#Thanks4RealMichelleObama

You may have already heard about a new Twitter hashtag that’s making national news: disgruntled kids are taking photos of their unappetizing school lunches and sharing them on Twitter with a sarcastic #thanksmichelleobama.  A recent Buzz Feed post about the trend has already received an astonishing two million views.

Some of the photos shared by students are indeed stomach-turning.  This one in particular has received a lot of attention, for obvious reasons:

gross lunch
click on the photo to enlarge

I have a few things to say about all this:

  • First, a word to the kids tweeting these photos.  Um, guys, you know Michelle Obama’s not actually in your school kitchen, right?  The First Lady supports common sense nutrition standards, like “kids need more fruits and vegetables,” but she has nothing to do with school menus (that would be your district) and she’s never instructed anyone to put disgusting glop on your tray.  Whoever prepared the travesty pictured above probably should be publicly shamed — but that person isn’t Michelle Obama.
  • This isn’t the first time photos of unappetizing school food have gone viral; last year I wrote a post (“School Food Gets Its Close-Up, But Is It a Fair One?”) about another, similar campaign.  Kids griping about school food is a time-honored tradition that’s likely been going on for as long as we’ve had school food, and certainly well before we had cell phones, but that doesn’t mean all school meals are bad.  In fact, some are pretty great.
  • As I wrote in the post mentioned above, if you’re using a cell phone camera to make food look as disgusting as possible, you’re likely to succeed.  Even when I use my cell phone camera to make food look good, I sometimes fail miserably. Here’s an Indian dinner I once cooked for my family including chana masala, whole wheat naan, homemade raita and chutney:

IMG_2561

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say this meal was delicious, but I’m guessing few of you would want to try it based on this photo.  And you can imagine how much worse this nutritious, home-cooked and mostly organic meal would have looked slopped onto a styrofoam tray and photographed under a cafeteria’s fluorescent lights, especially if the photographer were trying to make it look terrible.

  • Here’s another example.  This #thanksmichelleobama photo appeared in the New York Daily News and many other outlets and, at first glance, it looks awful.
click on the photo to enlarge
click on the photo to enlarge

But if you take a minute, you’ll realize you’re looking at some pretty benign refried beans with melted cheese, next to a tortilla.  I happen to live in Tex-Mex country and can tell you that no extreme close-up of refried beans (especially when served with an ice-cream scoop) is ever going to look much better than that.

  • But what annoys me most about the #thanksmichelleobama hashtag is how, predictably, it’s been seized upon by some on the political right in their never-ending campaign to demonize the First Lady for – gasp! – supporting science-based nutritional standards for school food.  These standards were not her creation; rather, they were recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and are considered the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.” And, by the way, when Congress authorized the USDA to improve school food (which led the USDA to commission the IOM report), the sitting president at the time wasn’t Democrat Barack Obama.  It was Republican George W. Bush.

Now let me tell you why I’m saying, without a trace of sarcasm and with profound gratitude, #Thanks4RealMichelleObama:

  • In 2010, Congress passed the most sweeping overhaul of school food in decades, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  That landmark event might not have happened without the First Lady’s determined and vocal support of the law in the months leading up to its passage.
  • Under the HHFKA, kids are now being served less sodium, fat and sugar and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, all of which is consistent with those IOM recommendations.  Those changes are critical if this and future generations are to reverse current trends toward obesity and diet-related disease.
  • According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “Our nation’s schools and schoolchildren are thriving under the new standards. School lunch revenue is up.”
  • A recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed that kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch — and that figure is likely to go up significantly as the new standards become more familiar to students over time.
  • A peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity found that, after initial complaints, kids now actually like the healthier school food.  It also found that among socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”
  • Under the HHFKA’s direct certification and community eligibility provisions, more economically disadvantaged kids than ever now have easy access to school food, which for many is their primary source of daily nutrition.

If you’re a Twitter user and agree that these significant accomplishments are worthy of some gratitude, please click here to automatically send this message to the First Lady, or use my hashtag #Thanks4RealMichelleObama with your own text:

Thanks @FLOTUS for championing healthier school food for all kids! http://ctt.ec/X418t+   #Thanks4RealMichelleObama #thanksmichelleobama

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What the Midterm Elections Mean for School Food

Whether you voted red, blue or purple in this week’s midterm elections, you and your viewpoints are always welcome on The Lunch Tray.

But there are times when political partisanship directly impacts the kid-and-food issues I cover and, unfortunately, that’s the case for school food reform.  As the New York Times reported in a recent Sunday Magazine feature story, “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” the School Nutrition Association has aligned itself with Congressional Republicans to roll back some key nutritional improvements to school food.  Now that Republicans have control of both the House and Senate, it seems all the more likely that the SNA will succeed in this effort.

The mechanism for gutting school food reform in the short term likely will be the appropriations process. As Politico‘s Morning Agriculture report observed yesterday:

Now that they’ve secured the Senate, Republicans have a clear avenue for doing away with . . . the USDA’s new school lunch standards: spending legislation.

By 4:30 a.m. EST today, even with many individual contests unknown, it was apparent the GOP had wrested away control of the Senate from the Democrats and gained even more control in the House. Now it’s time for Congress to get back to work, and a top priority, when both chambers open for business again on the Hill next week, will be to address the current short-term spending bill that only funds the government through Dec. 11.

In all four approaches available to Congress for passing spending legislation, the GOP would have an opportunity to attach riders that could sink their least favorite Obama initiatives – either by defunding or otherwise weakening key policies.

Historically, the federal school lunch program has had bipartisan support.  This makes sense given that all of us, no matter our political persuasion, have a stake in nourishing the next generation well.  But now many powerful forces are aligned against school food reform:  the processed food industry, which has a huge financial stake in the program and powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill;  the need of school districts to make their meal programs break even; First Lady Michelle Obama’s vocal support of school food reform, which has politicized the issue for some conservatives hoping to score political points;  and conservatives’ general distrust of “big government.”  (See also this 2011 TLT post: “Why Is Childhood Obesity a Red State/Blue State Issue?“)

But it might be worth stepping back and remembering that the nutritional standards now at risk  — more whole grains, lower sodium, more fruits and vegetables — were not the brainchild of President Obama, Michelle Obama or government bureaucrats.  They were science-based recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, recommendations which were referred to at the time of their release as representing the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.”

Adhering to these standards is inarguably better for children’s immediate and long-term health.  Period.  And that’s what’s getting lost in this political fight.

Those of us who support robust school food reform must do our best to have our voices are heard on this issue and I’ll have more to say about that in the weeks ahead.  But, in the meantime, it’s all the more important that SNA members who disagree with their organization’s legislative agenda make their feelings known.  If you’re a current or former SNA member who supports the healthier school food standards, please sign and share this open letter.  The deadline for signatures is November 30th.  Thank you.

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My Piece in the New York Times Motherlode Re: The School Food Wars

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine will feature a major story on school food, “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” and I was honored to be asked to interview the Times reporter, Nicholas Confessore, for a piece on today’s New York Times Motherlode.

Sarah Anne Ward for The New York Times
Sarah Anne Ward for The New York Times

For those of you who regularly follow this blog and other sources of school food news, the broad outlines of Confessore’s story will be all too familiar.  His piece traces the evolution of the School Nutrition Association, the largest organization of school food professionals, from one-time supporter of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to its current role as a vocal critic of school food reform on Capitol Hill.  It’s also a richly detailed, if depressing, behind-the-scenes account of how Big Food’s lobbying dollars and the rancorous atmosphere in Congress have made healthy school food, once supported by both sides of the aisle, a deeply partisan issue.

Lost in the shuffle, though, are the kids who actually eat school food and, by extension, the parents of those children.  So in today’s Motherlode piece I ask Confessore what, if anything, parents can do to be heard on this issue over the powerful voices of lobbyists and politicians.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, too, either in a comment here or on the Motherlode post.

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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.”

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

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How Did the School Nutrition Association Lose Its Way?

How did the School Nutrition Association, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, go from being a vocal supporter of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to the moving force behind current efforts to gut that legislation?

Even the First Lady finds this flip-fop perplexing, reportedly saying at a recent gathering of school nutrition leaders, “Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards. … If anyone can help me understand how we wound up here.”

Now two new articles shed some light on that question.  Jerry Hagstrom’s piece in the National Journal, “It’s Time to Protect School-Cafeteria Workers From Their Own Food Fight,” and Helena Bottemiller Evich’s piece on Politico, “First Lady vs. Lunch Ladies: Behind the Scenes,” both describe dramatic changes in SNA’s top leadership and platform, changes which are causing considerable dissension among SNA’s membership.

This background helps explain why 19 past SNA presidents recently took the highly unusual step of publicly breaking with their own organization to urge Congress not to roll-back healthier school food standards.  It’s also quite encouraging to me, as a school food advocate, to learn that SNA’s troubling positions are not necessarily shared by the organization’s members at large.

It remains to be seen if SNA’s efforts to weaken school meal standards are successful, something we may not be able to fully assess until the Child Nutrition Reauthorization is completed in 2015.  But developments like the past presidents’ letter, press reports like the ones above, and now-frequent discussions in the media of the organization’s ties to Big Food, all may leave the SNA wishing it never picked this food fight in the first place.

_____
[Ed Update 6/4/14:  The Politico link was changed to give readers access to the free version of the story.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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House Committee Approves Healthy School Meals Waiver; 19 Past Presidents Break With School Nutrition Association

Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal 2015 spending bill with controversial language, drafted by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), which would allow struggling schools to request a 12-month waiver from complying with healthier school food standards.  While that might sound innocuous, this waiver, which was strenuously opposed by the First Lady and school food advocates (including this one), is considered just the first salvo in a battle to unravel those standards during the Child Nutrition Reauthorization next year. The bill will now go to the House floor before being conferenced with the Senate version.  More on the yesterday’s House vote and its implications here.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, nineteen past presidents of the School Nutrition Association (the organization pushing hard for healthy school food roll-backs) broke with their own organization to urge Congress to stay the course on nutritious school meals.  The text of that letter is here:

School Nutrition Association
Past Presidents Initiative

May 27, 2014
The Honorable (Senate and House Members of Committees on Agriculture Appropriations)

Dear Agriculture Appropriations Conference Committee:

Thank you for passing the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 that is helping school nutrition
programs be part of a strong response to the nation’s obesity epidemic. Most schools are
having success implementing the HHFKA. However some schools report difficulty meeting the
requirements and are requesting waivers.

We the undersigned past presidents of the School Nutrition Association, understand that major
change takes time and a commitment to the goal that prompted the change. We believe most
communities and schools want school nutrition programs that help children learn to enjoy
healthy foods. We are confident that the broad public support for HHFKA and USDA’s
demonstrated willingness to work with school leaders to solve implementation issues will prevail
and create stronger school nutrition programs.

We urge you to reject calls for waivers, maintain strong standards in all schools, and direct
USDA to continue working with school leaders and state directors to find ways, including
technical assistance, that will ensure all schools can meet the HHFKA standards. Specific
concerns regarding whole grains and sodium can be addressed as technical corrections.
We must not reverse the progress that was sought by school leaders and is well on its way to
success in most schools. Should you need additional information please contact Jane Wynn at
954-545-4873(h) or 954-830-0777(c) or Shirley Watkins at 301-520-8558 (c).

Sincerely,
Shirley Watkins, former USDA Under Secretary FNCS
Katie Wilson, PhD, Executive Director National Food Service Management Institute
Josephine Martin, PhD, former Executive Director National Food Service Management Institute
Dorothy Caldwell, former USDA Deputy Administrator of FNS
Mary Nix former Cobb County, GA School Nutrition Director
Jane Wynn, former Broward County, FL School Nutrition Director
Anne Gennings, former New Hartford, NY School Nutrition Director
Mary Hill, Director of School Nutrition, Jackson, MS
Dora Rivas, Executive Director Food & Child Nutrition Services Dallas ISD, TX
Helen Phillips, Senior Director School Nutrition Norfolk, VA
Elizabeth McPherson, Former Food Service Director Caswell, NC
Phyllis Griffith, Former Child Nutrition Services Director Columbus, OH
Nancy Rice, State Director GA Child Nutrition Programs
Gene White, President Global Child Nutrition Foundation School Nutrition Association
Past Presidents Initiative
Marcia Smith, PhD, former Food Service Director, Polk County, FL
Gaye Lynn MacDonald, Consultant & Former Food Service Director Bellingham, WA
Penny McConnell, Director of Food Service Fairfax County, VA
Beverly Lowe, Consultant, Former Food Service Director Hampton, VA
Thelma Becker, Retired Former Food Service Director PA

Cc: Honorable Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Honorable FNCS Under Secretary Kevin Concannon
Dr. Janey Thornton, USDA FNCS Deputy Under Secretary

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First Lady Defends Healthier School Food in NYT Op-Ed

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 8.45.53 AMWhat can I say?  The Michelle O. love I expressed yesterday only deepens. . . .

Here’s her piece in today’s New York Times making a strong case for staying the course on healthier school food.

Keep in mind that in writing this kind of editorial (and in making her White House statement on Monday), the First Lady is engaging in an unusually political discourse, in that she’s specifically taking issue with Republican-backed efforts to gut the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

In doing so, she’s taking a real political risk and deserves our support.  So please take these simple steps to show that you, too, care about saving healthier school lunches.  Thank you.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Dear Michelle . . . .

Dear Michelle,

Can I call you “Michelle?”  I know it’s a bit presumptuous, what with you being First Lady and all, but for the last six years you and I have shared a beautiful friendship, one that’s no less special for being entirely one-sided.

We have so much in common, Michelle, it’s no wonder we’re one-way BFFs!  We’re both lawyers who changed careers in our 40s (though you do your current job in designer clothes and I often do mine in pajamas), we both have lawyer husbands (putting aside that yours is also leader of the free world) and we both have teenagers at home (not easy, right?).

I love that you were confident enough to wear blue nail polish at the Democratic National Convention and a J. Crew sweater to 10 Downing Street.  I love that you took a chance on bangs and then were willing to admit regret (who hasn’t been there?).  I love that even after six years in the White House you still seem totally real, unafraid to break into a little Mom Dancing or Double Dutch when the occasion calls for it.  And who cares if it was a breach of protocol to put your arm around the Queen?  You’re not a British subject — and, let’s face it, that woman looks seriously in need of a hug.

But what I love most about you is that you’ve made kids and healthy eating — the topic closest to my heart – one of the centerpieces of your tenure as First Lady.

Sure, you’ve had your share of critics – people who say Let’s Move! hasn’t done enough and that you’ve been intimidated by the food industry — but I remain grateful for all you have been able to accomplish, whether it’s nudging Disney toward a junk food ad ban or brokering a creative licensing deal between the Sesame Street Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association.  I recognize that there’s only so much anyone could do in this area from the East Wing, so I’ve praised you as a “savvy pragmatist” who “push[es] for reforms only where there are clear openings and likely pay-offs.”  In other words, I’ve had your back, like any good friend would.

But I have to admit, Michelle, even I wasn’t quite sure we’d hear from you when some in Congress and the School Nutrition Association recently began a concerted assault on your major achievement as First Lady – the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  You’re such a polarizing figure in the school food debate (did you see Michelle Malkin’s latest rant? “Hell hath no fury like a Nanny State control freak scorned”) that I could see you reluctantly deciding it’s better to work from behind the scenes, like your recent off-the-record conference call with supporters, or making calls last week to help forge some compromises in the Senate appropriations process.

But I was so wrong!  Yesterday, at a White House meeting with school nutrition leaders, you made headlines by giving what’s being calledone of the most overtly political speeches during [your] tenure as First Lady.”  In a full-throated defense of healthier school food, in which you spoke both as First Lady and a concerned mother, you said attempts to weaken school food standards are “unacceptable,” and you “slammed” House Republicans for “playing politics” with our kids’ health.  You vowed to do what’s necessary to stay the course, telling those in the room that “We have to be willing to fight the hard fight now.” 

BRAVO, Michelle!

Now that I know you’re unafraid to get overtly political, I’m hoping that speech was just the start of a big public relations campaign to defend healthier school food.  Because even though you and I follow this issue closely, I’m betting the majority of parents still  think improved school food is a done deal (thanks to you), and have no clue that the nutritional improvements on their kids’ lunch trays are at risk. Or, even if they know what’s going on, they’re not sure how to express their displeasure about it.

Here are a few ideas I’ve had – some crazier than others, I’ll admit — to fire up the school food base:

  • I would love to see you on daytime talk shows and late night television speaking out about these attempts to weaken school nutritional standards. I’m thinking of shows like The View or Katie – we already know Katie Couric would be totally on board, based on her new film, “Fed Up.”  One word from you on shows like that, and the number of calls to Congressional reps from angry parents would go up exponentially.
  • OK, this one’s a little out there, but what about a  “Save School Lunch” march on the National Mall? Seriously, Michelle, just say the word and I’m on the next plane to D.C. with my vintage lunch tray in hand to march alongside you. And even regular parents (not just crazy school food advocates like me) would likely come out for a march if you added some celebrity speakers to the lineup.  I know we can both think of a lot of big names who would willingly support such a cause, especially if the invitation came from you.
  • Too ambitious?  What about a “virtual march” where you ask people to submit photos of themselves and their kids, holding up a sign asking to Save School Lunch?  If you ask, maybe people will do it and if the numbers are high enough, it could make some noise on Capitol Hill.
  • Or how about creating a YouTube video that’s a little out of the box?  After all, 18.5 million people tuned into YouTube to see the Evolution of Mom Dancing.  What if you did something equally engaging, but ended with a call to action in support of healthier school food?  (I’ll admit I’m not quite able to visualize the funny dance that goes with school food reform, but that’s where your team of highly paid PR experts comes in.)

Even if you do none of those things, though, I want to thank you for yesterday’s statement.  For those of us who stood with you and fought with you during the passage of the HHFKA, it would have been disheartening (though understandable, in my opinion) if you’d decided to wage this battle quietly and out of the public eye.

But maybe you’re laughing out loud right now, Michelle, because we’re totally having one of those BFF mind-melds and you were already planning on doing a lot of the PR stuff I suggest above.

That sort of thing wouldn’t be at all surprising in an imaginary friendship as beautiful as ours.

— Bettina

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Simple Steps to Help #SaveSchoolLunch!

As I wrote here last week, and as I’ve been telling you for the last few months, many of the important school food reforms of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are currently at risk of being rolled back.  We fought hard for the passage of those improved school meal standards and changing course just two years after their implementation, especially when we’re already seeing progress, would be a terrible blow to our children’s long term health.

The most immediate threat is posed by legislative efforts to include language in the pending Agriculture Appropriations bill which would weaken or remove various school food requirements.  That bill is likely to be voted upon in the House and Senate in a matter of days, so if  you care at all about healthier school food, can you please do the following?

First, please sign this Change.org petition started by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  Then take an extra second to share it on Twitter and Facebook.  The Twitter hashtag for this effort is #SaveSchoolLunch and here are some sample tweets you can use to promote the petition:

Join me in telling Congress: school lunch is off limits. Don’t play politics with children’s health. http://chn.ge/1ll7k1X#SaveSchoolLunch

First Congress declared pizza a vegetable…now this: http://chn.ge/1ll7k1X#SaveSchoolLunch

Please Congress: protect children’s health. Nutrition should be the standard for school lunch, not politics. http://chn.ge/1ll7k1X

If you’re a Twitter user, please also tweet your congressional representatives and tell them you oppose efforts to weaken school meal standards.  Here’s one sample tweet you can use:

Dear @ElectedOfficial (add in your senator’s or representative’s Twitter handle here), look how great school lunch can be: http://bit.ly/1sPtrCi. Don’t weaken school nutrition standards.#SaveSchoolLunch

Also, if you read this post early enough today, you can join me in listening in on a phone call with First Lady Michelle Obama and Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass on protecting the gains we’ve made in school food.  Just click the invitation below to register for the call.

Thank you in advance for taking steps to #SaveSchoolLunch!  Of course I’ll keep you posted on the latest developments.

white house invite

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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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.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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

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

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

This food waste may only increase when, starting next year, schools will also have to increase the amount of fruit served at breakfast from 1/2 to one full cup.  In a large urban district like mine, where over 80% of our kids are economically disadvantaged and a universal, in-class breakfast is the norm, that additional food waste and expense for my district is likely to be considerable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Junk Food Marketing at Your Child’s School? Take a Picture!

A few weeks ago I told you about the newly released, proposed USDA rules which would use district wellness policies as a vehicle to curb junk food and beverage marketing on school campuses.   (At first I told you I wasn’t so happy with using wellness policies as a means to that laudable end, but then the next day I dialed back my views.)

The comment period on those proposed rules ends on April 28th.  Between now and then, Prevent Obesity.net is soliciting photos of junk food and beverage marketing on school campuses to demonstrate how pervasive and invasive such messages can be.   The organization is specifically looking for your “photographs of banners, fliers, classroom handouts, vending machine displays, coupon incentive programs or any other examples of inappropriate school food and beverage marketing.”  Details on how to submit your photos can be found here.

And if you don’t have time to submit your own comment letter to USDA regarding its proposed junk food ad rules, you can use this handy form from Prevent Obesity.net to show your support.  I’ll be writing my own letter to USDA in the coming days and will share it with you here.

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

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Was I Too Quick to Condemn Ms. Obama’s School Junk Food Ad Ban?

Two days ago, I told you about proposed USDA rules, promoted by the First Lady and released on the fourth anniversary of her Let’s Move! initiative, which would curb the marketing of foods and beverages on school campuses.  Specifically, if adopted, the new rules would restrict on-campus advertising during the school day to foods and beverages meeting the relatively stringent nutritional requirements of the new interim “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

While I applauded any effort to get junk food ads off of school campuses, I was particularly critical in my post of the proposed mechanism to bring about this result, namely, school wellness policies.  I questioned why USDA didn’t just directly regulate on-campus advertising (they way it directly regulates school snacks, for example) and I worried that wellness policies are too often ignored by school districts to do much good in this area.

As soon as I posted on Wednesday, I started to receive quite a lot of feedback, most of it supportive but some less so.  Wilma (TLT’s resident, anonymous school food professional) contacted me by email to politely point out the many ways in which the rule would also strengthen wellness policies and their oversight (more on that below).  Then on Twitter, Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics speculated that USDA may lack the rule-making authority to directly regulate advertising on campus.  (Michele has a record of opposing any advertising to children, even for fruits and vegetables, so it sounds like she’s not a fan of the proposed rule for different reasons.  She  indicated that she’ll be writing her own post on the proposed rule, which I’m eager to read and will share with you as well.)  And Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy and Communications at the Healthy Schools Campaign left a comment here in which generally agreed with me but still noted:

USDA has such limited authority over this issue and they got really creative in getting this issue onto the table. I commend USDA and FLOTUS in taking steps to make sure schools, at minimum, start talking about this issue (hopefully schools will do more, but I too am skeptical). I’d love to see a real ban on junk food marketing (or all advertising for that matter) but with limited federal levers, and with a culture of local control of our schools, it seems that USDA pushed the envelope of their authority, and did it quite creatively. I think this is an important early step.

Meanwhile, last night happened to be Houston ISD’s monthly School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) meeting and that committee, on which I serve, is very much in the thick of re-writing our district’s wellness policy. So in preparation for that meeting, I really delved into the proposed rules in great detail (in a way I now wish I had done before writing Wednesday’s post) and I’ve come to agree with Wilma that, if the rules are adopted in their entirety, wellness policies around the country will be substantially improved.

Right now, in most districts, wellness policies are vaguely written, purely aspirational documents that few people in the district even know about.  But USDA is now asking schools to get surprisingly specific, asking them to set:

“Strong, clear goals with specific and measurable objectives and benchmarks stating who will make what change, by how much, where, and by when, with attention to both short term and long term goals.  . . . . Most measurable goals, objectives and benchmarks will include numbers.”  [emphasis in original]

That’s a radical change from past practice, and the commentary on the rules offers even more specifics in terms of the types of implementation USDA would like to see.  Moreover, USDA would also now require each individual school within a district to annually report on its progress in meeting those goals, including giving a summary of the school events or activities that facilitated wellness policy implementation in the prior year.  That’s another big change, since in the past only the district had to report on overall compliance and it could offer vague assurances rather than specifics.  (Districts themselves will continue to report, but on a triennial basis.)  All of that is great news, not just for the narrow issue of the junk food marketing rules but all facets of promoting student wellness on school campuses.

Ultimately, the strength of any wellness policy will still always depend on the commitment of the district issuing it.  But since posting on Wednesday I’ve also been reflecting on the fact that even more direct legislation (the solution I wanted to see for junk food advertising on campuses) can be ineffective if a district is dead set on ignoring it.   Who can forget how here in freedom-loving Texas, our legislators were so outraged when Texas’s Department of Agriculture tried to enforce our state’s competitive food rules that they actually passed their own conflicting law to guarantee the rights of kids to sell junk food on school campuses?  That kind of recalcitrant attitude is hard to change, whether via a district wellness policy or a federal law.

So those are my further thoughts on Wednesday’s post, and I’m grateful to all of you who took the time to share your views, even when some of you gently chastised me for missing the boat on the wellness policy-related aspects of this issue.  I do continue to have lingering concerns about the proposed food marketing rules per se, as I noted in Wednesday’s post:

The remaining areas of concern, in my opinion, are the more subtle ways in which food and beverage manufacturers reach our kids:  sponsorship of scoreboards and securing the soda “pouring rights” at after school sporting events; reward programs like reading books in exchange for restaurant coupons; industry created, in-class curricula using branded product names; brand-sponsored contests; off-site events such as a fast food restaurant donating a portion of receipts from a given night; and the ubiquitous “box top” programs.  Of those, marketing at after school sporting events (and all other after school events) is already exempt from the proposal and as for the rest, USDA “invites the public to submit research findings and other descriptive data” as it finalizes the rule.

The comment period for these proposed rules ends on April 28th, so I urge you to share your thoughts with the USDA.  When I submit my own comments, I’ll post them in an open letter here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,200 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel