Celebrating Food Day 2014 with a Kid-Run Farmers Market

I’ve written many times on this blog about Recipe for Success, an innovative Houston-based, “seed-to-plate” educational program that brings gardens and cooking literacy to schools.  I used to be a classroom volunteer for the organization and it was inspiring to see kids tentatively try — and then enthusiastically gobble up — the fresh produce they’d grown themselves.

marKIDS handmade signToday I wanted to let you know that Recipe for Success is now offering comprehensive, free resources to help children around the country sell their school- or home-grown produce at a kid-run farmers market.

The 58-page, downloadable “farmers marKIDS” curriculum has five lesson plans which teach kids all about marketing, financial literacy and the value of locally-grown produce, as well as downloadable templates that can be used for signage, price lists and more.  It’s a remarkably complete guide that can be easily incorporated into your school’s existing curriculum.

The farmers marKIDS program had its debut in several locations in Houston last week in celebration of Food Day 2014, and although it can be used any time of year, it will be promoted nationally each year from October 20-26th to coincide with future Food Days.

Here are some photos from one of last week’s kid-run farmers markets:

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A School Nutrition Director Gives Me a Wake-Up Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pill Too Bitter to Swallow

Many years ago, I mentioned to a doctor friend that a woman I knew — a Seventh Day Adventist who never touches alcohol — had been told she was at risk for cirrhosis of the liver due to her poor diet and excess weight.  My doctor friend looked at me skeptically and said I must have misunderstood the diagnosis — one could not get cirrhosis that way, she said — and since I’m no medical expert, I assumed I’d been misinformed.

But while “nonalcoholic fatty liver” was so rare thirty years ago there was no medical name for it, the New York Times reports it now affects one in ten American children, with the rate among children and teens more than doubling in the last two decades.  Of those afflicted, 10 to 20 percent will eventually develop the liver scarring that can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure, requiring a transplant for survival.  The condition is also a risk factor for developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The cure for nonalcoholic fatty liver is quite straightforward: improving one’s diet by cutting out fast and processed foods and sugary beverages.  But despite incredibly powerful motivators  —  “crippling” abdominal pain (one patient referred to it as “being stabbed in your stomach with a knife”) and the possibility of needing a liver transplant (or, far worse, needing a transplant and and being unable obtain one, as demand outstrips the number of organs available) — many patients still find this “treatment” just too difficult:

Yubelkis Matias, 19, . . .  was told she has NASH several years ago. She is reminded of the trouble brewing in her liver by the sharp abdominal pains that come and go. . . . [S]he has been told by her doctors that diet and exercise may be her only shot at reversing the disease. But at 5-foot-5 and 200 pounds, she finds every day a struggle.

“I’m on a roller coaster,” she said. “I eat healthy, then not healthy — pizza, McDonalds, the usual. My doctor told me I have to quit all of that. But it’s cheap, and it’s always there.” . . . .

“A lot of times when I see a patient with fatty liver,” [Dr. Shahid M. Malik of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] said, “the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Well, is there a pill for this?’ And there’s not. There just isn’t. You have to make lifestyle changes, and that’s a much more difficult pill for people to swallow.”

One could attribute the inability of these patients (or anyone suffering from weight-related disease) to improve their diets to a lack of individual willpower, but this conclusion ignores a whole host of societal factors that make eating healthfully on a regular basis extremely difficult for many.  As Dr. Thomas Friedan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once memorably said:

. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese.  That is not a reflection of individual personal failing.  It’s a reflection of the structure of our society. . . . [T]he popularity of weight loss programs is a reflection of both the intense desire of many people to lose weight as well as the great difficulty of doing so.  [Emphasis mine]

Meanwhile, when you have a condition like fatty liver disease that’s growing ever more prevalent, and patients clamoring for “a pill” instead of weaning themselves off their unhealthful diets, it’s predictable that drug companies would see the potential for huge profits.  The Times reports that at least two companies are now scrambling to develop drugs which will help treat the disease, and one of those companies saw its stock price “soar” when its first clinical trial showed promise.

Too bitter a pill for our elected leaders to swallow?
Too bitter a pill for our elected leaders to swallow?

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course.  Food companies profit from our dependence on their products while drug companies reap the profits on the other side of the equation.  But somehow the prospect of kids doubled over with liver pain and facing potential liver failure, entirely due to Big Food’s grip on our palates and our lifestyles, got to me on a visceral level.

I’m reminded of this quote in the film Fed Up from Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at the Harvard Medical school and a pediatric obesity expert:

What does it say about our society if we would rather send children to such mutilating procedures but yet lack the political will to properly fund school nutrition and ban junk food advertising to children? It reflects a systematic political failure. We’re the richest society in the world. We’ve failed because we’ve placed private profit and special interests ahead of public health.

Dr. Ludwig was referring to a morbidly obese teen undergoing gastric bypass surgery, but he could just as well have been referring to an overweight child needing a liver transplant.  And, indeed, we are clearly in the midst of a “systematic political failure,” because just as we already know the “cure” for fatty liver disease, we also already know the the “societal cures” for all obesity-related illnesses:

  • Restructuring the agricultural subsidies that make fast food and processed food unnaturally cheap, while inadequately supporting farmers growing fruits and vegetables;
  • Banning the advertising of junk food to children;
  • Taxing and/or placing health warning labels on non-nutritive, sugar-sweetened beverages;
  • Investing more money in federal school meal reimbursement, so schools can afford to buy healthier food and pay for the increased labor needed to prepare it;
  • Investing in school infrastructure, both to build school kitchens in which scratch-cooked meals can be prepared, as well as home economics classrooms where children can acquire basic cooking literacy and skills; and
  • Requiring and funding meaningful nutrition education curricula, including home economics, throughout the K-12 school years.

And yet, like a fatty liver patient addicted to fast food, our elected leaders are currently too addicted to Big Food’s and Big Soda’s lobbying dollars, and/or too afraid of “nanny state” rhetoric from the right, to muster the political courage to fulfill that Rx.

For four years now, I’ve been saying on this blog that some day the costs of obesity, both financial and personal, will be just too high for our legislators to continue to ignore.  But when you read about one in ten kids facing the possibility of a liver transplant due solely to the unhealthful American diet, you really do have to wonder:  where on earth is the tipping point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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One Mom’s Great Idea Brings Fresh Produce to Families in Need

Lisa Helfman
Lisa Helfman

A mutual friend recently introduced me to a woman named Lisa Helfman and, given our very similar backgrounds (Houston moms/lawyers with an interest in kids and food), it wasn’t surprising that we hit it off right away. 

At that first meeting, Lisa told me how years ago she’d  joined an organic produce co-op and was surprised by the dramatic improvement she saw in her family’s eating habits.  She and her husband wondered if they could bring the same experience to Houston’s underprivileged kids, and eventually Lisa formed an  innovative program called “Brighter Bites.”  By partnering with the Houston Food Bank, Brighter Bites delivers on a weekly basis fresh fruits and vegetables, along with nutrition education, to local families in need.   The program is being monitored by the University of Texas School of Public Health and has shown so much promise that our state legislature is funding a roll-out of the program elsewhere in Texas.  

I’ve been bugging Lisa to write a guest post here to share the details, but now Salud America has produced a terrific five-minute video about Lisa and the program.  Take a look and be inspired.

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

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Mr. Zee Heads Down Under!

aussiemrzeeaussiemrzeeSo, this is cool!

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

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

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

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

Woo hoo!  :-)

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

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Wasabina, Daikon and More! Cooking With the Kids from Recipe for Success

Last week I volunteered, as I do every month, with Recipe for Success – a comprehensive “seed to plate” instructional program that brings gardens, cooking, nutrition education and celebrity chefs into local schools.  I don’t always post about my experiences with R4S, but last week’s class was so fun I wanted to share.

Instead of meeting my assigned fourth grade class at its elementary school, as we usually do, we all gathered at t’afia, an innovative Houston restaurant which uses only local foods.  T’afia is the brainchild of Monica Pope, a much-lauded chef (James Beard nominee, Top Chef Masters contestant, etc.), R4S Board Member and classroom volunteer.  Our assignment was to make Monica’s Winter Vegetable Slaw which we would then enjoy along with a full meal prepared by the t’afia kitchen.

One of the things I like best about volunteering with R4S is sharing information with kids about food — exposing them to new produce and herbs, exploring new flavors and then talking about what they like and don’t like.  But this time around the kids weren’t the only ones learning:  I encountered a vegetable I’d never even heard of before,”wasabina,” a leafy, peppery green with a slight wasabi taste.  I also learned how to properly sprout my own grains and seeds, something I’ve been interested in trying.

Back in their elementary school kitchen, the kids use plastic serrated knives for chopping.  At this class, though, they were given real ceramic blades to cut up all the root vegetables and between being a former lawyer (just think of the liability!) and a nervous Jewish mother, I was not happy about this situation one bit.  (I kept urging the kids, “Use your bear claw!”  “Tuck your fingers!”  I’m sure they thought I was crazy.)  But with the help of R4S Chef Alyssa Dole, my group did beautifully and no digits were lost in the process.

The slaw was delicious, as was the rest of the meal — gourmet sliders on soft rolls and Monica’s signature chickpea fries with spicy ketchup.  And, as always, I was amazed at how receptive the kids were to trying all sorts of unfamiliar foods, even strongly flavored vegetables like the wasabina and daikon radishes, along with sprouts of all types.

Of course, not all kids are fortunate enough to have programs like Recipe for Success in their own schools, but such programs do demonstrate that giving children hands-on experience in the growing and cooking of food is invaluable.  They become more open to trying new things, they acquire sorely needed nutrition education and they’re exposed to a wealth of information and experiences they would otherwise miss out on.

I’m so glad to have the chance to volunteer with this program – it’s as enjoyable for me as it is for the kids.  Stay tuned for future Recipe for Success photo montages — here’s the one from last week:

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 1,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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The Latest Science on Obesity — and Why Early Childhood Intervention Is Critical

By now most of you have probably either read or heard about Tara Parker-Pope’s cover story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine, “The Fat Trap,” which reviews the most recent obesity science to explain why maintaining weight loss can be close to impossible for the vast majority of dieters.  In a nutshell:

For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.

. . . . “After you’ve lost weight, your brain has a greater emotional response to food,” Rosenbaum [Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia University] says. “You want it more, but the areas of the brain involved in restraint are less active.” Combine that with a body that is now burning fewer calories than expected, he says, “and you’ve created the perfect storm for weight regain.” How long this state lasts isn’t known, but preliminary research at Columbia suggests that for as many as six years after weight loss, the body continues to defend the old, higher weight by burning off far fewer calories than would be expected. The problem could persist indefinitely. . . .  This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off; it just means it’s really, really difficult.

I’ve seen various responses to this article on Facebook and elsewhere.  For those who’ve struggled with their weight all their lives, reading about this research is more than a little vindicating.  But for anyone who needs to lose weight, the findings are also quite daunting:  those profiled in the piece who have maintained significant weight loss are living lives of constant vigilance, weighing themselves daily, writing down every scrap of food they eat, exercising long and hard, and even travelling with their own scales.  So it’s hardly surprising that these successful maintainers are in the tiny minority of the millions of people who lose weight every year, only to regain it again and again.

But from my perspective, the single most important two sentences in the article were these:

Given how hard it is to lose weight, it’s clear, from a public-health standpoint, that resources would best be focused on preventing weight gain. The research underscores the urgency of national efforts to get children to exercise and eat healthful foods.

As these scientific findings gain more widespread attention and acceptance, let’s hope we see a collective renewal and bolstering of our efforts to prevent childhood obesity before it even begins.  What would that entail?

  • Telling Big Food lobbyists that for once we’re going to put the needs of children ahead of their demands.   That means no more watering down of improved school food standards to preserve industry profits (remember pizza = vegetable?) and putting real muscle behind legislative efforts to rein in the marketing of junk food to children (instead of floating weak, voluntary guidelines, and watching as even those standards are thwarted by industry).
  • Conducting public health campaigns to counteract, as much as possible, the billions of dollars spent by Big Food on advertising. (You might recall my suggestion, in my winning essay from the Slate magazine anti-obesity contest, that we “inoculate” kids against Big Food’s messages as we have with tobacco marketing.)

I believe this vision, as unrealistic as it currently seems, will one day be a reality.  Why?  Because two of our most important national concerns – the economy and national security — are already severely impacted by obesity, as reflected in sky-rocketing health care costs, loss of economic productivity and lack of military readiness.

The status quo is simply not sustainable.  But how long will it take before the tide truly shifts?

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L.A. Kids Reject Healthier School Food: My Thoughts

Well, this felt like a big cosmic joke. . . .

Over the weekend, I was pleased to share with TLT readers my opinion piece in the Sunday Houston Chronicle urging our district to put an end to outsourced, highly processed foods in favor of scratch-cooked school meals with more variety than just pizza, burgers and fried patties.

Then, a few hours later, I started seeing this LA Times story popping up on Twitter:  “L.A. school’s healthful lunch menu panned by students.”  The article details how the district’s new, more healthful school entrees are being spurned by many students:

For many students, L.A. Unified’s trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

There’s just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they’re suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

At first the LA Times story seemed to be a dispiriting, real-world rebuttal to everything I’d just proposed in the Houston Chronicle.  But after a closer reading of the LA Times piece, I’m not quite ready to throw up my hands in defeat.

First of all, it sounds like LAUSD has a serious quality control problem when it comes to school food, at least on some of its campuses.

Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified’s central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy. . . .

In class recently, students complained about mold on noodles, undercooked meat and hard rice.

In a districts which use a central kitchen (like LAUSD and my own HISD), ensuring that food is properly reheated and assembled at hundreds of satellite schools is a real challenge that I’ve written about before (“Many a Slip Twixt Kitchen and School.”)  And unappetizing, over- or undercooked food is of course going to be rejected by school kids, as it would be by anyone.

But quality control problems shouldn’t detract from the fact that in community-wide taste testing of the new food items at the central kitchen, over 300,000 comments were collected and 75% of them were positive.  So, at least initially, there was hardly the en masse rejection of healthier fare indicated by the story’s eye-catching headline.

Moreover, even with the apparent f00d preparation problems, we’re told that about half of the new entrees, including salads and vegetarian tamales, are popular.  In the context of a complete menu overhaul, especially one that seems to have gone into effect rather quickly, I’m not sure that’s such a bad result.

But let’s say LAUSD could magically work out all its quality control issues and improve its menu, yet the 5-6% drop in student participation reported in the article held steady.  And let’s say some of these thousands of students who are no longer eating school food now eat more junk food than ever before, as the story reports.  Or let’s say some of them really are getting headaches and anemia from skipping lunch altogether.

What then?

I know this might sound terribly callous, but I’m not sure I care.  Because the hard truth is this: if we really intend to wean an entire generation of children off school food “carnival fare” (nachos, nuggets, burgers and fries) and introduce them to fresher, healthier entrees, we are, without question, going to lose some kids along the way.  In other words, it’s just not that surprising if a middle- or high schooler who’s seen nothing but “better-for-you junk food” on his tray since kindergarten can’t make the leap to black bean burgers and salad, especially if there’s no context for healthier foods in his life outside of school.

But a kindergartener who’s never seen anything but black bean burgers and salads in the cafeteria is going to be a much easier sell on healthier foods throughout his school years.  And that young child is our only hope if we’re going to reverse current trends in obesity and poor lifestyle habits among our nation’s children.  So if our choice is to continue the dismal school food status quo because “that’s all kids will eat,” or knowingly lose some kids now to Flaming Hot Cheetos and Cokes with an eye toward those impressionable, incoming kindergarteners and all the classes that will follow them, I can live with sacrificing a few for the many.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I not only want every child to have access to healthful school food, I want schools to do everything they can to encourage children to eat it.  That might mean a slower menu roll-out than LAUSD attempted;  it might mean more menu-testing and student input; it might mean using Brian Wansink’s consumer psychology to encourage better choices; and it most certainly means nutrition education at every possible juncture, from classroom lessons to school gardens to volunteer “food boosters” in the lunch room encouraging experimentation.

But as we take on the daunting task of changing children’s ingrained eating habits, habits that are reinforced in the media and sometimes at home, we need to be prepared for more attention-grabbing headlines like this one telling us that kids “just won’t eat” healthier school food.

Be that as it may, we need to keep our heads down and stay the course.  Because, in the end, what other choice do we have?


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Would Education and “Inoculation” Keep Kids in the Cafeteria — and Away From the Food Trucks?

Blogger Alissa of The Simply Wholesome Kitchen  (she of the excellent pumpkin muffins) last week posted on TLT’s Facebook page an article from the New York Times which she knew would be of interest to me.  It describes how students at a high school in California are spurning the healthier offerings in their school cafeteria for the junk food offered by several food trucks that park on campus each day:

For $3.50, Edgar, a sophomore, purchased a bag of Hot Cheetos, a can of Coca-Cola and a package of Airheads Xtremes candy.

In the school cafeteria, the menu included a chicken sandwich with roasted potatoes or a veggie burger with garlic fries for $3.25. While there were chips for sale, they were Baked Lay’s.

None of those options appealed to Edgar, who buys his daily lunch from the snack food trucks that park during lunchtime just down the street from the school.

“They don’t have good food over there,” he said of the school cafeteria. “They have, like, fruits and vegetables.”

The article says that concerned residents are seeking to create a 1,500 foot protective zone around the school in which food trucks would be barred (a similar ordinance was passed in San Francisco) but one wonders, based on a student quoted in the story, just how effective it would be:

“It’s not going to do much,” said Nathan Estrada, 15, a sophomore, who had a sandwich from home for lunch, but was buying Hot Cheetos as a snack for later. “We will just walk over there.”

For someone like me, actively involved in trying to improve school food in my own district, stories like this are incredibly dispiriting but not at all surprising.  I’ve seen first hand when my district tries to clean up its act only to have students look at the unfamiliar food and proclaim — often without even trying it — “That’s nasty!”

Again and again I come back to the (perhaps obvious) conclusion that the most effective weapon in our arsenal against childhood obesity  is education, plain and simple.   Because no matter how much we improve school food, no matter if we tax soda and subsidize fruits and vegetables, it seems to me that we will always live in a food environment in which junk food and fast food are readily available, relatively cheap — and, above all, precisely geared to satisfy our primal cravings for salt, fat and sugar.  It will always be very hard for many people, and especially kids, to resist.

But children armed with knowledge can make better choices.  Despite all my complaints about last season’s “Food Revolution” show, I applauded Jamie Oliver’s efforts to teach the kids at West Adams High that eating junk food on a daily basis is not without consequences.  You may remember how he offered students an array of snacks, everything from a large cup of soda to an orange to a piece of pizza.  After the kids chose and ate their snack, he explained the concept of daily caloric needs and how just a month or two of poor choices could result in weight gain, and he strapped weighted backpacks on them to show what that gain would actually feel like.  He then sent the kids around the school track to burn off whatever snack they chose:  e.g., those who ate an orange (62 calories) only walked three laps while those who ate a chocolate bar (220 calories) had to walk eleven laps.

Exercises like Jamie Oliver’s teach kids in a visceral way that a steady diet of fried Cheetos and soda will most certainly affect weight and ultimate health.  And obesity aside, we also need to teach children exactly what happens to a body that is deprived of nutrients on a long term basis, because as I note frequently on this blog, even thin (and therefore seemingly “healthy”) children might well be undernourished  if they subsist solely on a highly processed, refined-carb-heavy diet.

I’m also still a proponent of the idea I posited in my essay for the Slate anti-childhood-obesity Hive, which is using public health messages to make junk food just as “uncool” as tobacco now is for many kids.  As I wrote there:

But finally, and most importantly, we need to invest children with a sense of ownership of this issue.  Without this piece of the puzzle, I fear that any educational efforts fall on deaf ears.  One solution is a widespread, well-funded public health campaign to inoculate kids against the forces that lead to unhealthful eating, akin to that used to discourage teen smoking.  Kids generally don’t like having someone try to pull the wool over their eyes, so just as we’ve made them savvy about the tobacco industry’s insidious techniques to get them to use cigarettes, we need to show kids that the food industry is, in a very direct way, making money at the expense of their own health.

So, what do you think about all this?  Am I putting too much faith in nutrition education?  Are the societal forces that lead us toward obesity just too strong to counter with classroom lessons and public health ads?  If so, what hope to we have in reversing the present trend?


Do You Love The Lunch Tray?  ♥♥♥  Then “like” The Lunch Tray!   Join over 1,100 TLT fans by “liking” TLT’s Facebook page (or “follow” on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers.   

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54 New “Bite-Sized” Videos from Nourish: Food + Community

Last year I told you about Nourish: Food + Community, an exciting initiative that uses DVDs and a classroom curriculum to increase students’ food literacy, providing them with a “big picture” view of our food system and how food connects to the environment, health and communities.

Well, a few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks at Nourish about a new resource they’ve added to the curriculum — a DVD containing fifty-four “bite-sized” videos from food experts and advocates like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, Anna Lappé and many others.  Topics range from food policy issues, like GMOs and the Farm Bill, to lighter subjects like using herbs in food, or the importance of sitting down to eat together.  (The entire “menu of bites” is here.)

Here’s an example of one mini-video, by Michael Pollan, on the importance of soil:

It seems that most, if not all, of these “mini-films” were taken from the main Nourish DVD (and some of them were already available on Nourish’s website and You Tube), but I can see why it’s useful, especially for educators, to have them all on one disc, searchable by title and by speaker (and viewable in “random shufle” mode as well).  The length of the clips (usually around two to four minutes) makes them nicely digestible for kids, offering just enough information to start a meaningful discussion about the topic in question.  [Ed Update:  Nourish just informed me that “only 11 of the shorts are taken from the original Nourish DVD, so there are 43 new ones. And 30 of them are not available online, so there’s a lot of never-before-seen material here.”  Thank you, Nourish, for the clarification!]

The entire Nourish initiative is aimed at K-12 teachers as well as other interested stakeholders, like farm-to-school and garden coordinators, food service staff and health professionals.  But anyone can download the free 84-page, grade 6-8 curriculum guide here, and the Nourish DVD and the “bite-sized” movies DVD can be ordered here.  So even if you can’t get your school interested in teaching the course, you can use these resources in your own home to get your kids thinking about food, where it comes from, why it’s important, and what we can do to create sustainable food systems, now and in the future.

I’m really excited to share these DVDs with my own kids and will report back here.

[Disclosure:  When I review a book or video on The Lunch Tray, I’m usually provided a free review copy by the publisher or distributor.   In this case, I was given the “bite-sized” movies DVD and the primary Nourish instructional DVD for review.]

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New York Times Op-Ed on Bringing Back “Home Ec” to Fight Obesity

I’ve often discussed here on TLT the critical need to teach home cooking skills to American children, most recently in my post “My Son Learns to Cook But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?”  There I argued that merely lowering the price of whole foods (as recently proposed by Mark Bittman, among others) won’t get us anywhere in solving the obesity crisis unless we also teach Americans – accustomed to processed, convenience foods, and spending less time in the kitchen than any other nation surveyed – how to cook those staple items.

That’s why I was interested to read in this morning’s New York Times an editorial by Helen Zoe Veit, an assistant professor of history at Michigan State, advocating for the return of old-fashioned “home ec” classes in American schools.  Doing so, she writes, would “put the tools of obesity prevention in the hands of children themselves, by teaching them how to cook.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Veit’s premise, and even made the same proposal in the essay I wrote for the Slate magazine anti-childhood-obesity Hive.  But since writing that Slate piece, I’ve become less optimistic that we can put the responsibility for teaching home cooking at the doorstep of the public school — at least not now, when districts are so preoccupied with shrinking budgets and standardized test results.   (Veit notes these problems, too, in the concluding paragraph of her piece, but doesn’t offer any solutions.)  And bringing back home ec also means bringing back in-class kitchens, a significant financial investment at a time when many schools don’t even have cooking facilities to prepare their own school meals, let alone to teach cooking to children.

I fervently hope that school districts eventually do acknowledge the importance of teaching this critical life skill to kids and that someday all schools will have working instructional kitchens and dedicated teaching staff.   But in the meantime, I’m holding out more hope for other ways of providing this education.  Last week, for example, I shared with you my happy discovery of Jamie Oliver’s UK site, “Jamie’s Home Cooking Skills,” replete with videos, still photos and text to teach a wide range of basic cooking techniques to the novice cook.   Private groups like Purple Asparagus and Recipe for Success (with which I regularly volunteer here in Houston) are also reaching as many children as they can with cooking classes.  And, as many TLT readers pointed out in their comments to “My Son Learns to Cook But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?,” schools could at least provide much needed nutrition ed classes right now — which incorporate math, science, biology and other academic subjects — without the need to invest in equipment for hands-on cooking.

But my own quibbles aside, I’m still glad the Times published Veit’s piece this morning and brought national attention to the issue.  We desperately need to get this country cooking again — not rarefied-“Top Chef”-spectator-sport cooking, but the ability to put wholesome food on our tables with minimal fuss on a regular basis.

Until then, for many stressed, overworked Americans, the siren call of cheap, pre-prepared fat-salt-and-sugar-laden processed foods will almost always win out.


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Interview With Kay Morris, Founder of “Marathon Kids”

Here in Houston, students can volunteer to participate in an innovative program called Marathon Kids.  It’s a free exercise, nutrition and schoolyard gardening program designed to get children, over a six-month period – to accumulate 26.2 miles of walking or running (in 1/4 to 1/2 mile increments) and to eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables at least 26.2 days a month – hence, “Marathon Kids.”

Today I’m happy to share with you my recent interview with Kay Morris, the founder of the program.

TLT:  First off, can you give us a little more information on Marathon Kids?

KM: There are now 213,000 registered Marathon Kids in eight metro areas in the USA, and we’re in public, private and home schools. We’re funded by individuals, corporate sponsors and foundations, and our program is evidence-based as a result of a two year study by the University of Texas School of Public Health. The most significant upticks shown for Marathon Kids in the UT study were: 1) an increase in habitual daily minutes of exercise;  2) an increase in making healthy food choices; and 3) a significant shift in positive athletic self perception.

TLT:  How would you describe the program’s primary mission?

KM: We build joyful community around children and are quickly accepted into schools as a free, innovative celebratory fitness program, resonating with the child…and with the child’s family. The child develops the love and habit of moving through space and carries forward the power of muscular, nutritional and psychological well being.

TLT:  What led you to found Marathon Kids in the first place?

KM: I was a slow, middle aged runner who saw the benefit of keeping a running log and visually seeing my improvement and seeing my endurance progress. I just started daydreaming about doing something that would help children want to move through space…and to get into the habit of moving. The eureka moment was to tie a children’s running log to an incremental marathon. I had read in Running Times magazine of a junior high homeroom teacher who did something similar in 1995.  So I created a visual running log that could be colored in by children, and the best part of the idea was to have a party at the beginning of the launch of their commitment…and a party six months later, at the completion of their effort.

In 1996, when this began as a grassroots initiative in Austin Texas with the help of local physical educators, a local running store, and local volunteers, we all noticed that children simply did not run and play as they used to. The idea is that Marathon Kids gives them the opportunity to run or walk and to make a habit of it. From the beginning, the passion has been to keep the six month program free. We have done that, thanks to volunteers, physical educators, Board guidance, foundations, individual donors and corporate sponsors.

TLT:  What cities currently have Marathon Kids programs?

KM: Houston, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Rio Grande Valley, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Window Rock area of the Navajo Nation.

TLTL  Do you have plans to expand the program geographically?  If readers want to bring Marathon Kids to their own area, what should they do?

KM: The program has grown organically but, unfortunately, we have 400+ towns and cities on our waiting list now.   However, with the help of a Michael & Susan Dell Foundation grant, we hope to be able to offer Marathon Kids elsewhere in a much broader fashion.

TLT:  What are some success stories you can relay from the program?

KM: The best success stories involve just moving a child from sedentary to non-sedentary. And those include stories where parents became more active as a result of their children doing the free program. We also have some superstar Marathon Kids. Craig Lutz, a Marathon Kids grad, has won the Footlocker National Cross Country. He also came in ahead of all other U.S. runners in the recent international cross country meet in Umbria, Spain.

TLT:  You’ve always emphasized good nutrition along with exercise but I understand you’ll be soon ramping up the food side of Marathon Kids even more. Can you give us a preview?

KM: Last year, with the help of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Austin’s St. David’s Foundation, we created a new prototype: a combined Marathon Kids Running & Food Log, a hybrid. We launched that in a few pilot schools. The new log is cute and compelling and still holds the child, school and family accountable and responsible.

TLT:  Is there anything else you’d like to tell TLT readers about Marathon Kids?

KM: We throw the net wide for Marathon Kids. When we offer it to a city, we want the leaders and the children to know that ALL kids can be Marathon Kids: fast/slow, overweight/slender, rich/poor, sighted/blind, abled/disabled. We want the child to raise his/her hand who would NEVER, EVER before have raised their hand, to say, “This is something I think I can do.” Marathon Kids is about completion, not speed. Children repeat the program from year to year. Children with social challenges often find a tribe of friends.

Another part of our mission is to get children onto a college campus. Thus that’s why we have our Kick Off and Final Miles events at university track and field stadiums. It’s our hope that children, as they walk across campus, will have their imagination sparked that someday they may go to college. Our hope is also that their parents will have that same spark.

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Many thanks to Kay Morris for visiting The Lunch Tray to tell us about Marathon Kids!  You can learn more about the program here at the Marathon Kids website.