follow up report about a la carte, i.e., that all of HISD’s a la carte foods — including these two particular items (which I had made clear in my original post were purchased in a middle school) — comply with the HealthierUS Schools Challenge (“HUSSC”) standards.

Some time later, though, I remembered that there are gold, silver and bronze standards under the HUSSC and I wondered which standard our district is meeting.   But when I asked a representative of Food Services about this, now I was told:

Our elementary a la carte offerings meet the HealthierUS Schools Challenge Gold Standard.  For now, at the middle and high school level, we are working with schools on an individual basis who want to make changes.

This response directly contradicted what the school board member had been told by Giles and what I had subsequently told Spork Report readers – i.e., that HISD is meeting healthier a la carte standards across the board, regardless of grade level.

Taken aback by this development, I decided to do some investigating on my own.  I obtained from Frito-Lay’s website the nutritional information for the baked Flaming Hot Cheetos in the photo

and I then plugged that data into the HUSSC a la carte foods calculator.  To my surprise, the baked Cheetos were rejected by the calculator for containing an excessive amount of fat:

What’s particularly disturbing here is that these baked Cheetos (at least according to my own elementary-aged child) are also sold at the elementary school level.  So even where HISD is supposed to be meeting the HUSSC gold standard, the district is not in fact doing so, at least with respect to this particular product.

I raised all of the foregoing concerns with Brian Giles and he promised to have his nutrition team “re-analyze all our a la carte offerings as compared to HealthierUS School Challenge” and get back to me shortly.  I’ll share what I learn here.

Why is any of this important?   Because until we see what forthcoming national nutritional standards for a la carte foods look like, or until HISD SHAC-based efforts to improve a la carte standards in our district reach fruition, there clearly are children like the one in the photo who are making an entire meal out of these foods.  In a district which strives to offer “the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses,” meeting the HUSSC standards for every a la carte item it sells — across the board and at every grade level — would be a big step in the right direction.

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Spork Report: A Welcome Goodbye to Animal Crackers at Breakfast?

[Ed Note:  The following post appears on my Houston ISD school food blog, The Spork Report and is also posted at the Houston Chronicle‘s Chron.com.]

When I was once asked by Slow Food USA to explain why I started my daily blog about kids and food, The Lunch Tray, I realized that a packet of animal crackers played no small part in the decision.

I was attending my very first HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in February 2010, just as the First Class Breakfast program was being fully rolled out across the district at the direction of Superintendent Terry Grier.  There was a lot of concern among parents at the meeting (and throughout HISD) about some of the items on that initial breakfast menu, including brightly hued Trix yogurt, shrink-wrapped, processed maple-flavored waffles, and packets of animal crackers.

When I asked HISD’s then-head dietician about the animal crackers specifically, she said they were added to the menu to meet the USDA’s iron requirements for school breakfasts (via the fortification of the flour) as well as its high calorie requirements (via the sugar).  I was so appalled by a system (called the “nutrient standard” method of meal planning) that would lead to this bizarre result that I began to learn as much as I could about the federal school meal program.  Eventually I wanted to share that knowledge via a blog and The Lunch Tray was born.

When I revisited the animal cracker issue on The Lunch Tray back in August, 2010, I was told by the district, to my relief, that they were going to be phased out of HISD’s breakfast program in the fall of last year.  (And, indeed, if you look at the current published HISD breakfast menus — here, here and here– animal crackers are nowhere to be found.)

But a few days ago my daughter happened to mention seeing them every day at breakfast in her middle school and she brought home a packet to show me.  Concerned, I contacted Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of Food Services, to find out what was going on.  He wrote:

Our commitment was to eliminate the fortified crackers from the elementary breakfast menu.  That has definitely happened.  The item is approved for a la carte during the lunch period. . . .

Due to higher calorie and iron requirements for middle school age groups, the item is still offered as part of the breakfast menu at that level.

Regarding the calorie/iron conundrum, here are some solutions we have been working on:

1)  We will be moving from “nutrient standard” menu planning to “food based” menu planning next year.  This menu planning approach has lower, more realistic calorie standards.  It will also allow us to increase the variety of food groups offered on a given menu.  Because of lower calorie requirements, we could eliminate the menu need for items like the animal crackers (which are a good source of iron and calories).

2)  In our current “Select Items” bid, we are seeking additional breakfast items that are high in iron and meet calorie requirements.  Bid responses will be tabulated in December and we could see these new items on menus as early as February, replacing the need for a cracker item.

When I asked Brian why animal crackers were being served without appearing on the middle school menu, he wrote:

I checked the online menus and it looks like we have a typo that says “cereal assortment” every day.  We will change the online menu so it is accurate.

When I pressed him to find out how long the typo had been appearing, he added:

As far as we can tell, the typo stretches back to last spring’s online menus.  Certainly no intention to mislead the public.  It was simply a data entry error in the process between menu creation and menu publication that we didn’t catch.  Thanks a lot for bringing it to my attention.

I take Brian at his word, of course, and mistakes can happen to anyone.  But it disturbs me that any food item (and particularly one that had been the subject of some controversy) was being served to students for so long without the knowledge of HISD parents.

At any rate, I personally will be very pleased when our schools are no longer offering what are, in the end, cookies, to HISD middle schoolers every morning.  Nutrition aside (these particular animal crackers do contain some whole grain), this seems like a terrible message to be sending our students about sound food choices, particularly in an age of rampant childhood obesity.

I’ll keep you posted here.
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