My Houston Chronicle Op-Ed re: Saving School Lunch

For those interested, I have an editorial in today’s (Sunday) Houston Chronicle regarding the current school food controversy.

In it, I discuss how Texas (yes, Texas!) has been a leader in school nutrition, and how our congressional delegation should carry on that  proud tradition by rejecting language in the pending appropriations bill that would allow districts to opt out of improved school nutrition standards.

You can read the full text of the editorial here, and thanks to the Chron for giving me the opportunity to share my views with its readership.

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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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Chef Ann Cooper: Why (and How) We Should Stay the Course on Healthier School Food

Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Civil Eats called “State of the Tray” in which I explained how some of the key gains of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) may be rolled back when the Child Nutrition Reauthorization comes before Congress in 2015.

Eat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per DayOne of the most contentious issues under consideration is the current mandate that children take a fruit or vegetable at lunch, a break from past regulations which allowed kids to spurn those healthful foods if they took the requisite total number of meal requirements.  Since the implementation of the new fruit and vegetable rule, districts around the country have been reporting greatly increased food waste as students take the required food and then toss it in the trash.

This food waste may only increase when, starting next year, schools will also have to increase the amount of fruit served at breakfast from 1/2 to one full cup.  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, that additional food waste and expense for my district is likely to be considerable.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, has asked USDA to revert to the old system under which children can pass on fruits and vegetables at lunch.  But the SNA is not alone in advocating for this roll-back.  Numerous conservative politicians and pundits (perhaps seeing a prime opportunity to attack an initiative so closely tied to the Obama administration generally, and the First Lady in particular) have also vocally criticized the new school food rules and are pushing for revisions to (or even a complete gutting of) the HHFKA. (You can read more about those efforts, including new, Republican-introduced legislation, here.)

On a personal level, I abhor food waste as much as anyone.  And, having now worked closely with Houston ISD’s Food Services department for the last four years, I feel only sympathy for school districts trying to balance their budgets while meeting the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates, all in the face of insufficient funding and negative student reactions to the food.

That’s why I and many others have argued that the HHFKA simply can’t succeed unless it’s bolstered by widespread nutrition education to prime children for the healthier food they’re now encountering in the cafeteria.  But no one makes that case more articulately than Chef Ann Cooper in a new U.S. News & World Report opinion piece.  Cooper, one of the true pioneers in school food reform, writes:

Why would a child choose an apricot over hot Cheetos or a Pop-Tart when he doesn’t understand the consequences of his daily choices? Why would anyone choose salad over nachos if they’ve developed a taste for salt and fat, while fresh greens are a mystery? 

Cooper goes on to describe how, after improving the school food in her district in Boulder, CO, there was a predictable drop-off in student participation. But with consistent, dedicated nutrition education in the Boulder Valley schools, Cooper reports that meal participation in her district is now at a higher level than before the new changes were implemented.  Cooper’s nutrition education isn’t free, however, and she acknowledges that her district must raise funds from third parties to cover the costs.

As I’ve already argued here on The Lunch Tray, it’s incumbent upon Congress to step up and fund similar nutrition education around the country if the HHFKA is to succeed in its goals.  And it’s deeply disheartening, in my opinion, that the SNA — arguably one of the most influential voices on school food issues — is not leading the charge to obtain this funding but is instead essentially throwing in the towel by advocating a return to the old school food rules on fruits and vegetables.

If the SNA won’t take a stand on this issue, the rest of us need to get our voices heard.  I’ll have thoughts on that down the road, but in the meantime, I think this quote in Cooper’s piece puts the issue squarely in perspective:

It’s not fair to expect children to switch from cookies to kale without telling them why it’s important and giving them a chance to get used to it. But it’s also not fair to give up on their ability to make that switch. Let’s give them the education they need to make the right decisions. Let’s make sure all schools institute food literacy as part of the core curriculum; it’s the only way we’ll change our children’s relationship with food, cultivate their palates and save their health.

 

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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New Study Argues Against Ban on Chocolate Milk in School Cafeterias

chocolatemilkResearchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have released a new study regarding school chocolate milk that’s getting some press.

The study looked at milk consumption in 11 Oregon elementary school cafeterias in which chocolate milk had been banned.  After the ban, total daily milk sales declined by almost 10%, white milk sales increased by around 160 cartons per day but almost 30% of that white milk was thrown away, and overall school meal participation dropped by about 7%.

The Cornell Food and Brand Lab is led by Dr. Brian Wansink, whom I’ve referred to here as a “master of lunchroom trickery:” Wansink is the leading expert on how subtle changes to the physical layout of cafeterias can induce people to make healthier choices without being aware of the manipulation.  But as my 2011 TLT interview with him made clear, he’s not a proponent of removing less healthy options altogether.   

So, not surprisingly, the research team in the Cornell study concluded that rather than banning chocolate milk outright, food service directors should consider the following techniques, all of which may boost white milk consumption:

(1) keeping all beverage coolers stocked with at least some white milk; 2) white milk representing 1/3 or more of all visible milk in the lunchroom; 3) placing white milk in front of other beverages, including chocolate milk, in all coolers; 4) placing white milk crates so that they are the first beverage option seen in all milk coolers; and 5) bundling white milk with all grab and go meals available to students as the default beverage.

Stacy Whitman of School Bites had an excellent post last Friday examining the study in detail, questioning the interpretation of some of its findings and raising some reasonable questions about possible researcher bias.  She noted:

While I cer­tainly don’t mean to sug­gest any impro­pri­ety, it’s inter­est­ing to note that Wansink served as exec­u­tive direc­tor of the USDA’s Cen­ter for Nutri­tion Pol­icy and Pro­mo­tion around the time that MilkPEP started a $500,000 to $1M Raise Your Hand for Choco­late Milk cam­paign to increase choco­late milk con­sump­tion in schools.

But regardless of the merits and interpretation of this particular study, it doesn’t surprise me that overall milk consumption may have dropped when chocolate milk was removed from the cafeteria.  Back in 2011, I wrote an epically long and somewhat controversial post on chocolate milk in schools and noted there that:

 A recent study which looked at 58 elementary and secondary schools found that on days when only white milk was offered in cafeterias, milk consumption dropped an average of 35 percent.  Yes, yes, I know that study was funded by the dairy industry, and maybe it’s all bunk.  But on a purely anecdotal basis, I have never heard of any school district that did not see a significant, lasting drop in milk consumption when flavored milk was discontinued.

Stacy asked in her School Bites post whether the study findings might have been different if the Cornell study lasted longer than a year:

What would hap­pen if they gave it more time? Would more kids start choos­ing and drink­ing white milk as it grad­u­ally became the norm?

But as I noted in that same 2011 TLT post, this hadn’t proven true in Houston ISD as of the last time I discussed this issue with our Food Services department.  Our district’s breakfast program only offers white milk  and

. . .  HISD indicated that — almost one year after the breakfast program was fully rolled out — kids still don’t want the white milk, disproving the notion that children inured to flavored milk will eventually drink plain if they have no choice.

So, all of this said, where do I come out on chocolate milk in schools?

The main point of my 2011 post was to question why Jamie Oliver (whose “Food Revolution” show was then on television) was focusing so intensely on banning chocolate milk in American schools at a time when there were, in my opinion, far more pressing school food issues which would have benefitted from his celebrity and clout.

And even now, three years later, there are so many other sources of sugar in kids’ diets I’d rather address first, such as the ubiquitous but completely “empty-calorie” sports drinks and sodas many kids consume on a regular basis.  Because while I agree with many experts that dairy is not a necessary part of anyone’s diet (despite relentless dairy industry propaganda to the contrary), the fact remains that dairy, unlike soda and sports drinks, provides children with protein, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin D and phosphorous. It’s also more readily consumed by most kids than other foods providing some of those nutrients, such as calcium-rich sardines, canned salmon with bones or dark green, leafy vegetables.

It’s also worth noting that not all chocolate milk is created equal.  Here in Houston ISD, for example, our cafeterias have been offering for years a flavored milk called TruMoo which has 18 grams of sugar per serving.  That might sound high, but 12 of those sugar grams are from the lactose that’s in white milk as well.  So for 1.5 teaspoons of added sugar, kids are consuming an otherwise healthful beverage.  Contrast this with traditional flavored milk, such Horizon, which has almost 6 teaspoons of sugar — four times as much! — per serving.

That strikes me as a reasonable nutritional compromise, but if the almost 70 comments that came in on my 2011 post are any indication, passions about flavored milk run high!  Let me know in a comment below your thoughts on the Wansink study and/or flavored milk in schools generally.

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.]

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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School Food Gets Its Close-Up, But Is It a Fair One?

A lot of readers have recently asked for my thoughts on the Fed Up campaign, sponsored by Do Something, which asked kids around the country to send in photos of their school meals.  (While the project has been going on for a while, it’s gotten a lot of press in the last few weeks.)

Over 25,000 people reportedly responded to Fed Up and there’s no question that some of the meal photos submitted are awful by any measure.  (And a few were really lovely.)  But is the Fed Up campaign a fair portrayal of what’s really going on in cafeterias around the country and, if it is, what can we learn from it?

First some thoughts about the photography itself.  When I started blogging here in 2010, I had a regular feature called “Notes from the Field” in which I shared cellphone photos of school meals served in my own children’s elementary school.  I eventually ended that feature because my now-teen and pre-teen kids would rather die a thousand deaths than have their mother in their cafeteria, but I also started to have some misgivings about whether these photos were fairly portraying the food in my district.

For one thing, I’ve learned the hard way that even the best food can look disgusting if poorly photographed.  For example, sometimes when I make a particularly nice dinner at home, I have the urge to share a photo and recipe on TLT.  But I’ve never bothered to learn the basics of food photography, nor do I use a real camera, and half the time the meal looks so downright gross in a cellphone photo that I decide not to share it.

Here’s one example I found in my photo library — I think this was some sort of Indian-themed dinner with whole wheat naan, raita and chutney.  I’m sure it was delicious but . . .  blech, right?

IMG_2561

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.

Dayle Hayes, the registered dietitian behind School Meals That Rock, discussed this potential for misleading photos in a comment she submitted to NPR’s The Salt blog:

It’s not shocking that DoSomething.org got young people to collect photos of gross food – they called the campaign Fed-Up and urged their followers “to start a food fight.” When I viewed the photos, many were from community colleges, universities and other sites not covered by any K-12 school meal regulations. And, to further compound the inaccuracies, they did not show food as served, but as arranged on a tray by the photographer, maybe to look particularly mysterious or unappetizing. Some schools may have had salad bars and many other items not chosen – just to make things look as bad as possible.

And I also agree with Hayes that some of the Fed Up photos don’t seem to be “school lunches” at all.  Take a look at this one, for example:

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 6.26.53 AM

No school is allowed to sell soda as part of the federally subsidized meal program, and fruits and vegetables are now required meal components.  This meal could’ve come from a school snack bar line (though not after the new competitive food rules go into effect in July 2014) but I suspect it might not have been purchased in a K-12 school at all.

On a related note, to the extent that any of these photos were taken before this school year, they also don’t reflect the huge gains made with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the first major overhaul to school meal standards in many years. Dale Hayes articulates this point well in this Huffington Post article.

But let’s assume that the majority of the bad meals in the Fed Up gallery are accurate depictions of what’s going on right now in school cafeterias.  What can we do?

Fed Up hopes to empower kids to take action by providing an advocacy kit geared toward students. I love the idea of involving kids in school food reform — who has more of a stake in the issue? —  and I like how the kit lays out, in understandable terms, all the basics of school food advocacy.  (Indeed, it’s a great starting point for interested adults, too.)  I was also glad to see that Fed Up reminds kids to approach reform with a positive attitude and to “RESPECT WHOMEVER YOU ARE SPEAKING WITH. Remember everyone works hard to make sure every student has access to lunch.” Amen to that.

But I do worry that Fed Up is creating some unrealistic goals for kids when it comes to school food.  For example, my hair stood on end when I read this highly misleading statement from Fed Up:

There is no major cost difference between nutritious and not nutritious food at schools: 55% of student being served very healthy food report their lunch costing under $2, compared to 55% of students being served food with no nutritional value

Just because two meal programs charge the same price for lunch doesn’t mean that they can produce the same meal.  One district might be in an area with low labor costs, which would make scratch-cooking more feasible, while another might have to pay top dollar for labor.  One district might have a gleaming, well-equipped central food preparation facility like Houston’s (at the cost of $51 million to taxpayers) and another might have school “kitchens” that look a lot more like a janitor’s closet.  (Check out this recent infographic for more on the state of school kitchen infrastructure.)  One district’s food services program might get milked by the district for various overhead costs (garbage collection, electricity, etc.) while another district might absorb some of these costs. All of these factors (and many more) can affect how much money a district can direct toward the food itself.

Similarly, Fed Up tells kids to agitate for more local produce (“We want our food delivered, not FedEx’d!”).  That’s a great goal but Houston ISD, arguably one of the leading districts in the country when it comes to improving school food, has been struggling for years to source local produce and it has yet to meet its stated goal of sourcing 25% of the produce from local farms.  Indeed, for a while Houston and other districts were having real trouble sourcing any fresh fruit at all, from any part of the country, due to the higher demand created by the new school food regulations, which resulted in USDA actually canceling confirmed orders for commodity fresh fruit.

My bottom line is this:  empowering kids to speak up about their food is a fantastic idea, and districts doing a legitimately bad job in preparing school meals certainly need to be taken to task.  But districts are still unconscionably underfunded when it comes to school food, and Big Food still plays too large of a lobbying role in shaping what appears on kids’ trays.  So I’d love to take all the youthful energy stirred up by Fed Up and channel it where it might do the most good — the United States Congress.

What do you think about the Fed Up photos?  Am I being too much of an apologist for school districts?  Let me know what you think.

_________

[Ed. Note:  No doubt in light of the media attention created by the Fed Up photos, USA Today is now getting in on the action, asking kids to submit photos this week for their own feature on the subject.  Dayle Hayes is ready with some tips on how to better photograph a school  meal.]

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I’m Profiled Today in Beyond Chron!

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.59.03 AMAs you may know from the many times I link to her writing on TLT’s Facebook page, Dana Woldow of PEACHSF (Parents, Educators & Advocates Connect ion for Healthy School Food) writes a regular and informative column in Beyond Chron, an online daily in San Francisco, in which she tackles all manner of food-related topics, from school food reform to childhood hunger.

Recently Dana and her husband visited Houston, and I was honored to be interviewed for her column.  Her profile of me appears today.

You can read why I’m referred to as a “reluctant school food advocate,” my thoughts on school food reform in private versus public schools, and what I hope to accomplish here in Houston ISD before the youngest of my two children graduates.

Thanks to Dana for the opportunity!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Me on HISD TV!

I recently had the chance to appear on a local television show hosted by our school board president, Anna Eastman, in which I and my colleague Delia Thibodeaux were interviewed about serving on our School Health Advisory Council (SHAC).

Thanks to Anna for giving us the opportunity to spread the word about all the great things our SHAC is doing to improve HISD student health!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Your Monday Kid-and-Food News Round-Up!

Happy Monday, TLT’ers!

In the past few days, so many interesting news items have piled up in my in-box that I can’t possibly do them justice with individual posts.  So here’s a compilation of links you ought to check out:

  • As I mentioned on TLT’s Facebook page late last week, Whole Foods made big news by announcing it will require, by 2018, the labeling of GMOs on all products sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores.  For proponents of GMO labeling who’ve had no success at the ballot box so far, this is a huge leap forward.
  • The Kraft food dyes petition started by Lisa Leake of 100 Days of Real Food and Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe, is closing in on a quarter million signatures in a matter of days.  Media coverage of the petition continues, but no word yet from Kraft that it will ditch the artificial food dyes in its “blue box” mac-n-cheese.  I’ll keep you posted.
  • Bloomberg’s soda size cap goes into effect tomorrow in New York City.  The New York Times measures reaction, while Food Politics’ Marion Nestle argues that more, similar reforms are needed.
  • Food activist Nancy Huehnergarth has published a provocative open letter to Michelle Obama asking, “What the heck happened” to Let’s Move?
  • Here’s an interesting piece on food taxes being used to combat obesity in Hungary and whether such taxes really work in practice.
  • TLT friend FoodCorps is hiring.

Have a great day!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 5,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Me, In the Houston Chronicle!

copyright Houston Chronicle

The Sunday Houston Chronicle had a really nice feature story about me and The Lunch Tray!   :-)  You can read the full piece here.

I want to thank the reporter, Claudia Feldman, for taking time to speak with me about issues I — and most of you – care so much about:  trying hard to feed our kids well in a less-than-healthy food environment; improving school food; and yes, my pet peeve of food in the classroom for birthday treats or performance rewards.

By the way, that school lunch in the photo was the meal served in Houston ISD elementary schools that day:  a turkey and cheese sandwich on a whole grain bun, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peaches and milk.   Pretty good, right?  The other option that day was chicken nuggets, but we’re clearly making progress . . . .

 

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,100 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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Nine-Year-Old Launches School Food Blog, Sees Reforms

A few readers were kind enough to send me links about Martha Payne, a nine-year-old Scottish girl who last month started taking pictures of and blogging about her school’s meals — a budding Mrs. Q, if you will.

Called NeverSeconds, Martha’s blog rates each lunch using this scale:

Food-o-meter- Out of 10 a rank of how great my lunch was!
Mouthfuls- How else can we judge portion size!
Courses- Starter/main or main/dessert
Health Rating- Out of 10, can healthy foods top the food-o-meter?
Price- Currently £2 I think, its all done on a cashless catering card
Pieces of hair- It wont happen, will it?

Martha’s biggest complaint, besides the hair thing – ick, seems to be that she doesn’t get enough food at lunch. But after just a few posts, Martha’s blog went viral (it’s received over a million hits to date) and also attracted the attention of Jamie Oliver. Embarrassed by the negative publicity, the school council met with Martha’s father and now the school provides unlimited salad, bread and fruit with meals. Grist notes that the quality of the meal itself, in terms of the amount of vegetables served, also seemed to improve after this meeting.

It’s a happy ending, of course, but what really struck me is that some of the meals served to Martha before the council’s change in policy still looked pretty good, at least as compared to some of the school meals in my district. Here’s one of Martha’s meals before the policy change:

Photo source: NeverSeconds, copyright Martha Payne

And here’s a meal from Houston ISD:

This photo was taken in my kids' lunch room a while back

Note the actual plate and silverware in Martha’s meal, versus HISD’s styrofoam tray and flimsy plastic spork, not to mention Martha’s fresh vegetables and roasted potatoes versus our applesauce and overcooked spinach.

Maybe Martha could bring her camera to Houston?

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: More Salad Bars Coming to Houston ISD

Hooray!

Newer Lunch Tray readers may not know that I also write (with less frequency) a second blog called “The Spork Report,” devoted exclusively to school food here in my own district, Houston ISD.   The blog’s entries are cross-posted on the Houston Chronicle‘s chron.com site and are shared here on TLT as well (preceded by “Spork Report” in the title).

Today I wanted to share some good news from our district – twenty-one new “fruit and veggie carts” headed our way!

Of course, we have about 300 schools, so we have a long way to go before all Houston kids have access to this fresh produce.  In addition, the carts are funded by outside donations which may not be a sustainable model throughout the district or one that’s easily replicable elsewhere.

But hey, who am I took look new salad bars in the mouth . . . er, sneeze guard?  :-)

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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