Janet Poppendieck: Give SNA’s New President a Chance

Janet Poppendieck
Janet Poppendieck

Back in the spring of 2010, I’d just become involved in school food reform in my children’s district and was looking around for a book to help me better understand the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).  It was my good fortune that only a few weeks before, the perfect book had just been published —  Free for All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck, a Hunter College sociology professor.

Reading Free for All was a revelation.  Suddenly, the many mysteries of my children’s cafeteria made perfect sense, even if they were still dismaying.  Pepperoni pizza served with mashed potatoes and desserts served daily?  As Poppendieck explained in her book, back then the USDA was still imposing calorie minimums on schools, a legacy of the NSLP’s original purpose as an anti-hunger initiative in the 1940s.  Ice cream sandwiches and chips being sold to kids as young as kindergarten-aged? Poppendieck’s book explained how and why school food programs had come to rely on “a la carte” sales just to break even.

But most importantly, I think, reading Free for All instilled in me from day one a profound sense of empathy for school food professionals, empathy which has only increased as I’ve formed relationships within my own district’s Nutrition Services department and virtual relationships via this blog with school food workers around the country.  More than once I’ve said here “that there are few jobs on this planet harder than managing a district’s school food program” and I’ve tried hard to explain to disgruntled parents the external forces which make the job so difficult.  The fact that not only parents but school food professionals regularly read and comment on The Lunch Tray is one of my proudest blogging achievements.

So when Poppendieck herself came by The Lunch Tray yesterday and took me to task for some things I’ve recently written about the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals, you can imagine how hard that criticism hit home.  It was like having a revered teacher give you a failing grade in the course you love the most.

Poppendieck’s comment responds to a post in which I expressed concern over a letter from SNA’s newly-elected president, Jean Ronnei.  I interpreted Ronnei’s letter as supporting SNA’s current legislative agenda, which I and other advocates view as a misguided weakening of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) school food standards.   Here’s Poppendieck’s comment in full:

I don’t think it is quite fair to characterize Ronnei’s reply as “business as usual.” I believe her election represents a real turn at SNA toward its historic role as a primary supporter of healthier, better, and more sustainable food for our school children. I don’t think we can achieve this goal without SNA, and Jean Ronnei’s move into the leadership role is a giant step in the right direction. Her many years of stellar work in Saint Paul speaks volumes, and we need to support her as she tries to meet the needs of her association’s members while seeking to lead the organization out of the destructive role it has occupied in the last few years.

I’m really distressed that the whole notion “flexibility” has come to signify ditching the HHFK standards. I have heard from food service directors who support the standards, whose schools were early adopters–and are certainly among the 95 % that are in full compliance–that they encounter problems in implementation that interfere with achievement of the underlying goal (healthier food, healthier kids). This is likely to be true of virtually any new set of regulations, and something akin to “flexibility” is very much needed. If we can no longer call it flexibility, perhaps we need another word. “Wiggle room” seems undignified, so I propose “grace.” USDA, I think, has generally tried to embody this attitude, but food service professionals may face very difficult challenges from their state administrative agencies if they are not in formal compliance with the regulations. I can understand, therefore, their effort to get some sort of legal protection.

I think that the larger good food community needs to stop demonizing SNA and listen a bit more carefully to just what food service folks are saying about how this is working out on the ground, and what they need to make it work better. The call for more resources for equipment and a more realistic reimbursement rate are not excuses for non-compliance. These are real, pressing needs in many districts. HHFK has made a big difference. We need to unite to support the achievement of its promise.

I want to thank Poppendieck for her comment and I offer this reply:

1.  I’m so glad you believe Ronnei’s election “represents a real turn at SNA” and that you feel she’s the person to “lead the organization out of the destructive role it has occupied in the last few years.” Your good opinion of her and your optimism about her plans carries great weight with me.  I promise to keep an open mind about Ms. Ronnei and her team going forward.

2. I love the idea of swapping out “grace” or “wiggle room” for “flexibility,” a word which has become truly toxic in the school food reform community.  But we do need to be clear about what SNA means to accomplish, regardless of the term it employs.

I have no problem with districts being given extra time to implement the IOM’s recommended whole grain standard if product supply is an issue in their area.  And I’m on record as being OK with schools serving 100% white flour “regional favorites” as a treat, such as white flour biscuits once or twice a month.  Yet what SNA has been calling “flexibility” is really a wholesale ditching of certain standards for all districts, across the board, permanently.  In other words, grain foods are either going to remain whole-grain rich or they’re not. Kids will either continue to be served fruits and vegetables or they’ll be able to revert to the “all-beige tray” on a daily basis.  That’s what’s at stake here, isn’t it?

3. You say “the call for more resources for equipment and a more realistic reimbursement rate are not excuses for non-compliance,” and I couldn’t agree more.  I don’t think there’s a school food advocate out there who doesn’t believe districts are sorely underfunded and under-equipped, the very obstacles which make compliance with the nutritional standards harder.  The big disappointment to me was that SNA didn’t put its full weight behind those requests, a move which would have united the entire “good food community,” as you call it, and which likely would have had the full support of our still-highly-popular First Lady as well.  Instead SNA chose a path which divided us, squandered its good relations with White House and earned it a lot of bad press in the bargain.

4.  Finally, you say “the larger good food community needs to stop demonizing SNA.”  I agree the atmosphere has gotten a bit toxic lately and that’s never productive. But you do also acknowledge that SNA has “occupied a destructive role in the last few years.” So I hope you can understand that people like me, watching SNA from the outside, can only take our cues from the organization’s behavior.  And SNA’s recent actions and statements have left a lot of people scratching their heads in dismay — including the First Lady, who seemed blindsided last year by SNA’s about-face on the HHFKA standards.  We absolutely do need to give SNA’s new president a chance, but let’s remember that SNA itself created the current climate which has made it harder to do so.

At any rate, I’m really glad you came by The Lunch Tray to leave this comment, which has left me feeling more optimistic about SNA’s new leadership and its plans going forward.  I look forward to continuing this conversation on The Lunch Tray with you, Ms. Ronnei or anyone else who wants to chime in.

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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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Study: Home-Packed Lunches Are Nutritionally Subpar

new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (subscription only) finds that home-packed lunches are nutritionally lacking, as compared to school food.

As summarized by Reuters, the study’s researchers peered into the lunch boxes of 626 third and fourth graders from 12 public elementary schools in Eastern Massachusetts, and found that only 34% of lunches contained fruit, only 11% contained vegetables, 42% contained snacks and 28% included dessert.  And almost one-quarter of the lunches contained sugar-sweetened beverages.

What's really inside?
Hmm.  What’s really inside?

I wasn’t terribly surprised by these findings.  Even before I started The Lunch Tray, I’d read in Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America references to data showing that, on average, children who regularly eat the federally subsidized school meal consume a wider variety of nutrients than those who consistently eat a home-packed lunch.  That makes sense, given that food service directors must ensure that their menus meet strict, government-mandated nutritional requirements, while parents (at least this parent, anyway) often pack whatever happens to be in the fridge that morning, and also often cater to a child’s preferences by packing many of the same items on a regular basis.

And there’s no question that some home-packed lunches (such as some seen by researchers in this study, which contained two or three sugary drinks and no entree at all) are completely deficient from a nutritional perspective.  At the same time, though, one visit to Pinterest or to many “mom/food” blogs will also show that some parents out there set an extremely high bar when it comes to nutritious home-packed lunches.

It’s also important to note that many parents feel that school meals, despite checking off the requisite boxes when it comes to nutrients and food groups, contain too many highly processed foods, chemical preservatives and artificial additives.  That’s the main reason why I still have some concerns about the food in my own district which, though it’s working hard to cook more meal components from scratch, still relies on processed food manufacturers for many of the items served.

Whatever you think of this study’s findings, though, it reminds us that the new school year is only a few weeks away.  So stay tuned for The Lunch Tray’s FIFTH (!) annual “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch” series, in which I share lunch box recipes, packing tips, experts’ guest posts and news about the latest lunch box gear.   Also, speaking of Reuters, I was interviewed last week for another story the news organization is doing about home-packed lunches, and I’ll share that  link with you here when the report is published.

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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Dana Woldow on The Tools of School Food Advocacy

Sorry to have been AWOL these past few days – this blogger has been seriously under the weather!  :-(

But I’m back to work today and wanted to share with you another solid article from Dana Woldow, the school food reformer in San Francisco USD.  In this piece she asks, “What Is a School Food Advocate?” and then answers the question by surveying people involved in the field, getting their thoughts on the most effective tools to bring about change.

I was honored to be included in Dana’s survey, but sometimes I feel frustrated with “on the ground” efforts here in Houston ISD.  I often think my best contribution to school food reform is this blog, i.e., providing readers with a forum for the exchange of ideas, success stories, failures —  and practical information like that provided by Dana in today’s article.   Check it out.


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School Food News, International Edition

Happy Monday!  I thought I’d kick off the week with a few school food stories from around the world:


The Southwark district of Central London recently instituted free school lunch for all children, regardless of income level, as a means of reducing stigma in the lunch room.  But Southwark has come under fire by some critics, who claim the program is too expensive.

Here on The Lunch Tray we’ve talked a fair amount about the notion of universal, free school meals as a means of improving food and reducing stigma (see, e.g., “What Would School Food Look Like if It Were ‘Free for All?‘”), an idea best articulated by Janet Poppendieck in Free for All:  Fixing School Food in America.  But whether a great idea or not, I don’t see it happening in this country any time soon.


After a rash of food poisoning incidents in schools, China’s State Food and Drug Administration has ordered a nationwide food safety review. In one incident reported earlier this week, over 300 children were sickened after eating lunch at a rural primary school.   [Hat tip:  Bill Marler]


Equally stomach-turning, in India at least 50 school children were recently sickened when a dead lizard was reportedly served to them in their school meal.  An investigation is underway.


Blogging colleague Karen LeBillon continues to post regularly about school food in France and the menus never cease to amaze.  By way of example, today in Brest school kids are eating organic celery salad, couscous with vegetables and vanilla yogurt — a far cry from the nugget-pizza-burger rotation in most American schools.

By the way, I’m excited to be sharing a review of Karen’s new book, French Kids Eat Everything, in the coming days here on TLT.

And Don’t Forget . . .

For the school-lunch-obsessed among us (and you know who you are), no blog is more fun than What’s For School Lunch?, updated regularly with snapshots of school food around the world.


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Two Good Articles on Social Stigma in the Lunch Room

While the blog was devoted exclusively to the LFTB issue, San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow (creator of the immensely useful school food reform how-to site, PEACHSF.org) wrote two important articles in Beyond Chron about an issue often discussed here on TLT:  social stigma in the school cafeteria.

As I first wrote in “A La Carte – A World Apart?” and elaborated on in subsequent posts (e.g.,”A Follow-Up to the Infamous ‘Cheetos-and-Nach0-Sauce’ Photo“), the shame of being seen in line for the federally reimbursable meal can prevent economically disadvantaged children from eating lunch, a problem that’s exacerbated when when attractive, for-cash-only, snack-bar items are also made available by schools in so-called “a la carte” lines.  (In my district, even cell phones and Facebook are sometimes used to bully kids in the “uncool” line.)

Late last month, Dana looked at stigma from a slightly different angle, as it relates to candy-and-soda-filled food trucks being allowed to come close to school campuses in her district of San Francisco.  Dana fought hard for an existing ordinance that keeps these trucks within 1,500 feet from schools and is now opposing proposed legislation to water down this restriction.  More recently she wrote a follow-up piece examining ways in which stigma in school cafeterias might be reduced, including by enlisting the aid of “upstanders,” or students who choose to act rather than watch passively when they witness bullying.

Both are well worth a read.

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A New Book From School Food Expert Kate Adamick: “Lunch Money”

Back in December I wrote an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle urging my school district to consider moving from the use of a food service management company (Aramark) to operating its own school food program.  In the piece I also mentioned a forthcoming book from school food expert Kate Adamick which argues that fresher, scratch-cooked school food doesn’t have to cost more than the highly processed food upon which many FSMCs rely to cut costs.

Well, I’m pleased to announce that Kate’s book is now out (released yesterday!).  It’s called Lunch Money:  Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy, and it intends to dispel “the myth that school food reform is cost prohibitive.”  Advance press for the book says it

provides effective money-saving and revenue-generating tools for use in any school kitchen or cafeteria . . . . [including] examples, diagrams, charts, and worksheets that unlock the financial secrets to scratch-cooking in the school food environment and prove that a penny saved is much more than a penny earned.  Through both wit and wisdom, Adamick demonstrates how school food can be transformed from a problem into a solution to the childhood obesity epidemic, which serves as a reminder that learning doesn’t stop at the cafeteria door.

author Kate Adamick

The book has already garnered praise from some big names in the food world including Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle, Jamie Oliver and my personal school food idol, JanPop, aka Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All:  Fixing School Food in America.

The degree to which school food can be “fixed” without additional funding has long been a subject of debate here on this blog, with experts weighing in on all sides.  So I’m eager to read Lunch Money (my copy is in the mail) and  I’ll share my thoughts here in the coming weeks.

You can purchase your own copy of Lunch Money here and read more about Kate’s work with Cook for America, an organization which teaches scratch-cooking skills to lunch room workers, here.


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TLT Documentary Film Review: “Lunch”

One of the fun things about writing this blog is sometimes getting to review books and films relating to kids and food.  Over the summer, Avis Richards of the Birds Nest Foundation was kind enough to send me a screener DVD of the foundation’s 2010 film entitled, simply enough, Lunch.   Here’s a preview:

Lunch is a documentary short, not a full length film, and it starts off with a broad overview of the many things wrong with the current school lunch program in most districts, including an over-reliance on what I call “carnival food” (a term I borrow often from Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All: Fixing School Food in America) — i.e, lots and lots of burgers, pizza and other junk-food-like items.  Doctors, parents, teachers and advocates are all featured, decrying what the film cleverly calls in its press release “hamburger hegemony.”

The film also outlines in broad strokes the alarming statistics regarding childhood obesity and the early onset of previously adult diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  These facts and figures are always deeply disturbing, no matter how often one hears them, but I did feel that the film might have too closely associated the obesity crisis with school food per se.  As I’ve written here before, it’s not necessarily fair to lay childhood obesity at the school house steps (although I have also written that it does seem at least theoretically possible for a child to become overweight via school food.)  Childhood obesity is such a multifaceted problem that school meals seem to me to be only one piece of the puzzle.

After the grim facts are laid out, the film becomes upbeat and uplifting as it shows us an innovative farm-to-school food program going on in Baltimore.  It’s clearly a wonderful initiative and amply demonstrates the importance – much talked about here on TLT – of letting children get their hands dirty and see where their food is coming from.  According to the film, the vegetables and herbs from the farm are served in the Baltimore schools, although it’s not clear how much of the total produce required in the district is supplied this way.

My only real criticism of Lunch is that it makes several mentions of “fixing” school food, but these weren’t terribly fleshed out.  My fear is that a viewer less deeply immersed in these issues than I am (in other words, a sane person) might come away with the idea that local farm and gardening programs are the magic bullet to overhauling school food in this country, which would be a facile conclusion.  Such programs are wonderful, of course, and I do hope we see more and more of them, but they alone can’t “fix” school food nationwide.

That may be an unfair criticism of a film with too short a running time to really get into school food policy, and meanwhile, Avis Richards tells me there’s a follow-up documentary in production which will focus more on solutions.   I look forward to viewing that film when it’s available.

If you’d like to see Lunch for yourself, you can obtain a copy and/or schedule a screening in your area through the Birds Nest Foundation.  Thanks to Avis for sharing the film with me, and my apologies for taking so long to write up this review!


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Two TLT Kid-and-Food Heroes Win James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards


One of the events that led to my starting The Lunch Tray was picking up a copy of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.  It’s a comprehensive analysis of all that’s wrong with today’s school food program (and some innovative ideas on how to fix it) and I found reading it to be an eye-opening, consciousness-raising experience.

Free for All was written by Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York, but better known here on TLT as my BSLG (beloved school lunch guru).  She’s been kind enough to comment and guest blog here on occasion, and last year I even celebrated an entirely made up “Janet Poppendieck Day” on The Lunch Tray (which I’m sure embarrassed JanPop to no end.)

So I was thrilled to learn yesterday that Janet Poppendieck, as well as another Lunch Tray kid-and-food hero, First Lady Michelle Obama, have both been recognized with James Beard Leadership Awards.   They and eight other food visionaries will be honored by the James Beard Foundation this October for “creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world.”

You can read about all ten award recipients and their accomplishments here.

Go, Janet!  :-)



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Some Thoughts from a Lunch “Lady” Named Ryan

Chef Ann Cooper’s The Lunch Box organization recently shared with me a post from their blog and offered to let me repost it here.  It’s written by Ryan Andrews, a registered dietitian who, according to The Lunch Box,

was impressed with the daily need to consult his adult clients on healthy eating habits they should have learned as children. He was so inspired that he began interning with The School Food Project in Boulder, CO in 2009, and then going as far as to become a lunch lady with the district in the Fall of 2010. He was then able to work with the students at his chosen middle school for an entire school year – teaching and learning, and experiencing what school lunch struggles are like on the ground.

Ryan worked for ten months as a “lunch lady” in Boulder, CO and here are his thoughts on the experience, followed by some commentary of my own:

 Ryan Andrews, Lunch Lady

Ryan Andrews badge
Me for the last 10 months.

Summary: It’s easy to be a school cafeteria know-it-all.  That is, until you actually see what happens each day in a school cafeteria. Here are 18 lessons Coach Ryan Andrews learned during his one year stint as a school cafeteria worker.

If it’s Monday through Friday, 32 million children across the U.S. are eating a meal served at school.

I just spent the last 10 months contributing to this daily food party… as a lunch lady.  (Here’s why I did it.) And here’s what I learned.

1. We can’t let kids dictate things

“Ryan, kids want cheesy pizza, burgers, and chocolate milk.” Great. When did we start letting kids make life decisions?

When I was a kid, if I dictated how my day went, I would have eaten Cinnamon Toast Crunch for all meals and played Donkey Kong instead of doing homework.

Think modern kids have evolved? They haven’t. Check out these videos I shot with students at the school:

But some kids had constructive ideas…

2. Keep school food simple

To get serious about school food and its consequences, policy makers need to focus less on tinkering with funding formulas, surplus agricultural commodities, and % of calories from fat while focusing more on stopping kids from devouring plate after plate of hamburgers and cheesy noodles.

We’re trying to serve nutritious foods to kids. This food exists. Let’s make it happen.

3. Kids learn at school

There’s a strong disconnect with kids and food.

Example #1: I heard two students talking about factory farm video footage and how disturbed they felt after seeing a worker stomp on a calf’s head (see here). They both looked at each other with mouths agape. And then they both proceeded to get beef nachos with cheese.

I’m sure they figured the footage wasn’t real — like Transformers or Toy Story 2Kids aren’t making the connection between what they see and what they eat.

Example #2: This year we served sweet potatoes. Lots of kids had never seen them. This is fine; it’s not a requirement to eat sweet potatoes for optimal health. But – I can assure you that the same kids who cannot identify a sweet potato can list all of the value meals at McDonald’s, candy bar brands, and soda flavours.

Why does learning take a hiatus at lunch? Let’s use this time to inform kids about food. You know, stuff like where it comes from, how it influences our bodies and the planet, and how to prepare it and treat it with respect.

Let’s have DVDs, posters, pamphlets, farmers, gardeners, chefs, dietitians, doctors, flat screen TVs with slide shows, and so forth. Side note: none of this would be funded by the food industry (e.g., dairy council, beef council, soy council, etc.).

If we don’t inform kids about food during lunch – where will they get this information? Parents? TV advertisements? Diet books?

4. Kids won’t change until we (adults) change.

I’ve had countless discussions over the past year with adults about school lunch. Not one adult has been against nutritious and sustainable food options for kids.

But the same adults who want better school lunches for kids are crushing triple stack burgers during their lunch break and take medication for nutrition-related diseases. Apparently the adults don’t believe in nutritious/sustainable food enough to partake themselves.

School lunches won’t change until we (adults) make a genuine change.

There isn’t enough support to make healthful school lunches happen right now. If there were, it would be happening. Parents are unhealthy, school administrators are unhealthy, and now kids are unhealthy. Surprised?

I can assure you that if most parents, teachers, cafeteria workers (the front lines of school food), and school administrators believed in nutritious food (and physical education programs) and participated in it themselves, things would have changed by now.

5. It takes work to prepare nutritious foods (and compost)

Get ready U.S. cafeterias, it takes more time and effort to prepare nutritious whole foods, wash real utensils/plates, and handle food waste. Get used to it.

6. Nutritious school lunches cost more money

Cheap food is an illusion. The real cost is paid somewhere. If we don’t pay at the cafeteria cash register, then we pay with our kid’s health, the planet, the animals, and/or public funds.

Where will we get this money?

My genius ideas:

a) Nix dieting and supplements

American consumers spent $61 billion on diets and supplements last year. That’s $200 for every man, woman and child. So, instead of buying a low-carb diet book and/or the latest appetite suppressant, buy vegetables and beans for your local school.

b) Nix the new cell phone and/or car

The new ride looks pretty sweet, but it doesn’t help to prevent heart disease. Are you willing to forgo the upgraded cell phone plan or new car payment so your kid can have a few extra bucks for nutritious food? I am.

7. When kids are hungry, they’ll eat

Funny – when I was serving beans, rice and bananas to kids in Uganda (see photos below), I don’t remember any of them turning me down. Why? If kids are hungry – they will eat.

Nope, no picky eaters here

8. Serve one entrée

The more choices, the more exhausted we get. Ever used a thesaurus? Good luck making a final word selection.

Let’s keep it simple and serve one entrée each day. This means less food prepared, less potential waste, less dishes to wash, and less money dedicated to the kitchen staff.

Kids don’t stand in the lunch line thinking about the long-term repercussions of their food choices (health, planet, animals, etc.). The smart option needs to be the only option. If it smells good, looks good, and tastes good – the kids are most likely going to eat it.

9. Let’s fundraise for school lunch

We’ve all experienced it: The middle schooler selling candles, candy or wrapping paper to raise money.

What about a fundraiser featuring baked goods the kids made (with decent ingredients)? Or a farmers’ market with produce grown at the school garden? All proceeds go to buying nutritious foods for lunches.

Another way to make extra money – let eco-friendly companies advertise on compost bins and recycling containers in schools.

10. Get some garden and farming action started

Our disconnect from food can decrease our respect for food. When a veggie burger doesn’t taste quite like a Big Mac, kids throw it out and complain. If we valued our food more, it would yield less unused food, reducing our excess.

What if school lunch prep and clean up was part of class time? If kids helped in the process, this could increase respect for the food (and food prep). Food wouldn’t just be an object that magically appears, and food servers wouldn’t just be robots who dish out pizza.

11. Handling money during lunch is a pain

Worrying about exchanging money each day distracts from what lunch is about – eating quality food. We want kids to have time to eat (instead of waiting to pay for lunch). And we want a staff dedicated to preparing and cleaning up from the meal, not counting quarters.

Students should pay one flat fee at the beginning of the school year (based on if they are low income, regular income, etc.). And that’s it. They can get lunch each day (or not).

12. Serve familiar (but slightly better) foods

I’m cool with serving a tempeh ginger stir-fry, but kids aren’t. We need to be careful with food descriptions.

If we have hamburgers and veggie burgers, the kids are going to buy hamburgers, even if they can’t taste a difference. Veggie burgers have a negative reputation.

If it tastes good, kids won’t know or care. It’s up to the lunch staff to make it more nutritious/sustainable.

Continue serving common foods, with a few tweaks:

  • Burritos – made with beans and grilled vegetables
  • Nachos – made with beans, salsa and avocado
  • Pizza – made with whole grain crust and vegetables, non-dairy cheese
  • Chili – with beans and veggies
  • Lasagna – with whole grain pasta and veggies
  • Burgers & hot dogs – plant-based
  • Falafel and hummus

13. Lunch needs to follow recess

This simple change can decrease food waste by 30%. Kids won’t be rushing to get out and play, and they’ll be a lot more relaxed after some activity.

14. No lunch trays

When trays aren’t used, kids take less (they can always come back for more). This means less food waste and water used for washing trays.

15. Give away extra food

Each day, extra food that cannot be served again could be dropped at a food bank or homeless shelter.

Stores are allowed to deduct the fair market value of goods donated. Schools can do this too. Schools can donate extra food thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (excluding self-serve foods from salad bars).

16. Nix drug-like foods

You know how addicted you are to _______ (fill in the blank with your addictive food of choice)? This probably started in childhood.

Even the brightest students started to get a glaze in their eye when we served foods like pizza and hot dogs. When I distributed “seconds” of biscuits and carrot cake, I thought I was going to be ambushed.

17. Nix drinks

Yeah, I said it. This includes milk, juice, soda, etc. Kids can use the water fountain or bring a reusable water bottle. This will save cups (less waste) and likely improve health.

Liquid calories aren’t satiating. Kids can easily guzzle hundreds of excess (and often nutrition-free) calories every day.

Choosing unflavoured milk over flavoured milk is a step in the right direction. But in America, about 1/3 of cow’s milk isn’t consumed, giving it the second highest loss rate of any food. Who knows how much this loss rate goes up when you factor in school lunch programs?

Further, the environmental demands of dairy production can be substantial. Lactose intolerance will continue to be an issue, there are increasing concerns about hormones and drugs in milk, and dairy isn’t necessary for improving health.

Oh, and memo from the dish room – cheese isn’t worth it. High temps cook the cheese on pans. Nix dairy for the sake of the dishwashers.

18. Meat is a downer

Preparing, serving, and throwing away leftover meat gave me a negative karma punch each day. I didn’t think I would be overly distraught about serving meat – but I was. For each burger and chicken wing I served, it was another reminder that kids have minimal connection to where food comes from and how their choices impact others.

If you care about kids’ nutrition, get involved

Why did I get involved in the school lunch program?

Two words: Ann Cooper.

Ann cares about kids, nutrition and the planet. So do I. When Boulder recruited her to help with school lunches, I had to get involved. If you care about kids, nutrition and the planet, consider getting involved with a local school lunch program.

Volunteer. Work. Donate. Do what you can.

*  *  *

I’m always interested in reading the accounts of school food service workers, who often have a much more realistic take on improving school food than the armchair commentator (and I include myself in that category.)  So many of Ryan’s suggestions are great ones, like limiting entree choices and incorporating nutrition education into the lunchroom.

But Ryan’s plea for generous souls to kick in their cell phone or car money for school food reminded me of a quote in Janet Poppendieck’s excellent book, Free for All: Fixing School Lunch in America:

I found the individuals and groups working for school food change – both paid staff and parent and citizen activists — to be so extraordinary, so dedicated, patient, persistant and creative that there seems to me little likelihood that more typical communities will achieve such improvements under current federal rules and within current funding constraints. . . . It shouldn’t be so hard.  One should not have to be a superhero, a magician or a saint to get healthy, tasty food into the school cafeteria. . . . Counting on saints and heroes is not good public policy.

In other words, it would be great if every American did kick in an extra $200 a year for better school food, but should we really have to rely on private, ad hoc donations to adequately fund a public, governmentally-run service like the school food program?  Call me a dreamer, but I like to think that it’s Congress’s responsibility to provide those funds, instead of making schools hold out their hats or run a bake sale just to feed their students adequately.

At any rate, what did you think of Ryan’s post?

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School Food FOCUS: “Turning Capitalism on Its Head” to Improve School Food

For a long time I’ve wanted to write on TLT about School Food FOCUS (Food Options for Children in Urban Schools), a national collaborative that brings together the thirty largest school districts in the country to improve school food.  I’d first read about FOCUS in Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, and later learned that my own Houston school district (the seventh largest in the country) is a member of the organization.

The idea behind FOCUS is simple:  large school districts procure so much food that they have considerable market power (second only to the U.S. military when it comes to food purchasing), which FOCUS helps them leverage to pressure manufacturers into producing better food.  FOCUS also creates a forum for large districts to meet and share their collective knowledge about improving school food, and it seeks to bring more regionally sourced food into the school food procurement system.

I recently had a chance to speak with Meredith Modzelewski, FOCUS’s Communications Associate, to learn more.

How FOCUS Came to Be

FOCUS’s Executive Director, Toni Liquori, first started working in the area of public school food procurement in the New York City public schools.  Interested in expanding her successes there on a national scale, in 2007, she held two successive meetings for colleagues in nutrition, sustainable agriculture, hunger, school food, and public health, as well as food service professionals from some of the largest school districts in the country.  Eventually the group received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and FOCUS was born.

Says Modzelewski, “Until Toni arranged those first two meetings, people from these large school districts – ones with 40,000 or more students – had never been in the same room together, able to share problems and solutions, and share successes and failures.”

Making School Food Healthy, Local and Sustainable

When FOCUS works with a school district, it sets three main goals for school food:  making it more healthful in general, obtaining more of it from local farms, and making it sustainable.  To help it achieve these ends, each district is also paired with an official partner, whether it be a state governmental office, a city department or a nonprofit.

But what “local” or “sustainable” means to one school district might be very different in another.   “Because we work with so many districts, each with its own budget, regulations and needs,” says Modzelewski, “we allow the stakeholders – the school food professionals and their district partners – to make their own decisions about what their goals are.  There’s no such thing as one size fits all.”

Regional Food Hubs: Helping Local Farmers and Economies While Improving School Food

I was particularly interested in FOCUS’s emphasis on local food sourcing.  Modzelewski explained that FOCUS tries to integrate what are known as “regional food hubs” into the school food supply.

The idea behind regional food hubs is simple – farmers always face the challenge of getting their products from farm to market, and that’s all the more true for small, local producers who might not have sufficient trucks, refrigeration units or warehouse space, let alone the marketing savvy to get on the radar of potential customers.  Regional food hubs are now emerging across the country to address these problems, creating strategic partnerships with farmers, distributors, aggregators, buyers and others all along the supply chain.

According to FOCUS, school districts in Colorado and San Diego have already made significant progress toward developing their own regional food hubs.  These districts have found that not only can a regional food system be more efficient than a local or conventional one, but “when food grown regionally is eaten in season, it’s tastier when it reaches kids’ lunch trays – and there’s a better chance that kids will eat it.”

Case Studies: Chicken, Flavored Milk and Local Produce

Using market power to improve school food seems like a slam dunk, but the process isn’t always easy.  My own Food Services Director had told me that it had taken a relatively long time for FOCUS to make improvements in the poultry made available to schools, and that it was still hard to get products meeting the group’s poultry specifications.

I asked Modzelewski to tell me more: “We did have some good talks with different chicken suppliers a little over a year and a half ago.  At that point, it was pretty revolutionary that they were even sitting down to talk with us.  We told them what our specifications were, and at a last year’s annual FOCUS meeting we had our first school food showcase.  We invited vendors who were working toward, or had achieved, our specifications for chicken.  The problem was, most of the products, although great, cost a lot.  Many of our districts at that time couldn’t figure out how they could afford it.”

But progress has been made.  Modzelewski told me that in Chicago and St. Paul, districts are now able to source unprocessed chicken in the form of “naked legs” that can be cooked from scratch (and the same is true here in Houston).  “They’re lower in sodium and have no preservatives — none of the stuff you might find in a processed chicken finger or fajita strip.”  Those school districts have also come up with new protocols on food safety and food preparation for the raw chicken, protocols that can be used around the country.   “In one district,” Modzelewski told me, “they got a Flip camera and the staff made its own training video on how to handle raw protein.”

She added, “We’re pretty excited about those achievements.  We haven’t yet been able to come to a point where we can change the chicken supply for the whole country, but that’s the principle we’re trying to use.  There’s such immense buying power, that if we can get districts to agree on a set of specs to pressure producers, that should get us toward our goal.”

Another success story Modzelewski shared was how St. Paul, Minnesota was able to get local dairies to lower the sugar content in the flavored milk offered to students, a strategy I advocated in my recent post, “My Problem With Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk.”  Recognizing that St. Paul alone might not be big enough to demand change, the district sent a questionnaire to twenty or thirty other districts in Minnesota asking what each would like to see in terms of ideal sugar content.  It was then able to bundle this information and essentially guarantee suppliers that if they undertook the effort to lower sugar in the milk, there would be sufficient demand.

St Paul has also been able to change its school food bidding process to favor regionally and locally sourced produce, resulting in about 40% of its produce now coming from local farms, and it created educational materials for the lunch room to introduce kids to the local farmers growing their food.

Success stories like these often come from districts – specifically, St. Paul, Denver and Chicago – which have been selected by FOCUS as “Learning Labs.”  To become a Learning Lab, the applying district is asked to set out five to seven specific procurement goals, or to outline goals that it feels would be too hard to try to achieve without outside help.  If chosen by FOCUS as a Learning Lab, a district is then given substantial research and technical assistance, such as being paired with agricultural economists from a nearby university.  “That could mean doing a ton of research or talking to outside groups, like the USDA or the poultry industry, that a district wouldn’t have the time or manpower to do on its own,” explained Modzelewski.

I was so glad to be able to speak with Meredith Modzelewski and learn more about FOCUS.  It seems to me that the organization’s approach – using market power to bring about change – could well be more effective in the long run than any governmental regulation.   As Modzelewski said in our conversation, “We really feel very strongly about our niche and we’re going to keep forging ahead.  It’s a great mix of a nonprofit that’s working the free market, turning capitalism on its head so that it can work for good.  It’s pretty cool.”

[Ed. Note: Coincidentally, FOCUS is holding its annual meeting later this week in Denver, from June 2-4.  Entitled “Transforming School Food: A National Gathering of Peers and Partners Taking on School Food Change,” the conference will draw over 160 school food service professionals and community organizations from over forty large school districts, as well as government agency partners and funders.  In addition to discussing regional food hubs, the group hopes to address how to implement salad bars and incorporate food from school gardens; teaming up with peers who have obtained improved chicken for school meals; the challenge and politics of school breakfast, and more.  Representatives from eighteen food companies will be in attendance, along with a delegation from the USDA.]

Get Your Lunch Delivered and never miss another Lunch Tray post!  Just “Like” TLT’s Facebook page or “Follow” on Twitter and you’ll also get bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, discussion with other readers AND you’ll be showing TLT some love.  ♥♥♥ So what are you waiting for?

Happy Birthday, TLT! (Reflections on a Year of Blogging)

On May 25th last year, I had lunch with my writing group and tentatively raised an idea that had been niggling at me for a week or two.  I’d recently joined our district’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee (reluctantly because, after all, my own kids won’t even eat school food), and then, realizing how much I had to learn about the byzantine National School Lunch Program, I’d read Janet Poppendeick’s Free For All: Fixing School Food in Americaa consciousness-raising experience. Between what I’d learned from my reading and what I was hearing at our PAC meetings, suddenly I felt like I had a lot to say.

“Um, I’m not really sure, but think maybe I want to blog about school food?”  To which fellow writer Jenny Staff Johnson replied with complete certainty, “Of course you should.”

Buoyed by her reaction, I went home and searched for a domain name and the next morning, May 26th, The Lunch Tray was born.  For a person who’s not very spontaneous, it’s funny how little forethought I gave to what would turn out to be an all-consuming project.

And when I say “all-consuming,” people, I’m not kidding.  Guess how many words I’ve posted on TLT to date?  Ballpark estimate: over half a million.  Holy (organic) guacamole.

OK, now everyone raise hands if you can remember when the blog looked like this:

If your hand is in the air, you absolutely win the “TLT Early Adopter Award” since that first, ugly layout was replaced within two weeks, proving some things actually do improve with age.

In the intervening year, I’ve “met” so many people, from dedicated readers who’ve shared their insights and experiences, to experts, fellow bloggers and even a few celebrities doing some really amazing things in the kid-and-food world.  It’s been such a nice surprise that writing for my own pleasure would ultimately introduce me to a community of engaged and stimulating people who have taught me so much more than I could have imagined.

So thanks to all of you who’ve made this past year so fulfilling.  In return, if you’re moved to leave a comment on this momentous occasion (and really, how could you not be?), I’ll use a random number generator at 12pm CST tomorrow (May 27) to award three readers the prize of their choice — a highly-sought-after Lunch Tray fridge magnet, or a genuine, vintage school lunch tray (yeah, I just might have a few of those left over from the recent lunch tray photo shoot.)

And now I’m off to celebrate TLT’s first birthday with a vanilla cupcake from my fave cupcake shop.

And no, I will not be eating it in a public school classroom.  😉





Get Your Lunch Delivered and never miss another Lunch Tray post!  Just “Like” TLT’s Facebook page or “Follow” on Twitter and you’ll also get bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, discussion with other readers AND you’ll be showing TLT some love.  ♥♥♥ So what are you waiting for?

TLT Exclusive: Frustrated High Schoolers Boycott Houston School Food

On a flight to New York City this past weekend, I was catching up on a project for our School Health Advisory Council when my seat mate noticed the Houston ISD logo on my paperwork.  She asked if I worked for the district, so I explained what I was doing and that I write The Lunch Tray.  My seat mate told me she’s a teacher at Milby High School, an almost 100% Hispanic, relatively low income school in far east Houston, near the city’s Ship Channel.  She was interested to hear about my blog because, according to her, the students at Milby are so unhappy with HISD school food that they had planned a boycott for this week.

The teacher said she herself had eaten the school food regularly while teaching summer school and had been surprised to gain five pounds during that month (according to her, nothing else in her lifestyle had changed).  She said she wholeheartedly agreed with the students’ main complaint about the food, which is that, in her words, “It’s nothing but burgers and pizza, or burgers and chicken, all the time.”

When I got back to Houston I was able to track down the movement’s leader, Milby junior Hector Sanchez.  Asked what motivated him to propose a boycott, he said, “I was thinking about the kind of food they give us.  The teachers and students – they won’t eat it.  It’s nasty.  The quality is just really bad.  They all complain about the food, so how come we don’t do anything about it?  I started thinking about it and that’s how I started the boycott.  I thought, if I want to change something, I have to be doing something.”  Sanchez agreed that the students’ major complaint is the lack of variety in the school food. “Every day we always get pizzas and burgers — that’s it.  That’s all we get.  Maybe once every two weeks we get nachos or hot dogs, but it’s like really nasty cheese and it’s just really disgusting.”

When I looked at the current HISD high school menu, it shows three types of meal options, “Favorites,” “Grill” and “Pizzeria.”  The latter two menus offer almost nothing but burgers and pizza, while the “Favorites” menu offers far more variety, including things like sandwiches, salads, and cheese and fruit plates.  Based on Sanchez’s and the teacher’s description of the meals at Milby, it sounds like the “Favorites” menu may not be offered there.  However, that would be somewhat surprising, and I’m currently investigating with HISD Food Services.

In addition to the lack of variety, the students are upset with the poor preparation of the food – burgers are frequently described as “pink,” and the pizza as “frozen.”  One student complained on the boycott’s Facebook page that the milk is “sour” and another told me that “The fries are always cold & taste raw!! The food is always under cooked.”  (I’ve written here before about the district’s inability to ensure that its food is properly reheated and presented at each of its almost 300 schools (“Many a Slip Twixt Kitchen and School”)).

When I asked Sanchez what the students hoped to gain from the boycott, he said, “Food that they actually cook and something that’s healthy for us.  Supposedly what they have is healthy, but I know for a fact that it’s not healthy at all.”  He then said that if he could speak to someone in authority over the school food, he’d ask whether that person “would like his son to be eating that kind of food.  And if not, why do we need to eat that?”

Coincidentally, my conversation with Sanchez took place only an hour or so after interviewing Chef Paul Boundas, the “Chicago Miracle Worker” recently profiled in the Chicago Tribune for his exceptional school meals.  Boundas and I had talked about the fact that, having invested $52 million in a huge central kitchen, Houston is unlikely to ever return to cooking food on site at each school, the sort of scratch cooking Boundas advocates.

I know there are many advantages to central kitchens (improved food safety, quality control, etc.) and experts like Janet Poppendieck (one of my personal school food heroes) support their use, but I hung up the phone with Boundas feeling depressed.  No “scratch-cooked” food from a central kitchen will ever look or taste like well-prepared food cooked on site, if only because it has to be quick chilled, encased in plastic, frozen and shipped before reheating.  At its best, food prepared from a central kitchen will always be, as Jamie Oliver put it on Tuesday night, the equivalent of “airline food.”  At its worst, it can be undercooked, overcooked or just plain unappetizing.

Sanchez, in his own way, had come to the same realization.  He told me, “I know the manager from the cafeteria and she was telling me that she has twenty years working here.  And she tells me that back then they actually cooked the food here, and she’s like, now, the food is made at a facility and it’s all frozen and we just put it in the oven and and give it to you all.”  Sanchez paused and then asked, “What is that?  Is that any good for us?”

While Sanchez has no firm figures regarding the boycott, he said that a cafeteria worker did tell him that there were far fewer students eating the school meal than normal.

“I feel really proud,” said Sanchez.  “I feel really good about it.  I hope it pays off.”

I’ll keep you posted of any further developments at Milby as well as any response to the boycott or this post from HISD Food Services.  And my interview with Chef Boundas will be up in the coming days.  Stay tuned.