While We Were Out: A Kid/Food News Round-Up

while you were celebratingHappy 2015, TLT’ers!  

I think I forgot to mention here that I was taking a hiatus from blogging, but if you happened to notice my three weeks of silence on TLT, you probably figured that out.  :-)

My blogging break started in late December, when I had the pleasure of attending (and speaking at) a conference in Washington, DC arranged by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Charitable Trusts.  It was a gathering of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity “Council of States,” which meant I had the chance to meet and talk with leading food policy advocates from all over the country.  For someone who usually does this sort of work alone at her kitchen table, it was an incredibly stimulating and educational two days, so huge thanks to CSPI and the Pew Charitable Trusts for inviting me to attend!

And now here’s a round-up of some of the kid/food news you may have missed while you were relaxing and celebrating with your families:

More On Home-Packed vs. Cafeteria Lunches

Another study has found that home-packed lunches are, statistically speaking, nutritionally subpar as compared to cafeteria lunches.  I addressed another study’s similar findings back in July and my take is this: school meals may well be superior to home packed lunches from a “nutritionism” standpoint, in that every nutrient in school meals is analyzed and accounted for.  But a myopic focus on nutrients can still result in a very highly processed, chemical-filled meal that many parents choose to avoid. That said, for parents with few resources or little nutrition education, school lunch is no doubt vastly superior to home packed lunches, if a lunch can even be packed at all.  That’s why I so strongly support the National School Lunch Program and will continue to work hard to defend the new, healthier school meal standards.

Which leads us to….

Republican Congress Gearing Up to Weaken School Nutrition Standards

We’ve certainly known this was coming, but Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico has written an informative preview of how the new, Republican-controlled Congress is planning on rolling back several key Obama administration food policy initiatives, including improvements to school food.  This is a serious challenge for school food advocates, and we’ll be talking more about it in the weeks and months ahead.

Maybe Family Dinner Isn’t So Endangered After All

Or so says the Washington Post.

Getting Junk Food Out of Classroom Parties

Out of concern over student health and food allergies, several school districts in Pennsylvania clean up their classroom parties.  (Hat tip: SNA Smart Brief)

Is Fast Food Adversely Affecting Children’s Brains?

A study discussed in the Washington Post (and many other news outlets) found an inverse correlation between children’s fast food consumption and their test scores, even when factors like socioeconomic status were ruled out.  What was most astonishing to me was this troubling 2008 statistic cited in the WashPo story: “Nearly a third of American kids between the ages of 2 and 11 — and nearly half of those aged 12 to 19 — eat or drink something from a fast food restaurant each day.”

Does the Timing of Recess Reduce School Food Waste?

It’s long been believed that allowing kids to take recess before lunch leads to greater fruit and vegetable consumption and less food waste, but a new study reported on by Reuters says otherwise.

Coming Soon: The Lunch Tray’s Makeover!

Finally, before the month is out I’ll be unveiling an entirely new look for The Lunch Tray.  I’ve been working on the design with the super-talented Rita Barry, aka Blog Genie, and while I might be a tad biased, I think it’s just so pretty.   :-)  In connection with the blog’s relaunch I’ve also created lots of helpful new resources which I can’t wait to share with you.  Stay tuned.

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#Thanks4RealMichelleObama

You may have already heard about a new Twitter hashtag that’s making national news: disgruntled kids are taking photos of their unappetizing school lunches and sharing them on Twitter with a sarcastic #thanksmichelleobama.  A recent Buzz Feed post about the trend has already received an astonishing two million views.

Some of the photos shared by students are indeed stomach-turning.  This one in particular has received a lot of attention, for obvious reasons:

gross lunch
click on the photo to enlarge

I have a few things to say about all this:

  • First, a word to the kids tweeting these photos.  Um, guys, you know Michelle Obama’s not actually in your school kitchen, right?  The First Lady supports common sense nutrition standards, like “kids need more fruits and vegetables,” but she has nothing to do with school menus (that would be your district) and she’s never instructed anyone to put disgusting glop on your tray.  Whoever prepared the travesty pictured above probably should be publicly shamed — but that person isn’t Michelle Obama.
  • This isn’t the first time photos of unappetizing school food have gone viral; last year I wrote a post (“School Food Gets Its Close-Up, But Is It a Fair One?”) about another, similar campaign.  Kids griping about school food is a time-honored tradition that’s likely been going on for as long as we’ve had school food, and certainly well before we had cell phones, but that doesn’t mean all school meals are bad.  In fact, some are pretty great.
  • As I wrote in the post mentioned above, if you’re using a cell phone camera to make food look as disgusting as possible, you’re likely to succeed.  Even when I use my cell phone camera to make food look good, I sometimes fail miserably. Here’s an Indian dinner I once cooked for my family including chana masala, whole wheat naan, homemade raita and chutney:

IMG_2561

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say this meal was delicious, but I’m guessing few of you would want to try it based on this photo.  And you can imagine how much worse this nutritious, home-cooked and mostly organic meal would have looked slopped onto a styrofoam tray and photographed under a cafeteria’s fluorescent lights, especially if the photographer were trying to make it look terrible.

  • Here’s another example.  This #thanksmichelleobama photo appeared in the New York Daily News and many other outlets and, at first glance, it looks awful.
click on the photo to enlarge
click on the photo to enlarge

But if you take a minute, you’ll realize you’re looking at some pretty benign refried beans with melted cheese, next to a tortilla.  I happen to live in Tex-Mex country and can tell you that no extreme close-up of refried beans (especially when served with an ice-cream scoop) is ever going to look much better than that.

  • But what annoys me most about the #thanksmichelleobama hashtag is how, predictably, it’s been seized upon by some on the political right in their never-ending campaign to demonize the First Lady for – gasp! – supporting science-based nutritional standards for school food.  These standards were not her creation; rather, they were recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and are considered the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.” And, by the way, when Congress authorized the USDA to improve school food (which led the USDA to commission the IOM report), the sitting president at the time wasn’t Democrat Barack Obama.  It was Republican George W. Bush.

Now let me tell you why I’m saying, without a trace of sarcasm and with profound gratitude, #Thanks4RealMichelleObama:

  • In 2010, Congress passed the most sweeping overhaul of school food in decades, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  That landmark event might not have happened without the First Lady’s determined and vocal support of the law in the months leading up to its passage.
  • Under the HHFKA, kids are now being served less sodium, fat and sugar and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, all of which is consistent with those IOM recommendations.  Those changes are critical if this and future generations are to reverse current trends toward obesity and diet-related disease.
  • According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “Our nation’s schools and schoolchildren are thriving under the new standards. School lunch revenue is up.”
  • A recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed that kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch — and that figure is likely to go up significantly as the new standards become more familiar to students over time.
  • A peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity found that, after initial complaints, kids now actually like the healthier school food.  It also found that among socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”
  • Under the HHFKA’s direct certification and community eligibility provisions, more economically disadvantaged kids than ever now have easy access to school food, which for many is their primary source of daily nutrition.

If you’re a Twitter user and agree that these significant accomplishments are worthy of some gratitude, please click here to automatically send this message to the First Lady, or use my hashtag #Thanks4RealMichelleObama with your own text:

Thanks @FLOTUS for championing healthier school food for all kids! http://ctt.ec/X418t+   #Thanks4RealMichelleObama #thanksmichelleobama

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What the Midterm Elections Mean for School Food

Whether you voted red, blue or purple in this week’s midterm elections, you and your viewpoints are always welcome on The Lunch Tray.

But there are times when political partisanship directly impacts the kid-and-food issues I cover and, unfortunately, that’s the case for school food reform.  As the New York Times reported in a recent Sunday Magazine feature story, “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” the School Nutrition Association has aligned itself with Congressional Republicans to roll back some key nutritional improvements to school food.  Now that Republicans have control of both the House and Senate, it seems all the more likely that the SNA will succeed in this effort.

The mechanism for gutting school food reform in the short term likely will be the appropriations process. As Politico‘s Morning Agriculture report observed yesterday:

Now that they’ve secured the Senate, Republicans have a clear avenue for doing away with . . . the USDA’s new school lunch standards: spending legislation.

By 4:30 a.m. EST today, even with many individual contests unknown, it was apparent the GOP had wrested away control of the Senate from the Democrats and gained even more control in the House. Now it’s time for Congress to get back to work, and a top priority, when both chambers open for business again on the Hill next week, will be to address the current short-term spending bill that only funds the government through Dec. 11.

In all four approaches available to Congress for passing spending legislation, the GOP would have an opportunity to attach riders that could sink their least favorite Obama initiatives – either by defunding or otherwise weakening key policies.

Historically, the federal school lunch program has had bipartisan support.  This makes sense given that all of us, no matter our political persuasion, have a stake in nourishing the next generation well.  But now many powerful forces are aligned against school food reform:  the processed food industry, which has a huge financial stake in the program and powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill;  the need of school districts to make their meal programs break even; First Lady Michelle Obama’s vocal support of school food reform, which has politicized the issue for some conservatives hoping to score political points;  and conservatives’ general distrust of “big government.”  (See also this 2011 TLT post: “Why Is Childhood Obesity a Red State/Blue State Issue?“)

But it might be worth stepping back and remembering that the nutritional standards now at risk  — more whole grains, lower sodium, more fruits and vegetables — were not the brainchild of President Obama, Michelle Obama or government bureaucrats.  They were science-based recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, recommendations which were referred to at the time of their release as representing the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.”

Adhering to these standards is inarguably better for children’s immediate and long-term health.  Period.  And that’s what’s getting lost in this political fight.

Those of us who support robust school food reform must do our best to have our voices are heard on this issue and I’ll have more to say about that in the weeks ahead.  But, in the meantime, it’s all the more important that SNA members who disagree with their organization’s legislative agenda make their feelings known.  If you’re a current or former SNA member who supports the healthier school food standards, please sign and share this open letter.  The deadline for signatures is November 30th.  Thank you.

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Stunning and Perverse: SNA Challenges a Study Finding That Kids Like Healthier School Food

Imagine a restaurant getting a great review, only to have the chef call the newspaper to complain that the critic was sorely mistaken and the restaurant’s food isn’t as good as the review made it out to be.

That bizarre scenario was all I could think of when I received an email yesterday from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), relaying SNA president Julia Bauscher’s refutation of a new, peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity finding that kids actually like the healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

Specifically, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers asked school administrators at 537 elementary schools about their students’ reactions to school meals after the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements went into effect.  Just over half of the respondents said their students initially complained about nutritionally improved school meals, but 70% agreed their students now actually like the lunches.  Even more encouraging, the study found that at socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance to student health), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”

For anyone who cares about school food reform and the health of America’s school children, these findings are great news.

But, perversely, this good news actually poses a serious threat to the SNA, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals.  That’s because, despite having supported the HHFKA’s passage back in 2010, the SNA is now fighting vigorously to roll back in Congress many of the law’s key nutritional requirements — and it is doing so on the grounds that kids are allegedly rejecting healthier school food en masse.

The organization has so become entrenched in promoting this pessimistic view of student acceptance (despite contrary evidence from school districts around the country), that it raised eyebrows even among some of its own members by refusing to allow Sam Kass, former White House chef and Executive Director of Let’s Move!, to speak at its annual national conference in Boston last week.  And the SNA previously saw 19 of its past presidents break ranks in an open letter to Congress — an extraordinary, public display of the internal strife over the SNA’s current legislative agenda.

It was hard for me to imagine the situation getting much uglier, until yesterday’s email presented the truly bizarre spectacle of the very people dedicated to preparing healthful school meals seeking to discredit reliable evidence that kids actually like those meals.

I’m disgusted and saddened by this turn of events.  Back in May, I wrote a post (“School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?) to convey my respect and empathy for school food service directors (FSDs) around the country, who I sincerely believe have one of the hardest jobs imaginable.  Through no fault of FSDs, the National School Lunch Program, as it is currently conceived, often directly pits their legitimate financial concerns against the nutritional needs of the children they serve. But instead of trying to bridge that gap by fighting for funding and other support for struggling school districts, the SNA, which claims in its mission statement to be “committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs,” chose to take the easy way out.

Just imagine how differently things would look today if the SNA had decided to stay the course on healthier school food. Instead of engaging in an unseemly, public battle with the White House, the organization could be closely allied with a still-hugely popular First Lady to jointly advance the cause of improved school nutrition, able to take advantage of all the prime PR opportunities only someone like Michelle Obama can offer.  Instead of using its considerable muscle on Capitol Hill to weaken or kill hard-fought legislative gains, the SNA could be using its clout to push Congress into helping the schools that need it.  And instead of churlishly lobbing criticism at this latest school food study, it could rely on the study to support its efforts — as well as joining with the rest of us in celebrating what is, unequivocally, very good news.

Nonetheless, despite this study’s encouraging findings, I’ll be keeping my champagne on ice.  Because regardless of what happens with SNA’s desired one-year waiver language in the pending 2015 appropriations bill, the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is looming large and the SNA clearly views the CNR as its best chance to permanently roll back key HHFKA nutrition standards relating to sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and a la carte offerings.

So, all those elementary school kids* who grew accustomed to — and eventually grew to like — healthier school food?  If the SNA has its way, they might not be seeing it for much longer.

_________________

* Many of us in the school food reform world have long predicted that elementary school kids would be the first to come around to healthier school food because they haven’t had years of seeing junk food in their cafeterias. More here: “Putting My Money on the Class of 2024.”

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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Politico Spotlights the Power of Consumer Food Petitions

Just FYI, this weekend’s lead story on Politico, “Food Fight: Consumers Revolt Online,” discusses the ever-growing impact of online petitions in changing our food supply.

The story features my successful Change.org petition in 2012 regarding the use of lean, finely textured beef (aka “pink slime”) in school food, and goes on to discuss subsequent petition campaigns on food-related issues.  The story is also slated to appear in Monday’s print version of the magazine.

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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My Houston Chronicle Op-Ed re: Saving School Lunch

For those interested, I have an editorial in today’s (Sunday) Houston Chronicle regarding the current school food controversy.

In it, I discuss how Texas (yes, Texas!) has been a leader in school nutrition, and how our congressional delegation should carry on that  proud tradition by rejecting language in the pending appropriations bill that would allow districts to opt out of improved school nutrition standards.

You can read the full text of the editorial here, and thanks to the Chron for giving me the opportunity to share my views with its readership.

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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Will Change in House Leadership Affect the School Food Debate? (And More Kid-Food News)

With all that’s going on in the kid-and-food world these days, I’m getting sucked back into my old five-day-a-week posting schedule against my will!  :-)  Here’s the latest:

SNA Asks For A Sit-Down with FLOTUS

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has asked for a meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss school meal waivers. Because new school breakfast standards go into effect on July 1, the SNA characterizes its request for a meeting as “urgent.”  The full text of the SNA’s letter is here (hat tip: Politico Morning Ag).

Will New House Leadership Influence the Current School Food Fight?

Following the stunning primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the House yesterday elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to the position.  Today’s Politico Morning Ag reports that McCarthy’s election is being “well received” by the produce industry and:

it’s no wonder. The district he represents, the 23rd in California, includes the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural growing regions in the world. . . .

McCarthy “understands the importance of the fresh produce industry to his state’s economy and of the nation,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication at the United Fresh Produce Association, in a statement to MA. “We look forward to working closely with the new House majority leader to address produce industry priorities on immigration reform, nutrition and other issues.”

Meanwhile, as you know, SNA is on record as championing a return to “offer versus serve” for produce in school meals (meaning that kids could pass up fruits and vegetables instead of being required to take them each day), a position that has been strongly opposed — for obvious reasons – by the produce industry.  Furthermore, if SNA’s current request for school meal waiver language in the  2015 appropriations bill is successful, schools obtaining such waivers are very likely to return to the old system, causing harm to the produce industry.

So could this change in House leadership tip the scales against SNA’s campaign for waiver language in the House appropriations bill?  This is just speculation on my part, but it seems possible.

Detroit’s School Food Director Makes the Case for No Waivers

Meanwhile, Betti Wiggins, executive director of the Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition, makes the case for staying the course on healthier school food in the Detroit News.  It’s a strong op-ed worth reading.

FLOTUS Champions Home Economics Classes

The Wall Street Journal reports that the First Lady is working with the Department of Education to help schools provide kids with cooking literacy.  I’m thrilled to hear this, as a return of Home Economics is one of the key elements in the “Rx for Childhood Obesity” discussed this week in my post “A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow.” (BTW, that post is now on the HuffPo under a new title and in a slightly edited form.)

My “Rx for Childhood Obesity” – Now Free of Typos! 

And speaking of that “Rx,” I was mortified this morning when a TLT reader pointed out that my graphic misspelled, yes, the word “education.”  O.M.G.  Here’s a corrected version for anyone who still wants to share it.

rx

Have a great weekend, all.  More TLT coming your way next week.

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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Do House Republicans Now Regret Picking a School Food Fight?

Maybe so.

In a piece published on SF Gate earlier this week, Carolyn Lochhead reports that repeated delays in the House on the school food waiver vote indicate to Democrats that:

Republicans have concluded they’re on the losing side of the school lunch fight, which has touched off a firestorm in Washington and schools across the country. . . .

“I think they pulled the bill because they didn’t know if they had enough of their own votes,” said Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, the top Democrat on the House Appropriationsagriculture subcommittee, who is leading the fight against the waiver. “Members go home, they pick up from the newspapers the feedback of what’s happening in Washington, and I think the longer this issue is on front pages the more difficulty they have in passing their provision.”

If there really is a weakening of resolve among House Republicans, this means that grass roots efforts and negative press are working, so please keep up the pressure.  This recent Lunch Tray post contains several very easy steps you can take to show your support for healthier school meals, and most of them don’t take more than a few seconds.

Thank you!

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

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A School Food News Round-Up

The House of Representatives won’t take up the controversial school food waiver issue until next week, but there’s still news to share regarding the fight over healthier school meals:

Former USDA Child Nutrition Director Resigns in Protest from School Nutrition Association

The Hagstrom Report (subscription only) reports that Stan Garnett, former director of child nutrition at the Agriculture Department, “has resigned from the School Nutrition Association over its efforts to encourage members to lobby Congress to pass a bill requiring the USDA to waive healthier school meal requirements to any school that says it has lost money in the program for six months.”

In an email obtained by the Hagstrom Report, Garnett reportedly told SNA’s CEO, Patti Montague:

I was very much offended by the personalized e-blast I received this week from the School Nutrition Association asking me to lobby my congressional delegation to vote for a waiver provision of the new nutritional standards for the school meals programs. . . .

As you know, I have been involved with these programs for many years and worked closely with SNA and other advocacy groups to expand and improve the programs. I felt we were always guided by the words in the Declaration of Policy in the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, “TO SAFEGUARD THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF THE NATION’S CHILDREN.”

Alice Waters: “The Fate of Our Nation Rests on School Lunches”

Pioneering chef, author and sustainable food activist Alice Waters makes an impassioned case in Time magazine not just for staying the course for healthier school food, but thinking bigger about feeding our nation’s children:

 The idea of school lunch as an egalitarian mechanism to nourish our nation’s potential has long been discarded and devalued. We are faced with an enormous crisis of health, education and inequality.

We need to have the courage and conviction to establish a nutritious, sustainable, free school-lunch program for all.

The incremental steps the First Lady has fought for, as valuable as they are, are never going to address the challenges we are facing.

More here.

More on Universal School Meals

While Waters and others have long advocated for universal (free for all) school meals, a provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is allowing communities with high rates of economically impoverished children to institute just that: meal programs that are free to all students, regardless of family income, with no paperwork required.  Matt Bruenig of Slate discusses “community eligibility” here, both its benefits and limitations.  And NPR discusses the difficulties New York City potentially faces if it takes advantage of the option.

Losing the Forest for the Trees?

Later this morning, I’ll have a guest post on Corporate Accountability International’s blog which steps back and offers a basic primer on the current school lunch battle: how we got here and where we may be headed.  The post isn’t up yet, but when it is I’ll add the link here and share it on the Lunch Tray’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.

[Ed. Update, 6/17/14 3:00pm CST: Post updated to change Patti Montague’s title from “president” to “CEO” and to add the link to my post on Corporate Accountability International’s blog.]

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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My Interview with Dora Rivas, Former President of the School Nutrition Association

Dora Rivas, Executive Director, Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services
Dora Rivas, Executive Director, Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services

Several weeks ago, 19 past presidents of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) made news by sending an open letter urging Congress to stay the course on healthier school meals.

In doing so, these individuals publicly broke rank with their own organization, which is currently urging Congress to include in the 2015 appropriations bill language which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier meal standards.  (Though such waivers would be for only one year, many advocates view this effort as a first step toward permanently rolling back key nutritional requirements.)

One of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter is Dora Rivas, MS, RDN, SNS and Executive Director of Dallas ISD’s Food & Child Nutrition Services. Rivas has worked in school food for 34 years, winning a number of awards for the district meal programs she’s supervised.  She served as SNA president from 2009-10 and is recognized as a leader among school food professionals.  In fact, when I spoke to Rivas yesterday she was in Washington, D.C. as an invited guest of the First Lady for her Summer Harvest in the White House Kitchen Garden, one of just three school food professionals invited by the White House to the event.

Despite the big day ahead of her, Rivas was kind enough to grant me an interview.  Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

TLT:  Yesterday I was on the SNA’s conference call and I had the chance to ask SNA CEO Patti Montague about the letter you and the other 18 past presidents sent to Congress.  Montague told me that only the current board speaks for the SNA and she seemed to imply that the past presidents are out of touch,  in that she said you “aren’t speaking to the members.”  Do you have any comment on her statement?

DR:  I talk to colleagues across the country and I belong to a number of different school food organizations, such as the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group.  I’m not in isolation. I think I understand and am sensitive to the struggles a lot of food service directors are experiencing, and even though I’m from a large district, I’ve worked in a small district, I still stay in touch with that district, and I know their concerns.

TLT:  To what degree is there a rift between the past presidents and the current SNA leadership?

DR: I think SNA agrees that we’ve made a lot of progress.  The majority of districts are doing an amazing job and have worked very, very hard to meet the standards.  I think that there’s a lot more that we agree on than disagree on. The same concerns that SNA has, I share.

TLT:  But you do disagree about the request for waivers?

DR: I can’t speak for the entire group of past presidents but I’ve heard a number say that they are concerned with the fact that it would be very difficult for the USDA to administer these opt-outs.  For example, in Dallas, I’m able to break even, but even I could make my program look like it was not breaking even for six months [a requirement for districts seeking a waiver].  So I think it would be hard to administer.

The other thing the SNA and the past presidents disagree on is strategy, more than on nutrition standards.  The SNA’s interest is not to “roll back” the standards, but that may be the intent of Congress.  And that’s a concern: putting this in the hands of Congress [versus working with USDA] is a little risky.  The past presidents feel there’s still an opportunity to work with USDA on sodium, whole grains and competitive foods.

To slow things down and ask for “flexibility” for a certain segment of school food professionals is a Band-Aid. We should be asking for help on finding solutions and working together toward what these districts need to break even or to meet the standards, or to help industry meet the standards.  And so I think we [the past presidents] are looking more for a solution as opposed to delaying.

TLT:  Do you feel the SNA should be asking Congress for more funding to implement healthier school meals?

DR: Yes, healthier meals do cost more money.  The SNA says it was told it [more funding] was out of the question.  But we [the past presidents] have asked for money in the past.  And the whole NSLP [National School Lunch Program] costs the country money as an investment in raising healthier adults.  It’s an investment.  Right now we have a national obesity problem, so why aren’t we asking for money to raise healthier students, to support coordinated school health, for more nutrition education, more collaboration with partners, parents and the community to encourage children to try new foods, to develop recipes, to provide technical assistance and set professional standards?  All of those things together cost more money, but it’s an investment in having healthier students and reducing childhood obesity.  Saying, “let’s give schools more time” is only a short-term solution, not a long-term solution.

And I know there are a lot of allied organizations that would support SNA to achieve the common goals we share.

TLT:  You mean, other organizations would support SNA in a request to Congress for more money?

DR:  Yes.  When I see FRAC [Food Research & Action Center] and so many other allied associations taking a different position from SNA, I think they would support SNA in asking for more investment in our school meal programs, for technical assistance and for helping states help districts.

Let’s identify the districts that are struggling and let’s help them be successful.  We need to all sit down at the table and figure out a strategic plan to get there, with solution-based proposals rather than short-term solutions.  Because those districts will still be struggling a year from now.  The solution for them is more money.  If we really want more fruits and vegetables, that does cost money.

Also, [with respect to a requirement that breakfasts next year must include a full cup of fruit], there have never been any commodities or additional funds allocated for the additional fruit, so I think that’s another area where SNA should be asking Congress for money. Even if the additional fruit is provided through the commodity program, that would help the farmers and the school districts.

The SNA has been given the impression that asking for any money out of the question.  But the position of the past presidents is, why is it that off the table?

TLT:  There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the fact that SNA gets much of its funding from the food industry.  To what degree do you feel the food industry is driving SNA’s current agenda?

DR: I think it’s a partnership.  The food industry has been very supportive of achieving these standards and many companies have already invested a lot of money to meet the standards.  So some companies would actually stand to lose if the standards are rolled back.

And I don’t question SNA’s integrity.  I’ve been involved in the board and am familiar with their protocols for sponsorship, and they try to be equitable and fair. I don’t think the SNA is driven any more strongly by the food industry than by other lobbyists for other initiatives.  A lot of members can’t afford high memberships, so the SNA has the lowest income of most organizations, and they’re strongly subsidized.  But the decision-making at the SNA is made by the board and the executive team together.  I’m not able to answer for how much influence the industry has, but I don’t have any reason to question their integrity.

TLT:  What are your predictions about the outcome of the current school meal debate?

DR:  I’m concerned about it.  I think school districts will have done a lot of work to improve their meals but their community will not know whether or not they’re going backwards.  The perception in the media right now is that school meals are going to be less healthy, and parents won’t know which districts are still meeting the standards [and which have sought waivers].  And that’s bad, because we were already having trouble promoting a healthy image for school food.

TLT:  Do you have any final thoughts on the relationship between the SNA and the past presidents, or where you go from here?

DR:  I think the position between the past presidents and the SNA has been perceived to be adversarial when really the relationship is misunderstood.  We’re trying to see how we can support the standards and find solutions instead of delaying and creating more confusion.

There is absolutely some tension and there are different personalities at work.  Patti [Montague] is very passionate.  But we have not all sat down to talk because this has moved so quickly.  The SNA put out its position paper and we knew these were the things they were asking for.  But it wasn’t until the House bill that we understood the implications, and that’s when the 19 of us got together to say, this isn’t the solution.  This was going on on the Hill very quickly and there was no time for debate or discussion, so there has been no dialogue [between the SNA and the past presidents].

But I’m hopeful that we can have that dialogue, because we’re members as well and there’s a number of past presidents who are not retired, who are still in the trenches, so that dialogue has to continue.  We can’t stop talking to each other, and there’s still an opportunity to talk to USDA.

SNA may be too entrenched now to want to modify their position, and they’ve got different counsel, and it takes a lot to change positions once they’re approved by the board.  But I’m hoping we can move forward and have discussions, because we all share common goals.

* * *

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An Update on (What Else?) the School Lunch Fight

SNA logoYesterday, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) held a conference call to defend its support of a legislative amendment which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier school meal standards.  Such waivers would be for only one year but the amendment, if passed, is widely seen as a first step in chipping away permanently at the nutritional advances of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

The SNA call featured eight school food service directors who described how various HHFKA provisions have negatively impacted their programs.  Most of the complaints were by now familiar – namely, increased cost, reduced revenue and food waste, with “it’s not nutrition unless the child eats it” a frequent refrain.  But one or two speakers offered more novel arguments, such as increased stigma for children on free and reduced price lunch (when paying students leave the program) and attempting to draw a connection between California’s drought and wasted fruits and vegetables.

I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the speakers or the accuracy of the data they presented, but, like many school food advocates, I continue to be disappointed that SNA seeks a roll-back of healthier meal standards as the solution.  When asked by a reporter why SNA has not instead sought increased funding from Congress, SNA CEO Patti Montague offered the same response I received months ago from SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner, i.e., that the SNA “was told”  that such a request was a nonstarter on Capitol Hill.

A few points in particular caught my attention during the call:

  • In defending the SNA’s desire to return to “offer versus serve,” i.e., the old system in which kids could choose (or not choose) to take fruits and vegetables at lunch, one school food director said “we trained them to make healthy choices [under OVS] but now we’re forcing them to take items they will not eat.”  Does anyone else see a disconnect there?  If the kids were enthusiastically taking fruits and vegetables under the old system, why is it a problem that those foods are now required meal components?
  • Two of the food service directors complained that new sodium requirements will keep schools from serving turkey or roasted chicken sandwiches on whole grain bread as “a la carte” items.  That does seem unreasonable, but I’d be interested to know what percentage of a la carte (snack bar) revenue nationwide is currently derived from the sale of healthful turkey sandwiches, versus relatively non-nutritive foods like chips and other salty snacks?  This sounds to me like the spurious “hard boiled egg” talking point all over again, but I’m open to receiving any data to the contrary.
  • SNA CEO Montague, in attempting to correct what she described as gross inaccuracies in the media, said it’s a “fallacy” that 60 to 70 percent of the SNA’s funding comes from food industry sponsorships.  Instead, the correct figure is . . . 50 percent.  Somehow that clarification didn’t reassure me that the food industry has no influence over SNA’s legislative agenda.
  • A reporter mentioned that many of the districts she’d spoken to in Minnesota were not having any particular difficulty meeting the healthier standards.  The SNA reply (and I’m sorry that my notes don’t reflect the particular speaker) was rather surprising: “If they’re not asking for relief, it’s because they don’t know what’s ahead of them.”  In other words, only an ignorant or incompetent school food service director could possibly oppose SNA’s agenda.  On behalf of the many districts around the country which are successfully meeting the current meal requirements and are fully prepared to meet the forthcoming ones, I found that statement insulting.
  • I asked CEO Montague for comment on the fact that 19 past SNA presidents have taken the rather extraordinary step of publicly breaking rank with the organization by urging Congress to reject the waiver amendment.  Montague’s reply was that “only the board speaks for the organization and they [the 19 past presidents] aren’t speaking to the members.” When I asked in a follow-up if she could explain the cause of this obvious rift in the organization, she simply said, “We don’t know,” followed by a long silence.

On that latter point, I’m due to speak today with one of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter to Congress.  If he/she agrees to be interviewed on the record, I’ll certainly share our conversation here.

And now a few other items to keep you abreast of the school meal controversy:

Debate on Waiver Continues in the House

Yesterday marked the beginning of House debate on the waiver language, with Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) seeking to strip the waiver from the House spending bill.  He was joined in the fight by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), along with chef Tom Colicchio.  More here.  As of last night, no vote had been taken.

White House Threatens Veto

In a statement issued on Tuesday, White House threatened to veto the spending bill if it contains the school meal waiver, saying that such a bill would be “a major step backwards for the health of American children by undermining the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food.”

Senate Holds First Child Nutrition Reauthorization Hearing Today

The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold its first hearing today on the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, well ahead of schedule and no doubt in response to the roiling school food debate.  Details at Obama Foodorama.

fed upFed Up Producers Make a Special Delivery to Congress

To coincide with debate on the waiver, Laurie David and Stephanie Soechtig, co-producers of the new documentary film “Fed Up,” delivered red and blue M&M’s to the 29 House members who voted in favor of the waiver in committee last week.  In a statement, the producers said of these legislators:

They might be out on the town today enjoying a leafy salad, followed by a leisurely trip to the Congressional gym, but once they get back to their office they’ll have a reminder on their desk that the policies they support would give kids garbage to eat five days a weeks, 200 days a year.

More here.

[Ed Update: This post was updated on 6/12/14 at 10:15 CST to add mention of the Senate CNR hearing.]

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More on the School Nutrition Association’s Ties to Big Food

In earlier posts discussing the School Nutrition Association’s push to roll back healthier school meal standards, I’ve noted that the organization receives significant funding from corporate “patrons” such as ConAgra, Kraft and PepsiCo.

pizzasliceYesterday the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) AgMag Blog offered a much closer look at those corporate ties, as well as the role of SNA’s lobbyists which, in addition to representing SNA, boast a roster of Big Food clients that includes General Mills, Kraft Foods, the North American Meat Association, the National Confectioners Association and the National Frozen Pizza Institute (whose members include Con Agra and Schwan.)  

This interlocking relationship isn’t surprising, given how the food industry would clearly benefit from a roll-back of healthier meal standards.  If SNA is successful, Big Food will not incur the considerable expense of reformulating products to further increase whole grain content and lower sodium, all while pleasing kids’ notoriously picky palates.  Perhaps even more importantly, popular “carnival foods” like pizza and french fries will continue to be allowed in school snack bars on a daily  basis, instead of appearing only on the same day on which those same items appeared on the lunch line.  Pizza is a big seller in most cafeteria a la carte lines, and we’ve already seen how ConAgra and Schwan (major suppliers of frozen school pizza) decisively crushed an earlier attempt to limit pizza in cafeterias (i.e., the infamous “pizza = vegetable” debacle in 2011.)

It’s important to note, however, (as I did here), that even if SNA’s legislative agenda is driven by the food industry, SNA’s members’ concerns, such as increased food waste and cost, may still be legitimate. And absent its financial dependence upon the food industry, I’d like to believe SNA would be taking a different approach to solving those problems, such as seeking more funding for healthier food, improved kitchen facilities, logistical support and nutrition education for kids.

Unfortunately, though, as the AgMag post and other reports make clear, that ship has already sailed.  Instead of carrying out its stated mission — “advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy” — SNA has chosen to align itself with Big Food.  That’s a win-win for the food industry and for school food directors solely focused on their financial bottom line.

The only losers are the kids.

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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Houston ISD Offering Meatless Entrees on Mondays

With all the school food developments happening on the federal level these days, I’m a bit late in reporting some nice news from my own backyard.

Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation, recently announced its new “Lean and Green” initiative: offering its students meatless school meal entrees on Mondays.

Elementary and middle school students can now choose a vegetarian entree each Monday, and on the second Monday of the month only meat-free options are offered.  Meatless items have included bean and cheese burritos, cheese enchiladas, pasta with marinara sauce, and spicy grilled cheese sandwiches.  (The district has actually been serving meatless entrees for several months but waited to confirm student and parent acceptance of the new menu before announcing the effort publicly.)

daniella monetDaniella Monet, a 25-year-old actress and singer best known for her role on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious” and the host of the Kids’ Choice Awards, came to Houston as a guest of the Humane Society to promote the program.  Monet, a long-time vegan, visited HISD’s Gregory Lincoln Education Center where she toured the school’s garden, spoke in a culinary class (taught by the dynamic Kellie Karavias) and ate lunch with the students.  I was able to stop by during Monet’s appearance and listened in as she answered middle school students’ questions about how she maintains a plant-based diet.

Here are some photos from the day:

 

 

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