Stunning and Perverse: SNA Challenges a Study Finding That Kids Like Healthier School Food

Imagine a restaurant getting a great review, only to have the chef call the newspaper to complain that the critic was sorely mistaken and the restaurant’s food isn’t as good as the review made it out to be.

That bizarre scenario was all I could think of when I received an email yesterday from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), relaying SNA president Julia Bauscher’s refutation of a new, peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity finding that kids actually like the healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

Specifically, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers asked school administrators at 537 elementary schools about their students’ reactions to school meals after the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements went into effect.  Just over half of the respondents said their students initially complained about nutritionally improved school meals, but 70% agreed their students now actually like the lunches.  Even more encouraging, the study found that at socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance to student health), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”

For anyone who cares about school food reform and the health of America’s school children, these findings are great news.

But, perversely, this good news actually poses a serious threat to the SNA, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals.  That’s because, despite having supported the HHFKA’s passage back in 2010, the SNA is now fighting vigorously to roll back in Congress many of the law’s key nutritional requirements — and it is doing so on the grounds that kids are allegedly rejecting healthier school food en masse.

The organization has so become entrenched in promoting this pessimistic view of student acceptance (despite contrary evidence from school districts around the country), that it raised eyebrows even among some of its own members by refusing to allow Sam Kass, former White House chef and Executive Director of Let’s Move!, to speak at its annual national conference in Boston last week.  And the SNA previously saw 19 of its past presidents break ranks in an open letter to Congress — an extraordinary, public display of the internal strife over the SNA’s current legislative agenda.

It was hard for me to imagine the situation getting much uglier, until yesterday’s email presented the truly bizarre spectacle of the very people dedicated to preparing healthful school meals seeking to discredit reliable evidence that kids actually like those meals.

I’m disgusted and saddened by this turn of events.  Back in May, I wrote a post (“School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?) to convey my respect and empathy for school food service directors (FSDs) around the country, who I sincerely believe have one of the hardest jobs imaginable.  Through no fault of FSDs, the National School Lunch Program, as it is currently conceived, often directly pits their legitimate financial concerns against the nutritional needs of the children they serve. But instead of trying to bridge that gap by fighting for funding and other support for struggling school districts, the SNA, which claims in its mission statement to be “committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs,” chose to take the easy way out.

Just imagine how differently things would look today if the SNA had decided to stay the course on healthier school food. Instead of engaging in an unseemly, public battle with the White House, the organization could be closely allied with a still-hugely popular First Lady to jointly advance the cause of improved school nutrition, able to take advantage of all the prime PR opportunities only someone like Michelle Obama can offer.  Instead of using its considerable muscle on Capitol Hill to weaken or kill hard-fought legislative gains, the SNA could be using its clout to push Congress into helping the schools that need it.  And instead of churlishly lobbing criticism at this latest school food study, it could rely on the study to support its efforts — as well as joining with the rest of us in celebrating what is, unequivocally, very good news.

Nonetheless, despite this study’s encouraging findings, I’ll be keeping my champagne on ice.  Because regardless of what happens with SNA’s desired one-year waiver language in the pending 2015 appropriations bill, the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is looming large and the SNA clearly views the CNR as its best chance to permanently roll back key HHFKA nutrition standards relating to sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and a la carte offerings.

So, all those elementary school kids* who grew accustomed to — and eventually grew to like — healthier school food?  If the SNA has its way, they might not be seeing it for much longer.

_________________

* Many of us in the school food reform world have long predicted that elementary school kids would be the first to come around to healthier school food because they haven’t had years of seeing junk food in their cafeterias. More here: “Putting My Money on the Class of 2024.”

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How “Optimistic” Should We Feel About the War on Obesity?

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an opinion piece, “Finally, Some Optimism About Obesity?,” in which bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel and researcher Andrew Steinmetz tell us we should feel good about the country’s anti-obesity efforts* because we’re responding to this health crisis “much more nimbly” than we did with smoking.

Is Big Food a more formidable adversary than Big Tobacco?
Is Big Food a more formidable adversary than Big Tobacco?

The dangers of tobacco were first established in the 1920s but it took fifty years before Congress banned cigarette ads on TV and radio, and it wasn’t until 2009 that the federal excise tax on cigarettes was raised high enough to actually discourage smoking.  In contrast, say the authors, after an increase in childhood and adolescent obesity was noted in the 1980s, it only took ten years before the first in a series of measures was implemented:

Within a decade, in 1994, the Clinton administration limited the salt and saturated fat in school lunches. In 2001, the surgeon general issued a “Call to Action.” In 2006, three of the largest beverage companies voluntarily agreed to limit their offerings in school vending machines to water or low-calorie options. In 2010, Michelle Obama started her “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity in a generation. And that same year the Affordable Care Act passed, with a provision requiring large restaurant chains to post calorie counts on their menus. In 2012, Disney banned junk food advertising on all of its child-targeted TV and radio platforms. Today, 34 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some kind of additional tax on sodas and sugary drinks.

Those are all laudable efforts, of course, but here’s why Emanuel and Steinmetz might consider taking off their rose-colored glasses.

Let’s start with soda taxes. When presented in this context, the authors lead the reader to believe that 34 states and D.C. have instituted soda taxes expressly to combat obesity, rather than merely trying to raise state revenue. But that’s not the case, as evidenced by the fact that these states tax diet soda at the same rate as sugary soda.  Furthermore, according to experts, the soda tax rates in question are “generally … too low to have meaningful impacts on overall consumption and weight/obesity.”  (Indeed, according to Dr. Kelly BrownellDean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, these rates were intentionally set low so that they’d have little or no effect on soda consumption at all.)  And the vast majority of these taxes are sales taxes (applied at the point of purchase) rather than the excise taxes which raise product prices and deter purchasing — i.e., the very type of tax now assessed to discourage cigarette smoking.

The other anti-obesity efforts mentioned by Emanuel and Steinmetz are certainly worthwhile, but none of them are the “power tools” we need to significantly chip away at existing obesity rates.  For example, the Clinton administration’s limiting of saturated fat and salt in school food was a fine idea, but it only nibbled at the edges of what was then terribly wrong with school food.  (Even now, after the passage of the landmark Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, there are still no school food limits on sugar — a leading driver in obesity.)  Similarly, the Affordable Care Act’s mandated calorie counts in restaurants have been shown to do little or nothing to alter diners’ behavior.  And while I differ from some of my food policy colleagues in supporting Let’s Move! and voluntary industry efforts like the Disney junk food ad ban, I’ve also acknowledged the weakness of the former and the frequent corporate abuses of voluntary schemes like the latter.

So what are the “power tools” that could really advance the war on obesity?  Among the most effective methods found to reducing smoking are: excise taxes, advertising bans and consumer education through warning labels and other means. Thus, when it comes to obesity, we should be looking to soda excise taxes (if not a complete “junk food tax,” as once proposed by the New York Times‘ Mark Bittman), a meaningful ban on the advertising of junk food to children, and an overhaul of food labeling laws so consumers can glean reliable information from packaging, instead of marketing messages so deceptive they’ve become the stuff of late-night comedy.

But Emanuel and Steinmetz are forced to admit that these exact three measures, among others, “have been stymied.”

The Food and Drug Administration seems to have given up on its consideration of front-of-the-pack labeling. Regulations implementing menu labeling still haven’t been issued. Proposed restrictions on advertising to children were suspended amid Republican attacks. And the soda industry has successfully repelled excise taxes in many states by deploying the same tactics the cigarette manufacturers used — sizable political contributions and charges of discrimination against the poor.

None of us should be surprised that the food and beverage industries, with their proven lobbying power, were able to crush those efforts so decisively.  What is surprising is that Emanuel and Steinmetz blithely gloss over these major defeats by pointing to the “good news” that adult obesity rates now appear to be holding steady.  “Holding steady” is better than “climbing,” of course, but that still means fully one-third of American adults (and even higher percentages of Hispanic and African-American adult populations) remain at higher risk of early death due to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

It’s also worth noting that widespread public support for aggressive governmental anti-obesity efforts is currently lacking.  And that may be because cigarettes and food are not perfectly analogous.**  Cigarettes are entirely discretionary products, and an incontrovertible link has been established between smoking and lung disease.  But when it comes to highly processed food and fast food, the picture is murkier for many consumers.

Large swaths of our society, lacking basic food literacy or cooking skills, now rely heavily on highly processed and fast food’s easy accessibility, hyper-palatability, convenience and low prices.  Moreover, as the forthcoming documentary film Fed Up illustrates, Big Food has been masterful in indoctrinating consumers with the message that even the worst junk foods can be part of “a balanced diet” or a “healthy lifestyle,” leaving many to believe that these products do no harm, and/or that obesity is solely the result of a lack of individual willpower.

The financial toll of obesity — skyrocketing healthcare costs, lost productivity and the drain on our military –  is simply unsustainable.  And with persistent effort, I do believe the tide of public opinion could eventually turn against the food and beverage industries, the same way the public eventually grew educated enough about the issue to turn against tobacco.  When that happens, these companies will lose their current stranglehold on our elected officials and real reforms will be possible.

But if Emanuel and Steinmetz want to compare how quickly we’re able to truly reverse obesity with our slow response to cigarette use, I fear that race may well end in a dead heat.

____________

* I dislike framing this public health crisis entirely as a matter of “obesity,” since the poor nutritional quality of the modern American diet can adversely affect all of us, even if we’re not overweight.  However, since this is how the authors discuss the problem, and since this is a conveniently shorthand way to refer to it, I adopt their language in this post.

** Sugar-sweetened beverages, which are discretionary in anyone’s diet and which have been closely linked to obesity, are perhaps more analogous to cigarettes than generic “junk food” and therefore public opinion about soda might be more easily influenced.

For more on soda taxes, check out Dana Woldow’s excellent “Soda Tax Myths” series on Beyond Chron, starting with this one.

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

Happy Monday, TLT’ers!

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

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

Have a great day!

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

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The Nation: Thumbs Down On Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move?”

I wanted to share with you a very good article in an upcoming issue of The Nation which assesses the progress – or lack thereof – made by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative in combating childhood obesity.

In a balanced and thorough assessment of the First Lady’s efforts, the article highlights both her early gains as well as her initiative’s seeming retreat in recent months as Let’s Move! shifted its focus from food reform to exercise.  That change in course is seen by some critics (rightly, I think) as a desire to avoid conflict with Big Food – and its powerful lobbying arm – in the midst of a presidential election year.   The article also pointedly asks whether Let’s Move! has provided political cover and invaluable PR to corporate actors like Walmart and Disney without getting sufficiently meaningful reforms in return.   The Nation piece ultimately concludes that few if any truly significant changes have been made by the food industry as a result of Ms. Obama’s program.

But the fact that Ms. Obama can’t (or won’t) wage war with Big Food has never surprised me.  Above all else, the First Lady strikes me as a savvy pragmatist, pushing for reforms only where there are clear openings and likely pay-offs.  That explains her active involvement in the child nutrition bill reauthorization in 2010 which led to dramatic improvements in school food this year.  But she also backs off when she deems the political price too high, as when the White House summarily caved in to industry demands in the battle last year over the voluntary regulation of children’s food advertising.  That latter episode was deeply disheartening to those of us who care about our children’s food environment, but at the same time I never expected Ms. Obama, a First Lady whose hands are tied by her husband’s political aspirations, to be the rabble-rousing activist of our dreams.

For me, the bottom line is this:  no one in the country has done more than Ms. Obama to bring the issue of childhood obesity front and center in the national consciousness.   That she can’t fix the problem from the East Wing is unfortunate, though predictable, and it doesn’t negate the importance of what she has been able to achieve in the last four years.

Take a look at the Nation piece and let me know what you think in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 4,300 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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TLT Exclusive: A Nine-Year-Old’s Account of the White House “Kids’ State Dinner”

[Hey, everyone!  It’s great to be back after my two-week summer break and I have lots of posts to share, including the annual “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch” series, book reviews and more.  But all of that will have to wait, because today I’m handing TLT over to a very special guest blogger, nine-year-old Michael Lakind.   

Michael was one of fifty-six winners of ”The Healthy Lunchtime Challenge,” a cooking contest co-sponsored by Epicurious, Let’s Move!, the Department of Education, and the Department of Agriculture.  Kids aged 8 to 12 were asked to submit recipes for “a healthy, original, affordable, tasty lunch that contains the five food groups” and the prize was a “kids’ state dinner” (which was really a luncheon) at the White House on August 20th.  When I found out that Michael lives right here in Houston, I asked him if he’d be willing to share his impressions with TLT readers.  Here’s his account of the day.]

My Day at The White House

 by Michael Lakind

My experience at the White House was the best day of my life!  My day started out at our hotel lobby.  All the winners got a healthy breakfast bag and we got on the bus for a mini tour of D.C.  The bus even had a bathroom on it!  We saw many of the memorials, the Capitol and then The White House!  We entered from the southeast side.

Meet the press!

Everyone had to go through security.  When my mom walked through, it buzzed.  We finally walked into The White House!  It was so amazing!  There were people playing music when we entered. When we reached the red carpet area, we waited our turn to be announced.  There were so many cameras and reporters. Everyone wanted to interview me. I felt famous! My mom was even interviewed!

After that, we went into a private room so that Chef Sam Kass, the private chef for the First Family could interview me.  He is so nice!  We talked about my winning recipes and how much I love to cook.

With White House chef Sam Kass

Next, we got to meet The First Lady and took professional photos with her.  She was so nice and tall!  She gave us hugs and she told me how proud she was of me and that she loved the names of my winning dishes, Bunny Bisque and Secret Service Super Salad.

All of the rooms that we went into were so nice.  Paintings of past Presidents and First Ladies were hanging on the walls and everything was so fancy.  My mom told me not to touch anything.

After that, we went to a really cool room that had music, colorful tables filled with fruit and drinks and they even had a lady making balloon animals!

Michael meets the First Lady

A really nice Secret Service Agent, Ignacio “Nacho” talked to me for a while and gave me so many gifts.  He gave me a really nice pen in a case, a pin and a big picture of the President’s limo, called The Beast.  He gave me his card and told me that I could call him the next time we are in D.C. and he will give us a private tour of the White House!

The main room for the luncheon was set up really nice.  The press was everywhere and I gave even more interviews.  We got to sit with Chef Sam Kass and some of the other kids.  We were all so excited!

The First Lady gave a speech and talked about me and my Secret Service Super Salad!  I couldn’t believe it!

She told everyone how proud she was of all the winners and talked about how important it is to eat healthy.  Then she said that we had an unexpected visitor.  The President walked in!  He came right over to me and shook my hand and my mom’s!  It was so cool! Everyone was freaking out!  He said that he wanted to crash the party and not to drop food on the floor, since Bo their dog might get it and he is on a diet.

The food was served on Ronald Reagan’s china.  It was very fancy.  We don’t eat on plates like that at home.  We ate baked kale chips, a salad with quinoa, sloppy joe’s, zucchini fries, fruit skewers and a smoothie.  It was very healthy!

Big Time Rush performed and they were really good.  When I had to go to the bathroom, I had to be escorted.  After the lunch, we got to tour the White House Garden with Chef Sam Kass.  The garden is amazing and big and they grow everything!  We got to walk through the garden and Chef Kass talked about the different fruits and vegetables they grow.  The watermelons were huge and everything looked so good and fresh!  I asked him what he cooks for the First Family and he said that they eat lots of healthy food and they always have to have vegetables with their meal.  They even gave us a little jar of honey!  I will probably save it forever.

In the White House garden

After the tour of the garden, we walked back to the bus. I really didn’t want to leave.  I had one more interview and then, it was all over. I hope my little brother, Ben wins next year, so he can come to The White House.  This was the best day of my life!  I will remember it forever!

* * * 

Many thanks to  Michael for sharing his story on The Lunch Tray!  You can find Michael’s winning recipes for Secret Service Salad and Bunny Bisque here.  Thanks also to Michael’s mom, Toni Lakind, and to Susan Farb Morris for putting us in touch.

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Coming Soon: An Insider Report on The White House “Kids’ State Dinner”

Followers of TLT’s Facebook page might remember a mention of a cooking contest co-sponsored by Epicurious, Let’s Move!, the Department of Education, and the Department of Agriculture.  “The Healthy Lunchtime Challenge” asked kids aged 8 to 12 to submit recipes for “a healthy, original, affordable, tasty lunch that contains the five food groups.”   The prize for the fifty-six winners (one from each state and U.S. territory) is pretty cool:  a tour of Michelle Obama’s garden as well as a “kids’ state dinner” at the White House!

Well, as it turns out, one of the lucky winners lives right here in Houston.  Michael Lakind, aged nine, won for the state of Texas with his recipes for Bunny Bisque and Secret Service Super Salad.  I’m told that in addition to being a budding chef, Michael is a big presidential history maven so he’s all the more excited for his upcoming White House visit.

Michael and his mom Toni Lakind, a professional baker, have kindly agreed to tell Lunch Tray readers all about their White House experience and even share some photos, so look for that post at the end of the month.  (As a side note, one of the contest judges was middle-schooler Marshall Reid, author of Portion Size Me!  My interview with Marshall and my review of his book are also coming soon on TLT.)  Meanwhile, Toni shares for us Michael’s two winning recipes, which you can also find in this week’s People magazine featuring Michael.

Secret Service Super Salad

  • 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • Garlic powder to taste
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 4 slices whole grain bread
  • 2 tbsp. melted butter
  • 1 tsp. parsley
  • 1/2 cup purple onion, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
  • 1 pint strawberries
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta
  • 1 package prewashed spinach leaves

1. For the chicken, season with salt, pepper and garlic powder and have an adult place on grill for about 5 minutes on each side. Cut into strips.

2. For the dressing, mix oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a blender for 10 seconds.

3. For the croutons, cut bread into cubes. Mix together with melted butter, parsley and garlic salt. Place cubes on a baking sheet and bake in a 300 degree oven for 20 minutes or until crisp.

4.  Slice strawberries. In a large bowl, add spinach leaves, chicken, strawberries, onions, feta and croutons and toss. Drizzle with the dressing.

Bunny Bisque

  • 2 cups baby carrots
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 8 ice cubes
  • 1 1/4 cups chilled vegetable stock
  • Sour cream to garnish
  • Green onion, chopped to garnish

1. Put carrots and vegetable stock into a saucepan and heat on medium high until the stock is bubbling. Turn down heat to medium and cook, uncovered for about 20 minutes. Stir into the carrots are soft and remove from heat.

2.  Add the ice cubes and stir until melted. Add vegetable juice and stir. Carefully ladle into the blender and cover with the lid. Blend until smooth.

3.  Return to the saucepan and heat on medium for about 5 minutes, stiring occasionally until hot.

4.  To garnish, add a dollop of sour cream and green onion.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 4,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Big Food’s Money vs. Children’s Health: Guess Which Wins?

In the almost two years I’ve been writing The Lunch Tray, I’ve told you about one dispiriting episode after another in which Big Food’s dollars and lobbying have blocked sensible and critically needed efforts to improve children’s health.  (Remember how Congress, at the urging of frozen food manufacturers, agreed to continue treating pizza as a school food vegetable?  Or how the food industry killed purely voluntary federal guidelines to rein in the marketing of junk food to children?)

That’s why I was fascinated — and sickened — by a comprehensive Reuters report issued today, “Special Report:  How Washington went soft on childhood obesity,” which gives a highly detailed accounting of how food and beverage lobbyists have scotched one legislative effort after another in the public health arena.  Put bluntly:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Some of the figures in the report are stunning:

. . . the Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying last year — roughly what those opposing the stricter [children’s advertising] guidelines spent every 13 hours, the Reuters analysis showed.

[Emphasis mine.]

The report is not only highly critical of Congress, but also of the Obama administration and Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, both supposed champions of anti-childhood-obesity efforts. (I have also been critical of Mrs. Obama in the past).

Reuters describes a White House visit by executives from Big Food and children’s media, companies with a combined market value of more than $350 billion:

In the weeks after the meetings, proponents of tougher [children’s advertising] standards said, neither the president nor the First Lady spoke out for the work on healthy food guidelines that had been drafted by the administration’s own agencies. And industry representatives said their White House lobbying — which also included calls, letters and visits to the White House — proved successful on a hot political issue.

Nicholas W. Papas, a spokesman for the White House, disputed the notion that it had failed to champion the work of its own agencies . . .

But Papas could not point to any specific example of the president or First Lady voicing support for the working group report. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue and two key members of Congress said the administration stood back at crucial junctures, allowing Congress time to thwart the effort.

I urge you to read the entire Reuter’s report for an eye-opening education on the role of unfettered corporate spending in our government.

So what’s the answer?  How do ordinary consumers get their voices heard against such powerful, well-funded adversaries?   It seems to me the only avenue is the direct expression of our views outside traditional channels.  While I’m the last person to claim that the success of my recent Change.org petition would be easily replicable, it did demonstrate the tremendous power of social media and grassroots efforts to get consumer voices heard, changing government policy in a mere nine days and giving industry a real wake-up call.

I’ll have more musings on that topic in the coming days.

[hat tip:  Dana Woldow of PEACHSF.org for sending me the Reuters piece.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Is Mrs. Obama Afraid to Discuss the Real Causes of Childhood Obesity?

Fooducate thinks so.

Blogger Hemi Weingarten has a short but incisive post today critiquing the First Lady’s much anticipated keynote address at yesterday’s Partnership for a Healthier America inaugural summit.   Weingarten questions why Mrs. Obama focused almost exclusively on the need for increased physical exercise when, as Weingarten persuasively argues, it’s really our children’s food environment — driven by powerful corporate interests — underlying the obesity crisis.  He writes: “. . . it seems that she has realized the limits of her power to change the behavior of companies that manufacture sugary beverages, sugar laden cereals, and other kiddie delights.”

I have no doubt that this reasoning is exactly what motivated Mrs. Obama to stay mum about food in her speech.  Let’s recap just a few recent battles on the childhood obesity front in which the food industry emerged as the clear winner:

  • As I’ve reported about extensively in the past, federal efforts to rein in corporate advertising of junk food to children have been a dismal failure.  After a federal inter-agency working group (FTC, CDC, FDA and USDA) came up with purely voluntary (!) guidelines to prevent industry from pitching the worst foods to kids, Big Food took a two-pronged approach to fight back.  It lobbied the House GOP to effectively scotch the effort by including a provision in the FTC’s budget ordering the government “to study the potential costs and impacts of the guidelines before implementing them,” with the obvious hope that the guidelines will never re-emerge to see the light of day.  Industry also hastily announced it was improving its own voluntary guidelines (and I once showed you what a joke the old guidelines were) by applying a uniform nutritional standard on all participating companies instead of letting each come up with  its own standard.  But before you get excited about that idea, here are just a few of the foods that can still be freely advertised to kids under these “new and improved” uniform guidelines.
 Enough said.

 

  • More recently, Congress made clear that it’s far more concerned with placating the manufacturers of frozen pizza and the growers of potatoes than it is with improving the health of school children, when it refused to fund stricter school food nutrition regulations that would adversely affect these well-funded interests.   As a result, a tray of pizza and tater tots needs no other vegetable to qualify for federal reimbursement, flouting the very Institute of Medicine recommendations USDA was supposed to follow in coming up with the new rules.
  • And as recently as yesterday, fast food behemoth McDonald’s showed how easily and cleverly it could evade a hard-fought ordinance in San Francisco banning free toys in unhealthy kids’ meals.  Rather than improve the nutritional profile of its Happy Meals (the intent of the ban), effective today San Francisco franchisees will simply charge parents a token dime for the toy and continue with business as usual.   The fast food company may even garner some positive PR by donating all those dimes to the construction of a new Ronald McDonald House.  Brilliant.

Mrs. Obama has been one of our most outspoken advocates for improving children’s health and she and her Let’s Move! initiative have made some real headway.   The First Lady actively championed the passage of last year’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which (despite any weakening by Congress) is still a clear net gain in terms of improving the quality of and access to school food around the country.  She’s drawn national attention to gardening, cooking and the importance of family meals.   She’s worked with foundations and corporations to get more salad bars into schools.  When she addressed the National Restaurant Association last year she scolded them about their dismal children’s menu offerings (a cause near to my heart) and industry responded by making notable (if not perfect) improvements.  Corporations and other entities, from Wal-Mart to the YMCA, have made positive changes at her behest (even if for entirely cynical reasons).  (More Let’s Move! accomplishments summarized here.)

And let’s not forget that she’s withstood her share of right wing flak for even taking on the obesity issue in the first place.

But Mrs. Obama’s omission of  any real discussion of food in yesterday’s PHA speech was still notable, as was her silence in the aftermath of the pizza disgrace.   Both incidents raise the question of what we can realistically expect from any First Lady taking up this particular cause.  Indeed, there have always been vocal criticisms of all of her efforts, from arguments that they don’t go far enough to concern that Mrs. Obama is inadvertently giving PR cover to America’s worst corporate actors.

But TLT readers know that I am, at bottom, a pragmatist; I still would much rather have a First Lady in my corner than not, even if she’s sometimes an imperfect advocate.  My hope is that Mrs. Obama is consciously muting her message as the presidential election cycle heats up and that we’ll see a more full-throated approach from her after after the election is over (assuming she’s still in the East Wing).   But Weingarten’s overall point in his Fooducate post today remains critically important:

It’s much easier to get everyone to rally around MORE of something (in this case exercise) than convincing corporations to forfeit revenue streams by selling LESS junk food.

Until we realize this simple truth, childhood obesity will not disappear.

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My Thoughts On the Bittman Piece Re: Taxing Unhealthy Food

By now many of you have seen or heard about an opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times by food writer Mark Bittman, in which he advocates revamping the American diet through economic incentives and disincentives (“Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables“):

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

Bittman’s idea is not new, of course; many experts and policy groups have long recommended soda taxes, for example, or government-issued vouchers for farmers’ market produce, and some municipalities in the U.S. (and some countries outside the U.S.) have toyed with, or in fact implemented, such taxes or similar concepts.  But Bittman’s piece is notable for making a persuasive argument for the use of taxes and subsidies to reshape our diet, systematically laying out the benefits and dispatching the arguments of potential detractors, in a widely-read newspaper.

As regular readers of TLT could probably predict, I’m fully on board with the program Bittman outlines.  As he points out, economic incentives have already played a key role leading to the current public health crisis (via government corn and soy subsidies that favor the manufacture and purchase of unhealthful foods), so why not apply common sense and throw that system in reverse?  As Bittman notes, staple foods like fruit, whole grains and legumes would then be as widely available as chips and soda are today:

We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers.

The benefits of such a program, according to Bittman:

A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion.

My quibbles with Bittman’s piece are these:

First, he mostly overlooks another critical factor in the obesity crisis, which is a widespread abandonment of home cooking by many Americans.  (Remember the single dad on this past season’s Food Revolution, who fed his kids fast food nine times a week because he didn’t know how to cook?)  Unfortunately, many Americans wouldn’t possess the necessary knowledge — or the desire — to cook up a bag of navy beans and a sack of brown rice, even if they were readily available in their neighborhood 7-11 for 5o cents a pound.  Bittman does suggest that some of the funds raised by his program could be used for “recipes, cooking lessons, even cookware for those who can’t afford it,” but we’re really talking about not only the need for major cultural re-education with respect to cooking, but also a huge shift in the public’s expectation that food should always be tasty, cheap, fully prepared — and immediately available.

My deeper concern, however, is that Bittman just doesn’t want to acknowledge today’s political reality.  That is, I’m glad Bittman makes the point that we will never get anywhere if we look to major food manufacturers to fix our current problems for us.  As he writes:

. . . the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

But Bittman never squarely addresses the fact that the federal government, his proposed Agent of Good, is presently hamstrung by the financial influence of the very same food industry he opposes; corporate and agricultural lobbyists would wage a full scale war, the likes of which we may not have seen, against the program he suggests.

Does that mean we shouldn’t pursue it?  Of course not.  But as a tiny reality check, let’s remember that the food industry, with the enthusiastic assistance of House Republicans, this year quite successfully warded off purely voluntary federal guidelines on the marketing of junk food to children.  (“Score One for Big Food: Industry Preempts New Fed Guidelines on Marketing Food To Kids.“)  Let’s also remember how First Lady Michelle Obama has been repeatedly bashed by the far right (“More From the Food Culture War Front“) for her Let’s Move! initiative, which, in general, promoted more parental – not governmental — involvement in kids’ food choices.

So it felt a bit like an understatement when Bittman wrote, “though [the program] would take a level of political will that’s rarely seen, it’s hardly a moonshot.”  More like a Mars-shot, in my opinion.

The thing is, I’m betting that in the long run, we actually will see a program like Bittman’s instituted in this country.   The skyrocketing health care costs directly attributable to obesity-related disease (which Bittman pegs at “$344 billion by 2018 — with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government”) simply aren’t sustainable, and Bittman made no mention of another very serious problem, i.e., the national security threat posed by rising obesity rates (see my interview with “Mission Readiness,” a group of retired military generals addressing this issue, here and here).

The only question is when the political climate will be ripe for change.  On a national level, I don’t feel we’re remotely there yet.  My guess is that, as Bittman suggests, it will take forward-thinking city governments to first begin instituting these policies, and the revenue stream they enjoy may just be too tempting for other cash-strapped cities to ignore.

So, that’s my take.  What did you think about Bittman’s piece?  Share your thoughts in a comment below.

 

 

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J.O. Defends M.O., Calls Sarah Palin a “Froot Loop”

Well, this put a smile on my face on a Monday morning.

In a recent interview with Associated Press Food Editor J.M. Hirsch (TLT’s friend from “Lunch Box Blues” and High Flavor Low Labor), celebrity chef Jamie Oliver had some choice words for Sarah Palin for criticizing Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity efforts.

According to the AP interview, reprinted at the Huffington Post, Oliver said the U.S. is in a “really dark moment” when it comes to children’s health, and that getting healthy foods to kids is a civil rights issue.

He said he doesn’t have much faith that government will lead the way, but said the Obama administration is on the right track.  Palin, in contrast, “clearly on this issue is a Froot Loop,” he said.

Well put, Jamie!

 

 

ObFo: Huckabee Scolds Fellow Republicans, Defends Let’s Move!

If you want to know anything about the Obama White House relating to food, from the administration’s agricultural policy to what dessert is being served at the next state dinner, Obama Foodorama is the blog you’re looking for.

Yesterday ObFo had two interesting posts on Let’s Move!, First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to combate childhood obesity.

The first post relates to the far right’s frequent attacks on Mrs. Obama’s program, coming from folks like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachmann.  I’ve often written here that such attacks have only to do with the messenger and nothing to do with the message.  (Take this thought experiment:  would anyone on the right be attacking Laura Bush, for example, had she adopted childhood obesity as her cause and offered up the exact same proposals?)

Well, recently stepping up to the plate to defend Mrs. Obama was none other than former Arkansas governor and 2008 (2012?) Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee (who himself successfully battled obesity, losing over 100 pounds).  Noting that Mrs. Obama’s message is actually right in line with the right wing emphasis on personal responsibility over governmental intervention, Huckabee said, “Rather than us condemn Michelle Obama, I think we ought to be thanking her and praising her for what she’s done.”   Yay, Mike!  Read all of Huckabee’s comments at ObFo here.

On a related note, ObFo has a recap of White House chef (and TLT’s favorite food hottie!) Sam Kass’s recent speech about the accomplishments achieved in first year of Let’s Move! and what’s ahead for the future.  You can read that here.

 

Happy Birthday, Let’s Move!

Today marks the one year anniversary of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, a program that aspires to end obesity in a generation.  Obama Foodorama provides its usual excellent White House coverage, including the various official events marking today’s milestone.  You can read all that here.

As I’ve written about quite a bit, since launching Let’s Move! Mrs. Obama has been criticized by the right as a meddling officer of the Food Police, and more recently by the left for getting into bed with Walmart.  But from where I sit (namely, in my PJ’s, blogging about kids and food), the woman is a true hero for bringing national attention to a critical issue.

So, mazel tov, Mrs. O, on the one year anniversary of the program.  Looking forward to great things in the year ahead.  (And by  the way, I’m still waiting on that lunch invitation.  I’m sure it just got lost in the mail?)

Walmart Revisited (Part One): A Round-Up of Opinion From the Blogosphere

Last week I reported on Walmart’s announcement regarding its new, wide-ranging nutrition initiative, formulated in close association with the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program.

To recap, the retailer has pledged to:

  • improve the nutritional profile of thousands of packaged food products sold under its Great Value house brand, meeting specific targets for sodium, trans fats and added sugars over the next five years, and make these improved products cheaper than their less-healthy counterparts;
  • press its major food suppliers to follow its lead with respect to their own products;
  • lower the prices on fresh fruits and vegetables sold in its stores;
  • build additional stores in urban areas which are currently “food deserts;” and
  • increase its charitable contributions for nutrition programs.

Ever since the Walmart announcement, the blogosphere has been abuzz with debate over whether the Walmart initiative is a positive development or mere corporate white-washing.  I can’t do justice to all the talk out there, but in Part One of this post, I want to give you a round-up of some good opinion pieces to take a look at.

In Part Two, I’ll tell you why I still feel, despite some valid criticisms offered here, that the Walmart/White House deal may prove to be a net good.

Pieces Criticizing the Wal-Mart Deal

Anna Lappé writes on Civil Eats that Walmart’s goals with respect to its house brand products are weak at best, and are likely a calculated move to forestall government regulation of its packaging.  She also notes that the promises made by Walmart are non-binding and may be abandoned once the publicity fades away, and she’s unimpressed with Walmart’s promise to build more urban markets, given its abysmal labor record and its detrimental effects on local economies.

Kristen Wartman, also writing for Civil Eats, agrees with Lappé that the nutritional changes to Walmart’s products are mere “health-washing” (the nutritional version of green-washing), and dismisses Walmart’s promises to offer lower price fruits and vegetables by asking, “[W]hy can’t the government step in and subsidize fruits and vegetables like they do the corn and soy that go into nearly every processed food item?”

Michelle Simon, author of the book Appetite for Profit and the blog of the same name, looks less at the specifics of the proposal and more at the process.  She asks pointedly:

What was the First Lady’s staff doing in secret talks with Walmart for over a year? How did such an approach even get started? Here’s an alternative scenario: Congress holds hearings (you know, in public) on how the entire food industry should be changing its ways with enforceable, meaningful laws that apply to everyone, not just Walmart.

And she, too, wonders whether Walmart will actually live up to its promsies down the road.

A Pro-Wal-Mart View

Not everyone thinks the deal is a bad thing.  Lauren Hope Vicary, writing for Politics Daily, recognizes Walmart’s many sins but takes a pragmatic view.  Noting that more than 60,000 companies supply Walmart, she imagines the huge trickle-down effect Walmart’s nutritional goals may have in the marketplace.  She also notes that “[f]ood is expensive. Really expensive. And healthy food even more so. Not everyone can afford to shop at places that are jokingly referred to as ‘Whole Paycheck.'”

Marion Nestle’s View – Somewhere in Between

Finally, it’s worth reading the always-helpful Marion Nestle, of Food Politics.  In her piece on the initiative, Nestle greets the news about Walmart’s product changes with the same skepticism as other commenters, and wonders whether the “food desert” issue is just a way for Walmart to shoehorn new stores into areas where they’ve been unwanted in the past.  But she does feel that the plan to make healthier foods, including fruits and vegetables and the better-for-you processed foods, cheaper, could be beneficial — provided it doesn’t hurt farmers in the process. She cautions, “Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.”

So what’s my take?

To avoid a post that’s too long to read in one sitting, I’ll provide that answer in Part Two, up asap! (The day is getting away from me.)