Some time ago, an anonymous source provided me with two documents created by Chartwells K-12, the food service management company that currently operates in 600 districts, serving 2 million school meals a day. On their face, the documents appear to expressly encourage Chartwells districts to serve children fewer whole grain foods than recommended by the latest federal dietary guidance.
As you may remember, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue caused a stir last May when he announced that his agency plans to extend a waiver program relating to whole grains and school food. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) had required that by the 2014-15 school year, all grain foods (pasta, breads, etc.) served at breakfast and lunch had to be “whole grain-rich,” meaning that a least half the grain in the food must be whole grain (the other half can still be white flour or other processed grain.) But when some districts complained that it was hard to source satisfactory products, like a good whole-grain pasta, the Obama administration started a waiver program allowing districts showing hardship to opt out of the grain requirement on a product-by-product basis. Once a school obtained a waiver, only half of its grain foods had to be whole-grain rich — meaning kids in those districts could be eating as little as 25 percent whole grain.
This program was intended to be a temporary fix while food manufacturers caught up to the HHFKA mandate and while kids got used to more whole grains in their meals. By and large, both of those things have happened, and currently only 15 percent of districts have sought the waiver. So by proposing to indefinitely extend the program, Perdue is essentially gutting the HHFKA’s science-based grain standard — despite the fact that eating more whole grains is associated with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and that American children currently consume too many refined grains.
With this background in mind, now take a look at the Charwells documents, which you can read in full by clicking on them. The first is a PowerPoint outlining what the company refers to as its “Whole Grain Waiver Strategy:”
The second is a set of talking points to accompany the PowerPoint, entitled “Key Messaging for Support of Whole Grain Waiver Program:”
As you’ll see in these documents, the company seems to embrace the extension of grain waivers with some enthusiasm. For example, instead of referring to waivers as short-term detours on the road to full compliance with the HHFKA’s whole grain-rich standard, Chartwells instead refers to waivers as “successes” to be emulated in order to boost student participation:
The company also offers guidance and assistance to districts for obtaining waivers, such as providing completed samples and the talking points:
My anonymous source claims that he/she was told by a third party that Chartwells has pressured all of its districts to “get on board” with this whole grain waiver strategy, and he/she believes that this presentation was made around the country — even in districts that had not previously expressed difficulty in complying with the HHFKA grain standard.
I’ve now twice spoken at length about the Chartwell’s waiver strategy with Margie Saidel, MPH, RD, LDN, Chartwells’s vice president of nutrition, culinary, and sustainability, and here’s what I’ve learned:
First, Saidel told me that it’s unfair to view the “Whole Grain Waiver Strategy” as a concerted effort to get Chartwells districts to offer fewer whole-grain rich foods, though there does appear to be an effort to get districts to apply for waivers so they’re at the ready in case a district wants to use them. “‘Strategy’ might have been too strong a word,” Saidel told me. “It really was ‘instructions’ about how to get a waiver. Most of our school districts don’t know anything about how to get a waiver, so we had to teach them how to do it. And once you have the waiver, there’s no obligation to change your menu at all. It’s just something that’s available if and when you want to take advantage of it with one product or another, then you’re ready.”
I asked Saidel several times in both phone calls how many Chartwells districts have sought waivers, but she declined to provide this information, saying that assessment was something the company planned to “look into” in the near future.
Chartwells also clearly regards the use of whole grain waivers as a useful tool in boosting participation. After discussing the recognized benefits of eating school meals, Saidel told me that “in cases where districts wanted to get more kids into the program for those very nutritious, balanced meals, let’s not continue with a whole grain product that they don’t like and then stop participating in the program.” In particular, Saidel said the company is focusing on helping districts get waivers for four products especially popular with kids: pizza crust, biscuits, tortillas and pasta. ” Sometimes you want your familiar foods to be your familiar food,” she told me, “so let’s not mess with those things.”
When I pointed out that the Chartwells documents seem to encourage getting waivers for many other foods besides those named four, including French toast sticks, waffles, bagels and hoagie buns, Saidel seemed to back away from the documents, saying that Chartwells doesn’t source “enriched” (meaning non-whole-grain-rich) versions of those other foods. “As you know,” she said,” the food service industry comes up with products that are whole grain-rich, but there’s nothing necessarily healthy about them. And we’re rejecting them. There are whole grain donuts, whole grain funnel cakes, we’re not serving those. That’s our strategy, not what you saw in those two documents.”
I was curious to see if this higher standard for grain foods was evident on Chartwells menus. While it’s hard to do a survey of all Chartwells districts, as its name doesn’t necessarily appear on menus, I was able to find this month’s breakfast menu in Kaukauna, WI, a Chartwells district. Like most other districts around the country, it features school food formulations of highly processed breakfast items like Pop Tarts, Cocoa Puffs Bars, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal:
But the bulk of my two conversations with Saidel centered around a new program launched by Chartwells last year, in partnership with a company called InHarvest, to bring more “intact whole grains” like farro and quinoa into schools. According to Saidel, Chartwells believes it’s far more important to offer children 100 percent intact whole grains than it is to focus on offering whole grain-rich versions of kids’ favorites, like pizza, tortillas and biscuits; offering the latter can drive participation down, turning children away from healthy school meals, the company believes, while the whole grain in such products is nutritionally inferior to intact whole grains.
“We’ve brought the intact whole grain element into the equation,” Saidel said, “which even the USDA isn’t talking about. That’s where the excitement lies. How can we get kids to really enjoy real, intact, 100 precent, very delicious whole grains like wheat berries, farro, and quinoa? They see them now in restaurants and in food courts, so now is the time we really want to seize on this opportunity to really talk to kids about where they’re going to get their real nutrition , instead of in a whole-grain rich product that’s kind of better than no whole grain, but maybe is turning them off to some great nutrition.”
I have no quarrel with serving children more intact grains like farro and quinoa, but if that grain is essentially being served as a nutritional offset to more white flour products, it becomes important to ask:
- How many Chartwells schools are actually serving intact whole grains, and how often are they doing so?
- Why is there no mention at all of “intact whole grains” on either of its two waiver documents?
- And finally, if the goal is to “really talk to kids about where they’re going to get their real nutrition,” why is the only talking point for students on the “Key Messaging ” document one that seems intended to generate excitement about the return of white flour foods to the cafeteria?
Saidel could not give me specific figures on the number of Chartwells schools serving intact whole grains or how often they appear on actual school menus, though she did tell me that there are many well-tested recipes for intact whole grains in the Chartwells menu database for districts to use, and that the company’s chefs and dietitians actively encourage districts to menu these foods through a variety of methods, including demos and sampling. When I pressed for any other information that might help quantify the breadth of the intact grain program, Saidel sent this in an email last week:
As we discussed, our team of dietitians and chefs have thoughtfully developed our approach to whole grains to provide balance and flexibility on the menu to ensure that more kids are eating and there’s less waste. We also believe balance includes introducing nutrient-dense ingredients like intact whole grains through cafe and classrooms education, promotions and sampling, and ultimately incorporating more and more of these ingredients on the menu. This isn’t a change that’s going to happen overnight, but we’re making progress and already seeing success:
- After introducing intact whole grain during National Nutrition Month last March through demos, tips and recipes for families and a video, purchasing increased over 100%
- Intact whole grains were featured more than 27,000 times on menus
- We purchased 118,820 pounds of intact whole grains during the last school year
- We serve approximately 2 million meals each day
I’m not able to survey parents in 600 districts, but, purely anecdotally, the few parents I’ve spoken to in Chartwells’ districts have told me they haven’t yet seen any intact whole grains on their children’s menus. (One quote: “I have NEVER seen farro or quinoa on my kids menu. I would love if they were serving that!”) Similarly, for the past few days, I’ve reached out a few times on TLT’s Facebook page (12,000+ fans) and Twitter feed (almost 8000 followers) to parents in Chartwells districts asking if they’d ever seen intact whole grains in their district and, so far, no one has responded. But, again, this is hardly a scientific survey and I could easily be missing the majority of parents in these districts.
So, is Chartwells’ “intact whole grain” program a PR fig leaf intended to deflect attention from a strategy to bring more white flour foods into schools to boost participation? Or is it actually a good faith effort, one that’s only just getting off the ground, to bring kids more 100 percent whole grains in their meals?
If you’re a parent in a Chartwells district and would like to share your experiences with respect to whole grains in your child’s cafeteria, please feel free to contact me at bettina at thelunchtray dot com, or leave a comment below.
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