Concerned School Nutrition Association Members Send Open Letter to Their Board

SNA logoIf you’ve been following the fight over school food, you know that the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals, is the main force behind current efforts to weaken the new healthier meal standards.  It’s a rather surprising position for an organization with the stated mission of “advancing the quality of school meal programs,” especially since the SNA itself supported the healthy meal standards when they were first adopted back in 2010.

The organization’s stunning about-face was examined in depth in a New York Times story last fall; the factors leading to the reversal include a recent change in SNA’s leadership and its choice of a new lobbying firm.  Another factor is the SNA’s cozy relationship with Big Food, which funds at least half of the organization’s operating budget.  For more on that troubling arrangement, be sure to read this Beyond Chron piece by school food reformer Dana Woldow, this HuffPo piece by food advocate Nancy Huenergarth, and this critical post from Food Politics‘ Marion Nestle.

The SNA maintains that its position is justified because kids just aren’t eating the healthier school meals, causing districts to waste food and lose revenue.  That’s an appealing argument, but when Woldow probed more deeply into SNA’s own data, she found that the decline in school meal revenue started well before the new healthier meal standards were adopted.  Consistent with Woldow’s findings, the Food Research and Action Center recently released a study which found that the recession and an increase in school meal prices have been the true forces driving paying students from school meal programs.  Meanwhile, among kids on free and reduced price lunch — i.e., the ones who need the most nutritious meals possible — meal participation has actually increased.

Nonetheless, the SNA is likely to get a sympathetic hearing in a Republican Congress during this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization (or CNR), which funds the school meal program every five years.  Indeed, during the 2015 appropriations process at the end of last year, the SNA found allies among several conservative legislators, including Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who, at the organization’s behest, sponsored a “waiver” provision to weaken nutrition standards.

But not all SNA members agree with their leadership.  Last May, nineteen past SNA presidents took the extraordinary step of breaking with the current SNA board by writing their own open letter to Congress urging it to stay the course on healthier school food.  (You can read my interview with one of these 19 past presidents, Dora Rivas, here.)

Yet there was no way for ordinary SNA members who also disagreed with their board to have their voices heard in this debate.  So Nancy Huehnergarth and I created an open letter for any interested SNA members to sign, which I posted it The Lunch Tray last October.  It was a move that clearly rattled the SNA leadership:  within just 24 hours of my posting the letter, the board sent an “urgent message” to its entire 55,000 member base urging them not to sign it.  The clear implication of SNA’s “urgent message” was that anyone who did sign was not a team player and would seriously undermine the organization.

Nonetheless, despite this pressure from the SNA board, 86 courageous school food directors still stepped forward to sign.  (Their names may be seen here.)  The final, signed letter was sent yesterday to the SNA board by Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutrition services for the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, and Allyson Mrachek, nutrition supervisor at Fayetteville Public Schools in Fayetteville, Arkansas.   The letter reads:

We, the undersigned members of the SNA, respectfully urge the Board of Directors to withdraw support for any provision in Agriculture Appropriations or other legislation that would waive school nutrition standards.

We are deeply concerned that the reputation of our organization and its members are being damaged by the ongoing requests to weaken or waive school nutrition standards. While we agree that some aspects of the updates to the standards are challenging, we favor targeted and constructive solutions that do not involve Congress waiving school meal or snack standards.

We urge the Board to work with USDA and other stakeholders to identify and adopt solutions to challenges encountered by school food professionals.. We also encourage SNA to work with USDA to pair districts, which are succeeding, with those that are struggling in order to assist districts in continuing to move forward.

Thank you for your consideration of our concerns.  We stand ready to support you as you identify practical and long-term solutions that serve both the needs of school districts and the health of our schoolchildren.

If the SNA responds to this letter, I’ll certainly share its statement here.

Finally, if you are a past or current SNA member and would like to stand with these 86 brave men and women, Nancy and I have created a nearly identical version of the letter which now speaks to the upcoming CNR.  The link to this new letter is here, and any new signatures it garners will be added to the current count.

Please consider signing and sharing this letter with your colleagues to stand up for healthier school meals at this most critical time.   Thank you.

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School Nutrition Association Urges Members Not to Sign Letter in Support of Healthier School Meals

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is currently lobbying Congress to weaken federal school meal standards regarding whole grains, sodium and fruits and vegetables.  The SNA also opposes aspects of the new “Smart Snacks” rules which have improved the snacks and other “competitive foods” sold on school campuses.

But not all members of the SNA agree with the organization’s legislative agenda.  Nineteen past SNA presidents took the extraordinary step in May of breaking with the association’s leadership by writing their own open letter to Congress urging it to stay the course on healthier school food.  I and other school food advocates have also personally communicated with food service directors around the country who similarly disagree with the SNA’s position.

So in a Lunch Tray post last Thursday, I told SNA members about an open letter now circulating which acknowledges that some districts are having trouble meeting the new school food standards but which respectfully asks the association’s leadership to reconsider its approach in addressing these challenges.

Within 24 hours of my post, SNA sent this “urgent message” to its members pressuring them not to sign the letter.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 8.27.21 AM

Before I address SNA’s response, let me first answer some questions I’ve received about the origins and purpose of the open letter.

The letter was created by food policy advocate Nancy Huehnergarth and me, in consultation with other advocates and food service directors.  Nancy and I both have experience spearheading social media campaigns and we are strong supporters of school food reform. SNA’s leadership employs a public relations staff and a high-powered lobbying firm to make its views known, so we created the open letter to offer any interested SNA members a mechanism to express their concerns about those views.

In the end, though, whether the letter garners many signatures or only a few has nothing to do with who created it.  The final signature count will depend on how many school food professionals both endorse the letter’s message and feel comfortable publicly attaching their name to it.

Yet SNA’s “urgent message” was clearly designed to make any school food director think long and hard about adding his or her name to this letter.  The clear import of the communication is that anyone who does so is not a team player and will seriously undermine the organization.  That sort of pressure casts doubt on the organization’s reassurances that it welcomes its members’ “thoughts and concerns.”

Moreover, as a feature article in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday magazine made clear, SNA and its lobbyists on Capitol Hill are already deeply entrenched in their strategy to roll back healthier school food requirements.  Any individual SNA members who object to this plan have already been overridden by their organization’s leadership.  At this stage, only collective, public dissent is likely to receive any attention from SNA’s board.

But school food directors who do have the courage to sign the letter may now face uncomfortable pressure from their fellow SNA members. On Thursday Dayle Hayes, a prominent SNA supporter, requested in a comment on The Lunch Tray and its Facebook page that Nancy and I divulge the identities of the men and women who have already signed the letter.  Hayes insists that this disclosure is necessary “in the interest of transparency and integrity,” despite the fact that petition platforms like Change.org don’t engage in this practice (without signers’ express consent) and that the identities of prior signers have no relevance whatsoever to the content of the letter.   In a follow-up comment Hayes’s assures us that she is “not trying to intimidate anyone,” but her request, having no rational basis that we can think of, raises a serious red flag.  Accordingly, Nancy and I will not release the signatures until the sign-on period closes on November 30, 2014.

Finally, one SNA member commenting on The Lunch Tray likened our open letter to two outsiders inappropriately interfering in a “family dispute.” While it’s true that our letter relates to the activities of an organization of which Nancy and I are not members, let’s not forget that SNA’s lobbying efforts, if successful, will have an impact extending well beyond the organization’s “family” of 55,000 school food workers.

Fully 30 million American children eat school meals, and 19 million of them do so out of economic need.  And all of us, whether we have children who eat school food or not, have a stake in this program. Not only do we pay for it with almost $12 billion tax dollars per year, but we will collectively bear the healthcare costs arising from this generation’s poor dietary habits and troubling rates of childhood obesity and related illnesses.

So I would argue that not only do all of us have the right to express our views about SNA’s campaign to weaken school food standards, we have an affirmative obligation to advocate against that agenda.  If the open letter Nancy and I created plays even a small role in raising questions about, or drawing attention to, SNA’s plan to roll back healthier school meal requirements, then I’ll consider the letter a successful effort regardless of how many people ultimately sign it.

[Ed. Update 10/14/14: A companion post by Nancy Huehnergarth may now be found on The Hill’s Congress Blog.]

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Getting Kids to Try New Foods: My Advice

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is the Food Issue and, if you’re a print subscriber, I need to apologize in advance for sucking much of the joy out of your Sunday morning.  First I shared on TLT the lead magazine story by Nicholas Confessore on school food politics (my companion New York Times Motherlode piece is here) and this morning on TLT’s Facebook page I shared a cool photo spread on kids’ breakfasts around the world.  So why not kill your suspense a little further by sharing another Food Issue article, this one from Mark Bittman: “Getting Your Kids to Eat (Or At Least Try) Everything.”

In the piece, Bittman tells us about raising his two daughters, now grown women, to be adventurous, healthy eaters.  While his girls did balk at a few foods here and there, Bittman tells us that in general they enthusiastically embraced whatever was coming out of his kitchen — even dishes like salt-grilled mackerel or squid.  Bittman says his and his then-wife’s approach to feeding kids was only intuitive at the time, but he now boils down his advice to this:

Parents should purge their cabinets and shopping lists of junk, and they should set and enforce rules on what their children are allowed to eat. I can be even more specific: Teach your kids to snack on carrots and celery and fruit and hummus and guacamole — things made from fruits and vegetables and beans and grains. Offer these things all the time. Make sure breakfast and lunch are made up of items you would eat when you’re feeling good about your diet. Make a real dinner from scratch as often as you can. Worry less about labels like “G.M.O.” and “organic” and “local” and more about whether the food you’re giving your children is real.

Let me say up front that I enthusiastically agree with all Bittman says here.  (And I just loved the piece generally for a glimpse into his decidedly unhealthy, non-foodie upbringing, and how that experience played into his approach to feeding his own children.)

But as regular TLT readers know, I’ve also been “blessed” with one child who’s been extraordinarily resistant to eating vegetables ever since he proudly announced, at the tender age of three, “I don’t eat vegetables anymore.” At the time I just laughed but, as it turns out, this kid really meant it.  As in: entire years would go by when nary a carrot or pea would cross his little lips, despite my application of various approaches, from the hands-off method I endorse philosophically, to the “For the love of God, just take just one bite!” approach I’d resort to in moments of total despair.

And the thing is, I pretty much followed all the rules Bittman lays out above, from the time my kids were tiny.  Not only that, my husband and I are very adventurous eaters, we’ve modeled healthful eating at home every single night, and the vegggie-avoider’s sister, though she certainly has her own clear likes and dislikes, never dug in her heels in quite the same way over vegetables.

My point here is this: just as I had one baby who would drift off to sleep in minutes and another who nearly drove us over the edge with sleep deprivation, I’m really starting to think much of a kid’s approach to new foods may be entirely hardwired.  In other words, who’s to say what would’ve happened if Bittman and his wife had a third child?  Maybe that child, too, would have tucked into salt-grilled mackerel with gusto — or maybe he or she would have made Bittman and his wife nuts by refusing to eat anything but bananas and buttered pasta.

In this regard, I really liked the blunt honesty of this post by food writer and cookbook author Debbie Koenig, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen.”  Koenig’s supposed to be the expert on feeding families, so I respect her all the more for being willing to admit this:

Here’s my confession: Lately, I hate cooking. The frustrations and challenges of coming up with creative, appealing, and easily reproduced meals that my insanely picky kid might deign to eat have sucked all the joy out of my kitchen. That’s why things have been so quiet around here lately. I’m tired, and I don’t have much to crow about.

But now that I’ve thoroughly depressed all of you POTPs (Parents of the Picky) by letting you think it’s a lost cause, allow me to recount an episode that took place in my house just last week.

The veggie-avoider, now twelve, came to me unsolicited to offer a dinner suggestion.  He wanted — and I swear, this was the exact request–  “portobello mushroom burgers with Gruyere cheese and pesto aioli.”  Now, that might sound totally improbable except that, thanks to my friend Sue’s fabulous mushroom tart (which I almost told my kid not to try!), my son realized about a year ago that hey, mushrooms aren’t half-bad.  And he now loves the complex flavor of Gruyere cheese from regularly eating this sandwich (thank you, Katie Morford).  (As for the “pesto aioli” thing, I have no clue.  That must have come from some fancy restaurant menu because it certainly hasn’t ever graced our dinner table before.)

So that’s exactly what I made for dinner and, yes, my son enthusiastically ate every bite.  But if you’d told me this story just a few years ago, I would have laughed in your face.  The veggie-avoider making an entire meal of a big, black and somewhat scary-looking mushroom? Not gonna happen in this lifetime.

So take heart, POTPs, and also take my advice:

1.  Embrace Bittman’s rules, not just because they may help your kids try new foods but because they make sense for all of us trying to eat well.

2.  Remember that you know your own kid better than anyone else.  So if an expert says the “one-bite” rule is a terrible idea, but you suspect your child would react well to that little push, then go for it.  And if another expert says the “one-bite” rule is a terrific idea, but you know it’s only going to ignite an ugly mealtime battle that goes precisely nowhere, then forget it.  Your intuition is worth more than the tallest stack of “expert” advice books on picky eating.

3.  And finally, most importantly, please take the long view.  It took us twelve incredibly frustrating years to get there, but now, apparently, portobello mushroom burgers with Gruyere cheese and pesto aioli are here to stay on this family’s dinner rotation.

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

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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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A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow

Many years ago, I mentioned to a doctor friend that a woman I knew — a Seventh Day Adventist who never touches alcohol — had been told she was at risk for cirrhosis of the liver due to her poor diet and excess weight.  My doctor friend looked at me skeptically and said I must have misunderstood the diagnosis — one could not get cirrhosis that way, she said — and since I’m no medical expert, I assumed I’d been misinformed.

But while “nonalcoholic fatty liver” was so rare thirty years ago there was no medical name for it, the New York Times reports it now affects one in ten American children, with the rate among children and teens more than doubling in the last two decades.  Of those afflicted, 10 to 20 percent will eventually develop the liver scarring that can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure, requiring a transplant for survival.  The condition is also a risk factor for developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The cure for nonalcoholic fatty liver is quite straightforward: improving one’s diet by cutting out fast and processed foods and sugary beverages.  But despite incredibly powerful motivators  —  “crippling” abdominal pain (one patient referred to it as “being stabbed in your stomach with a knife”) and the possibility of needing a liver transplant (or, far worse, needing a transplant and and being unable obtain one, as demand outstrips the number of organs available) — many patients still find this “treatment” just too difficult:

Yubelkis Matias, 19, . . .  was told she has NASH several years ago. She is reminded of the trouble brewing in her liver by the sharp abdominal pains that come and go. . . . [S]he has been told by her doctors that diet and exercise may be her only shot at reversing the disease. But at 5-foot-5 and 200 pounds, she finds every day a struggle.

“I’m on a roller coaster,” she said. “I eat healthy, then not healthy — pizza, McDonalds, the usual. My doctor told me I have to quit all of that. But it’s cheap, and it’s always there.” . . . .

“A lot of times when I see a patient with fatty liver,” [Dr. Shahid M. Malik of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] said, “the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Well, is there a pill for this?’ And there’s not. There just isn’t. You have to make lifestyle changes, and that’s a much more difficult pill for people to swallow.”

One could attribute the inability of these patients (or anyone suffering from weight-related disease) to improve their diets to a lack of individual willpower, but this conclusion ignores a whole host of societal factors that make eating healthfully on a regular basis extremely difficult for many.  As Dr. Thomas Friedan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once memorably said:

. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese.  That is not a reflection of individual personal failing.  It’s a reflection of the structure of our society. . . . [T]he popularity of weight loss programs is a reflection of both the intense desire of many people to lose weight as well as the great difficulty of doing so.  [Emphasis mine]

Meanwhile, when you have a condition like fatty liver disease that’s growing ever more prevalent, and patients clamoring for “a pill” instead of weaning themselves off their unhealthful diets, it’s predictable that drug companies would see the potential for huge profits.  The Times reports that at least two companies are now scrambling to develop drugs which will help treat the disease, and one of those companies saw its stock price “soar” when its first clinical trial showed promise.

Too bitter a pill for our elected leaders to swallow?
Too bitter a pill for our elected leaders to swallow?

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course.  Food companies profit from our dependence on their products while drug companies reap the profits on the other side of the equation.  But somehow the prospect of kids doubled over with liver pain and facing potential liver failure, entirely due to Big Food’s grip on our palates and our lifestyles, got to me on a visceral level.

I’m reminded of this quote in the film Fed Up from Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at the Harvard Medical school and a pediatric obesity expert:

What does it say about our society if we would rather send children to such mutilating procedures but yet lack the political will to properly fund school nutrition and ban junk food advertising to children? It reflects a systematic political failure. We’re the richest society in the world. We’ve failed because we’ve placed private profit and special interests ahead of public health.

Dr. Ludwig was referring to a morbidly obese teen undergoing gastric bypass surgery, but he could just as well have been referring to an overweight child needing a liver transplant.  And, indeed, we are clearly in the midst of a “systematic political failure,” because just as we already know the “cure” for fatty liver disease, we also already know the the “societal cures” for all obesity-related illnesses:

  • Restructuring the agricultural subsidies that make fast food and processed food unnaturally cheap, while inadequately supporting farmers growing fruits and vegetables;
  • Banning the advertising of junk food to children;
  • Taxing and/or placing health warning labels on non-nutritive, sugar-sweetened beverages;
  • Investing more money in federal school meal reimbursement, so schools can afford to buy healthier food and pay for the increased labor needed to prepare it;
  • Investing in school infrastructure, both to build school kitchens in which scratch-cooked meals can be prepared, as well as home economics classrooms where children can acquire basic cooking literacy and skills; and
  • Requiring and funding meaningful nutrition education curricula, including home economics, throughout the K-12 school years.

And yet, like a fatty liver patient addicted to fast food, our elected leaders are currently too addicted to Big Food’s and Big Soda’s lobbying dollars, and/or too afraid of “nanny state” rhetoric from the right, to muster the political courage to fulfill that Rx.

For four years now, I’ve been saying on this blog that some day the costs of obesity, both financial and personal, will be just too high for our legislators to continue to ignore.  But when you read about one in ten kids facing the possibility of a liver transplant due solely to the unhealthful American diet, you really do have to wonder:  where on earth is the tipping point?

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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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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On Mother’s Day, Look for Me on the New York Times Motherlode Blog

Back in February, I was surprised and honored to be included on a list compiled by Elizabeth Street (with the help of food activist Robyn O’Brien) of the “Top 15 Most Important Moms in the Food Industry.”  I shared the link on Twitter that day, and doing so sparked an interesting conversation with some of my favorite food policy colleagues about whether it’s OK to single out moms in this fashion, whether it does a disservice to fathers and the childless, and whether exalting an activist’s maternal status is, in the end, demeaning.

As you can imagine, it was pretty frustrating to try to have that conversation in 140 character bites, so I later wrote down my thoughts in a longer format.  I wound up sending the essay to the New York Times Motherlode blog and I’m thrilled to report that it will appear there on Mother’s Day, this Sunday.

This is a nuanced topic, though, and even the 800 words I was allotted by the Times didn’t feel like nearly enough to convey all I wanted to say on the subject.  And I’m sure there are some readers who will take issue with my views.  If you’re one of them (or if you agree with me), please feel free to leave a comment on the Motherlode blog when the piece appears so we can continue the conversation.

An early Happy Mother’s Day to all TLT moms!  Wishing you a well-deserved day of love and relaxation.  To help with the latter, be sure to check out this “recipe” from Katie Morford (of Mom’s Kitchen Handbook) for a luxurious, fragrant Mother’s Day bath.  But make sure your family understands this is the only thing you’ll be preparing on Sunday.  :-)

 

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 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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How “Optimistic” Should We Feel About the War on Obesity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

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Children and Choking: Preparedness Is Key

Back in 2012 I wrote a post entitled “A Preventable Tragedy: Choking to Death in the School Cafeteria.”  I was inspired to cover this topic after reading about a Brooklyn nine-year-old who tragically choked to death while eating meatballs in his school cafeteria.  Media reports indicated that the lunchroom workers on duty at the time were completely unprepared for a choking emergency and that the child’s death could have been prevented with proper staff vigilance and training.

Sadly, in the two years since I wrote that post, Lunch Tray readers continue to share in the comments section their own stories of deaths in their family (or near-deaths) due to choking.  That’s why I wanted to share with you an article written yesterday by Jane Brody of the New York Times called “Keeping Little Breaths Flowing.”

Brody lays out the most common causes of choking in children and, more importantly, gives readers clear instructions on how to handle a choking incident in the crucial minutes before emergency personnel can get to the scene.  Please take a look at it, and please consider sharing it on social media, too.

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GMO, “Pink Slime” and Labeling Transparency

Ground Beef Isolated on WhiteEarlier this month, the New York Times‘ editorial board published an editorial entitled “Labels for Controversial Ingredients.”  In it, the Times mentioned the recent failure of a Washington State ballot initiative which would have mandated labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMO) and then stated:

Instead of requiring labels by law, it makes sense to let the food companies decide whether and how to inform consumers.

To demonstrate that consumers can trust food companies to do the right thing, the Times pointed to a recent announcement by Cargill that it will now label finely textured beef, aka “pink slime” in its ground beef products:

Last year, consumer opposition led some grocery chains to stop buying products containing the substance. Cargill conducted research and found that consumers “overwhelmingly” wanted the products clearly labeled.

The overarching point of the Times editorial seemed to be that corporations would be better served just labeling GMO rather than spending enormous resources fighting against state ballot initiatives, and that once labeled, consumers might not care that much about GMO in the end.  As a proponent of labeling transparency in general, not just with respect to GMO, I wholeheartedly agree.

But to the extent the Times was pointing to Cargill’s announcement as a reason not to pursue legislation requiring the labeling of controversial food ingredients, I felt (having played a role in the 2012 “pink slime” controversy) a need to respond.  I sent a letter to the paper the next day and then totally forgot about it.  But then I realized yesterday that I hadn’t seen any letters published by the Times, pro or con, regarding this piece — apparently it chose not to publish any  — and I thought I’d share my response here.

To the Editor:

When it comes to transparency and food labeling, the Times editorial board (“Labels for Controversial Ingredients” 11/7/13)  favors voluntary disclosure by corporations over ballot initiatives which would legally require the disclosure of controversial ingredients like genetically modified organisms. In support of its position, the Times applauds Cargill’s recent decision to voluntarily label lean finely textured beef or LFTB — dubbed “pink slime” — in its ground beef products, after the company’s consumer research found that “consumers ‘overwhelmingly’ wanted the products clearly labeled.”

But let’s please remember that Cargill didn’t conduct its consumer research or change its labeling in a vacuum.  Most Americans had no idea that “pink slime” was in 70% of our nation’s ground beef supply until widespread news reports exposed that fact last spring, and it was evidently such an unwelcome surprise that stores began dropping the product in response, causing serious economic harm to its manufacturers.   Without that blinding spotlight of media attention and the resulting impact on Cargill’s bottom line (an 80% drop in demand  according to the company), do any of us believe Cargill would now be a champion of labeling transparency?

The Times seems to be telling us, “Just relax and trust Big Food to tell you what you want to know.”  But Big Food acts in its own commercial interests and virtually every advance in labeling transparency we’ve achieved so far (nutrition fact boxes, allergen and trans fat disclosures, etc.) has been the result of legislative edict, not acts of corporate beneficence.

– Bettina Elias Siegel

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Fourth Grader Goes Undercover in the Cafeteria, Plus More School Food News

It’s one of those weeks when the school food news is coming in so fast, I can’t keep up!   Here’s a quick round-up of articles of interest:

A Fourth-Grader Goes Undercover in the Cafeteria – Are His Findings Accurate?

Many of you have already seen on TLT’s Facebook page today’s New York Times blog account of a New York City fourth-grader named Zachary who secretly filmed the lunches at his public school cafeteria, often revealing a startling disparity between the school menu’s glowing description of the meal and the dismal food actually served.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 9.54.53 AMWhile the article could lead readers to believe that Zachary’s investigations are current, his family released last year a documentary about his efforts — “Yuck: A Fourth Grader’s Short Documentary About School Lunch.”   That timing means Zachary was likely filming his lunches before the reforms of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act were instituted, and that means he was allowed to refuse certain items on the lunch line, including the menu’s promised fruits and vegetables.  (A spokeswoman for New York City’s Education Department makes this same observation in the Times blog post.)  I haven’t seen Yuck, so I don’t know whether Zachary was using any discretion in refusing certain items — or if those grim, almost-bare styrofoam trays are an accurate portrayal of the lunches offered.

Apart from that possible quibble, the food Zachary filmed still looked pretty awful.  As I’ve written about before on The Lunch Tray (see “Many a Slip Twixt Kitchen and School“), districts face real challenges in ensuring that their school lunch rooms present meals in the manner in which they were intended to be served.  For example, when Los Angeles USD rolled out an ambitious new menu in 2011, the early, negative student response seemed, in my view, to have more to do with poor preparation than the changed offerings.  Similarly, here in Houston ISD, where one central kitchen serves almost 300 schools, I know our Food Services department struggles with ensuring that the workers in each cafeteria understand how to finish off and present the food in a palatable, properly heated state.

At any rate, it seems Zachary’s efforts have gotten the attention of the Education Department’s Office of School Food, which has reportedly asked him for feedback on the new menus in the district.

Open Campuses Hurt School Nutrition Programs

Here’s an article worth reading about how closed-campus policies do much to improve school meal participation — and overall student nutrition — at the high school level.

In-Class Breakfast Continues to Stir Controversy, Plus a Breakfast Development in Texas

Even though I recognize the problems posed by in-class breakfast (loss of instructional time, sanitation issues and, in some districts, the highly processed nature of some of the items served), I still support such programs as an important anti-hunger measure for economically disadvantaged students.  That’s why I was pleased to learn yesterday that the Texas state legislature passed a bill to expand the breakfast program in my state.

But in-class programs continue to stir up controversy among some parents and teachers.  In Los Angeles, there have been pro-and anti-breakfast protests and the school board will revisit the issue on May 14.

All-Vegetarian School Lunch

Finally, as I also shared on TLT’s Facebook page earlier in the week, a progressive public school in Queens has adopted a 100% vegetarian school meal menu.  You can read about that development here.

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“Are You Full?” — Teaching Kids When to Say When at the Table

About two months ago I was prescribed an antibiotic, doxycycline, for a sinus infection.  The medicine came with a warning that you shouldn’t lie down for thirty minutes after taking it, but I somehow managed to forget all about that, popping a pill in my mouth with just a small sip of water and going straight to bed.   Um, not so smart.  Several hours later, after dreaming over and over again that someone was drilling a hole in my chest, I awoke to find that the medication had actually burned an ulcer in my esophagus.  Yikes.

As you can imagine, for the next two weeks eating was not a pleasant experience.  It didn’t matter whether I sipped a cool smoothie or ate solid food — everything hurt going down.   I took no pleasure in my meals and the minute I’d eaten enough to feel remotely satisfied, I put my fork down gladly.

But what that episode taught me was so surprising, it might have been worth the pain I experienced.  During those two weeks I realized that there is a huge difference between the amount I need to eat versus the amount I usually eat at a meal.  And this is from someone who doesn’t usually take big portions and who has never been a member of the “Clean Plate Club.”  Even so, I was surprised at how little food I really needed to satisfy my hunger.

But now that I’m healed, it’s still a struggle to ignore the many factors that keep all of us from truly listening to our bodies while at the table:  the ever-growing size of restaurant portions and plates; the liberal use of salt, sugar and fat to maximize food’s tastiness; a desire not to waste food; and also the social aspects of dining, which make it rather awkward to stop eating after just a few bites when everyone at the table is still digging in.

So I was especially interested in an op-ed in today’s New York Times called “The Talmud and Other Diet Books,” in which the author, a rabbi and academic, discusses how all the major religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — encourage us to eat only what is needed to satisfy.  The Talmud, for example, instructs us that people should “eat enough to fill a third of their stomachs, drink enough to fill another third, and leave a third empty.”

While not mentioned by the author, I found this advice is strikingly similar to the Japanese expression hara hache bunmi, which roughly translates into the notion that we should stop eating when only 80% full.  And I was also reminded of Karen Le Billon’s excellent book French Kids Eat Everything, in which she tells us that in France:

. . . parents ask their children: “Are you still hungry?” rather than “Are you full?” — a subtle, but important distinction. And because they don’t randomly snack, French children get used to waiting between meals. They learn that that it’s OK to have a comfortably empty stomach—which enables them to eat reasonable quantities of the energy-dense foods served at mealtimes, so they don’t feel hungry until the next meal—creating a virtuous cycle.

But here in America, where “super-sizing” and Value Meals are the norm, achieving a state of maximum fullness seems to be the goal.  So how do we teach our kids when to say “when” at the table?

With my own kids, I’ve explained that there’s a real delay between when our stomachs are satisfied and when our brains register that fact.  So when my kids ask for another portion of food and they’ve already eaten quite a bit, sometimes I’ll say, let’s wait ten minutes and if you still want it, I’ll gladly give it to you.   More often then not, they’ve left the table before the ten minutes are even up, a clear sign that they didn’t need that extra helping.

I also love Michael Pollan’s “Food Rule” that if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry.  If my kids come nosing around the pantry and it’s close to dinner time, I tell them they can have any fruit they want but nothing else.  More often than not, they drift away and are easily able to wait until the meal is served.

But it’s not always easy.  Here in Tex-Mex-loving Houston, I still haven’t been able to teach my kids restraint when the ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips is placed on the table the moment we sit down.  My kid are hungry, they inhale the chips before the entree arrives, and then they inevitably leave the restaurant complaining that their stomachs hurt.  Yet when I mention this likely outcome at the next Tex-Mex outing, my advice falls on deaf ears.  Sigh.

Striking the balance between satisfaction and overeating is an ever-present challenge in today’s food-abundant environment.  So what tactics do you use to teach your children the difference between satisfying themselves and stuffing themselves?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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Kids and Food Allergies: New Advice and a Potential New Cure

PeanutsIn case anyone missed the cover story of last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, it described groundbreaking efforts by one intrepid researcher, Dr. Kari Nadeau, to desensitize highly food-allergic kids against multiple allergens.  (Desensitization isn’t new – my niece was successfully desensitized to peanuts years ago –  but this program is the first to combine a variety of food allergens in a single protocol.)

The article, written by a reporter with a food allergic child, also really brings home what it’s like to manage a child’s potentially fatal allergy, something the rest of us can’t always fully understand:

. . . food allergies amplify a kind of fear every parent experiences — of a child dashing suddenly into the street and, just like that, being gone. Your child is always playing near a precipice that is visible only to you: you may be able to keep her from falling off, but you can never move her away from the edge.

When you read the harrowing accounts of  some of these parents, you’ll understand all the more why I feel so strongly that food-free classrooms should be the norm.

Meanwhile, thanks to Dina Rose of It’s Not About Nutrition, I just learned that there’s been a recent change in medical advice regarding the introduction of potential allergens in a baby’s diet.  Apparently it’s no longer considered necessary or desirable to delay the introduction of foods like eggs and peanuts, a big reversal from what I was told when my children were young.  You can read more in Dina’s post, here.

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