Seeing a Fat Cartoon Character Induced Kids to Eat More

Mark Kruger, MAKE L.L.C.,  reprinted from the New York Times
Mark Kruger, MAKE L.L.C., reprinted from the New York Times

An interesting study recently reported in the New York Times Well blog found that children exposed to a fat jelly bean cartoon character later consumed more candy than kids shown a thin version of the same character.

Specifically, 60 eighth graders were shown either a thin or fat version of the jelly bean character and asked to comment on the image.  At the end of the interview, researchers gestured to a bowl of a candy and invited the children to take some.  Children shown the fat character took 3.8 candies on average, compared with 1.7 taken by children shown the lean version.

All of this goes to show how susceptible we all are to the subliminal cues which can influence our eating, such as the size of our dinner plate, the tempo of the music played around us, the color of the restaurant’s walls — and, apparently, the sight of an obese cartoon character.

In this regard, the jelly bean study reminded me of a widely reported 2007 Harvard study which found that obesity is “contagious” –i.e., our chances of becoming obese increase significantly if those in our immediate social circle become obese.  According to that study’s lead researcher, this result may be due to the fact that “you change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you.”

The good news is, the obesity cue can apparently be counteracted.  In a similar follow-up study using the same fat/thin jelly bean characters, the researchers found they were able to entirely cancel out the fat jelly bean’s effect on sweets consumption if children were first asked to discuss healthy habits before they were offered sweets.

Yet more support for the importance of solid health and nutrition education for our kids.

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Supermarket Chain Bans Sugary Kid Drinks

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

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

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

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

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

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An Obesity and Soda News Round-Up

With my lighter summer blogging schedule, I find myself condensing multiple post topics into themed news round-ups.  I hope you don’t mind!  :-)   Today’s theme:  obesity and soda, which, of course, are inextricably intertwined.

A Troubling Milestone Reached

According to a new Journal of the American Medical Association report, America has reached a troubling new milestone:  the number of American adults who are obese has now surpassed the number who are merely overweight.  More here from today’s Los Angeles Times.

The Best Measures to Curb Childhood Obesity?

In light of the above finding, it seems clear that more aggressive societal interventions to curb obesity are warranted.  But which interventions are most likely to work?  In today’s New York Times, Jane Brody reports on the recently released results of the CHildhood Obesity Cost-Effectiveness Study (aka “CHOICES”), which examined various possible approaches to curbing childhood obesity and chose two as most likely to help:  the imposition of taxes on sugary beverages and curbs on children’s junk food advertising, both measures long supported here on The Lunch Tray.  More from Brody here.

Early Findings:  Soda Taxes Do Work

Speaking of soda taxes, one of the few nations to successfully pass such a tax is Mexico and now researchers are avidly waiting to see if it actually lowers soda consumption. According to early study results, it does indeed.  More here from NPR’s The Salt blog.

A DIY Soda Tax from Jamie Oliver

Meanwhile, celebrity chef and anti-obesity advocate Jamie Oliver isn’t waiting around for the British government to pass a soda tax.  Instead he imposed his own surcharge on all sugary drinks sold in his restaurants, with the proceeds raised going to charity.  More here.

Vintage Coke Ad Skewered

And finally, be sure to check out “Change the Tune” (below) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  It’s a newly-released parody of the classic 1971 “Hilltop” ad for Coca-Cola, skewering the soda industry for its role in America’s obesity crisis:

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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.

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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.

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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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.

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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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.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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