“This Isn’t Applebee’s” — A School Food Update

I feel like I’ve been failing you, TLT’ers! I aim to keep you informed of the latest school food news, but due to travel and other real life intrusions I’ve fallen a bit behind.  And that’s unfortunate because there’s a lot going on these days with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

Just to remind everyone, the CNR is the every-five-year refunding of child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).  That gives Congress a prime opportunity to modify existing school food regulations and, as you know, the more stringent school meal standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) are now at risk.

Here’s a round-up of the latest:

The Most Recent CNR Hearings

The House Education and Workforce Committee continues to hold hearings on the CNR, and there have been two more hearings since the one I recapped for you in April:

You can watch the archived webcasts and/or read testimony from hearings using the above links, but for the non-wonks among us, Education Week has a good recap of the June 16th hearing, as does The Hill, and Agri-Pulse‘s has a good summary of the June 24th hearing.

Vilsack Stands Firm on School Meal Standards

At the June 16th hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the full committee and answered members’ questions, offering a staunch defense of the HHFKA.  He responded well to criticisms of the law’s meal standards, including allegedly increased plate waste (debunked by the Harvard School of Public Health) and tales of districts leaving the NSLP in droves (actually, only 59 out of 99,000 have left, according to Vilsack, and Dana Woldow has reported they often suffer financially as a result).

But my favorite Vilsack line came in response to committee chairman John Kline’s (R-MN) characterization of school meals as too skimpy to feed hungry athletes, a common refrain from opponents of reform (which Woldow also recently debunked.) After pointing out that the new meals are a mere 25 calories lighter, on average, than the old ones, Vilsack added, “This is not, in fairness, all-you-can-eat at Applebee’s. This is a school lunch program.”

But Meanwhile, Over in the House Appropriations Committee . . .

. . . the fiscal 2016 agriculture discretionary spending bill was released, and it includes a provision to “defund” any further school food sodium reductions (see Section 733) and contains the whole grain waiver language (see Section 732) we’ve discussed quite a bit on this blog.  If ultimately adopted, these provisions would be a blow to those who favor robust school nutrition standards.  

On the upside, the spending bill also contained language which, if adopted, would continue to keep Chinese-processed chicken out of school meals.  (That’s the cause I and fellow food activist Nancy Huehnergarth spearheaded via a successful Change.org petition last year.)  Many thanks to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a tireless food safety champion, for continuing to fight that battle to protect our kids.

What’s the Timing on the CNR?

No one can say for sure, but school meals aren’t in jeopardy even if the September 30th deadline for the CNR passes. Politico‘s Morning Agriculture report helpfully explains:

House Republicans continued to apply their scrutiny on child nutrition programs in a hearing Wednesday but gave no hint of a potential timeline for getting a bill out to change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act as the law is set to expire Sept. 30. . . .

School lunch and breakfast programs are permanently authorized to continue after the Sept. 30 date. Other programs, like the Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Women, Infants, and Children Program, are set to expire, though an extension is likely.

So, What Can I Do to Keep School Meals Healthy?

Chef Ann Cooper is asking people to go to Causes.com and pledge to tell their Congressional representatives that they care about kids’ health and want to keep the school meal standards of the HHKFA intact.  Or, take a moment to sign and share one of the many petitions now circulating to achieve that goal, such as this one from Food Policy Action and this one from the American Heart Association.

And if you need some more inspiration to take action, check out Chef Ann’s latest post on US News & World Report, “The Five-Year Plan for National Childhood Nutrition: Don’t Undo the Progress.”

*  *  *

And with that, TLT’ers, I’m going to be offline again for two to three weeks, absent any big breaking news.  I hope you’re having an enjoyable summer and I’ll see you back here in mid-late July!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join almost 6,000 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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A Recap of Last Week’s Harvard School Food Conference

Hi TLT’ers!  I’m back from the Harvard school food conference last week (followed by a few days of vacation) and wanted to share some thoughts about it.

In the past I’ve attended conferences geared solely toward policy advocates, but what was so notable about “Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds” was the wide range of perspectives it offered.  As both attendees and speakers, the conference attracted school nutrition directors, school food suppliers, public health and medical experts, legal experts, anti-hunger advocates, concerned parents and more.  That diversity of views and experiences created a particularly stimulating atmosphere and led to many productive discussions about how to improve school food while meeting the needs of school districts.

A few random impressions from the day:

  • Chef Ann Cooper kicked off the day with a rousing keynote address laying out how school food is currently failing our children, making a forceful case that more funding and support for school districts is needed.  On a personal level, I was thrilled to finally meet Ann, whom I’ve known virtually for five years, as well as Mara Fleishman, the dynamic ‎Executive Director of the Chef Ann Foundation.
  • I thought this Powerpoint slide, presented by Scott Richardson, Director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Project Bread, was a perfect encapsulation of the myriad challenges faced by school nutrition directors (I hope you can see the text in my grainy cell phone photo):

project bread slide

  • I participated in an afternoon break-out panel geared toward parents and was inspired by the work of my fellow panelists, including Stephanie Shapiro, a parent in Boston who’s just beginning to take on the subpar school food in that city.  Here’s a photo someone snapped of me during the panel, encouraging parents to take a collaborative approach when approaching their districts:

harvard school food

I want to thank the conference organizers for inviting me to attend and participate, and I hope the conference becomes an annual event!   And tomorrow I’ll share here some kid-food news items you may have missed during my blogging hiatus.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,600 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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Join Me Next Week at Harvard to Talk About School Food!

harvard conferenceIf you’re in the Boston area, I hope you’ll join me at Harvard’s Sever Hall on Wednesday, June 10th for an exciting all-day conference devoted to school food.

Entitled “Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds: Serving Change in Public School Food,” the conference is cosponsored by Let’s Talk About Food, the Massachusetts State Office of Nutrition and Health, the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic and the Harvard University Dining Services’ Food Literacy Project.  Speakers will include:

  • Chef Ann Cooper of the Chef Ann Foundation;
  • Kirsten Saenz Tobey, Founder and Chief Impact Officer, Revolution Foods;
  • Curt Ellis, Founder, FoodCorps;
  • Sally Sampson, Founder and President, ChopChop;
  • John Turenne, FCSI, Founder and President, Sustainable Food Systems;
  • school food professionals;
  • experts in public health, childhood hunger and child nutrition; and many more.

I’ll be participating in an afternoon panel which will address how parents can more effectively engage with their school nutrition departments.

Tickets are only $35 for the all-day conference and may be purchased here.  I hope to see many of you there!  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,600 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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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,

Bettina

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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School Nutrition Association Board Responds to Open Letter From Dissenting Members

SNA logoThe board of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has responded to the open letter I discussed yesterday, signed by 86 members of the organization who oppose the SNA’s campaign to weaken school meal nutritional standards.  A PDF of the letter is linked here, with the full text reprinted below.

February 12, 2015

Miguel Villarreal, MBA
Director Food and Nutritional Services Student Wellness Coordinator
Novato Unified School District

Ally Mrachek, MS, RD Nutrition Supervisor
Child Nutrition Department Fayetteville Public Schools

Dear Miguel and Ally:

Thank you for your note and for sending the open letter to the board. SNA’s Board of Directors always welcomes SNA member input, and as you know, maintains a constant stream of communication with members through a variety of channels.

The Board shares your support for strong nutritional standards for school meals and continues to support the new calorie limits, mandates to offer a greater variety and quantity of fruit and vegetables, the 2012 whole grain mandates, 2014 sodium limits and other requirements. However, SNA’s Board has heard from an overwhelming majority of members who have encountered a myriad of problems under some of USDA’s regulations and support requests for flexibility under the most stringent requirements.

SNA’s 2015 Position Paper was developed with input from a member survey of more than 1,100 meal program operators from 49 states and ongoing feedback from SNA committees, state affiliates, regional representatives and comment blogs. Based on this input, the 2015 Position Paper does not request a waiver, but rather increased funding paired with commonsense flexibility to restore the financial stability of school meal programs and allow for menu improvements that can entice students back to healthy school meals.

We celebrate our members’ ongoing efforts to improve menus and better serve students and will continue to help members as they attempt to successfully implement the new requirements. SNA is working with USDA on its Team Up for School Nutrition Success Initiative, including a peer-to-peer mentoring program; partnering with other stakeholders on initiatives to support school meal programs and advocate for greater equipment assistance; and hosting webinars and education sessions designed to help school nutrition professionals succeed.

SNA welcomes the diversity of opinions in the Association, and the Board will always carefully consider all member feedback, including this letter, when developing and approving SNA positions. Thank you for keeping in touch.

Sincerely,

Julia Bauscher, SNS Patricia Montague, CAE
President
Chief Executive Officer

I’ll have more to say about the SNA board’s response in the coming days.  

In the meantime, if you’re a current or former SNA member who would like to join the 86 food service directors who’ve spoken out against SNA’s legislative agenda, you can sign this version of the open letter, which has been slightly edited to address the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization.  Please also share it with like-minded colleagues.  Thank you.

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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A School Nutrition Director Gives Me a Wake-Up Call

Yesterday I attended a Houston ISD Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, something I’ve done almost every month during the school year for the last four and a half years.  And while I sat through the various presentations, I reflected on how much my feelings about school food professionals have changed since I walked into my first PAC meeting in 2010.

Back then, my attitude toward the food services department could fairly be called “openly hostile.”  I knew nothing of how school food programs operated but I did know that what was being served in my kids’ elementary school cafeteria was really dismal.  If HISD’s school food professionals cared at all about kids, how could they possibly serve food like that?

But since then I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the complexities and challenges of running a school food program, which I recently referred to as one of the hardest jobs on the planet.  I’ve also come to personally know and like many of the people now running HISD’s Nutrition Services department, as well as many other school food professionals around the country. As a result, with every reform I seek on behalf of kids, I now can’t help but see other side of the coin: how those improvements will impact (often negatively) the people doing their best to keep their meal programs afloat.

And for a long time now, I’ve wondered if this knowledge is such a good thing.  I do believe that to be an effective advocate for any cause, it’s essential to understand the challenges faced by key decision makers.  But at the same time I worry that this newfound empathy has caused me to lose some of the angry fire that motivated me to get involved in the first place.  I find myself holding my tongue over problems in my own district that the old Bettina would surely have challenged, and I wonder if I’ve been co-opted.

So that’s why I wanted to share a recent exchange on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page.  I had just shared a TLT post criticizing “copycat snacks,” i.e., “better-for-you” junk food like Atomic Cheez-Its that schools can still sell a la carte under the new Smart Snacks rules.  Jeanne Reilly, a school nutrition director, responded:

As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in here for a moment. . . .  If school nutrition was funded appropriately, there would be no need to sell items outside of the meal program, but …until that day, when we are actually funded appropriately to meet the new & changing federal guidelines, we will have to continue to sell a la carte foods , and we have to sell what meets the guidelines and what students want… and what they can afford. Please understand the real complexities of school nutrition programs, inside and out before blaming the poor state of student nutrition on the SNP at your child’s school. . . .

I found myself almost nodding in agreement with Jeanne, fully understanding the financial challenges she’s facing and why she feels the need to sell this highly processed junk food.  It’s the same reason I’ve let myself turn a blind eye to the sale of similar packaged snack items in HISD, as well as our district’s sale of all natural “juice slushies” which, though no longer neon-colored, are still incredibly sugary beverages no child needs to be drinking.

But then school nutrition director Barb Mechura responded.  (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease of reading):

As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in also.

We do not need these products to balance our budgets. Do kids like them, yes. Should schools serve them – generally speaking, no. It is incredibly difficult to develop children’s taste preferences for real food vs heavily processed and marketed food, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, and the level of difficulty shouldn’t be our excuse for us to continue to operate our school nutrition programs as we have.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates

We are all looking at this from our rearview mirror, rather than out the front windshield – when we realize that we need to take our children’s health back into our hands and accept our role as adults and setting limits and expectations about what our children will learn to eat? If we approach the situation with a continued and unrelenting expectation that we WILL find ways to help them fall in love with fruits, vegetables and whole grains – we WILL indeed find ways to remove barriers, and we will change their relationship with food.

There are many, many opportunities outside of schools for children to find and choose these [junk] foods. When they find them offered in schools, there is a message that we are sending them and it’s not moderation – it is over-consumption.

If we placed awesomely-tasty chocolate chip cookies on your desk, on your credenza, on your car dashboard, on your cupboard at home, in your bedroom, in your basement – do you think you would have the will power to resist throughout the entire day? Or, would you decide to have one, which might then lead to another because it tasted so darn good, then to another, and yet still another?

This is not about willpower. Their not-yet-fully developed brains – are held hostage to the constant exposure to these foods, both inside and outside of school. We are sending our youth, our teachers, our administration subliminal messages by what we offer in a very trusted American institution. Then we complain about what the students get in the classroom, of how hard it is to compete with all the junk food in the classroom. What’s the definition of insanity…?

[Wild applause and a standing ovation from this blogger.]

The thing is, we shouldn’t need to have to choose between kids’ health and the needs of school food professionals.  We shouldn’t have to fund meal programs through the sale of sugary slushies and Atomic Cheez-Its.  Schools shouldn’t be burdened with mandates to serve healthier school food without adequate funding for that food.  They shouldn’t be expected to please kids weaned on junk food without resources like nutrition education to ease the transition.

All of that takes money, however, and the only voice capable of asking for that money from Congress is the School Nutrition Association.  But, to use Barb’s metaphor, the SNA has chosen to look in the rear view mirror by not asking for that funding, instead seeking to roll back science-based nutrition standards, as well as opposing the Smart Snacks rules and reasonable curbs on junk food school fundraising.  It isn’t looking through the windshield to seek the resources that would help schools — and students — move forward.  

If you’re an SNA member who feels the same way, please consider signing and sharing this open letter.  And, on my end, I just want to thank Barb for reminding me why I got into this area in the first place — and of where we need to go.

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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SURVEY: 75 Percent of Districts Want More Money for School Food, But SNA Still Won’t Ask For It

It’s National School Lunch Week and it’s no surprise that the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and its allies are taking this opportunity to press their case for gutting federal nutritional requirements that would make school food healthier.

SNA logoThe National School Board Association (NSBA), long aligned with the SNA on these nutritional roll-backs, yesterday released the results of a survey of 650 school leaders which reportedly found that, since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act regulations went into effect, “83.7 percent of school districts saw an increase in plate waste, 81.8 percent had an increase in cost, and 76.5 percent saw a decrease in participation by students.”

The NSBA doesn’t share its survey methodology so we have no idea whether the 650 individuals surveyed were self-selected (and therefore might have more of an axe to grind over school food regulations) or whether the phrasing of the survey questions in any way skewed the results.

But let’s take the NSBA survey at face value for a moment.

Amid the disturbing data about plate waste and lowered participation, which will surely garner a lot of media attention, an interesting statistic emerges.  According to the survey, a whopping “75 percent of school leaders encourage an increase in federal funding for school districts to comply with the new standards,” while 15% fewer of those surveyed support the “flexibility” (SNA’s favorite buzzword for: “gutting of regulations”) which the SNA is now doggedly pursuing on Capitol Hill via its high-powered lobbyists.

Ironically enough, in an “urgent message” SNA sent to its 55,000 members this week to discourage them from signing an open letter supporting healthier meal standards, the organization reassured school food professionals that it welcomes their “thoughts and concerns.”  But now a survey conducted by SNA’s own ally clearly identifies a “concern” of fully three-quarters of the school food professionals surveyed:  they would like more funding for healthier school meals.

So why isn’t the SNA, their only voice on Capitol Hill, doing anything about it?

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the SNA, previously told me that the SNA made the decision long ago to refrain from asking Congress for more money:

Although SNA is emphasizing the extremely limited funding under which school meal programs must operate, members of Congress and their staff on both sides of the aisle from key authorizing committees have made it extremely clear that additional funding will not be available for child nutrition programs as part of reauthorization.

I agree that getting more funding out of Congress would be very hard.  It always is.  But the SNA — before it launched its misguided effort to roll back healthier school meal standards – was once aligned with many widely respected voices which would have strongly supported such a request, including the American Medical Association, the Children’s Defense Fund and the retired, four-star military leaders behind Mission Readiness, to name only a few.  The association also would have been backed by a still-hugely popular First Lady, one with a powerful megaphone.  It could have relied on a recent peer-reviewed study finding that kids are actually adjusting well to healthier school food, data which supports staying the course, instead of putting itself in the incredibly awkward position of having to dispute that study.  And, perhaps most importantly, it could have come to Congress armed with new data showing that the vast majority of American parents — on both sides of the political divide – want healthier school food.

Instead, SNA squandered all of that political capital and took the easy way out.  It is now deeply entrenched in its strategy to roll back school meal standards, an effort that’s likely to intensify in the coming year as the school food law comes up for reauthorization in Congress.  If Republicans, many of whom are allied with SNA in this effort, win control of the Senate this fall, we may well see decades of work on school food reform go up in smoke.  That this outcome would be the handiwork of the very people entrusted to feed our children makes it all the more distressing.

If you are a current or former SNA member who believes your leadership is on the wrong track, please take a moment to sign and share this letter.

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Are You an SNA Member Who Supports Healthier School Food? Sign This Letter.

Yesterday I shared a forthcoming New York Times Sunday Magazine story detailing the evolution of the School Nutrition Association from one-time supporter of Michelle Obama’s school food reform to its current role as an outspoken critic of that reform.  Times political reporter Nicholas Confessore does an excellent job of exploring the factors leading to this stunning reversal, which include a recent change in SNA’s leadership, its choice of a new lobbying firm and its decision to use more aggressive legislative tactics to advance its agenda on Capitol Hill.   (My companion New York Times Motherlode piece is here.)

But clearly not all SNA members support the new public stance of the organization.  Indeed, several months ago, 19 past SNA presidents took the remarkable step of sending an open letter urging Congress to stay the course on healthier school meals.  And over the last few months, many individual food service directors have also come by this blog and its Facebook page to express their own dismay at SNA’s current position.

As the healthier school food law nears its congressional reauthorization in the coming year, it’s becoming critically important that school food professionals who support healthier school food be heard.  Accordingly, as part of a collaboration between various school food advocates and school food service directors, an open letter directed to the SNA’s Board of Directors is now being circulated with the hopes of getting as many signatures as possible.  It 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 you are a current or former member of the SNA and agree with the foregoing, please sign the letter by clicking this link and filling in the necessary information.  (If you’re not a current or former SNA member, please don’t sign this letter – no matter how much you want to help this cause!)  SNA members are also encouraged to share this link (http://goo.gl/forms/6ey4tR051gwith any colleagues who also may be willing to sign the letter.

All signatures must be collected by November 30, 2014, so please don’t delay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Michelle . . . .

Dear Michelle,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAVO, Michelle!

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Bettina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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State of the Tray: Are Healthier School Meals at Risk?

civil eats logoI’m so pleased to have a reported piece up on Civil Eats today in which I examine the question of whether the gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may be at risk due to industry pressure and students’ resistance to healthier foods.

I hope you’ll take a look!

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

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School Food Gets Its Close-Up, But Is It a Fair One?

A lot of readers have recently asked for my thoughts on the Fed Up campaign, sponsored by Do Something, which asked kids around the country to send in photos of their school meals.  (While the project has been going on for a while, it’s gotten a lot of press in the last few weeks.)

Over 25,000 people reportedly responded to Fed Up and there’s no question that some of the meal photos submitted are awful by any measure.  (And a few were really lovely.)  But is the Fed Up campaign a fair portrayal of what’s really going on in cafeterias around the country and, if it is, what can we learn from it?

First some thoughts about the photography itself.  When I started blogging here in 2010, I had a regular feature called “Notes from the Field” in which I shared cellphone photos of school meals served in my own children’s elementary school.  I eventually ended that feature because my now-teen and pre-teen kids would rather die a thousand deaths than have their mother in their cafeteria, but I also started to have some misgivings about whether these photos were fairly portraying the food in my district.

For one thing, I’ve learned the hard way that even the best food can look disgusting if poorly photographed.  For example, sometimes when I make a particularly nice dinner at home, I have the urge to share a photo and recipe on TLT.  But I’ve never bothered to learn the basics of food photography, nor do I use a real camera, and half the time the meal looks so downright gross in a cellphone photo that I decide not to share it.

Here’s one example I found in my photo library — I think this was some sort of Indian-themed dinner with whole wheat naan, raita and chutney.  I’m sure it was delicious but . . .  blech, right?

IMG_2561

You can imagine how much worse this nutritious, home-cooked and mostly organic meal would have looked slopped onto a styrofoam tray and photographed under a cafeteria’s fluorescent lights.

Dayle Hayes, the registered dietitian behind School Meals That Rock, discussed this potential for misleading photos in a comment she submitted to NPR’s The Salt blog:

It’s not shocking that DoSomething.org got young people to collect photos of gross food – they called the campaign Fed-Up and urged their followers “to start a food fight.” When I viewed the photos, many were from community colleges, universities and other sites not covered by any K-12 school meal regulations. And, to further compound the inaccuracies, they did not show food as served, but as arranged on a tray by the photographer, maybe to look particularly mysterious or unappetizing. Some schools may have had salad bars and many other items not chosen – just to make things look as bad as possible.

And I also agree with Hayes that some of the Fed Up photos don’t seem to be “school lunches” at all.  Take a look at this one, for example:

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 6.26.53 AM

No school is allowed to sell soda as part of the federally subsidized meal program, and fruits and vegetables are now required meal components.  This meal could’ve come from a school snack bar line (though not after the new competitive food rules go into effect in July 2014) but I suspect it might not have been purchased in a K-12 school at all.

On a related note, to the extent that any of these photos were taken before this school year, they also don’t reflect the huge gains made with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the first major overhaul to school meal standards in many years. Dale Hayes articulates this point well in this Huffington Post article.

But let’s assume that the majority of the bad meals in the Fed Up gallery are accurate depictions of what’s going on right now in school cafeterias.  What can we do?

Fed Up hopes to empower kids to take action by providing an advocacy kit geared toward students. I love the idea of involving kids in school food reform — who has more of a stake in the issue? —  and I like how the kit lays out, in understandable terms, all the basics of school food advocacy.  (Indeed, it’s a great starting point for interested adults, too.)  I was also glad to see that Fed Up reminds kids to approach reform with a positive attitude and to “RESPECT WHOMEVER YOU ARE SPEAKING WITH. Remember everyone works hard to make sure every student has access to lunch.” Amen to that.

But I do worry that Fed Up is creating some unrealistic goals for kids when it comes to school food.  For example, my hair stood on end when I read this highly misleading statement from Fed Up:

There is no major cost difference between nutritious and not nutritious food at schools: 55% of student being served very healthy food report their lunch costing under $2, compared to 55% of students being served food with no nutritional value

Just because two meal programs charge the same price for lunch doesn’t mean that they can produce the same meal.  One district might be in an area with low labor costs, which would make scratch-cooking more feasible, while another might have to pay top dollar for labor.  One district might have a gleaming, well-equipped central food preparation facility like Houston’s (at the cost of $51 million to taxpayers) and another might have school “kitchens” that look a lot more like a janitor’s closet.  (Check out this recent infographic for more on the state of school kitchen infrastructure.)  One district’s food services program might get milked by the district for various overhead costs (garbage collection, electricity, etc.) while another district might absorb some of these costs. All of these factors (and many more) can affect how much money a district can direct toward the food itself.

Similarly, Fed Up tells kids to agitate for more local produce (“We want our food delivered, not FedEx’d!”).  That’s a great goal but Houston ISD, arguably one of the leading districts in the country when it comes to improving school food, has been struggling for years to source local produce and it has yet to meet its stated goal of sourcing 25% of the produce from local farms.  Indeed, for a while Houston and other districts were having real trouble sourcing any fresh fruit at all, from any part of the country, due to the higher demand created by the new school food regulations, which resulted in USDA actually canceling confirmed orders for commodity fresh fruit.

My bottom line is this:  empowering kids to speak up about their food is a fantastic idea, and districts doing a legitimately bad job in preparing school meals certainly need to be taken to task.  But districts are still unconscionably underfunded when it comes to school food, and Big Food still plays too large of a lobbying role in shaping what appears on kids’ trays.  So I’d love to take all the youthful energy stirred up by Fed Up and channel it where it might do the most good — the United States Congress.

What do you think about the Fed Up photos?  Am I being too much of an apologist for school districts?  Let me know what you think.

_________

[Ed. Note:  No doubt in light of the media attention created by the Fed Up photos, USA Today is now getting in on the action, asking kids to submit photos this week for their own feature on the subject.  Dayle Hayes is ready with some tips on how to better photograph a school  meal.]

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