School Food: A “Pizza Farm” and the Latest News

For those following the battle over healthier school food, here’s the latest since my last update at the end of June (“This Isn’t Applebees: A School Food Update“):

Will the SNA Change Course?

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the leading force behind efforts to roll back school nutrition standards in Congress, held its annual meeting earlier this month and installed a new president, Jean Ronnei.  Ronnei is the former school nutrition director for St. Paul, Minnesota, a district which has been lauded for its progressive meal program. So the big question is: does Ronnei’s election portend a possible softening of the organization’s anti-nutrition stance or will it be business as usual in the coming year?  Dana Woldow combs through Ronnei’s background to answer that question here.

Excuses, Excuses

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) just concluded a five-part series looking at the various justifications offered by the SNA to gut school nutrition standards, including excuses like “There’s a shortage of whole grain Rice Krispies Treats” and “Healthier standards have driven up school food costs.”  The last post in the UCS series appears here, and the remaining four are linked at the bottom of the post.  (Update: here’s a once handy link to all the posts.)

Nutrition Waivers Added to Appropriations Bills

As I mentioned earlier this week, the Senate appropriations committee has approved an amendment which would weaken school food sodium and grain requirements, just as the House did last month.  But it’s important to remember that these actions are part of the appropriations process, not the Child Nutrition Reauthorization.  So these amendments, if adopted, would remain effective only through fiscal year 2016.  The more serious concern for school food advocates is ….

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization

…. which is the once-every-five-year Congressional reauthorization of child nutrition programs.  What’s the latest on the CNR?  Politico’s Morning Agriculture report tells us that on the Senate side, leaders “are continuing to work toward a bipartisan deal on child nutrition reauthorization, and staff are currently drafting bill text, according to aides. But the timeline remains unclear as the current law is set to expire Sept. 30. . . . On the House side, Education and the Workforce aides have not confirmed whether a bill is being drafted . . . .”

How You Can Support Strong School Nutrition Standards

In the midst of all of this Congressional wrangling, where are the voices of parents and kids?  To show your support for preserving science-based school nutrition standards, please sign these petitions from Food Policy Action and the American Heart Association.

You can also share on social media this new infographic from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation . . .

Infographic: Students and Parents Support Healthier School Meals by RWJF on RWJF.org

. . . as well as this new Funny or Die video from the American Heart Association featuring Nick Offerman.  “Acres of pizza, kissed by the sun. . . . What could be healthier?”  Enjoy.  :-)

And of course I’ll continue to keep you updated on the latest school food news here on The Lunch Tray.

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 Post-Vacation Food News Round-Up!

blank phone note padHappy Monday, TLT’ers!

I’m back from summer vacation and slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y!) getting back into the blogging groove. As I catch up on my email and social media feeds, here are some items worth sharing:

Senate Committee Approves School Food “Waiver” Amendment

Mirroring recent action in the House, the Senate appropriations committee has approved an amendment which would weaken school food sodium and grain requirements in the coming fiscal year.  More to come on this and related Congressional school food developments in an upcoming Lunch Tray post.

Chartwells Settles With D.C. Schools for $19.4 Million

Another school food story: Chartwells, a major food service management company, has entered into a multi-million dollar settlement over a whistle blower’s allegation that it systematically overcharged the D.C. school district — and this isn’t the first time Chartwells has been accused of wrongdoing.  More here from Food Politics.

Must-Read Piece on Food Safety 

Politico‘s Helena Bottemiller Evich has written an important piece on the Obama administration’s failure of leadership in supporting and adequately funding the Food Safety Modernization Act.  Sound dry and boring? Maybe this alarming statistic from the piece will get your attention:  “The United States imports 80 percent of its seafood and roughly half of its fruits and vegetables but inspects less than 2 percent of that and tests even less.”

Civil Eats C0-Founder Profiled

I feel privileged to write regularly for Civil Eats, an award-winning outlet for food policy news, and earlier this year I had the chance to meet the site’s dynamic and lovely co-founder, Naomi Starkman.  She has a fascinating background — lawyer, farmer, world traveler, New Yorker media consultant, journalist —  which you can read about in a new profile here.  And, by the way, if you’re not already a Civil Eats subscriber, I promise the $25 a year fee is well worth it for the in-depth coverage you’ll receive.  (Non-subscribers have access to five free articles a month.)

Feeding Young Athletes

Do you have a budding Tom Brady or Mia Hamm living in your house? Coming up this week, I’ll be sharing a guest blog post from Jill Castle, a registered dietitian and child nutrition expert, on “What Young Athletes Need to Know about School Lunch.”  I’ll also be giving away a free copy of Jill’s new book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete, to one lucky TLT reader.  Stay tuned!

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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Inspiring: Teaching Food Politics to College Kids

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Associate Professor Tracy Slagter
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Associate Professor Tracy Slagter

Earlier this year I was contacted by Dr. Tracy Slagter, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.  Slagter told me she was starting a brand new course on food politics — and my blog was going to be part of her students’ required reading.  (!) I asked Slagter to stay in touch and let me know how her new course was received.  

A few days ago I received this lovely email.  I found it so inspiring and hopeful that I asked for Slagter’s permission to share it with you.  

What would our food system and society look like if all high school or college students received this sort of education?

___________________________

Dear Bettina,

Happy summer!  I’ve been meaning to email you for several weeks since the semester ended, but am only getting to it now. I originally emailed you in February to tell you how much your blog inspired my teaching at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and now that the course is over I wanted to share a few things with you that might interest you from my “Politics of Food” class.

First, the course was better than I could have imagined.  College students can be a bit tricky to motivate on issues that they don’t feel are directly related to their lives, but after a few weeks of going through the political influence of the food industry and making them write about the lobbying money behind their favorite snacks, I think they understood where the class was headed and how it impacted them. Since they didn’t know a lot about politics going in, I think the course took them by surprise:  they didn’t realize that politics and food were so connected.  It was fun to see the lightbulbs go on!

Second, as part of the course students were required to spend time working with local schools and child care centers or at our local community pantry.  About half of my 45 students worked in the pantry, which was quite an education about SNAP, food waste, childhood hunger, and poverty.  The other half worked on helping local schools and child care centers educate young children about the importance of healthy choices, and they had lots of fun creating healthy snacks with preschool children.  A handful of students also worked to put on a new event for our community, the “Cookin’ It Fresh” school lunch challenge.  Some of my students worked with high school teams and local chefs to create healthy and delicious items that met the NSLP requirements and could be produced for under $1.00/meal.  They discovered how difficult a task it was working in a school kitchen on such a tight budget, trying to cater to a wide variety of tastes.  (The healthy walking taco was the winner!  Bed of tortilla chips, black beans, brown rice, lots of spices, shredded chicken, and shredded carrots in place of cheese.  It was really good!)

Finally, the last project for the course asked students to think about the long-term sustainability of the U.S. food system. The course had a focus on sustainability — it was the concept that anchored the course, and sustainability is part of our general education program here (the University Studies Program).  The last part of the project asked students to reflect on their experiences in course and with their community partners.  Here’s a link to one of my favorites. (This was shared with the student’s permission.)  This student and I are going to undertake a collaborative research project this fall related to food politics, but we’re not sure of our exact focus yet.  (Any suggestions?!)

Anyway, I thought you would enjoy hearing about these things.  I am still a devoted reader of your blog and learn so much from it!  Again, thank you for the excellent work that you do, and for your passion in doing it.

Warm wishes,

Tracy Slagter

Associate Professor, Political Science
Interim Director, University Studies Program
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

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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An Encouraging School Food Story From Maine

Earlier this week, I received this lovely email:

Hello Bettina,

Our entire office follows your blog, we love your perspective and energy.

Your recent posts inspired us to send an opinion piece to our our local paper, which resulted in today’s front page story about Maine’s successful implementation the current nutrition standards.

We just wanted to pass along and share our support for the standards.

Sincerely,

The Let’s Go! team

Please take a minute to read the Portland Press Herald article and learn about Let’s Go!, a public/private partnership of health organizations helping Maine successfully implement — and exceed — the new federal school meal standards.

From the Portland Press Herald:

So far about 93,000 schoolchildren, more than half the total public school population in Maine, are eating Let’s Go! lunches that exceed federal nutrition standards. Compared with the national average, Maine has more than triple the percentage of schools that have achieved a “U.S. Healthier Schools” designation – meaning schools that served meals well above the federal nutrition minimums.

Accounts like these (and my post on Monday about the USDA Team Up program) show that successfully meeting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards is entirely possible when schools receive adequate support.  So let’s put our effort into finding and funding that support — instead of rolling back the nutritional standards which improve kids health.

Thanks to the Let’s Go team for taking the time to write and sharing your story.  You made my day!  :-)

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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Is “Clean Label” School Food a Pipe Dream?

civil eats logoWe’d all like to see school food with fewer chemical additives, but is it realistic to expect districts to serve only “clean label” school food?

That’s the question I explore today in a post on Civil Eats.  I hope you’ll check it out, and please feel free to leave a comment on the post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

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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Sneaking Vegetable Pureés Into School Food?

yuckvegetablesI have a tortured relationship with food-sneaking — the practice of surreptitiously slipping vegetable pureés into kids’ food to bolster their nutritional intake.

In a 2010 post, “To Sneak or Not to Sneak: Hiding Healthful Ingredients in Kids’ Food,” I expressed my ambivalence this way:

Maybe it’s just a sense that I’m violating the basic trust that ought to exist between any cook and any diner:  if you know I have an aversion to a certain food (rightly or wrongly), is it fair to nonetheless slip it into my meal?

But three years later, in “Learn From My Mistakes: A Story of Food Sneaking Gone Horribly Awry,” I described how, after buying a Vitamix blender, I just couldn’t resist slipping some carrots into my veggie-avoiding son’s smoothie.  Here’s what happened:

… my carrot-hating son took a sip and actually said, “This is the BEST juice ever!  You can make this for me every day if you want.”

Wow!  The script was playing out just like the movie in my head, only better!  All I had to do was keep my mouth shut and start planning tomorrow’s kale and spinach – oops, I mean “green apple” — smoothie.

But, dear readers, I just couldn’t do it.  One look at that sweet, trusting face and I felt utterly wracked with guilt.  If you have an aversion to eating snails but I just know you’d love escargots if only you’d try them, do I have the right pass them off to you as mushrooms?  Even if you’re my own child, I think I do not.  And as hard as it is for me to understand it, the feeling many people have about eating snails — utter disgust — is exactly how my son feels about eating carrots.

So I took a deep breath and confessed.  It told him I’d added “a little bit” of carrot, hoping he’d remember it was the “BEST juice ever” and just move on.

Well, he did not move on.  He looked totally distressed – almost to he point of tears – and then quite angrily reminded me that I’d once told him I was not the kind of mom who would ever sneak things into his food.  And what could I say?  He was absolutely right.  I’d been a complete hypocrite.  And of course he wouldn’t take another sip of the juice.

Since then, I’ve never again engaged in true sneaking, which I define as secretly adding a vegetable pureé to a recipe that otherwise would never call for it, like putting spinach in brownies.  (I do, however, continue to work as many veggies as I can into our meals, such as using a heavy hand with fresh herbs, onions and mushrooms in a pasta dish.)

I was thinking about all of this when I read in the School Nutrition Association‘s latest Smart Brief newsletter about a pilot study in which schools added a pureé of beans, tomato paste and carrots to school food entreés in order to boost their nutritional content.  The results of the study won’t surprise any parent who’s engaged in veggie-sneaking at home:  up to a point, kids didn’t detect the recipe change but once the amount of added pureé passed a certain threshold, kids started rejecting the entreé.  The study authors concluded that “adding puréed vegetables to lunch entrées may be an effective strategy to increase vegetable consumption and reduce energy intake of elementary school children. School nutrition programs can benefit by helping meet vegetable and nutrient requirements and reducing plate waste.”

Putting aside the difficulties some schools would face in adding pureés — specifically, a lack of equipment and labor — I decided that I’m actually OK — I think?? — with veggie-sneaking in the school context.  To my mind, it’s somehow different to slip carrots past my son at home when I know he hates carrots, but if he took a carrot-filled entreé off an impersonal lunch line, then no one is knowingly breaching his trust.  The school is just serving a dish as it chooses — and it chooses to include carrot pureé.

That said, I do have one big caveat.  Whether at home or at school, food sneaking should never be a substitute for also serving vegetables in their whole state, or else children will never grow to like these critically important foods in their own right.  So while I’d be fine with sneaking carrot puree into school pizza sauce, I would be very troubled if districts used that practice to meet their federal “red/orange vegetable” requirement, rather than serving items like baby carrots or roasted sweet potatoes. Given the budgetary constraints schools are under, maybe that caveat alone would make veggie-sneaking unattractive to schools.

So what do you think of all this?  Are my views about veggie-sneaking as muddled and illogical as ever?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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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Good News and Bad News in the Battle Over Healthy School Food

I said I wasn’t going to post on TLT while at Expo West, where I’ll be speaking later today, but this school food news is too important not to share.

STUDY:  Kids Eating More Fruit at School, Wasting Less Food

Eat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per DayFirst, the good news.  A new study from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has just been released, and the study title says it all:  “New School Meal Regulations Increase Fruit Consumption and Do Not Increase Total Plate Waste.”

After looking at school meal consumption both before and after the new healthier standards were put into place, the researchers summarized their findings this way:

Students responded positively to the new lunches. They consumed more fruit, threw away less of the entrees and vegetables, and consumed the same amount of milk. Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias.

The Rudd study, when paired with similar findings from a previous Harvard School of Public Health study, make a very strong case that we must stay the course on the new healthier school meal standards.

The SNA Shows its Hand:  “Flexibility is Free”

And now the bad news.

Last week I asked a question in this blog post: Is the School Nutrition Association’s Request for More School Funding a Priority — or a Ploy?  In other words, while I’m pleased that the SNA has finally decided to ask Congress for more money for school food, I’ve been worried that, in reality, the organization will instead devote all of its lobbying efforts to no-cost rollbacks of school nutrition standards.  And if a Congressional representative is presented with the choice of coming up with more funding versus a free “solution,” which is he or she likely to support?

Well, it looks like my concerns were fully justified.  In a piece on Politico Pro (subscription only) earlier this week, food policy reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich asked SNA President Julia Bauscher about the SNA’s funding request and was told:

she is not optimistic about such a funding increase.

Rather, Bauscher is more confident in achieving success on two of SNA’s asks, on [rolling back standards for] whole grains and sodium . . . .

“We all know what the federal government’s budget’s like — we’re not going to get any more money,” said Bauscher, adding: “We at least need to make the point that we need more money…and flexibility is free.”

Yes, it’s true that “flexibility” – the SNA’s cynical euphemism for ignoring science-based child nutrition standards – is free. But here’s what isn’t “free:” the future healthcare costs for a generation of children which has been nutritionally shortchanged, if the SNA has its way.

Once again, if you are a current or former SNA member who disagrees with your organization’s current legislative agenda, please show your support for healthier school meals by signing and sharing this open letter.  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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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.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,200 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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#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.”

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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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