Help a TLT Mom Out: Advocating for Change in a Hostile Food Environment

candyI once attended a conference for food advocates from all over the country and one of the break-out sessions was specifically for those of us working in politically conservative states.  The joke was that wine and sympathetic hugs would be on offer as we shared our sob stories with each other.

That experience reminded me of a TLT reader, whom I’ll call Ellen, who wrote to me a few months ago seeking my help.  I actually shared a bit of Ellen’s story in my new (free!) 40-page ebook, The Lunch Tray’s Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.  I wrote:

While parents should feel free to advocate for the healthiest classroom environment possible, there may come a point when you hit the limits of what your particular community will accept. Here’s what I mean:

You might live in a health-conscious, progressive city and/or your children might attend a school (public or private) in which the parent community is well educated about nutrition — or at least open to nutrition education. Or you might be like one Lunch Tray reader who recently wrote to me in despair. In the small, rural area in which she lives, the school is awash in junk food for every occasion, from parties to fundraisers. Overweight children in her community are generally looked upon as “healthier” than children of normal weight (who are called “pencil-necked” or “beanpole”), and a fellow PTA member once literally told her, “We don’t care about nutrition!”

If you live in the former environment, asking fellow parents to bring in only organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables for birthdays might be met with excited enthusiasm. In the latter environment, it might get you run out of town by an angry mob.

When I corresponded with Ellen I promised to share her story on the blog to solicit advice from other readers, and I’m doing that belatedly today.  Here are the other pieces to her story:

Fifty percent of the kids in her rural district are on free or reduced price lunch.  At first she was told outright that the district had no wellness policy, but she was intrepid in trying to locate it:

After speaking with the Superintendent’s office twice, several elementary teachers (including P.E. teacher), and the District School Nurse, I called the Students Services Director in the Superintendent’s office- they put me on speakerphone to have me explain to them what a wellness plan is.  Then said they’d look around and get back with me. Sure enough, they found one! Or what they’re calling one.  I now have a hard copy in my possession.

The wellness policy, like most policies written when they were first mandated back in 2004, is quite weak (more on that in my ebook) and the district isn’t even complying with its own low standards. For example, the policy encourages teachers to solicit healthy food for classroom use, yet on her own child’s class supply list parents were asked to bring “a bag of candy” for use as rewards.  She also says preschoolers in the district are given snacks like “brownies, cupcakes, chocolate pudding and pop tarts.”

Ellen has spoken about this a PTO meeting (where she was told, “We don’t care about nutrition!”), she has attended a board meeting to learn more about her district’s policies, and she has taken a school tour with her principal to discuss these issues. Here’s how the talk with the principal went:

When I brought up the idea of wellness, nutrition and obesity, he scoffed and said he didn’t believe in BMI, and said, “Look at Shaquille O’Neil!”. . . . He told me that they don’t really have many celebrations anyway- He said “Just Christmas parties and Valentines, not Easter… Oh except the Kindergarteners and 1st grade- they go to the Nursing Home for an Egg Hunt.”  I just nodded and kept to myself the other celebrations that I know are occurring- Halloween parties in each classroom from 1:30-2:30 today (listed on the website), Veterans Day Breakfast (mentioned at the PTO meeting, planning who will supply the donuts), Donuts with dads, Muffins with Moms (mentioned at the PTO meeting).

Ellen and I have talked about the importance of finding fellow parents who can stand with her in this effort, but she writes:

I would like to try to change my own school district, and have looked for allies, but have come up with no one. Not one person who is willing to help or even feels there’s a problem.

She and I have talked about other things she can do, including seeking support outside the school environment from health professionals and community leaders.  We also talked about how the new USDA wellness policy rules will require schools to be more proactive about student health, including having to report on their progress each year in meeting specific health-related goals.  All of that said, though, I fully recognize that sometimes a school or district is just so mired in the junk food Stone Age, even these sorts of external pressures won’t do much good.

But before Ellen throws up her hands in defeat or moves her kids to another district (something she’s considering), I told her I’d share her story here.  Any additional advice, TLTers?  Please share your thoughts in a comment below or on TLT’s Facebook page.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Arizona, Gutting Federal Rules, Says ALL School Fundraisers Can Sell Junk Food

Well, I thought my own home state of Texas was pretty backward, what with our new Agriculture Commissioner’s plan to bring deep fat fryers back into our schools, but now this news comes out of Arizona: the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Diane Douglas, has just announced that she intends to use the “bake sale” loophole in the federal Smart Snacks rules to allow Arizona’s schools to fundraise with junk food every single day of the school year.

Douglas is quoted in Tucson Weekly as saying:

“Forcing parents and other supporters of schools to only offer federally approved food and snacks at fund-raisers is a perfect example of the overreach of government and intrusion into local control.  I have ordered effective immediately, that the ADE Health and Nutrition Services division grant exemptions for all fund-raisers for both traditional public schools and charter public schools.”

Daily fare in Arizona schools?
Daily fare in Arizona schools?

As you may remember, during the 2010 deliberations over the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the legislation which eventually led to the Smart Snacks rules, right wing politicians like Sarah Palin and conservative outlets like Fox News were erroneously claiming that the law would “ban bake sales at schools.”  Sensing a public relations disaster on his hands, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote a letter to Congress reassuring legislators that the USDA would “consider special exemptions for occasional school-sponsored fundraisers such as bake sales.” He later also wrote a piece for the Huffington Post to inform the public that:

USDA has given states complete authority to set policies on fundraisers and bake sales that work for them. States are free to allow fundraisers and bake sales featuring foods and beverages that don’t meet the new standards during the school day if they choose. They, not USDA, are responsible for determining the number and the frequency of these events each year.

Since the Smart Snacks rules went into effect last summer, some states have used this discretion in a measured way, either by disallowing all junk food fundraising or granting just a few days a year for such sales.  But in conservative-leaning states, the Smart Snacks loophole has given politicians the perfect vehicle to show their general disdain for federal regulation, regardless of the consequences for student health.

Georgia, for example, allows 30 three-day fundraisers, which amounts to one-half of the school year.  But the state that’s really giving Arizona a run for its money in this perverse competition is Oklahoma, which now allows 30 fundraisers a year, each lasting up to 14 days . . .  or 420 days a year.  (Way to go, Oklahoma! You’ve not only flouted federal rules but also the principles of basic math!)

When I was given my opportunity to “interview” USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon late last year,  I asked him about this very issue.  My question was:

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

Mr. Concannon’s reply:

. . . .USDA has provided flexibility for states to manage fundraisers at the state level. This is a local decision, as USDA understands that fundraisers are time-honored traditions that support local school activities, including class trips, athletic programs and the purchase of school supplies. States also have the flexibility to modify their fundraising policy at any time during the school year should they wish to do so, or in future years. USDA/FNS has been and will continue to work with our  State partners to reach out to schools and other stakeholders in the school community to provide training, technical assistance and resources to ensure that they understand the new rules, and have the tools and information they need to succeed.

In other words, a non-answer answer.

[Editorial update (2/18/15):  According to this report, Arizona PTAs are thrilled to resume making money off of kids’ health.  Lovely.  Hat tip: Casey Hinds of US Healthy Kids. ]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Thank you!

As I close out the first week in my new digs here on The Lunch Tray, I just wanted to send out a thank you to all of you….

One big piece of my blog redesign was creating my new classroom junk food guide, and I wrote most of it over winter break,  passing up quite a few sunny Houston days to hole up in a library to get it all done.  I wasn’t sure how the book would be received, but the feedback has been really positive!  Here are a few reader responses:

Hi! Just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your work to bring healthy eating into the classroom. I love the new Guide and will use it to continue to work with my son’s Kindergarten teacher who doesn’t seem to get it. (Nor does the school wellness committee – which doesn’t have a nutrition component).

Can’t wait to read this. I’m the only teacher on campus with a no junk food policy. Hoping for change.

Thanks so much, this is excellent! I’m the pta health & wellness chair at 2 schools & I am trying to bring nutrition education into the schools & create a healthier classroom environment with school parties and such. I started a committee & this is going to help!

Thank You Sooooo much! Just felt defeated as my heart healthy menu that was originally approved got shot down by parents in favor of pizza and junk. I feel like my prayer just got answered-and to not give up!

I’m under no illusions that junk food will disappear from classrooms overnight.  In fact, next week I’m going to share here the story of the mom mentioned in passing in the ebook who lives in a rural area that’s almost comically resistant to promoting healthier food at school. (I’m hoping you’ll be able to give her some advice–  or at least some empathy!)

But when I see responses like the ones above, I do feel hopeful that if we all keep plugging away at this problem, the situation is bound to approve.  And if my guide in any way can help those efforts, it was totally worth the time it took to put it together.  :-)

(Also, many thanks to the Fooducate blog for writing about the ebook in a post today!)

Have a great weekend, everyone!  More TLT next week….

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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My New 40-Page eBook on Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom

Kids Classroom Guide FinalAs I mentioned in yesterday’s post, in conjunction with The Lunch Tray’s relaunch I’ve also created what I hope will be a really useful resource for Lunch Tray readers.  It’s a 40-page (!) ebook devoted to the number one complaint I hear from you most often: the unwelcome influx of junk food into your child’s classroom.

In The Lunch Tray’s Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom, I address a wide variety of topics including: how wellness policies and the new federal “Smart Snacks” rules relate to classroom junk food; the tricky problem of birthday treats and how to respond to your opponents on that issue; the use of junk food as a classroom reward; the use of candy as a teaching “manipulative;” kids and sugar consumption; and much more.  Here’s a sneak peek slide show of a few of the book’s pages, including the table of contents:

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The book includes tips and materials from some of my favorite fellow bloggers, including Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, Casey Hinds of U.S. Healthy Kids and Stacy Whitman of School Bites, as well as a Resources section with links to helpful websites and organizations.  It also links to my new and improved Pinterest boards, which now have separate collections devoted to healthy classroom celebrations, grouped by holiday or occasion.

To receive your totally free copy of the ebook, just enter your email address here.  You’ll also be signed up to receive The Lunch Tray’s new newsletter, which will share prior Lunch Tray posts as well as features like kid-approved recipes, cooking tips and tricks, kid-food news items and more.  (Rest assured: I’ll never, ever share your email with any third party and you can unsubscribe at any time.)

In this ebook I’ve drawn on my own real-life lessons in advocacy to offer my best advice, and I welcome your feedback and suggestions for future editions.  I really hope you like it!  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Ag Commissioner Miller on Fox News: Distortions as Big as the State of Texas

Last week this blog was devoted to discussing Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s first act in office –  a declaration of “cupcake amnesty” – as well as his plan to bring deep fat fryers and sodas back to our public schools.

As I explained here and in a Houston Chronicle op-ed on Friday, since 2005 Texas state law has explicitly allowed parents and grandparents to bring to school any food they wish, including cupcakes, on a child’s birthday.  So when Mr. Miller chose as his first act in office to “pardon” cupcakes for no apparent reason, I initially gave him the benefit of the doubt by stating, “I can’t tell whether Mr. Miller and his advisors are being intentionally deceptive or are just plain ignorant.”

Now I have no choice but to settle on the former explanation.

Even after a lead story in the Texas Tribune and op-ed in the state’s second largest newspaper both called out Mr. Miller on his misrepresentations of Texas law, he still went on Fox & Friends on Sunday to crow about his bogus granting of “cupcake amnesty.” You can watch the interview, which is about three minutes long, below:

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 9.55.48 AM

Here are just some of the grossly inaccurate statements made by Mr. Miller in the clip, none of which were caught — or even questioned — by the Fox interviewer, Tucker Carlson:

MILLER:  “One of the first acts I did when I got into office was to repeal every mandate of from the Texas Department of Agriculture to our local school districts.”

The Texas School Nutrition Policy (TSNP) was repealed last April —  eight months before Mr. Miller assumed office.  And it was repealed not to let Texas districts do whatever they wanted, but to harmonize our state law with far stricter federal regulations that were about to go into effect.  (But I guess that’s not the sort of thing a conservative politician wants to reveal on Fox News.)

CARLSON asks if the prior Texas policy had “in effect, been telling parents what they could feed to their own children” and MILLER responds, “Well, that’s correct. And we just don’t do that in Texas.  We believe in local control, individual responsibility and freedom from burdensome government regulations.”

Nothing in the TSNP in any way restricted what parents could feed their own children, whether the food was provided in a home-packed lunch, a snack brought from home for a child’s consumption at school, or as birthday treats sent in by a parent or grandparent.  Carlson’s statement and Miller’s affirmation of it are 100% false.

MILLER:  “The federal childhood nutritional program is a huge failure. .  . .  School districts all over the United States are dropping out of the program.”

False. According to the USDA, “very few schools (only 0.15% of schools nationwide) reported dropping out of the programs due to struggles over providing kids healthy food.”

MILLER, after being shown Texas childhood obesity statistics, says “These [Texas] rules were put in ten years ago, in 2004, and those figures haven’t gotten any better. So government hasn’t worked but individual responsibility, local control is what works.  So we’re getting out of the school mandate business.” CARLSON: “So, just to be clear, for ten years cupcakes have been banned and those numbers are still the same? MILLER:  “Yeah, that’s correct.  Didn’t work.”  

As noted, cupcakes haven’t been banned in Texas for ten years, they’ve been expressly allowed in Texas for the last ten years.  So this entire exchange between Miller and Carlson is nonsensical.

But let’s generously assume Miller is speaking here of the TSNP and not of some nonexistent “cupcake ban.”  While Texas’s childhood obesity rate does remain stubbornly high, what would it look like today if the TSNP hadn’t been in place for the last decade to curb the worst junk food on school campuses?  If Commissioner Miller actually does return deep fat fryers and sodas to Texas public schools, we’ll all find out soon enough.

*  *  *

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper role of government in feeding children, but Miller isn’t looking for intellectually honest debate.  Instead, he’s playing fast and loose with the facts — and our children’s health — to establish himself in the media as a freedom-loving, regulation-hating Texan.  Now that he’s had his three minutes of fame on Fox News, we can only hope he’ll move on.

But if Miller is truly serious about rolling back school nutrition in this state, he needs to understand a thing or two about messing with Texas moms:

 

(For the non-Texans among my readership, my carrot battle flag is a play on this.)

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What She Said

One thing I love about being part of a blogging community is the way we can draw upon each other’s work and resources to advocate for our common goals.

That’s how I felt when I read this recent post from Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, addressing critics who think that instead of reining in the food and beverage industries’ $2-billion-a-year effort to market junk food to children, parents should just stand firm and say “no” to their kids.  This is a common refrain from those who oppose limits on youth junk food marketing and Sally’s post is such a definitive and perfect response, from now on I’m just going to link to it every time this issue comes up and say, “What she said.”  It’s definitely worth your time to read.

There’s only one point on which I and some of my colleagues (including, perhaps, Sally) differ when it comes to the marketing of food to children.  I’m previously on record as supporting youth-directed marketing of just one type of product —  whole or minimally processed fruits and vegetables — even though some advocates believe even this type of marketing is taking unfair advantage of kids.

But as I wrote in a debate on this issue with advocate Casey Hinds in Beyond Chron earlier this year, “Given that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is unequivocally good for children, how different are [such] efforts from using Sesame Street characters to encourage kids to brush their teeth or licensing Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat character to get them reading?”  You can read the entire debate with Casey here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,200 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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The Challenges and Rewards of Feeding Teens

The other night I was trying to use up some vegetables in the crisper drawer, so I added some spinach to my Italian wedding soup and served it with roasted Brussels sprouts, sautéd mushrooms and grilled cheese sandwiches made with sliced pears and a pretty “stinky” cheese, taleggio.  We sat down at the dinner table and, while not everyone ate everything, my kids ate most of what I’d offered without complaint.   And that’s when I realized just how far we’ve come in the TTL household: not that long ago, the same meal would have been far too challenging for my kids, each for their own idiosyncratic reasons.

That dinner led me to reflect on how gratifying it’s been lately to feed a high school freshman and a seventh grader.  (And, by the way, when did that happen?).

For one thing, adolescents are hungry pretty much all the time, and hunger creates a greater willingness to try new foods; I’m sure my son’s expanding vegetable repertoire is related to the fact that he’s shooting up like a weed.  And while peer pressure often leads kids to eat less healthfully, it can have the opposite effect, too.  For example, there’s a restaurant near my house which offers only locally grown foods in the form of healthful salads and sandwiches.  My daughter, who used to spurn both salads and sandwiches, hated it when I dragged her there — until it became a popular hangout spot for her social set.  Now she eats both of those foods with enthusiasm because her friends do, too.

But adolescence can also undermine healthful eating.  Teens are always on the go, which means a lot of grabbing whatever’s at hand.  Lunch hour at school can be more about social interaction than the meal, and older teens may also have the option to leave campus for nearby fast food restaurants.  Sugary, caffeinated drinks at Starbucks become an enticing badge of adulthood.  And, of course, eating lots of junk food with gusto can be a way for teens to feel rebellious, especially if they have a particularly health-conscious parent. (If you didn’t see our discussion of the “Snackwave” meme on TLT’s Facebook page a while back, this article about it is worth a read.)

But as Jill Castle observed in an April New York Times Motherlode post about feeding teens, parents have to know when to let go.  Adolescence is the time when you have to rely on the (hopefully) solid groundwork you’ve laid down since birth, trusting that kids will return to healthier eating habits as young adults.

It’s also the time for kids to take more responsibility for caring for their own bodies, since soon you won’t be around to play gatekeeper at all.  So when my teens ask me to buy some junk food I’d rather keep out of the house, I’ll explain my reasons for saying no, but I might also mention that once they’re in college, they’ll have complete autonomy over what they eat.  That reminder tends to cause a moment of sober reflection, and now when I see my daughter making healthy food choices of her own accord, or when she asks me questions about nutrition, I wonder to what degree she’s “rehearsing” for life on her own in less than four years.  (Sniff!)

If you’re a parent of a teen or pre-teen, be sure to check out a recent Teen Being piece from Sally Kuzemchak, blogger at Real Mom Nutrition — “Are You Being Snacked to Death?”  The article is written for teen readers and offers solid advice on healthy snacking without being condescending.  It also explains in simple terms how the food industry has a vested interest in getting kids to eat highly processed junk food, which is a nice bit of “inoculation” that works well with kids of this age.  I also loved this sweet 2012 post from Katie Morford of Mom’s Kitchen Handbook, in which she lays out eight pieces of advice for feeding on-the-go and sometimes rebellious adolescents.  Her last rule is by far the most important:

Lighten up There are worse things that could happen than skipping an occasional meal and worse places they could go than the drive thru. It’s what they eat day in day out, not once in a while, that matters.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Needing a Doctor’s Note to Feed Your Child Healthy Food?

civil eats logoImagine that your child’s daycare center regularly offers snacks like Rice Krispies treats and cookies, and then demands proof of your child’s medical “disability” when you ask to send healthier food from home.  That disturbing scenario is a very real one for some parents, and today I have a reported piece in Civil Eats about this practice and the reasons underlying it.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

 

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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Today I Debate the Ethics of Marketing Healthy Food to Kids

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.18.52 AMToday on Beyond Chron, I debate my friend and colleague Casey Hinds of US Healthy Kids on the ethics of marketing healthy foods like fruits and vegetables to children.  You can read my “pro” piece here, and Casey’s “con” here.

Thanks to Beyond Chron for giving us this platform, and to Casey for having the idea of a debate in the first place.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, too, in a comment here on The Lunch Tray or on Beyond Chron.

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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Using Junk Food Tactics – and Flavorings – To Market Carrots to Kids

Packaging from the original "Eat 'Em Like Junk  Food" effort
Packaging from the original “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” effort

In 2010 I told you about a new $25 million ad campaign, sponsored by carrot growers, to attract kids to baby carrots through the use of junk food-style packaging and marketing.  Back then I mocked the effort, saying:

Somehow I don’t think today’s kids are going to willingly trade in their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for carrots, no matter how cool the packaging (but at least with carrots, the orange doesn’t come off on your fingers.)

But it turned out the last laugh was on me.  Just one year later I reported that the “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” campaign, led by former Coca-Cola executive Jeff Dunn, was actually successful in increasing baby carrot sales.

Since then, many of us have learned a lot more about Dunn and his efforts from Michael Moss’s best-selling Salt, Sugar, Fat, which profiles how this once-enthusiastic promoter of sugary soda had a crisis of conscience, left his high level position at Coke and decided to use his marketing skills for good.

Yet despite Dunn’s early success with the “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” campaign, I still remained skeptical of his goals precisely because carrots lack the headliners of Moss’s book:  salt, sugar and fat.  It’s Big Food’s careful manipulation of these palate-pleasing ingredients that hook us on junk food and keep us coming back for more, and so it seemed to me that the humble carrot was never going to be able to compete on a serious level with the micro-engineered Nacho Cheese Dorito.

veggie snackers carrotsBut once again I’ve underestimated Dunn’s savvy.  This week NPR reports that Dunn is implementing the next phase of his carrot campaign, in which junk-food style flavorings like Ranch and Chile Lime are added to baby carrots in a product called Veggie Snackers:

When kids open the package and shake in the seasoning, the carrots take on some of the characteristics of chips like Doritos. “They give you that crunch and flavor,” says Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse. “You’re going to lick your fingers, and get that same sensory [experience] you get with salty snacks.”

(Here’s a video of how the Veggie Snacker packaging works.)

There are those who object on a philosophical level to the use of any junk-food marketing tactics to market to kids, even if the product itself is healthy.  (I should note here that the flavorings in Veggie Snackers are 100% natural.)  For example, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) tweeted yesterday:

Is commercializing the veggie aisle & selling kids on extreme carrots that taste like Doritos the best way to improve kids’ diets?

And Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics, also a staunch opponent of any marketing to children, tweeted:

how will kids learn to eat more veggies if they must always be heavily seasoned and marketed?

But Barry Cohen, who tweets under the handle @GeneralHealthy, responded:

Idealism vs. meeting kids where their brains & their parents’ brains are. Is eating more veggies good?

And he also asked:

If we triple kids’ consumption of whole veggies and displace the real junk…isn’t that a good thing?

This debate echoes another, similar one that took place here on The Lunch Tray last November.  At that time, First Lady Michelle Obama had just announced that the Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) would join the Partnership for a Healthier America to help promote fruits and vegetables to kids.  Under the deal, which Mrs. Obama helped broker, PMA’s growers, suppliers and retailers are allowed to use for two years iconic characters such as Elmo and Big Bird in messaging and on produce sold in stores — without paying any licensing fees.

In that case, too, both the CCFC and Simon felt that any marketing to children was wrong, even for fruits and vegetables.  But as I wrote in “It’s OK, Let Elmo Be a Carrot Pusher,” I don’t believe junk food will ever disappear from our society, nor do I believe that our elected officials will impose meaningful curbs on the marketing of junk food to children any time soon.  And we also know that currently only one in five high schoolers are getting the recommended “five servings a day” of produce.  

Given those hard realities, and given that I will always be more of a realist than an idealist, I’m  willing to let people like Dunn try to beat the junk food industry at its own game and use the same tactics to draw children to healthier food.  And with respect to the flavorings per se, is the addition of a chile lime spice mix so very different from offering kids carrots with ranch dressing or hummus,or making sweetened yogurt- or sour cream-based dips for fruit — all time-honored, mom-approved techniques for getting kids to eat more produce?

But what do you think, TLT’ers?  Are you disturbed by the use of Doritos-style marketing and flavoring to entice kids to eat baby carrots? Or are you, like me, wondering if you can get your hands on this product at your local grocery store?  Let me hear what you have to say in a comment below.

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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A New Initiative to Get Junk Food Out of Classrooms

Credit:  School Bites
Credit: School Bites

I’ve written a lot over the years (really, A LOT – see the Related Links below) about junk food in school classrooms, whether distributed by teachers as rewards for good behavior and academic performance or served as part of birthday or classroom celebrations.

It’s important to note that these practices are not addressed by the new federal Smart Snacks in School rules because the sort of junk food we’re talking about here is merely offered to kids, not sold, and therefore it isn’t considered “competitive food” under these new rules.

To help improve the classroom food environment, I’ve shared my own TLT Food in the Classroom Manifesto, which lists ten reasons why I think classrooms should be junk-food-free (and, ideally, food-free), I’ve solicited a huge number of reader ideas for food-free birthday celebrations (Real Mom Nutrition has a good list here, too), and I’ve also referred you to a useful handout for teachers created by Spoonfed.

To that growing list of resources I’m glad to add an exciting new Healthy Classrooms Initiative created by School Bites blogger Stacy Whitman, along with a registered dietitian.  What’s great about Stacy’s effort is that it’s a complete program, providing teachers with educational presentations by clinical dietitians, Healthy Classrooms signage, a pledge to sign, information for parents and more.  You can read all the details and access the program’s materials for possible use in your own school here. Bravo, Stacy!

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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Will Some States Try to Undermine the “Smart Snacks in School” Rules?

When the “Smart Snacks in School” rules went into effect on the first of this month, it was good news for the health of school children. These rules, which were mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, represent the first significant federal effort to regulate “competitive food,” i.e., the foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day through outlets such as vending machines, school stores, cafeteria “a la carte” (snack bar) lines and school fundraisers.

But even as the federal government took a big step forward in improving school snacks, it appears that some states may be determined to undermine these rules in any way they can.

Here’s the background.  In recognition of the long tradition of food-based school fundraisers such as the bake sale (and likely also to minimize backlash from cash-strapped school districts), the USDA planned to have a provision in the Smart Snacks rules allowing each state to determine a maximum total number of “exempt” school-sponsored fundraisers per year, i.e., fundraisers held during the school day at which junk food can legally be sold.

While the Smart Snacks rules were still in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for how this would work in practice. In the first proposal, states would be required to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion over the number, with no federal oversight.

In my own letter to the USDA commenting on the draft rules, I wrote:

Here in HISD and in many districts around the country, it is not uncommon to see on high school campuses numerous, daily fundraisers conducted during the lunch hour, most of which offer foods of poor nutritional value.  These sales greatly undermine participation in the federally subsidized school meal program, have a real and negative impact on student health and they undercut whatever nutrition information students are receiving in the classroom.

I understand that USDA will allow states to set their own limits on fundraisers offering foods and beverages which do not meet its proposed nutritional guidelines.  However, I’m concerned that cash-strapped school districts may successfully prevail upon states to grant liberal limits with respect to such fundraisers.  It is my recommendation, therefore, that the second of USDA’s two options be adopted, i.e., the option which allows for some USDA oversight on the frequency of such exempt, food-based fundraisers.

Nonetheless, despite receiving many comments like mine, the USDA ultimately chose to give states complete autonomy over fundraiser exemptions.  So the Smart Snacks rules now provide that if a state takes no action, the number of exempted fundraisers will be zero. And for states wishing to set their own maximum number of exempt fundraisers per year, the USDA has issued a guidance document in which it cautions:

… it is expected that State agencies will ensure that the frequency of such exempt fundraisers on school grounds during the school day does not reach a level which would impair the effectiveness of the Smart Snacks requirements.

From my own (admittedly cursory) research, it appears that only a handful of states have yet issued policies setting the number of maximum allowable exempt fundraisers for this coming 2014-15 school year.  A few states (Texas, Arizona and Michigan) have affirmatively set the number at zero, even though this is already the baseline when no state action is taken. Other states have conducted surveys of school administrators to find an acceptable number; based on such feedback, Indiana will allow two exempt fundraisers per school per year and Idaho will allow ten per school per year.

And then there’s Georgia.

fried chicken junk food competitive greasy
Even after new federal snack rules are in effect, will this be a weekly sight in Georgia schools?

Earlier this week, Stacy Whitman of School Bites alerted me and a few other food advocates to this rather alarming press release from the Georgia Board of Education, in which Georgia state officials decry the Smart Snacks rules as “federal overreach” and, in a clear effort to thumb their noses at the USDA, indicate that they plan to set the number of exempt fundraisers at 30 per school per year (which comes out to, approximately, one junk food fundraiser per school per week).  If that weren’t troubling enough, the state also plans to evaluate on a case-by-case basis any school’s request to hold even more junk food fundraisers per year.  (You can listen to Georgia state officials criticizng the Smart Snacks rules in this local news segment.)

It remains to be seen if other states, also chafing at what they consider to be federal “nanny state” interference, will follow Georgia’s lead and set their number of exempt fundraisers at the same — or even higher — level.  It also remains to be seen if the USDA, in keeping with its “expectation” that schools won’t use this loophole to effectively gut the Smart Snacks rules, will attempt to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, for an excellent discussion of how parents and other advocates can combat efforts like Georgia’s to unreasonably exploit the exempt fundraiser loophole, be sure to check out Nancy Huehnergarth’s excellent new post here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

simon smart snacks ANC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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