A School Nutrition Director Asks Me, “Can’t We All Get Along?”

Late yesterday, I received an email from a school nutrition director who chastised me for being divisive and unfair in recent posts regarding the battle over school food nutrition standards. I went to bed with her email on my mind and wound up getting out of bed at 4am to write my reply.

Both of our emails are reprinted in full below.  The two letters together make for a lengthy blog post, I know, but I hope you find the exchange worth reading.  And, of course, I’d love your thoughts, too.  Feel free to leave a comment below.

Dear Bettina,

I am the School Nutrition Director at a small school and a RDN. I initially subscribed to your blog because I think you are passionate about feeding children nutritious food and because you are a thoughtful, intelligent and gifted writer who is on a noble mission.

As a parent and nutrition professional I appreciate and agree with your perspective on the state of children’s nutrition. I also agree with you that school lunch programs (and schools in general) should support healthy eating.

That being said, your recent columns have become divisive in tone and misrepresent both SNA’s motivation and requests in its 2015 position paper. The links to other articles on the subject are even worse as in Marion Nestle’s recent article in which she summarizes SNA’s position paper: “Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal. Don’t require so much whole grain. Back off on lower sodium. Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal. Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.”

Do you really believe this is what SNA is saying in their position paper? I think not.

SNA is simply the messenger requesting a reality check and tweaks of well-intended guidelines with some unintended consequences. While many districts have talented and smart FSD’s and receptive school communities and have successfully implemented the new guidelines, other lunch programs have managers with much less expertise. Many programs do not have dream kitchens and culinary staff for in house food preparation and rely on so called “big food” for items that meet the strict guidelines.

Yet this is still portrayed negatively by you as “processed” and “junk food,” both relative and subjective terms. Why do you have so much animosity for the food industry? I am sure you can agree that “big food” is also our economical source for many foods that are NOT “processed” or “junk food.” It’s naive to think anyone can operate a lunch program without the big food companies which are consistently demonized in your blog and links. Implying that FSD’s [food service directors] can be “bought” with a nice tote at a food show is just plain insulting to all of us who carefully select and purchase food for our menus. Many school FSD’s use a variety of vendors in order to provide an overall nutritious menu that budgets will allow.

Let’s agree that we are all on the same team in our goals for school lunches and that many schools need additional resources: funding for meals, equipment, training, and nutrition education. Perhaps most importantly schools need time for “buy in” from their school communities (parents AND students and school administrators) for the new NSLP [National School Lunch Program] direction.

All of this takes time. I think if you were sitting in the seats of many of these managers who truly care about feeding kids you would be more empathetic to how difficult these standards, along with the paperwork, are for many in the school lunch “business.”  The NSLP guidelines can be the eventual and ultimate goal for all schools but it takes time. Every day there are fabulous successes in the lunchroom. This however seems to go unnoticed by you and others in your camp.

We also need to remember schools alone cannot change the food climate we live in and magically turn every child into a foodie. Our entire culture needs to get on board for the nutritional health of our kids.

I am as passionate about school nutrition as you are. A spoonful of support for those of us in the trenches and the SNA and less negative and divisive rhetoric would go a long way in getting folks on board with your message.

And here is my reply.

Dear ______:

Thank you for taking the time to write and for the kind words about me and my work.  

I have to say, your email brought me up short.  So much so that I went to bed thinking about it, woke up at 4am still thinking about it, and finally gave up trying to sleep altogether and came downstairs before sunrise to write this reply.

One of my proudest accomplishments in connection with The Lunch Tray is the fact that school food professionals like you read the blog and feel comfortable leaving comments there.  I like to think that’s because The Lunch Tray has never has been a place to unthinkingly bash school food — or the dedicated men and women who serve it.  So when you pointed out to me, rightly, that my own tone on the blog has lately grown more divisive, you certainly gave me a lot to think about.

Let me address a few of your points up front and then I’ll get to the crux of my reply.

First, unlike some food advocates, I certainly don’t condemn all “processed food.”  You probably haven’t been reading The Lunch Tray since 2011, when I wrote this post, but I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, trying to figure out where we should draw the line between helpful food processing versus processing that’s so destructive it leads to a society that’s at once obese and malnourished.

I’ve certainly never suggested on The Lunch Tray that school districts ought to avoid all processed food, which I agree would be impossible in light of current reimbursement rates and the sad state of most school kitchens.  But, that said, here’s what “processed food” looks like in my district — and in most districts around the country.  These are actual ingredient labels I pulled this morning from our current reimbursable and a la carte menus.  So, just to be clear, when I speak negatively about “Big Food” in my posts, I’m referring to these sorts of hyper-processed, additive-laden, vitamin-fortified foods, which I simply don’t believe are served in the best interest of our kids.

I also agree that it’s unfair to assume that any individual FSD can be “bought” with a Big Food tote bag at a trade show (nor do I believe I’ve ever implied this on The Lunch Tray?)  But when an organization like the SNA takes at least one-half of its operating budget from the giants of the processed food industry, we’re not talking about a little trade show swag.  In that circumstance, it’s only natural — and necessary — to ask whether the organization’s legislative agenda is being shaped, at least to some degree, by its donors’ own goals.

But now I want to turn to the heart of my response to you, by linking to a post I wrote this past May.  The title of the post, “School Food Professionals Versus Kids: How Did It Come to This?,” actually sounds a lot like the subject line of your email to me, “Can’t We All Get Along?”

I wonder if you ever read that post?  Because if you had, you’d know that: (a) I only have the highest respect for you and other FSDs around the country, who I said “have one of the hardest jobs on the planet;” (b) I agree that schools alone cannot change kids’ dietary habits, and that many societal forces are working against your best efforts; and (c) SNA’s current legislative agenda actually makes perfect sense when viewed entirely from an operational perspective.  Here’s a quote from that post, in which I asked my readers to take just a minute to stand in the shoes of an FSD:

Just think about it:  if you were trying to balance a very tight budget in an operation which lives or dies based on how well students accept your food, and if many (sometimes, the vast majority) of those students came from homes in which nutritionally balanced, home cooked meals are far from the norm, and if the food industry was bombarding those kids with almost $2 billion a year in advertising promoting junk food and fast food, and if you had no money of your own for nutrition education to even begin to counter those messages, and if some of those kids also had the option of going off campus to a 7-11 or grabbing a donut and chips from a PTA fundraising table set up down the hall, wouldn’t you, too, be at least a tiny bit tempted to ramp up the white flour pasta, pizza and fries and ditch the tasteless, low-sodium green beans?

I think you can see from that quote how sympathetic I am to the challenges you and other FSDs face.  And if the SNA had focused solely on helping FSDs overcome those problems with the very things you suggest in your email — “funding for meals, equipment, training, and nutrition education”  — I would be the organization’s most enthusiastic champion right now.

But when you say that we just need “more time” to implement healthier school meals, I feel you’re obscuring what the SNA is really asking for.  The organization is asking Congress to permanently weaken hard-won nutritional improvements to school food (improvements the SNA once supported) and if that happens, I just don’t see Congress reverting back to the current, more rigorous standards any time soon.  So SNA’s agenda, if implemented, means 31 million children will be eating food that’s significantly less healthful than our nation’s leading scientists recommend, and for a very long time to come.  That result would directly and adversely children’s health and, as I wrote in the post cited above, “if I’m forced to choose a side, then I have no choice but to side with the kids.”

So now, unfortunately, the battle lines have been drawn. And in the heat of battle, there’s no question that people – myself included — become more polarized.

But your email to me was a good wake up call.  You’ve reminded me that:

  • I haven’t emphasized enough here that, despite previous statements indicating it would not do so, the SNA has asked Congress for an increase in meal reimbursement.  That’s a request I wholeheartedly endorse and I need to do more to express that support, both on the blog and during the eventual Child Nutrition Reauthorization in Congress.
  • Some of the blog posts to which I’ve linked in recent days haven’t always used the language I’d choose to make certain points, and I need to be more careful in delineating where I agree or disagree with the authors I cite.
  • While I’m always aware of the distinction between the SNA leadership, with whom I strongly disagree, and its rank-and-file members, whom I strongly support, maybe I’m not doing a good enough job of expressing that distinction to my readers — especially to new readers who may not have read posts like School Food Professionals Versus Kids: How Did It Come to This? This is something I’ll be more mindful of going forward.

Let me end by thanking you again for taking the time to write and for taking me to task in such a polite and civil tone, which — I can assure you — isn’t always the case with people who disagree with me!  :-)  And if you’d like to continue this dialogue, I’d be glad to discuss these issues with you further.

Kind regards,


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

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In the Worry Over Halloween Candy, Are We Missing the Bigger Sugar Picture?

This Halloween is a bittersweet one for me and Mr. TLT:  for the first time, neither of our kids are going trick-or-treating!  Our 14-year-old daughter will be out of town but doesn’t seem especially bothered that she’ll miss the ritual, and our son, aged twelve, declared he was “over it” and that he’d rather pass out candy at our front door.

That’s a big change from years past, when I fretted, as many parents do, over what to do with the massive amounts of candy my kids would bring home on Halloween night.  Should you let your kids eat all they want and hoard the rest?  Should you have them throw out all the candy that doesn’t meet certain nutritional standards?  Does the Switch Witch come by your house and leave a present in exchange for the candy?  (Or do you dislike the idea of the Switch Witch?)  Do you take the candy to the dentist’s office as part of a “buy back” program?  Do you send it to the troops?  Do you make a gingerbread house out of it?

In prior TLT posts I’ve told you how, when I was a kid, I was given total control over my candy bag — my mom came by to comment on that post, explaining her rationale – and that’s pretty much what we’ve done with our kids, too.   Each parent has to find the solution they’re most comfortable with, of course, but the fact that my kids aren’t missing the candy this year makes me think our laissez-faire approach paid off.

All of that said, though, maybe the attention we devote each year to Halloween candy is misplaced. As dietitian Andy Bellatti noted last year, if our kids’ diets were lower in sugar overall, a little candy binging wouldn’t be such a big deal.  But take a look at this startling new infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

UCS infographic sugar

In light of current World Health Organization and American Heart Association recommendations for much lower daily sugar consumption, that’s a real problem. So here are some things you can do to help your kids cut back on sugar year-round:

Go Halfsies

I love this recent post from Sally Kuzzemchak at Real Mom Nutrition sharing her easy “fixes” — such as mixing quick cooking oats with flavored oatmeal packets —  to cut in half the sugar in many kids’ favorite foods.  These tweaks are a great way to significantly improve your child’s diet, likely without your kid even noticing the change.

Cut Back on Sugar in Baking

Even sugar’s greatest nemesis, Dr. Robert Lustig, admits his family eats sugar-sweetened treats at home.  But as he points out in this interview, his baking enthusiast wife has found that cutting back sugar by 1/3 not only doesn’t adversely affect most recipes, the flavor is actually improved.  I’ve found that to be the case in my own baking, too. (Remember these once-very-sugary pumpkin muffins?).

Kick Sugar Out of the Classroom

Many of us know first hand that school classrooms can be an unexpected source of sugar in our kids’ daily lives, whether due to parents bringing in birthday cupcakes, junk-food-heavy classroom celebrations or teachers handing out candy rewards.  I’m currently working on compiling into one document a huge trove of resources to help with these issues, but here are a few favorites to share right now:  School Bites’ awesome guide to healthier classroom parties, US Healthy Kids’ white paper advocating against the use of food rewards, and my Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto.

Watch Fed Up With Your Kids

If you’re kids are older (say, fourth or fifth grade and up), you may want to sit down as a family and watch the recent documentary Fed Up, now on DVD (disclosure: I’m on the film’s advisory board).  The film was criticized by some as being a bit too focused on excess sugar in our food supply but, putting that criticism aside, I found that it was useful way to get this message across without having to be the messenger — in which case my kids would likely have tuned me out! My 14-year-old is now an avid reader of labels, sometimes putting sugar-filled products back on the store shelf without even asking me if we can buy them.  It’s a relief to have the burden of saying “no” to such foods taken off my shoulders.

And Speaking of Labels….

If you haven’t yet seen it, definitely take a few minutes to watch this recent and hilarious segment from comedian John Oliver, in which he skewers the food industry for trying to obscure on the new nutrition facts label just how much sugar it adds to our food. (Note: the clip contains some off-color language and humor.)

Have a safe and happy Halloween, all!  And let me know in a comment below how you manage your kids’ sugar intake, whether on Halloween or year-round.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 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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“Copycat” Junk Food in Schools – Why Is Anyone Surprised?

I couldn’t make it to last week’s School Nutrition Association (SNA) annual national conference (ANC) in Boston, but I closely followed reports coming out of the convention via Twitter and other social media. And one common refrain from some food advocates and reporters in attendance was surprise and concern over the glut of junk food promoted by some food manufacturers at the ANC.

These highly processed foods — sometimes referred to as “copycat” junk food by school food reform advocates – bear all the same logos and brand names as their supermarket counterparts, but are nutritionally tweaked to comply with the USDA’s improved school meal standards and/or its new “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

Kiera Butler, writing for Mother Jones, walked the ANC convention floor and found out that “Yes, Cheetos, Funnel Cake, and Domino’s Are Approved School Lunch Items.”  Here’s a flier she took from a PepsiCo vendor:

Photo courtesy of Mother Jones
Photo credit: Kiera Butler for Mother Jones

And here’s a post from Time magazine (“There’s a Lot of Junk at the School Nutrition Conference“) which features photos tweeted from the ANC by Eat Drink Politics‘ Michele Simon, such as this one:

simon smart snacks ANC

But I have to confess that I’ve been surprised by …  well, the surprise … caused by “copycat” junk food.

To be sure, the new federal Smart Snacks and meal standards are a huge improvement in school food, and the passage of those rules is an achievement that shouldn’t be diminished (or rolled back – ahem, SNA).  But as Michael Pollan has observed of all processed food, “You can tweak it, reformulate it and reposition it ad infinitum,” and that includes rejiggering fat, sodium and whole grain levels to meet whatever standards the USDA adopts for school meals and snacks, no matter how stringent those standards may first appear.

And whatever R&D expenditures are required to reformulate their products, food manufactures are willing to make the outlay in exchange for something extremely valuable:  the opportunity to instill on a daily basis lifelong brand loyalties among a highly impressionable population, i.e., school children.

So it should come as no surprise that Big Food will always find a way to get into school cafeterias.  But it also shouldn’t surprise us that many school food service directors embrace these products.  The chronic underfunding of the National School Lunch Program creates ongoing challenges that highly processed, “better for you” school junk food can help meet.  Such food is cheap, easily stored, requires no labor, is guaranteed to meet USDA requirements and, most importantly, it’s instantly popular with kids, thanks to careful food engineering and billions of dollars in kid-directed advertising to create brand trust and familiarity.  If offered on the meal line, it can boost participation, and if offered on the for-cash a la carte (snack bar) line, it generally results in higher sales than healthier offerings.

But, of course, “copycat” school junk food causes two significant problems.  First, it impedes efforts to redirect kids toward the fresh, whole foods that would better serve their longterm health.  Second, children have no clue that the branded foods being served in the cafeteria are somehow “better” than the standard formulation of those foods, so they continue to receive the implicit message that items like Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (whole-grain rich or otherwise) and Domino’s pizza (ditto) are acceptable, daily lunch fare.  And that’s a terribly destructive lesson that may never be unlearned.

So what, if anything, can be done to get “copycat” junk food out of the cafeteria?  In my opinion, not much at the present time, given the incentives that drive Big Food and some food service directors into each other’s arms, as well as the food industry’s influence over the SNA and Congress.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by one clever idea to keep “copycat” junk food out of schools.  The Public Health Advocacy Institute (“PHAI”) has urged the USDA to put a provision in the agency’s proposed wellness policy rules that would prohibit companies from using brand names, logos, characters, etc. on school product packaging if those same marketing elements are also used on products which don’t meet the Smart Snacks nutritional requirements.

In other words, because unhealthy fried Cheetos are sold elswhere, none of the Cheetos design elements could be used on the packaging of the school-version of Cheetos.  Thus, Big Food’s ability to use school sales as a brand marketing tool would vanish overnight:

It remains to be seen whether PHAI’s proposal makes it into the final version of the wellness policy rules. Given the huge blow this would inflict on the food industry, I think it’s unlikely.  And even if it does show up in the final rule, it would still take serious commitment on the part of local school districts to adopt and enforce such language in actual practice.  More likely, any local community already so committed to student health wouldn’t allow a lot of  “copycat” junk food in the cafeteria in the first place.

But you have to give PHAI credit for trying.  Because as my school food reform colleague Dana Woldow once memorably wrote, cleaned-up junk food products “are ‘better for you’ only in the sense that it is ‘better for you’ to be hit in the head with a brick only twice, rather than three times.”  Ouch.

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



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Sometimes a Waffle Is More Than Just a Waffle, Or, Home Cooking as Political Act

Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss’s compelling expose of how the food industry has “hooked” us on highly processed foods, concludes that “only we can save us” from the hazards of the modern American diet.  In other words, while we wait around for Big Food to voluntarily reform itself, or for our government to compel it to do so (developments I’m not sure I’ll see in my lifetime), Moss suggests that our only recourse against the food industry’s influence is to reassert individual control over the food we eat.

Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox, a disturbing investigation of the many untested chemicals in our food supply, ends on the same note.  After concluding the book with a chapter on the need for more home cooking and widespread cooking education, Warner writes:

While there are clearly policy changes that would make the job of cleaning up our food a whole lot easier . . . . the choice of what we feed ourselves and our children is ultimately ours.

After the new documentary Fed Up shows how Big Food and our government have misled the American public about the risks of eating a highly processed, sugar-heavy diet, it, too, ends with a call to action urging Americans to break their dependency on processed food and get back into the kitchen (aided by Fed Up co-producer Laurie David’s new cookbook, The Family Cooks).

And perhaps no one has made a stronger case for home cooking as a political act than Michael Pollan, whose latest book, Cooked, A Natural History of Transformation, argues that “taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable.”

So when I headed into the kitchen with my 11-year-old son to make Sally Kuzemchak’s Zesty Lemon Waffles with Blueberries in honor of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day —  taking place today, all over the world — it had more significance than just spending a fun morning together.  As Jamie Oliver states in this year’s Food Revolution Day message:

I believe that it’s every child’s right to be taught about food, how to cook it and how it affects their bodies. Without this fundamental knowledge, they’ll grow up without the skills or even the desire to eat better.

I hope I’m empowering my kids with that fundamental knowledge when we cook together — and when we all sit down to a home-cooked meal five or so nights a week.  I want them to learn by osmosis that we don’t need Big Food to feed us, and that we can actually do a better job when we take back control of the cooking.

This is normally the point when I’d share the waffle recipe and photos*, but as I mentioned yesterday, Brianne DeRosa of Red, Round or Green has done that job for me (and the other bloggers cooking with their kids today) by creating a fabulous and free digital cookbook for you.  Just click on the photo below to access the book.

flipsnack book food revolution

All I’ll share here is a photo of the finished product and my son’s glowing “review:”

photo 10


And, by the way, here’s what my son avoided eating by making these waffles from scratch, instead of relying on Kellogg’s to do the job for him:

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 9.13.07 AM

Please be sure to visit all the other bloggers (and their kids) sharing Food Revolution Day with me and my son: Grace Freedman of Eat Dinner.org, Brianne DeRosa of Red, Round or Green, Mia Moran of Stay Basic Magazine, Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, Caron Gremont of First Bites and Lynn Barendsen of The Family Dinner Project.   And you can follow all the Food Revolution Day activities going on around the world today by following Twitter hashtag FRD2014.

Happy Food Revolution Day, TLTers!

* Unfortunately, my camera-shy preteen only allowed his hands to be photographed for the cookbook, so apologies for that.  I briefly considered hiring a neighbor’s kid to pose as my son, but since someone actually did once accuse me of passing off models as my kids, I figured I’d better drop that plan!  :-)

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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Good Reads: A Friday Link Round-Up

There’s so much news out there that I’m closing out the week with a link round-up – enjoy!

School District Dumps Non-Paying Kids’ Meals

A school district in Utah received a lot of negative attention this week for forcing students with negative lunch card balances to toss their meals in the trash.  While this district’s actions were clearly egregious (the district has apologized), unpaid meal balances are a real financial problem for districts.  I’ll have more on this in a post in the near future.

The Food Industry Invades Your Child’s Classroom

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of Weighty Matters debuts on Civil Eats with a post regarding a food-industry-created nutrition education curriculum that reaches 12.5 million students in this country each year.  Freedhoff does a great job of showing how the seemingly benign messaging of these educational materials actually serves the food industry well — to the ultimate detriment of students. 

Obesity Starts Early

A new study reported on in yesterday’s New York Times indicates that obesity appears to take root in early childhood and is hard to address in later years, indicating that early intervention is key.

But Is Obesity Really the Issue?

But Andy Bellatti argues in the Huffington Post that our relentless focus on the nation’s obesity crisis actually serves Big Food.

Italy and France Succumb to the Allure of Processed Food

And in two related pieces, writer Jeannie Marshall shares some thoughts on how Big Food is destroying Italy’s food culture, and the New York Times reports on a battle in France to keep restaurant meals freshly made, rather than processed.

Enjoy your weekend, TLT’ers – see you here next week!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,000 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 free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Mr. Zee Heads Down Under!

aussiemrzeeaussiemrzeeSo, this is cool!

I just found out that my rhyming children’s video about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory,” is going to be incorporated into nutrition education materials that will be made available to Australian teachers seeking to meet the requirements of the Australia Curriculum for Health and Physical Education.  I’m told that the video could potentially reach almost 40,000 primary school students in the Australian Capital Territory.

When I released the video last May, it was with the hope that exactly this sort of thing might happen.  I wanted to create a completely free resource for parents and teachers to help inoculate young kids (pre-K through 6th grade) against the powerful allure of processed foods and Big Food’s advertising tactics.

Since the video’s release, several teachers have contacted me to tell me that they’ve shared the video with their students and that children have been engaged by it.  My contact in Australia told me:

During a pilot of the lessons I observed students watching the You Tube clip and they were all “glued” to the screen and were very interested in the clip. I believe it definitely “hit home” to them and quite possibly enlightened many of the kids.

Woo hoo!  :-)

If you haven’t yet watched Mr. Zee, please do check it out and, if you share the story with your children or students, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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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Marion Nestle (Food Politics) Shares ‘Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory’!

I’m so excited to share with you today’s post on Marion Nestle’s influential Food Politics blog:  a write-up of my rhyming kids’ video about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory“!  Wow!


I also want to thank the many TLT friends – readers and fellow bloggers – who’ve continued to give the video a little push now and then on Facebook and Twitter.  I haven’t felt so passionate about any project since I started The Lunch Tray three years ago and it’s gratifying to watch the video’s slow but steady spread on the Internet.  Even more gratifying is hearing from parents and teachers who’ve told me how much their kids liked watching it — and that they clearly understood the message about healthful eating.

Thanks again, and have a great holiday weekend!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 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 follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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To ‘Inoculate’ Kids Against Big Food’s Advertising . . . A Lunch Tray Movie!!!

In March, 2011 I was honored to be chosen as one of the winners of a Slate magazine anti-childhood-obesity crowd-sourcing contest.  My submission, entitled “Legislate, Educate and Inoculate to Create Food-Savvy Kids,” argued that we need to fight the problem on three fronts:  legislation to curb the food industry’s rampant advertising to children; widespread nutrition and cooking education; and what I called “inoculation.”  On this latter point, I wrote that we need to:

. . .  inoculate kids against the forces that lead to unhealthful eating, akin to that used to discourage teen smoking.  Kids generally don’t like having someone try to pull the wool over their eyes, so just as we’ve made them savvy about the tobacco industry’s insidious techniques to get them to use cigarettes, we need to show kids that the food industry is, in a very direct way, making money at the expense of their own health.

Over two years have passed since I wrote that essay for Slate, but I continue to believe that one of our most promising strategies  is showing kids how they’re quite deliberately manipulated by the food industry — to the tune of almost $2 billion in children’s advertising dollars spent each year — into choosing highly processed food and fast food over more healthful options.

I looked around for an illustrated story book  with this message intended to reach younger children (say, pre-K to early elementary).  But other than great nonfiction books for older readers, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids, I couldn’t seem to find what I was looking for.  And so . . .

Starting with a bouncy, rhyming story which started popping into my head while I was sitting in my kids’ piano lesson one day, I created illustrations on my iPad and then enlisted friends and family, both here in Houston and around the country, to do the voice-overs.  My narrator is the super-gifted Rachel Buchman, a professional singer, teacher and voiceover artist (and Grammy semi-finalist!) and you’ll even hear fellow blogger Bri, of Red Round and Green, singing a radio jingle!

I had so much fun creating this video and if you like the story and its message, I only ask one thing in return:

Please consider sharing on Twitter and Facebook – thank you!  


And now settle in (for about 12 minutes) and enjoy.  And if you do show the video to your kids, as I very much hope you’ll do, please let me know in a comment what they think of it.  I’d love the feedback.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 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 follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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My Advice to a Reader on Improving Classroom Snacks – Anything to Add?

Yesterday a Lunch Tray reader wrote to me seeking advice about improving the snacks in her child’s public pre-school, snacks which sometimes include items like highly processed Uncrustables and chocolate milk.   This reader was also disturbed that some classroom projects, like cookie-making, involved a lot of sugar.  She ended her email to me with this:

I want it all: higher standards with food, a good relationship with the teacher, and for my son to not be an “exception” with food at school. I don’t want him to have to sit out because I want the standards to be high for every kid in the school.  I am writing to find some solid advice on how to survive food transitions when working with slow school systems.

After sending my reply to her this morning I thought I might share it here, too, so TLT’ers can add their own advice and relay their own experiences.   Let’s crowd-source this one!  :-)

I’m not posting the reader’s original email to protect her anonymity, but here’s my reply.  I dashed this off at 5:30am so forgive me if it’s a little less coherent than a regular TLT blog post:

Dear ______:

Thanks for getting in touch.

Let me say up front that you’re asking the million dollar question here, and one to which even I don’t have all the answers.  While I feel I’ve made a lot of strides nationally on The Lunch Tray by bringing these issues to the fore and assisting readers around the country at their children’s schools, at my own son’s elementary school my principal has declined to make any modifications to practices like birthday cupcakes in the classroom.  And though she has cracked down on candy rewards given out by teachers, she also just instituted a program where kids get coupons for free shakes if their class has a high rate of homework compliance.

I will say, however, that I’ve made the classic mistake — the very same thing I advise my readers against – of going it alone with the principal.  I’ve frankly been so busy with TLT and with my district-level activities that I just haven’t taken the time to form a coalition in my school.  As you said in your email, “I know transitions require buy in from someone besides me.”  That’s exactly right.

So, first off . . .  It sounds like you’re new at the school but is it possible to reach out to other parents to see if they feel the same way?  E.g., can you strike up conversations in the hall or at pick-up in which you (tactfully) express dissatisfaction with the snacks to see if you get any support?  Or, if the school has a PTA type group, that might be another place to find allies.

Since your preschool is public, you might also want to find your district’s wellness policy (this should be on the district’s website but if you can’t find it, call and ask) to see if there’s any language there which might support your goals.   It’s unlikely but possible that there will be language which encourages your district’s schools to make snacks healthful, and though this policy has no real “teeth,” it does tend to get a principal’s attention to say that he/she is “in violation of district policy.”

Once you have even a few parents on your side, I think it’s then much easier to go to the principal and discuss the issue.  But if you can come armed with more than just your own personal views that the food is subpar, that’s also helpful.  I’ve been very impressed with a website called Rudd ‘Roots Parents, created by the Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy & Obesity.  There you’ll find all kinds of fact sheets and studies which can be marshaled in support of your arguments, such as a sheet which shows how even small amounts of “harmless” sugar in a child’s day can easily add up to far more than the recommended amount of daily sugar consumption.  Facts like that can make a teacher re-think projects like the cookie-making you mentioned.  The more objective evidence you have on your side, the less you will be perceived as either a “food Nazi” or elitist food snob, and more as what you are — a reasonable, concerned parent.

Before proceeding, you might also want to find out to what degree the classroom snacks are controlled by the principal versus the district.  Here in Houston, schools are sent their food by a huge central kitchen and principals have very little autonomy in terms of what is sent.  If that’s the case, then all of the above might be better directed at your district’s Food Services Director (or “Student Nutrition Director” — the title may vary) than the principal.

Finally, I do think that it’s important to be tactful, pleasant and patient when you approach either the principal or the Food Services Director.  Sometimes the issue is cost (processed foods are cheaper than whole, fresh foods, and require less labor and refrigeration).  Sometimes it’s ignorance.  Rarely is the issue pure laziness or someone not caring about kids.

I can’t promise results, but I hope this advice helps.  Good luck!

— Bettina

So, TLT’ers, have I said anything with which you disagree?  Do you have anything to add?  Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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A Food In the Classroom Horror Story

Just in time for Halloween, I wanted to share a food-in-the-classroom horror story sent to me a few weeks ago by a reader from Ohio.  Here’s what she told me:

At kindergarten orientation the teacher went over classroom stuff and passed around clipboards for parents to volunteer, etc. One of the clipboards was for parents to bring in ABC Snacks, which paired a food with each letter. For example: marshmallows for M, cookies for C, Oreos for O, dinosaur fruit snacks for D, brownies for B… A couple were not so bad: grapes for G and raisins for R. Almost all were pure sugar, though.

My child is allergic to several things, and out of the 26 snacks she could only eat about 8. Most disturbing is that there were nutty bars for N. (NUTTY BARS!)

After orientation I asked the teacher, “I missed when you said this part- what’s going on with the ABC Snacks? Is it once a week they get one of these?”

She said yes and I told her (again) that my daughter has food allergies and can’t have the majority of them. She said, “Oh! I didn’t even look at this! Someone just gave me this activity. So which ones can’t she eat?”

I told her and she said, “Well, she’ll see the other kids with it and get the idea.” I said that I’d bring in some raisins for my daughter, to make her somewhat less excluded. This is not ideal, but my mind was completely blown.

Then the teacher pointed out the nutty bars and asked if it would be a problem just having them in the room with her. My kid doesn’t have airborne peanut sensitivity, so I said, “No, if she doesn’t eat them she’ll be okay. But this little boy over here was also at the peanut free table today, so it might be a problem for him.”

“Oh? There’s another peanut allergy in the room?”

To summarize, all of the forms that I filled out before school began that explained my child’s allergy were not read- at least not by her teacher. This was technically the first day of school and she had no idea that another child had a peanut allergy. Upon finding this out, it took her 4 weeks to decide not to do an activity including peanuts. Most striking for me was that she repeatedly said, “I didn’t even look at this. Someone just gave it to me.”


When we discussed the matter further by email, the reader told me that the problem really stemmed not from the teacher but a “bad food culture throughout the school.”   She said that PTA fundraisers and rewards usually involved junk food by default and that teachers were given no guidelines at all on the use of food in the classroom, with practices varying considerably from class to class.  She added, ” I know that in some schools, when the nurse sees a food allergy form come in she takes it to the teacher, explains it, and has the teacher sign off on it. Here, it wasn’t even communicated.”

The happy ending to this story is that after meeting with the teacher, the reader reported that the “ABC snacks” program had been dropped and that the teacher seemed to better understand that the reader’s child must not be given any food that wasn’t brought from home.

But all of this points up — again — how food in the classroom can cause all sorts of unintended problems.  Whoever thought of this “ABC snacks” idea probably just hoped the program would get little kids excited about learning their alphabet.   (And this idea dates back to the Middle Ages when Jewish teachers would drizzle honey on Hebrew letters on a child’s first day of study, to create an association between sweetness and learning.)  But as we know, there are so many reasons parents might object to food being used as a teaching tool or reward, from serious food allergies, as was the case here, to a common sense desire to limit sugary, processed foods in a child’s diet.

Click here to read the history that led to my pounding out a “manifesto.”

Once again, people, I must refer you to my Food In the Classroom Manifesto (always available on the right side of the blog), which lays out ten reasons why schools need to re-think the use of food.  Feel free to download it, copy it and share it with your child’s school to help explain why you and other parents are concerned about practices like this.

I’m going to share another reader’s food-in-the-classroom story next week, and feel free to send me yours at bettina at thelunchtray dot com.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 4,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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“Wilma:” New School Meal Regs Mean Less Scratch-Cooking, More “Empty Calories”

I hope I’m not exhausting you with posts about the new school meal regulations, but these rules impact the diets of millions of American children every day and seem worthy of in-depth discussion on any blog devoted to “kids and food.”

Today I want to share an excerpt from an email I received from “Wilma.”  (For newcomers to The Lunch Tray, Wilma is an anonymous school food professional somewhere in the United States who contacts me from time to time with her views about school food from “behind the line.” )  I wanted to share her concerns about the new regulations, concerns which in many ways echo those of Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch (a private school meal catering service), whose views I shared in an earlier post, and those of school food reformer Dana Woldow.   Here’s what Wilma had to say:

One last point I feel like is critical: calorie requirements for each age/grade group. I personally think that the calories are fairly reasonable, but the problem is the students don’t select everything that is offered.

The other challenge is where the calories are coming from. We have to limit the grains/meats (great sources of calories) and increase vegetables that typically run 20-80 calories per 1/2c serving (and are not as desirable to the students). We are finding ourselves back in the “nutrient standard” issues of finding calories. More empty calories will be creeping back into the menu. Jello (the only regs are for fruits/juices with added sugar, not extras!), baked chips (don’t count as a component), imitation cheese sauce (because real cheese sauce counts as a meat/meat alternate and we cant afford to put any more of those on the menu and still meet mins/max)…I actually had a broker come in and bring some dessert treats that shall remain nameless that do not contribute to the grains… therefore are not regulated by the grain-based dessert rule and a great way to add calories to the meals without going over the ranges.

Don’t get me wrong, these regulations in THEORY are great! But I have to agree with your friend Dana and say that some of the creativity of menu planning has actually been taken away because of the new regs. It took me a few weeks into school before I could bring back the “chipotle-like” meal line (with lots of fresh veggies). I’d love to do things like soup/salad or sandwich/salad combos but the regs are very difficult to maneuver. I find myself in a position many other menu planners are in: find the processed food item that fits the requirements. It’s a lot easier than trying to get scratch recipes to work in the new world of menu planning.

So there seems to be a consensus (among these experts, at least) that the new rules may get in the way of schools trying to offer more scratch-cooking and menu variety, and there’s a worry that more processed food will be used since it’s always easier to shoe-horn processed products into such a highly regulated scheme.  That’s certainly troubling, and I’m wondering if it will be possible to tweak those rules before their next major overhaul — something that took 15 years to accomplish the last time around.

I also wanted to share input from another school food professional, Maggie, who often comments on The Lunch Tray.  Maggie took the time to answer my question about this notion, widely reported in the media, that kids can now take unlimited fruits and vegetables if they’re still hungry after the meal.  Maggie wrote:

Bettina, just got a USDA fact sheet today and here’s one paragraph from it:

“Also, there are no specific maximums on fruits, vegetables or milk. Schools may choose to allow greater than the required minimums by offering self-serve salad bars or allowing second servings of these components. Additional servings do count toward the weekly calorie limits, but because fruits and vegetables are generally lower in calories, they can be excellent sources for satisfying meals and sustained energy.”

It isn’t a requirement, but the schools “may”.

I wanted to add the comment that the meal programs have never (to my knowledge) been an all-you-care-to-eat program, and even under the previous regulations and offer vs serve, students would not have been able to choose extra of their favored items as a substitute for others, or always be able choose more than the planned meals/menus.

I think Maggie’s last paragraph is important.  Some media reports have contrasted the new “stringent” calorie caps to the “good old days” when kids were taking unlimited amounts of pizza and fries (without actually paying for a second meal) to satisfy their appetites.  That really didn’t jibe with my understanding of the old system and Maggie seems to confirm this.

Finally, here’s a relatively favorable news report on the school meal regulations which aired last night on Houston’s ABC News affiliate.  I appear in the report toward the end.  And if the reporter hadn’t promised I’d only be shot from the waist up, I might have actually tucked in my shirt and worn something on my feet other than flip-flops!  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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“October Unprocessed:” My Interview With Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules

Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules

I hope most of you already know about Eating Rules, one of my favorite nutrition blogs.  Written by Andrew Wilder, it’s an engaging, straightforward and never-preachy source of solid nutrition information, recipes and practical tips for eating well.  (You can read Andrew’s whole back story here.)

Three years ago, Andrew had the idea of forgoing, along with a few friends, all processed food for the month of October.  As you’ll learn below, “October Unprocessed” has grown beyond his wildest imagination, with literally thousands now participating.   Here’s my interview with Andrew:

TLT:  What was the original inspiration for October Unprocessed?

AW:  Back in 2009, I had my “ah-ha!” moment while walking across a perfectly flat parking lot. I felt like I was walking through molasses. I remember thinking, “I’m just 32 years old. I shouldn’t feel this way.”  At that moment, I decided it was finally time to try yoga — all my friends had been telling me how great it was and how much I would love it — so I downloaded some video podcasts and started in my living room (where nobody could see if I fell over!).  It felt great, and I was hooked.

I then decided to start counting calories — I knew how many I was supposed to eat in a day, but I had no idea how many I was actually eating. I starting using the “Lose It” iPhone App, and actually had a lot of fun to track everything I ate — it was something new to me, and as I started losing weight, it was incredibly exhilarating  As I continued exercising and losing weight over the next few months, I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I thought I had been eating healthfully, but after reading those I realized I still had a lot of processed foods in my diet. At that point, the idea of avoiding processed foods for 30 days just kind of popped into my head.

TLT:  How did you feel about doing it the first time and, to the extent it was a positive experience, did its effects last after the month was over?  

AW:  This was before I had started my blog, so when I came up with the idea, I just posted a little note on Facebook, and tagged about 25 of my friends who I thought might want to play along. My friends Dana and Lindsey joined in, and it was revelatory. My expectations and sense of taste were re-calibrated. I started to identify individual ingredients in the foods I ate. I didn’t crave those salty snacks. I found myself often in the kitchen, excited to see what I could cook next. Above all, I simply felt better.  The three of us also spent a lot of time cooking together, and became much better friends through the experience.

I think the single, most-lasting dietary change for me has been cutting out soda. I used to be a five-cans-of-Diet-Pepsi-a-day guy, and although I had already cut back throughout that year, I still had my fair share of soda. I haven’t touched a Diet Pepsi or Coke Zero since. (Part of that, too, is that I don’t want to give them any more of my money!) We now have a SodaStream, and I drink a lot of sparkling water.

Our unprocessed challenge ultimately led to my starting Eating Rules, which has introduced me to so many new and wonderful people and opportunities — and helps keep me focused on and accountable for my own health!

TLT:   For someone doing the challenge this month, what words of advice do you have to ease the adjustment, particularly someone who normally eats a fair amount of processed food?

AW:  The first thing is to figure out how you define “unprocessed.”  I use what I call “The Kitchen Test,” but I encourage everyone to define it for themselves, in a way that makes sense to them. I also encourage use of the “Deliberate Exception Clause,” if you feel it’s necessary. The idea is to plan what potential exceptions you’ll make (if any) and why. The idea is to consider your choices — ahead of time — and decide if the “pros” outweigh the cons (this isn’t so that you can have a donut that someone brings to the office — it’s to make the challenge actually possible in our crazy-hectic-busy daily lives.)

We’ve got a ton of resources on my site to help folks get into the challenge, including a free Official Guide to download, and every day throughout the month I’ll be sharing guest posts on a wide variety of unprocessed topics.

Also, planning! Planning is key. It’s worth taking a few minutes at the start of the week, or at the start of each day, to think through (and perhaps assemble) what you’re going to eat during the day. Because when you’re hungry isn’t the best time to figure out what you’re going to eat.

TLT:   Have you been surprised by the incredible growth in participation since you started October Unprocessed?

AW:  Oh, yes! Every time someone joins our ranks, I get a little bit giddy. As I write this, we just passed 4,600 people who’ve taken the pledge! It’s so inspiring reading the comments people leave on the pledge form. Clearly, we’re on to something here, and with every person who signs up, our good-food-movement gets so much stronger.

TLT:  Do you have anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about October Unprocessed?

AW:  Thanks for the opportunity to share October Unprocessed with you, and I hope you’ll all join in — it’s not too late! (It’s never too late!) If you’re just finding out about October Unprocessed, check out the main page on my site and take the pledge today — and then continue with us throughout the month, or for a full 30 days from today.

* * *

Thank you, Andrew, for coming by The Lunch Tray to share information about October Unprocessed.  And if you’re interested in joining in, it’s definitely not too late to sign the October Unprocessed pledge!

My own October Unprocessed guest post will appear this month on Eating Rules, with the (hopefully) intriguing title, “Provisioning Your Ark.”  You’ll just have to read the post to find out what that means!  :-)   I’ll share the link on this blog when the post is up.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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What Does the Term “Processed Food” Mean to You?

A while back I said I had a big question to ask Lunch Tray readers.  I’m a few weeks late in posting, but here it is:

When we talk about “processed food,” what do we really mean?

As someone who writes daily about food and healthful eating, this is a question I think about often.  I toss out the term “processed food” on this blog with abandon, holding it up unfavorably to “fresh” or “whole” foods, berating my school district for serving too much of it, blaming its widespread availability, in part, for our rising obesity and disease rates.  But even as I use the term freely, as a writer I recognize with some discomfort how imprecise it is.

“Processing” could mean everything from washing, peeling and slicing a piece of fruit to turning it into this:

We may be fine with the former and recoil from the latter, but you have to admit that somewhere in the middle things do get a little fuzzy.  Is it “processing” to squeeze a lemon over the apple slices to keep them fresh?  Is it “processing” to use ascorbic acid as a preservative, which is what makes the lemon juice effective in preventing browning?  What about drying the slices into apple chips?  Is an apple “fruit leather” the result of too much processing?  What about these organic green apple “twists”?

When we cook down apples into a delicious applesauce at home, we might feel good about our efforts, yet the end result is not so different from this product, which many parents might spurn as “too processed”:

And even as we struggle to define what we mean by “processed” food, there are those who argue that processing (however that is defined) should not be feared but instead embraced.

For example, several months ago I shared with you an article by historian Rachel Laudan entitled “In Praise of Fast Food.”  In it, Laudan takes issue with the prevailing ethos that “[m]odern, fast, processed food is a disaster.”  She writes:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.

Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

More recently I came across an interview with Fergus Clysedale, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Food Science Policy Alliance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, that’s likely to raise a few eyebrows with this readership.  He laments the fact that health professionals and governmental bodies are reluctant to promote processed foods as a means of stemming the obesity epidemic.  He believes such foods provide an excellent means of “controlling portions, providing low-caloric density, decreasing waste, increasing safety and decreasing preparation time,”  and he questions consumers’ “paranoid distrust of anything ‘artificial,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘mass-produced’or ‘industrially-‘processed.'”  Interesting.  (I did note that Dr. Clysedale’s department has received significant endowments from large food manufacturers, although it’s unfair to assume bias here without more information.)

And then there are the socio-political ramifications of processing food.  A month or two ago, Michelle Hays, blogger at Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails, shared a link on Facebook that introduced me to the extraordinary work of artist Judith Klausner.  Klausner has created a series of pieces entitled “From Scratch” in which she juxtaposes the traditionally female handicrafts of old — embroidery, sewing, and the like – with modern, processed foods.  Believe it or not, this “mold” was actually embroidered by the artist onto commercially produced bread:


“Toast Embroidery,” copyright Judith Klausner, photo by Steve Pomeroy

(Be sure to look at Klausner’s other works in this series, including some astonishing Oreo “cameos” and a sampler stitched onto Corn Chex cereal.)

Klausner tells us that her intent in creating these pieces is to remind us that in our nostalgia for our culinary past, we fail to take into account the freedom such processing has bestowed upon all of us — but particularly women, who previously struggled under the considerable burden of cooking three full meals a day from scratch.

[T]he temptation to romanticize the past is strong. Yet, the availability of packaged foods is what allows us the time to pursue careers, to develop new technologies, to create.

The food on our tables may not be as tasty as it once was. It may not even be as wholesome. But it is important to take a step back and recognize the trade that has been made, and that what we have gained is not to be undervalued.

My work is about choice. As a woman in the twenty-first century, I can choose to spend my day baking a loaf of bread, or to grab a package off a grocery store shelf after a long day at work. I can choose to spend my evenings embroidering. I can choose to combine these things and call it art.

If you agree with any of these positions, then you recognize that there are at least some aspects to processing food which are beneficial to us as individuals and as a society.  Yet we still haven’t defined with precision how much “processing” is too much.

The best analysis I’ve seen is found in this piece by Marion Nestle published last year, summarizing Journal of the World Public Health Nutriton Association article written by University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro.  As Nestle summarizes Monteiro, there are three types of food:

• Type 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods that do not change the nutritional properties of the food.

• Type 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients such as oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours, starches, and salt. These are depleted of nutrients and provide little beyond calories (except for salt, which has no calories).

• Type 3: Ultra-processed products that combine Type 2 ingredients (and, rarely, traces of Type 1).

Quoting now from the journal article itself, Moneiro writes:

The issue therefore is not processing as such. It is the nature, extent, and purpose, of processing, and in particular, the proportion of meals, dishes, foods, drinks, and snacks within diets that are ‘ultra-processed.’ . . . .

Ultra-processed products are characteristically formulated from ‘refined’ and ‘purified’ ingredients freed from the fibrous watery matrix of their original raw materials. They are formulated to be sensually appealing, hyper-palatable, and habit-forming, by the use of sophisticated mixtures of cosmetic and other additives, and state-of-the-craft packaging and marketing. Further, ultra-processed products are ‘convenient’ – meaning, ready-to-eat (or drink) or ready-to-heat. . . .

From the public health point of view, ultra-processed foods are problematic in two ways. First, their principal ingredients (oils, solid fats, sugars, salt, flours, starches) make them excessive in total fat, saturated or trans-fats, sugar and sodium, and short of micronutrients and other bioactive compounds, and of dietary fibre. Taken together this increases the risk of various serious diseases. Second, their high energy density, hyper-palatability, their marketing in large and super-sizes, and aggressive and sophisticated advertising, all undermine the normal processes of appetite control, cause over-consumption, and therefore cause obesity, and diseases associated with obesity.

Does Monteiro’s three-tier classification of food “processing” work for you?  How do you personally draw the line when buying “processed” foods for yourself and your family?  Do you believe that all processing of any kind should be avoided and, if so, do you find it hard to live out that principle?

I’m so interested in hearing what Lunch Tray readers have to say.


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