Parental Pet Peeve: Junk Food in the Check-Out Aisle

Photo courtesy CSPI
Photo courtesy CSPI

Almost exactly five years ago, I wrote a post called “The Kids Are Not All Right” in which I shared some disturbing research from former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating.  

It had been well established that infants and young kids are able to naturally adjust their food intake to meet their caloric needs.  For example, if a toddler eats a calorie-dense meal, he or she will likely eat fewer calories over the remainder of the day.  But, according to Kessler, newer research indicates that this innate ability is eroding in today’s young children, an alarming finding which he attributes to “conditioned hypereating:” children’s regular exposure to today’s large portion sizes and the ever-increasing availability of “stimulating food,” such as candy and highly processed snacks, throughout society.

I don’t know if this new research is yet well-accepted in the scientific community, but any parent  knows that today’s kids are tempted by candy and highly processed foods every day, multiple times a day, and in places where food never used to be sold.  For example, in response to another of my early TLT posts, “My Love Affair With Stacy, and What It’s Doing to the Kids,” an exasperated mom commented:

The problem is so ubiquitous… I find myself pausing before taking my kids to the carwash, for example (of all places), as they inevitably clamor for doritos; gatorade; sprite, etc., prominently displayed as soon as you enter the waiting area!

And it’s not just the car wash.  Candy and junk food are now offered in the check-out aisles of a huge number of retail outlets where, in the past, it would have been completely bizarre to see any food at all: Michael’s craft stores; Bed, Bath & Beyond; Office Depot; Old Navy; Home Depot; and Best Buy, just to name a few. Even high-end department stores are getting into the act by offering “classy” junk food, such as Godiva chocolate bars, at the register.

We’re so inured to this practice that it’s become the new normal.  But yesterday the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a terrific new report, Temptation at Check-Out, which asks us to step back and examine this practice with a more critical eye.

Retailers understand very well that by the time consumers arrive at the check-out aisle, they’re primed to make an impulse purchase of junk food.  According to the report, here are just a few reasons why: (1) shoppers are captive, having no choice but to pass through a check-out aisle; (2) after making myriad shopping decisions, consumers are likely to be mentally fatigued by the time they get to the register, and that fatigue is proven to lower willpower; (3) the usual kid-eye-level placement of junk food is specifically intended to encourage kids to nag parents for a purchase; and (4) just the sight of junk food is known to stimulate appetite, leading to an impulse purchase.

It all adds up to big profits. According to the report, supermarkets alone make about $5.5 billion annually from check-out sales and that whopping figure doesn’t account the hundreds of non-food outlets which also load up their check-out aisles with junk food.  Check-out sales are so lucrative, in fact, that manufactures pay retailers handsomely for the ability to get their products in front of consumers in this particular store location.

I really encourage you to read the CSPI report, which I found fascinating not just as an indictment of the check-out aisle practice, but also as a solid overview of today’s obescogenic food environment.  Sprinkled throughout the report are stand-alone quotes from various researchers and experts, many of which resonated powerfully with me as a parent of two growing kids and as a middle-aged person who has to be ever-more-vigilant to maintain her body weight.  Here are a few that had me nodding in agreement:

The food environment has become a tsunami. If it doesn’t drown us, it waterlogs even the strongest of swimmers, who have to exert more energy, be more alert and more conscientious than ever before just to stay afloat. – Dr. Deborah Cohen

Even when people are trying to make healthful choices, their ability to resist palatable foods in convenient locations wanes when they are distracted, are under stress, are tired, or have just made other decisions that deplete their cognitive capacity. – Dr. Deborah Cohen

The food industry brings in serious muscle to bully us into eating too much of all the wrong things …. Any conversation about personal responsibility or public policy that fails to acknowledge this reality is either disingenuous, or uninformed. We have not a shred of evidence that the average, loving, busy parent of today is intrinsically less responsible than the average, loving, busy parent of yesterday. Yet that parent of today is far more likely to be obese and/or diabetic, and to have children who are obese and at risk for diabetes. – Dr. David Katz

In addition to releasing the report, CSPI has also launched a new petition specifically targeting Bed, Bath & Beyond for its check-out aisle practices.  You can sign that here.

The good news is, this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game for retailers.  According to the report, when United Kingdom retailers agreed to stop selling candy in their check-out aisles they found that “English parents have responded positively to changes. . . . When the retailer Lidl tried offering healthy snacks in one checkout aisle in each of its U.K. stores, the junk-free checkouts received 20 percent higher footfall than the junk-laden aisles. Parents strongly supported the change. . . .”

I for one would “strongly support” any American retailer following suit, and I’m guessing many of you would feel the same way.  Let me know in a comment below.

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

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Supermarket Chain Bans Sugary Kid Drinks

capri sunAs part of its previously announced ten-point plan to help reduce obesity, the British grocery chain Tesco made headlines this week with a controversial announcement that it will ban sugar-sweetened, child-targeted beverages such as Capri Sun from its stores.

The company will be replacing these beverages with artificially-sweetened drinks, which I’d argue isn’t a perfect solution.  (I shared my concerns about artificial sweeteners and kids in this 2013 post.)  Still, Tesco is to be applauded for its overall commitment to improving consumer health, including a prior ban on the sale of chocolate and other sweets in its stores’ check-out lines.

In related news, a recent review of a variety of data sets has found that Americans are consuming fewer calories than ever before since an all time high in 2008*, and, according to researchers, that decrease is largely attributable to a drop in sugary drink consumption.  That’s great news, given the ever-more-certain link between the consumption of such drinks and disease.  It was also heartening to learn that the greatest decrease in calories has been seen in families with children. But, unfortunately, we Americans are still eating far too few fruits and vegetables and far too much dessert. (More here from the New York Times.  Also check out the Timescompanion piece on Americans’ shifting attitudes toward obesity in general.)

Finally, be sure to check out this new post from Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition on everything that’s wrong with marketing sugary beverages (and other junk food) to kids.  It’s a short but powerful indictment of this practice.

[*Ed. Update 7/29/15 at 1pm CST: Oh dear. Re-read this post and spotted a big inaccuracy!  Fixed.]

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

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It’s Official: Texas Lifts Ban on Deep Fat Fryers in Schools

Photo credit:  Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Photo credit: Texas Tribune, by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Tucked within an Orwellian press release touting its efforts to “combat child obesity,” the Texas Department of Agriculture has made official its lifting of a decade-old ban on deep fat fryers in Texas schools, as well as rolling back other common sense school nutrition measures.

This action was taken despite the fact that our state ranks fifth in the nation for obesity among high school students, and despite public comments reportedly opposing the TDA’s plan by an astounding margin of 105 to 8.  Among those arguing against the proposal were respected organizations like the American Heart Association, the Texas PTA, the Partnership for Healthy Texas and the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  (My own open letter to TDA opposing the plan — “Chicken-Fried Politics” — may be found here and my January op-ed in the Houston Chronicle may be found here.)

According to San Antonio’s My SA website, the eight comments in favor of the plan included those from:

Kona Ice, which sells sugary shaved ice drinks; World’s Finest Chocolate, a small number of school districts, and a company called TiFry that sells “a device that not only assists with reducing cooking oil consumption but will reduce calories in fried foods.” There was also this e-mail from a first grade teacher in Tyler, who wanted to “applaud” Miller for lifting the ban on deep fryers and sodas in public schools. “I could get my students to learn a lot of things just by promising them a Starburst or peppermint,” she wrote. “Thank you for taking a stand. School food is disgusting!”

Unfortunately, there’s nothing remotely surprising about this depressing outcome.

When our new Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, chose as his very first act in office a bogus “lifting” of a non-existent ban on birthday cupcakes in Texas schools, parents and health advocates around the state were understandably alarmed. And when Mr. Miller quickly parlayed that empty publicity stunt into an appearance on national Fox News, during which he made one gross misrepresentation after another but was nonetheless hailed as a national hero for restoring “local control” to districts, we all saw the handwriting on the wall.

In addition to rolling back the ban on deep-fat fryers, Miller has also lifted a decade-old ban on the sale of diet soda and caffeinated drinks to high schoolers, increased our allowed junk-food fundraising days from zero to six, and removed our common sense “time and place” restrictions on the sale of competitive foods.  The latter change is in many ways the most troubling, because it means kids eating the nutritionally-balanced school meal (or their home-packed lunch) will now be tempted to ditch it in favor of packaged snacks sold right in the cafeteria during the lunch hour.  And let’s remember: even the nutritionally improved “Smart Snacks” can include subpar items like these, which are hardly a substitute for a nutritious meal.

The Michael and Susan Dell Center has created a handy chart (click to enlarge) which graphically depicts the backward direction in which the state of Texas is moving, all thanks to Mr. Miller:

MSD chart

Whether Texas schools will become awash in deep-fried food and other junk food remains to be seen.  The nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program and the Smart Snacks in School rules still apply in our state, of course, and it could be quite hard to serve fried foods while also complying with those rules’ stringent fat limits.  Moreover, a failure to comply with the federal standards could be noticed in a state audit, resulting in the imposition of fines on the school district.

But wait a minute.  Who’s charged with vigorously enforcing all those federal rules here in Texas?

Yup.  That would be Sid “Local Control” Miller.

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

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Self-Regulation of Kids’ Food Advertising: A Doomed Effort


In prior posts I’ve told you about the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary effort by the leading food and beverage companies to rein in their marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to kids.

In the past, this initiative came up short because each participating company could set its own (often laughable) standards for what constitutes a “better-for-you” food or beverage that could be advertised to kids (see, e.g., “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry Self-Regulation of Children’s Food Advertising.)

But in a calculated move to ward off possible (voluntary) federal guidelines, the CFBAI in 2014 instituted what it called “meaningful, science-based” nutrition criteria to apply across the board to all of its participating companies.  That certainly sounded like good news on its face. But at the time of the announcement, the New York Times rightly noted that the new standard wouldn’t “require food makers to change much — two-thirds of the products the companies now advertise already meet them. And the levels fall far short of nutritional standards proposed by regulators.”

Here’s CFBAI’s 2015 product list and here are a few photos to show you how weak the nutritional standards remain today:

So it was not surprising to read a new report last week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine which found that “the industry has done everything it promised, in technical terms. Yet, despite consistent compliance, self-regulation has been ineffective in shifting the landscape of food marketing to children away from an overwhelming emphasis on obesogenic products.”

The study’s researchers used the “Go, Slow, Whoa” categories established by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the products marketed to children throughout 2013, and found that “four of every five food ads (80.5%) aired during children’s programming still promoted nutritionally deficient products, or so-called Whoa foods, which pose health risks when consumed in abundance.”  Put another way, the researchers concluded that “the nutritional standards employed by companies participating in the CFBAI do not necessarily reflect high benchmarks.”


The CFBAI responded to the study the only way it really could: by lashing out at the Go, Slow, Whoa standards, which the organization asserted are “simplistic,” “outdated” and ready to be retired.

Perhaps at this point, it might be worth refreshing everyone’s memory about the Go, Slow, Whoa standards.  Do you see anything objectionable, controversial or outdated about this dietary advice?

go slow whoa

Yeah, me neither.

In a circular twist, the CFBAI also attacked the Go, Slow, Whoa standards by saying they’re at odds with foods allowed in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP).  In other words, because the food industry has managed to shoehorn nutritionally questionable products into the school food guidelines, those foods are per se healthy and should be aggressively marketed to kids, even kids who are too young to understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

To address that shaky proposition, a few pictures of NSLP- and SBP-approved foods (made by CFBAI members) say it all:

The bottom line is that the processed food industry is in the business of creating highly processed foods.  That’s its entire raison d’être. And highly processed foods are the very foods children (as well as the rest of us) should avoid eating, at least most of the time, to maintain optimal health and to reduce the risk of obesity.

So asking this industry to set its own nutritional standards for a children’s advertising ban is a doomed effort.  Yes, industry has made strides by curbing the advertising of candy, soda and other worst-of-the-worst foods, but expecting it to go much further — without governmental regulation — is a pipe dream.

Or, put another way, we could condense the entire American Journal of Preventative Medicine study down to these ten words buried within it:

. . . profit motives are at cross-purposes with concerns about children’s health

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

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Chicken-Fried Politics: My Open Letter Re: Returning Deep Fat Fryers to Texas Schools

I’ve written extensively this year (including an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle) about Texas’s new Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and his politically motivated scheme to return our schools to the junk food Stone Age.  Today is one of the last days to submit public comments on the proposed regulations which would bring about his misguided plans, and here is the letter I’m submitting.

If you live in Texas, it’s not too late to get your views heard. Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts in an email to Angela Olige, the Administrator for Food and Nutrition at the Texas Department of Agriculture.  Her email address is and the email must be sent by Saturday, April 11th.



Ms. Angela Olige
Administrator for Food and Nutrition
Texas Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 12847, Austin, Texas 78711

Re: Proposed Changes to Texas Department of Agriculture Chapter 25,
Food and Nutrition Division Subchapter A, Texas School Nutrition Policies

Dear Ms. Olige:

I am a Texas resident, a Houston ISD public school parent and a writer and commentator on issues relating to children and food policy.

Texas may have a reputation for BBQ and rodeo fare, but I’ve been proud to inform people outside our state that we’ve actually been a national leader when it comes to school nutrition policy.  Almost a decade ago, when our state recognized the serious problem of rising childhood obesity, we didn’t sit around and wait for the federal government to step in. Instead we instituted a groundbreaking school nutrition policy to remove the worst junk food on our school campuses, including a ban on deep fat fryers and the imposition of common sense “time and place” restrictions on the sale of competitive foods in the cafeteria during school meal times.

Now, though, the Texas Department of Agriculture inexplicably wants to take a huge step backwards in child nutrition by proposing: a return of deep fat fryers to our schools;  a six-fold increase in the number of allowed junk food fundraising days; and the abolition of the “time and place” competitive food restrictions that have served our children well for over a decade.

french fries and ketchupWhile I would like to think better of the TDA and our new Agriculture Commissioner,  Sid Miller, it seems as though these proposed changes are motivated by nothing but politics.  Mr. Miller publicly derided the old Texas school nutrition policy as sounding “like something from the Obama administration” — despite the fact that it was championed by a fellow Republican, former Agricultural Commissioner Susan Combs.  He has also misled the public into thinking the current regulations are federally imposed, when in fact they were generated at the state level: at a press event supporting the proposed rule changes he said, “We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for nearly 200 years. We don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”

Mr. Miller has said he just wants to return more control to individual districts.  But a prior change to TDA regulations had already accomplished this goal by allowing districts to opt out of the “time and place” rules.  All districts had to do was include the change in their board-approved wellness policy, leaving the rules in place as a baseline for the rest of the state.  There was no need to abolish the rules altogether, particularly now that school districts have had a decade’s worth of experience in administering them effectively.

As for deep fat fryers, there are not only public health but serious economic consequences to consider here.  If districts selling deep fried snacks are caught doing so in a school food audit, they will have to pay back their federal meal reimbursements for each day the violations occurred. In the Houston Independent School District alone, where over 270,000 daily meals are served, that figure is around $540,000 per day.

And, generally speaking, any policies which foster childhood obesity will directly harm Texas taxpayers and businesses.  In 2009, it was estimated that the rising costs of obesity in our state came to $9.5 billion annually. By 2030, obesity could cost Texas employers an astonishing $32.5 billion annually,

The bottom line is this:  Over 30% of our teens are currently overweight or obese.  We rank fifth in the nation for high school obesity.  Despite Mr. Miller’s bombast, those children are not “big, strapping, healthy young kids.”  They are children who are on a path that is likely to lead to diabetes, heart disease, liver disease and/or an unnecessarily shorter lifespan.

The proposed changes to the TDA rules show a shocking disregard for the needs of these Texas children, and I urge you to reconsider this misguided course of action.


Bettina Elias Siegel

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District “Celebrates” Child Nutrition Roll-Back With Free Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits and GravySo, remember last year’s “CRomnibus” spending bill?  It ended, at least for fiscal year 2015, the ongoing battle between the School Nutrition Association, which wants to roll back key school food nutritional standards, and the many school food and public health advocates who want to keep those standards in place.  Under this temporary compromise, schools still must serve kids fruits and vegetables, but any district which can show “hardship” may be allowed to waive out of the requirement that all grain foods served be 51% whole grain.  Instead, such districts will be allowed to serve these “whole-grain-rich” food only half the time.

This waiver provision is important because if SNA has its way in Congress this year, that weaker whole grain standard will soon be in place nationwide, even for the 90% of schools already meeting the higher standard.  A standard which, I’d like to remind everyone (for the four thousandth time) was set by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine to ensure the long-term health of America’s kids, approved in Congress in 2010 with bipartisan vote  — and supported at the time by the SNA itself.

Apparently the majority of districts in North Carolina are planning to seek the waiver, in part because the current federal standard messes with a regional favorite: the white-flour buttermilk biscuit.  From a piece written late last year:

Lynn Harvey, chief school nutrition services director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said she heard complaints from many public school districts about the 100-percent whole grain requirement because the reformulation has affected a regional favorite.

“A biscuit is by definition light and fluffy. Whole-grain biscuits are hard, heavy and chewy,” Harvey said.

She said she expects the majority of North Carolina’s school districts to ask for the whole-grain exemption that Congress permitted in the cromnibus.

Now one of those North Carolina districts, the Haywood County school district, has succeeded in showing the requisite hardship, reportedly because participation in its program has dropped by five percent in recent years. This news was trumpeted yesterday by the SNA as the top story in its “Smart Brief” newsletter.

Photo: WLOS ABC 13

Both the SNA and Haywood Country are clearly viewing this turn of events as a victory.  In fact, on April 1st, there will be a “big celebration” in Haywood County in which every student and staff member in the district will be receiving free biscuits and gravy. Thereafter, the white flour biscuits and white flour pasta macaroni and cheese (along with, presumably, other white-flour foods) will be returning to Haywood County lunch trays.

Now, I totally understand regional food loyalties and I love a good buttermilk biscuit as much as the next person.  I’d even be fine with tweaking the school nutrition standards to allow districts to offer regional favorites like white tortillas or white biscuits on a limited basis, like once or twice a month.  And maybe, if we’re lucky, that’s the way the current Congressional battle over whole grains will be resolved.

But here’s what’s so troubling to me about this biscuit story.

One only has to watch the local news coverage of the Haywood County waiver to understand that this isn’t just a fight about biscuits. Instead, it’s abundantly clear that the administrators in this district resent what they view as undue federal interference with their lunch program.  One associate superintendent quoted in the news story says the current nutritional standards are “just an unnecessary set of regulations.”  He adds, “Whole grains or ground grains — we’re not so sure that should be a federal regulation,” and suggests, “Let’s leave food selection to parents and let’s not try to manage that from Washington.”

I can’t help but point out the obvious disconnect here: when you’re already talking about a massive federal program like National School Lunch Program, it seems a little misplaced to be complaining about federal regulation of that program.  But let’s say we do want to cede more local control to districts. What happens when we let local entities set child nutritional standards?

It doesn’t always go so well for the kids.

Here in Texas, our legislators actually passed a law in 2013 to try to keep the worst junk food in our schools. And our Big Government-hating new Agriculture Secretary is currently attempting to return deep fat fryers to our schools, an effort which scored big points for him on Fox News but might be a tad less beneficial for the 36% of kids in my state who are already overweight or obese.

Over in Georgia, where 35% of school kids are overweight or obese and where obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually, the school board succeeded in gutting the new “Smart Snacks in School” rules so that junk food can now be sold to kids one-half of the school year.

Meanwhile, in Haywood County, 61% of the adults were overweight or obese in 2013 and in 2011 (I could find no more recent data), 39% of its children were overweight or obese.  The leading cause of death in the county is heart disease.  In a 2010 community health survey, when asked what keeps people from being healthy in the county, the number one response was “unhealthy food.”

So when a Haywood County food services director declares in the news report that the federal government’s new nutrition standards are “backfiring,” I can’t help but ask:  from a public health perspective, isn’t it actually the status quo in this county that’s backfiring?

Moreover, given the hostility these local officials seem to feel toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards, just how hard were these North Carolina school districts trying to make the standards work before asking for a waiver?  Are they using the Smarter Lunchroom techniques, giving active encouragement to get kids to try new foods, offering student sampling programs, or implementing any of the other strategies being successfully used in hundreds of districts around the country?

The occasional biscuit is one thing and, as noted above, I’d have no problem with a change to the school food rules to allow such foods as a treat.  I’d also be fine relaxing the whole grain rules for another year, if that’s what’s needed for manufacturers to tweak their grain formulations.

But if the SNA has its way in Congress this year, white flour foods will once again become prevalent in school meals, contradicting prevailing scientific guidance on child nutrition.  In other words, the Haywood County model will soon be coming to a district near you.

And that, in my opinion, is hardly a development worthy of “celebration.”

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

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Two More Perspectives on the “FNV” Debate

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 6.07.02 AMI can imagine that by now some of you are scratching your heads over the amount of virtual ink I’ve recently devoted to the forthcoming “FNV” campaign.

To recap, this is the new effort from the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), funded by a coalition of corporations and nonprofits, that will use high-powered celebrities like Jessica Alba and Nick Jonas as well as junk-food-style marketing tactics to promote fruits and vegetables.  Two weeks ago I wrote a post telling you why I loved the idea, which set off a bit of controversy on Twitter.  That controversy prompted me to contact PHA for more information, which I shared in a follow-up post.  Then Casey Hinds (US Healthy Kids) and I debated the campaign in a series of two posts on Beyond Chron (Hinds’ “con” view is here; my “pro” rebuttal is here.)

And now today I want to share two more perspectives in the debate.

The first post is from one of my favorite kid/food bloggers, Brianne DeRosa of Red Round or Green.  In “Marketing Healthy Foods to Kids – It Isn’t About the Campaign,” DeRosa rightly points out that, totally apart from the ethical issues involved, it’s going to take a whole lot more than marketing to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in this country and she does a great job of explaining why that’s the case.

The second post is from Dr. Daniel Taber, PhD, MPH, an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Taber is a wonderful writer on public health issues and on today’s Beyond Chron he specifically addresses my debate with Hinds (“FNV: Settling the Debate.”)  Here’s a spoiler quote to pique your interest:

It’s rare to see two well-spoken, passionate food policy advocates, both of whom I greatly respect, in disagreement.

The debate was also compelling because I wasn’t sure whose side I was on. I’m an opinionated guy with thoughts on everything from food policy to March Madness to The Bachelor, but I couldn’t settle on a simple question: “Should fruits and vegetables be marketed to children?”

When I finished reading both perspectives, I instantly tweeted that my next blog should be, “Why Hinds and Siegel are both right.”

I changed my mind. Instead, I’m going to write, “Why Hinds is right … and I’m siding with Siegel anyway.”

So, for those of you scratching your heads, just why are so many of us in the food policy world devoting so much thought to the FNV campaign? (Honestly, we may now have collectively spent more time on it than the creators of the campaign itself!)

It’s because the FNV campaign gets to the heart of some really big questions about how we’re going to address our nation’s current public health crisis.  Are we going to work with industry or not?  Should we adopt industry-proven marketing tactics in the fight, or are such tactics inherently problematic since they entice rather than educate?  Can a campaign that’s intended to benefit the private sector also play a legitimate role in public health education?  Is marketing to kids acceptable if the product in question is unequivocally healthful, or is it always unethical?

As a left-leaning advocate, I’m supportive of governmental regulation in this area including, for example, a complete ban on junk food advertising to children as well as the imposition of soda taxes, product warning labels and more.  But I’m also, at heart, a realist.  And if recent events — such as McDonald’s voluntarily agreeing to use antibiotic-free chicken — tell us anything, it’s that the government is now lagging far behind the private sector on many public health issues.  So whenever we can harness market forces to both improve health and increase profits — which, after all, is the hope of the FNV campaign — I believe we should seize those opportunities enthusiastically.

But what do you think?  Or, to use Taber’s  joke on Twitter yesterday, are you on #TeamCasey or #TeamBettina?  I won’t be offended if you’re not on my team, so let me know in a comment below.

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

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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.)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,500 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 here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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What 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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