The Specter of the Starving Student Athlete

fried chicken junk food competitive greasyWhen I started writing The Lunch Tray in 2010, an actual week’s menu in Houston ISD included breaded chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy, beef taco nachos, beef taco salad, pepperoni pizza and Frito Pie (fried corn chips topped with chili and cheese).  The latter two entrees were served with mashed potatoes, dessert was offered on most of those days, and it could all be washed down with chocolate milk.  Indeed, that same year I shared here a mathematical experiment in which I proved that a child could easily gain weight from eating HISD’s school meals.

Those highly caloric meals made perfect sense, though, when you understand that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was instituted to combat hunger after too many World War II recruits were found to be malnourished. But given the growing concern regarding childhood obesity, in 2012 the NLSP’s old calorie minimums were replaced with common sense calorie limits on each meal served.

Unfortunately, though, common sense doesn’t always prevail into discussions of school meals.

Though it had a long history of bipartisan support, the NSLP has become highly politicized ever since First Lady Michelle Obama made its overhaul one of her signature issues.  So when much-needed reforms were instituted two years ago, one of the first complaints from the political right was that big, strapping football players were going hungry due to Mrs. Obama’s Nanny State school meal calorie limits.  (See, “The Right Wing and the School Food Calorie Kerfuffle.”)

But is the specter of of the “starving student athlete” real?  And even if very athletic kids need an usually high number of calories, should their unique needs dictate calorie limits for the rest of the student population, which is unfortunately quite sedentary?

I urge you to read Dana Woldow’s excellent piece in today’s Beyond Chron, “Are School Lunches Starving Student Athletes?,” which asks and answers those very questions.

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Two More Perspectives on the “FNV” Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will the Celebrity “FNV” Campaign Be Co-Opted by Big Food?

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 6.37.54 AMLast week I applauded the new, celebrity-filled “FNV” campaign which is designed to promote greater fruit and vegetable consumption (“Celebrities Marketing Vegetables to My Kids? Bring. It. On.”)  The marketing campaign is being launched by the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the nonprofit arm of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, and it was born out of a 2014 New York Times piece in which writer Michael Moss asked an ad agency to create a junk-food-style ad campaign for broccoli.  (Here’s the teaser video for the FNV campaign.)

My post sparked a Twitter debate in which some of my colleagues expressed serious concern about the FNV campaign, primarily for two reasons.  The first relates to advertising to children, and tomorrow Casey Hinds (U.S. Healthy Kids) will have a post in Beyond Chron explaining why she objects to FNV’s use of celebrities to encourage kids to eat even healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.  The next day, Wednesday, Beyond Chron will publish my rebuttal to Casey’s post on that topic.

So putting aside momentarily the issue of advertising to kids, the other main objection voiced in the debate was that the FNV campaign will likely be co-opted by the food industry and used to promote less-than-healthful products like fruit juice and highly processed fruit and vegetable foods.  And we do know from bitter experience that the food industry can be quite self-serving in setting its own parameters for what constitutes a “healthy” food or beverage (see, e.g., my 2011 post “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising.”)

Michael Moss, who was following our Twitter debate, summed up that aspect of our conversation this way:

moss tweet

I realized during our Twitter discussion that none of us actually had the requisite facts to answer that question.  So last week I contacted the Partnership for a Healthier America for more information.  Here’s what I learned:

FNV Ads Won’t Directly Promote Brands, and Participating Brands Won’t Use Celebrities

Even though the FNV campaign is underwritten in part by food companies, such as the Bolthouse Farms division of Campbell’s, PHA’s spokesperson assured me that the ads will be “focused on increased consumption and sales of fruits and vegetables, not on individual brands.”  So, apparently, we will not see ads with Nick Jonas or Kristen Bell holding up a bag of Bolthouse Farms seasoned carrots, and instead they will promote only generic fruits and vegetables.

That said, I was told that:

supporting organizations may feature FNV in their [advertising] and co-branded activations may occur (i.e. in-store tastings of branded commodities with FNV logo and message present). Regardless, supporting organizations can only use the FNV brand with prior PHA approval.

So does this mean that Campbell’s could put the likeness of Nick Jonas on the packaging for its Bolthouse Farms carrots?  In a follow-up answer, I was told, “At this time, [sponsoring companies are] restricted to use of the FNV logo and messages.”

I should note here that even if the FNV campaign were promoting branded products, or if at some future date branded products are allowed to use celebrity likenesses, I would still be fine with that.  In that regard I differ from food policy experts like Marion Nestle who, writing last week in Food Politics, expressed some overall discomfort with the FNV campaign, noting that “Marketing is not education. Education is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking. Marketing is about creating demand for a product.”

But unfortunately we don’t live in a world of quiet, thoughtful analysis.  We live in a world in which we are all bombarded by powerfully influential ad messages, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and these ads almost invariably entice us to eat the least healthful foods and beverages.  We are paying a stiff price for that unfettered industry influence, in terms of the degradation of the American diet and the rise in obesity and related diseases.  Since that industry megaphone will never be silenced, in my view, counter-marketing for healthful foods is not only acceptable but urgently needed.

My only (previously expressed) caveat is that when it comes to children, I would want to limit that marketing to “minimally processed fruits and vegetables.”  But this leads us to the crux of our Twitter debate: just how will PHA define “fruits and vegetables” for the purposes of the FNV campaign?

The FNV Will Not Promote Highly Processed Fruit and Vegetable Foods

To get the answer to that critical question, I asked the PHA spokesperson:

Will the campaign promote or depict fruits and vegetables in processed form (such as applesauce, fruit roll-ups, canned fruit or vegetables) or will it only show fruits and vegetables in their natural state?  If the former, are there any set parameters used by the FNV campaign to decide what processed products may be included in the campaign?

Her answer:

FNV will incorporate all forms of fruit and vegetable products – fresh, frozen, canned, dried – that do not contain excessive calories, added sugar or sweeteners, fat or salt.

While I suppose there’s a bit of wiggle room in “excessive calories,” that ambiguity shouldn’t matter if PHA adheres to the rest of its litmus test.  In other words, once you rule out added sugar, fat and salt (the Holy Trinity of processed food flavor enhancers), you’ve essentially closed the door on highly processed foods being promoted via the FNV campaign.

That is very good news.

There Are No Current Plans to Promote Juice

When I asked if the FNV campaign would promote juice, I was told by the PHA, “Not at this time.”

This answer concerns me. There are many health experts who believe that even 100% fruit juice, due to its lack of fiber and high sugar content, is a driver of obesity, and the last thing Americans need is more sweet beverages in their diet.  I know some of the people behind the FNV campaign are paying attention to our debate on these issues, and I sincerely hope they stick to their current plan of not using the FNV campaign to promote juice.

* * *

I want to thank the PHA for responding so quickly to my questions and I hope this additional information is useful to those of you interested in this campaign.  Tomorrow I’ll share on social media the link to Casey’s anti-FNV post in Beyond Chron and then will share my response on Wednesday.

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

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#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.”

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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.]

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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.

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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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