The Challenge of Getting Locally Grown Produce Into Schools

Eat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per DayIn the five years I’ve been involved in school food reform here in Houston ISD, I’ve seen my district have mixed success in serving locally-grown fruits and vegetables in our school meals.

Early on, there was a stated commitment to source at least 25% of our school food produce locally but, to my knowledge, this goal has never been met.  Yet I don’t think that failure has been due to a lack of commitment on the part of my district; rather, as explained to those of us on the Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee, a district as large as ours (300 schools) faces unique challenges in relying on local sources to supply produce for its 200,000 meals served daily.

A recent report from NPR’s The Salt blog, “Why Some Schools Serve Local Food and Others Can’t (Or Won’t),” backs up this contention.  In surveying the progress made by districts around the country in sourcing local food, writer Tracie McMillan finds that it tends to be the smaller states — Maine, Vermont, Maryland and Delaware — which are having the greatest successes.   McMillan’s report offers a good, if somewhat depressing, snapshot of the state of local school food sourcing nationwide, finding that “only about 13 percent of the food budgets at schools serving local food actually went to stuff that was grown nearby.”

The good news is that USDA remains committed to helping districts foster relationships with local suppliers. Just yesterday the agency announced its request for applications for the fiscal year 2016 round of Farm to School grants.  Interested districts must submit their proposals by May 20th, and there will be a webinar about the applications process on March 25th.   More information can be found here, if you’d like to forward the link to the administrator of your district’s school meal program.

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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Help a TLT Mom Out: Advocating for Change in a Hostile Food Environment

candyI once attended a conference for food advocates from all over the country and one of the break-out sessions was specifically for those of us working in politically conservative states.  The joke was that wine and sympathetic hugs would be on offer as we shared our sob stories with each other.

That experience reminded me of a TLT reader, whom I’ll call Ellen, who wrote to me a few months ago seeking my help.  I actually shared a bit of Ellen’s story in my new (free!) 40-page ebook, The Lunch Tray’s Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.  I wrote:

While parents should feel free to advocate for the healthiest classroom environment possible, there may come a point when you hit the limits of what your particular community will accept. Here’s what I mean:

You might live in a health-conscious, progressive city and/or your children might attend a school (public or private) in which the parent community is well educated about nutrition — or at least open to nutrition education. Or you might be like one Lunch Tray reader who recently wrote to me in despair. In the small, rural area in which she lives, the school is awash in junk food for every occasion, from parties to fundraisers. Overweight children in her community are generally looked upon as “healthier” than children of normal weight (who are called “pencil-necked” or “beanpole”), and a fellow PTA member once literally told her, “We don’t care about nutrition!”

If you live in the former environment, asking fellow parents to bring in only organic, locally-grown fruits and vegetables for birthdays might be met with excited enthusiasm. In the latter environment, it might get you run out of town by an angry mob.

When I corresponded with Ellen I promised to share her story on the blog to solicit advice from other readers, and I’m doing that belatedly today.  Here are the other pieces to her story:

Fifty percent of the kids in her rural district are on free or reduced price lunch.  At first she was told outright that the district had no wellness policy, but she was intrepid in trying to locate it:

After speaking with the Superintendent’s office twice, several elementary teachers (including P.E. teacher), and the District School Nurse, I called the Students Services Director in the Superintendent’s office- they put me on speakerphone to have me explain to them what a wellness plan is.  Then said they’d look around and get back with me. Sure enough, they found one! Or what they’re calling one.  I now have a hard copy in my possession.

The wellness policy, like most policies written when they were first mandated back in 2004, is quite weak (more on that in my ebook) and the district isn’t even complying with its own low standards. For example, the policy encourages teachers to solicit healthy food for classroom use, yet on her own child’s class supply list parents were asked to bring “a bag of candy” for use as rewards.  She also says preschoolers in the district are given snacks like “brownies, cupcakes, chocolate pudding and pop tarts.”

Ellen has spoken about this a PTO meeting (where she was told, “We don’t care about nutrition!”), she has attended a board meeting to learn more about her district’s policies, and she has taken a school tour with her principal to discuss these issues. Here’s how the talk with the principal went:

When I brought up the idea of wellness, nutrition and obesity, he scoffed and said he didn’t believe in BMI, and said, “Look at Shaquille O’Neil!”. . . . He told me that they don’t really have many celebrations anyway- He said “Just Christmas parties and Valentines, not Easter… Oh except the Kindergarteners and 1st grade- they go to the Nursing Home for an Egg Hunt.”  I just nodded and kept to myself the other celebrations that I know are occurring- Halloween parties in each classroom from 1:30-2:30 today (listed on the website), Veterans Day Breakfast (mentioned at the PTO meeting, planning who will supply the donuts), Donuts with dads, Muffins with Moms (mentioned at the PTO meeting).

Ellen and I have talked about the importance of finding fellow parents who can stand with her in this effort, but she writes:

I would like to try to change my own school district, and have looked for allies, but have come up with no one. Not one person who is willing to help or even feels there’s a problem.

She and I have talked about other things she can do, including seeking support outside the school environment from health professionals and community leaders.  We also talked about how the new USDA wellness policy rules will require schools to be more proactive about student health, including having to report on their progress each year in meeting specific health-related goals.  All of that said, though, I fully recognize that sometimes a school or district is just so mired in the junk food Stone Age, even these sorts of external pressures won’t do much good.

But before Ellen throws up her hands in defeat or moves her kids to another district (something she’s considering), I told her I’d share her story here.  Any additional advice, TLTers?  Please share your thoughts in a comment below or on TLT’s Facebook page.

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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Daycare Food Gets a Makeover, But Still Falls Short

Back in September I had a piece on Civil Eats in which I described how surprisingly unhealthy foods like Rice Krispies treats, donuts, and Pop Tarts can be fed to children in federally funded daycare meal programs.  So when I learned last month that the USDA had released new, proposed nutritional standards for daycare meals, it seemed like long-overdue good news.  The update was mandated by the same legislation that led to the healthier school meals we see today, so I assumed the daycare meal standards would be similarly improved.

But when I delved into the rules, I was shocked at how nutritionally lax they remain.  Take a look at what a “healthy” breakfast for a child aged 3-5 can still look like under the new proposed rules:


My report on the new daycare nutritional standards, including more photo montages like the one above, is up today on Civil Eats.  I hope you’ll read the story and also take a moment to submit your own comments to the USDA about its proposed rules.  And thanks to Civil Eats for the opportunity to share this information with its readership!

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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Ag Commissioner Miller on Fox News: Distortions as Big as the State of Texas

Last week this blog was devoted to discussing Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s first act in office –  a declaration of “cupcake amnesty” – as well as his plan to bring deep fat fryers and sodas back to our public schools.

As I explained here and in a Houston Chronicle op-ed on Friday, since 2005 Texas state law has explicitly allowed parents and grandparents to bring to school any food they wish, including cupcakes, on a child’s birthday.  So when Mr. Miller chose as his first act in office to “pardon” cupcakes for no apparent reason, I initially gave him the benefit of the doubt by stating, “I can’t tell whether Mr. Miller and his advisors are being intentionally deceptive or are just plain ignorant.”

Now I have no choice but to settle on the former explanation.

Even after a lead story in the Texas Tribune and op-ed in the state’s second largest newspaper both called out Mr. Miller on his misrepresentations of Texas law, he still went on Fox & Friends on Sunday to crow about his bogus granting of “cupcake amnesty.” You can watch the interview, which is about three minutes long, below:

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 9.55.48 AM

Here are just some of the grossly inaccurate statements made by Mr. Miller in the clip, none of which were caught — or even questioned — by the Fox interviewer, Tucker Carlson:

MILLER:  “One of the first acts I did when I got into office was to repeal every mandate of from the Texas Department of Agriculture to our local school districts.”

The Texas School Nutrition Policy (TSNP) was repealed last April —  eight months before Mr. Miller assumed office.  And it was repealed not to let Texas districts do whatever they wanted, but to harmonize our state law with far stricter federal regulations that were about to go into effect.  (But I guess that’s not the sort of thing a conservative politician wants to reveal on Fox News.)

CARLSON asks if the prior Texas policy had “in effect, been telling parents what they could feed to their own children” and MILLER responds, “Well, that’s correct. And we just don’t do that in Texas.  We believe in local control, individual responsibility and freedom from burdensome government regulations.”

Nothing in the TSNP in any way restricted what parents could feed their own children, whether the food was provided in a home-packed lunch, a snack brought from home for a child’s consumption at school, or as birthday treats sent in by a parent or grandparent.  Carlson’s statement and Miller’s affirmation of it are 100% false.

MILLER:  “The federal childhood nutritional program is a huge failure. .  . .  School districts all over the United States are dropping out of the program.”

False. According to the USDA, “very few schools (only 0.15% of schools nationwide) reported dropping out of the programs due to struggles over providing kids healthy food.”

MILLER, after being shown Texas childhood obesity statistics, says “These [Texas] rules were put in ten years ago, in 2004, and those figures haven’t gotten any better. So government hasn’t worked but individual responsibility, local control is what works.  So we’re getting out of the school mandate business.” CARLSON: “So, just to be clear, for ten years cupcakes have been banned and those numbers are still the same? MILLER:  “Yeah, that’s correct.  Didn’t work.”  

As noted, cupcakes haven’t been banned in Texas for ten years, they’ve been expressly allowed in Texas for the last ten years.  So this entire exchange between Miller and Carlson is nonsensical.

But let’s generously assume Miller is speaking here of the TSNP and not of some nonexistent “cupcake ban.”  While Texas’s childhood obesity rate does remain stubbornly high, what would it look like today if the TSNP hadn’t been in place for the last decade to curb the worst junk food on school campuses?  If Commissioner Miller actually does return deep fat fryers and sodas to Texas public schools, we’ll all find out soon enough.

*  *  *

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper role of government in feeding children, but Miller isn’t looking for intellectually honest debate.  Instead, he’s playing fast and loose with the facts — and our children’s health — to establish himself in the media as a freedom-loving, regulation-hating Texan.  Now that he’s had his three minutes of fame on Fox News, we can only hope he’ll move on.

But if Miller is truly serious about rolling back school nutrition in this state, he needs to understand a thing or two about messing with Texas moms:


(For the non-Texans among my readership, my carrot battle flag is a play on this.)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,500 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 here. 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: Texas “Cupcake Amnesty”

american cupcakeAfter cross-posting my piece earlier this week about the new Texas Agriculture Commissioner declaring “cupcake amnesty,” the Houston Chronicle asked if I’d be willing to write an editorial about it for today’s paper.  I agreed, and in today’s piece I look at whether Texas taxpayers might have to pay a stiff price for Commissioner Miller’s political grandstanding.  Thanks to the Chronicle for the opportunity!

I was also interviewed yesterday by ABC News (online) regarding the different approaches taken by school districts regarding classroom treats.

And for those of you not following TLT’s Facebook page, I want to share here a great post from Dr. Daniel Taber, an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, about how sadly politicized the issue of junk food in schools has become.

And with that, I close out “Crazy Texas Cupcake Week” here on The Lunch Tray.  :-) Have a great weekend, all!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,500 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 here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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My Interview With USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon

Back in November, I was contacted by a Public Affairs Specialist at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services asking me if I’d like to conduct a 15-minute phone interview with USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.  Given that Mr. Concannon’s job includes overseeing federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, I was very excited to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

usda logoA few days later, I was told to email my questions in advance of the call.  I knew this would take some of the spontaneity out of the phone conversation, but I nonetheless complied.  Some time later I received the news that there would be no phone call with Mr. Concannon after all, and instead I would receive his written answers to my questions.  Then, over a month after I was first contacted by USDA, I received a set of written responses which at first I was told to attribute only to an “unnamed USDA spokesperson.”  When I expressed my surprise at this condition, I was told that a mistake had been made and that I am allowed to attribute the answers to the Under Secretary. When I asked whether he wrote the answers himself, I was told that he reviewed and approved them.

I’m sharing all of this background because the end result of this interview process is not quite what I had hoped for.  In particular, the answer to the first (and, to my mind, most important) question was not particularly responsive, but due to the changed format I was unable to ask any follow-up questions.  Nonetheless, I do want to express my sincere appreciation for the initial offer to interview the Under Secretary, the time spent by USDA staff preparing the answers and the time taken by the Under Secretary to review them.

Here is the Q&A:

TLT:   I and many of my readers are very concerned about current attempts to weaken school food standards.  What do you think the fate of the HHFKA standards will be, both after the FY2015 appropriations process [Ed. Note: by the time I received the answer to this question, the appropriations process was concluded] and the CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization] in the coming year?  What, if anything, is the USDA currently doing to defend the current standards?   And do you think there’s anything we parents can do, or is this now out of the hands of ordinary citizens?

Under Secretary Concannon:  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has made a difference across our nation, with more than 90 percent of schools certified as adhering to the healthier standards and students receiving more nutritious meals as a result. These changes are working, and we expect to see continued improvements over time. Change can be difficult for anyone in any situation; we know that the generational changes we are seeking take time to implement.

We will continue to work with State and local partners to provide training and technical assistance to schools so they are equipped with tools and resources needed to prepare and serve meals and snacks that meet the new standards, and more importantly are accepted and consumed by students. We are also listening closely to feedback from schools as they implement these changes, and have provided policy flexibilities as a result. We will continue on this path. Our goal is to ensure the next generation has access to nutritious foods, along with proper education about healthy eating.

Parents have many opportunities to be involved in promoting and supporting the new standards. We encourage parents to work with their school district and local school wellness committee and learn more about the child nutrition initiatives and opportunities in their school. They may also become involved through the local PTO/PTA, participating in school board meetings, or volunteering in other capacities at school. Parent and student input can be an important tool for school food service operators to successfully implement the standards and provide acceptable meals that students will consume.

TLT:  As you’re likely aware, I and a fellow advocate, Nancy Huehnegarth, are leading a campaign to keep chicken processed in China from being used in all federal child nutrition programs, including the NSLP.  [Ed. note: by the time this question was answered, Nancy and I had already declared victory.] Our petition currently has over 328,000 signatures in support of this goal. Given China’s abysmal food safety record and the fact that no USDA inspectors will be on site, do you share our concerns about feeding kids chicken processed in that country?

Under Secretary Concannon:  USDA is committed to ensuring that food served through the National School Lunch Program is both healthy and safe. Chicken provided to schools through the USDA Foods program is required to be processed in the United States per program regulations. Further, the substitution of non-domestic product is not allowed for any USDA Foods product. Schools can also purchase chicken items for their school meal service outside of USDA foods, from a variety of commercial vendors. The Buy American provision requires that for commercially-purchased foods, schools utilize foods where a substantial amount (51% or more) of the final processed product consists of domestically grown products. Schools with concerns about receiving products processed to any degree outside the United States may elect to draft their bid specifications to specifically request that their chicken products be processed 100% domestically. As a result of the fiscal year 2015 appropriations directive recently passed by Congress, the USDA is working with state agencies to provide additional guidance.

It is also important to know that all domestic and imported poultry must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public.  USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a stringent inspection system in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken. The Food and Nutrition Service will continue to ensure State compliance with all applicable statutes and laws, including the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, as we work to ensure the provision of nutritious school meals to children across America.

TLT:  The Smart Snacks rules have been a huge step forward in getting junk food off of school campuses.  However, as you know, when the rules were in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for “exempt fundraisers.”  In the first proposal, states would have had to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion, with no federal oversight.  The USDA opted for the latter, and now some states are exploiting this loophole to the fullest.  For example, Georgia recently voted to allow its schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days, which means any junk food may be sold to Georgia kids during the school day for fully one-half of the school year.  What do you think about states like Georgia and, in retrospect, does the USDA now regret giving states so much autonomy?

Under Secretary Concannon:  USDA thoughtfully considered and responded to public input on the Smart Snacks in School proposal, resulting in even stronger standards. USDA received nearly 250,000 stakeholder comments from parents, teachers, school food service professionals, and the food and beverage industry. Based on that feedback, the rule carefully balances science-based nutrition standards with practical and workable solutions to promote healthier eating on campus. As a result, USDA has provided flexibility for states to manage fundraisers at the state level. This is a local decision, as USDA understands that fundraisers are time-honored traditions that support local school activities, including class trips, athletic programs and the purchase of school supplies. States also have the flexibility to modify their fundraising policy at any time during the school year should they wish to do so, or in future years. USDA/FNS has been and will continue to work with our  State partners to reach out to schools and other stakeholders in the school community to provide training, technical assistance and resources to ensure that they understand the new rules, and have the tools and information they need to succeed.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join almost 5,500 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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McDonald’s and In-School Marketing: The Clown Speaks From Both Sides of His Mouth

The McDonald’s corporation has lately fallen on hard times, enduring seven straight months of declining domestic sales, a food safety scandal involving its Chinese meat supplier, politically motivated restaurant closures in Russia, even a Consumer Reports survey ranking its burgers as the “worst in America.” So on a December 10th conference call, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson and U.S. President Mike Andres sought to reassure skittish McDonald’s investors by outlining a seven-point plan to turn around the troubled corporation.

Among the strategies discussed on the call was a need to “start with mom” by continuing the company’s  “McTeacher’s Nights,” i.e., school fundraisers in which teachers are put to work at a local McDonald’s restaurant and a portion of the night’s proceeds benefit the school.  In response to an investor question on the call, Andres then reiterated that the corporation’s financial performance would benefit by increasing its presence in schools.  Specifically, he said that McDonald’s franchise owners:

have got to be in the schools. When you look at the performance relative to peers of the operators [whose] restaurants are part of the community–it’s significant. So we’re celebrating that…this is an essential part of being an McDonald’s owner operator. This is our heritage. And schools are a big piece of it.”

(Emphasis mine; you can listen to a complete recording of the call here.) 

So far, the company’s new willingness to double down on in-school marketing hasn’t been given much favorable coverage in the press. CBS News had a hard-hitting piece about it last week (“Why McDonald’s says it ‘wants to be in the schools‘”) and yesterday food policy reporter Lauren Rothman had a similarly critical post in ViceMcDonald’s Targets Teachers and Students to Boost Flagging Sales” (I was pleased to be quoted in the latter.)

But the most troubling aspect of McDonald’s plan is that it flatly contradicts statements made on the corporation’s behalf before the federal government regarding the intent and impact of such in-school marketing.

Here’s the background.  Last February, the USDA issued proposed new rules for school wellness policies which, among other things, would instruct districts to ban marketing on school campuses for food and beverages which don’t meet the new, stringent “Smart Snacks” nutritional guidelines.  Such a rule, if adopted across the board, would effectively put an end to McTeacher’s Nights and most other McDonald’s school-related initiatives.  But USDA also expressly solicited comments from the public on whether such a ban should in fact extend to:

food and beverage advertising or marketing on the school campus during the school day via . . . indirect advertising (via corporate sponsored educational materials, teacher training, contests and incentives, grants, gifts, or event sponsorships) . . .

ronald mcdonald clown
Going into schools will definitely help my bottom line, but trust me: it’s only “incidental” advertising!

Not surprisingly, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), an industry self-regulatory group of which McDonalds is a member, submitted comments to the USDA which argued that such programs ought to be allowed on school campuses  — even if sponsored by companies like McDonald’s which sell junk food — so long as the corporate branding connected with such programs is used only for the sake of  “transparency” and “where the ‘advertising’  impact is merely incidental.”

But as McDonald’s U.S. president Andres’s own comments to investors on December 10th make abundantly clear, getting the company’s marketing messages in front of impressionable school kids and their parents is anything but “incidental;” according to the company’s top executives, in-school marketing is actually critical to McDonald’s bottom line.

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s has engaged in high-level corporate double-speak when it comes to its in-school marketing practices.  You may recall that back in May, I and five other moms attended the annual McDonald’s shareholder meeting as guests of Corporate Accountability International’s Moms Not Lovin’ It Campaign (“Speaking Truth to Ronald.“) When one of the moms in our group, Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, raised her concerns about McDonald’s youth marketing practices, including its in-school marketing, Thompson surprised many in the room when he told her unequivocally that “we don’t put Ronald out in schools.”

That statement was, of course, factually inaccurate at the time Thompson made it, and a few months later the company’s spokesperson had to backpedal from his statement when it became the subject of a letter campaign organized by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

It remains to be seen whether the USDA will buy into CFBAI’s laughable notion that McTeacher’s Nights and other forms of in-school fast food marketing (whether implemented by McDonald’s, Dominos Pizza, Chick-Fil-A or any other chain) don’t constitute “advertising” that should fall under the proposed Smart Snacks on-campus advertising ban.  I’ll of course keep you posted here.

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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USDA Announces $5 Million in Farm-to-School Grants

As the political wrangling over weakening school nutrition standards continues in Congress, here’s some nice school food news to share:  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced yesterday that the USDA will be providing school districts with over $5 million in grants for “82 projects spanning 42 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands that support . . . efforts to connect school cafeterias with local farmers and ranchers through its Farm to School Program.”

The farm-to-school projects include a program in which Delaware high school students will grow crops on a historic farm for use in school breakfast and lunch programs, as well as a plan by the The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council in South Dakota to provide locally raised tribal bison meat into the school lunch programs.

A complete list of the fiscal year 2015 Farm to School grant recipients can be found here.

And speaking of the USDA, a few weeks ago I was surprised and pleased to be asked by the agency if I’d like to interview Kevin Concannon, the USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, who oversees the National School Lunch Program.  Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.  Our emailed question-and-answer session should appear on The Lunch Tray later this week or next week.

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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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:


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!   #Thanks4RealMichelleObama #thanksmichelleobama

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Chicken Processed in China: One Step Closer to American School Lunch Trays

In August, 2013, the USDA made the controversial announcement that it will allow four Chinese facilities to process poultry raised in the U.S., Canada or Chile and then export that cooked chicken back to the United States.  This development was deeply troubling to many advocates due to China’s terrible food safety record and the fact that (by the admission of one of its own officials) China’s food regulatory system is not yet on par with that of other developed nations.


China was required to provide the USDA with paperwork certifying those four facilities and the USDA announced last week that this step has taken place.  Now U.S. companies may begin at any time to use China for their poultry processing and/or include Chinese-processed chicken in products like soups, frozen entrees, chicken nuggets and more.

While some reports have indicated that American companies won’t take advantage of this arrangement due to the 14,000-mile round trip involved, my colleague Nancy Huehnergarth and I reported last March in Food Safety News that Chinese processing has already proven quite economical for American seafood suppliers which already ship salmon and crab to China for filleting and de-shelling to take advantage of China’s lower labor costs.  Our research finds the same labor cost differential for poultry workers:  around $11 per hour for American poultry workers versus only $1-2 per hour for their Chinese counterparts.  There is no reason to believe, therefore, that some U.S. companies will not take advantage of this significant cost savings.

Consumers who wish to avoid Chinese-processed chicken are out of luck, since companies will not be required to label where the processing took place if the processed chicken is further processed in this country – in other words, added to foods like soups, frozen entrees or chicken nuggets.  Worse still, as revealed in an exclusive Lunch Tray report last year, Chinese-processed chicken can easily appear on school lunch trays, despite the USDA’s initial statement to the contrary.  That means we may be exposing an especially vulnerable population — children — to potential food safety risks.

How real are those risks?   China’s recent food safety record includes infamous cases of widespread adulteration, such as the melamine-tainted milk powder that sickened 300,000 children, or the more than $1 million worth of rat and other small mammal meat sold to Chinese consumers as lamb. And poultry in particular has been at the center of recent food safety scandals in China, as the New York Times reported last week:

Earlier this year, a major meat supplier to McDonald’s got caught up in a food scandal after a Chinese television station broadcast video showing workers in its Shanghai plant doctoring labels on chicken and beef products and scooping up meat that had fallen on the ground and putting it back on conveyor belts for processing. The country has also had frequent outbreaks of deadly avian influenza, and the Food and Drug Administration attributed the deaths of more than 500 dogs and some cats to chicken jerky treats from China.

Here are some other troubling facts:

  • The USDA’s last audit of the four Chinese facilities in question was back in March, 2013 – almost two years ago — which means we are now relying exclusively on the Chinese government’s assurances that nothing has changed at those plants in the interim.
  • These four plants will not have on-site USDA inspectors to ensure that food safety standards are met on a regular basis.
  • Allowing China to process our chicken is widely viewed as just the first step toward allowing that country to import into the U.S. chickens raised and slaughtered in China.  This may pose an even greater food safety risk due to widespread water and soil contamination in China.

So what can we do now?

Language is currently under consideration in Congress for inclusion in the 2015 spending bill which would prevent the federal funding of Chinese-processed chicken for school meals or other child nutrition programs.  We can support the inclusion of this language in three simple ways:

  • First, if you haven’t already done so, please SIGN and SHARE our petition, joining over 327,000 concerned citizens who have already signed.
  • Second, if you’re a Twitter user, just click this link to automatically create this tweet to members of the Appropriations Committee:

.@senatorbarb @senshelby @nitalowey @rephalrogers 327K say NO to Chinese-processed chicken! Support Sec. 742 HR 4800 

  • Third, please take a moment to tell your Congressional representatives how you feel about this issue.  To find out the names, phone numbers and emails of your representatives, just enter your zip code in this link.  Here is sample text for your email, or feel free to use your own words to express your concern.

Thank you for your support!

– Bettina and Nancy

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Standing Up for Citizen Journalism

Back in July, many of you saw an Associated Press story which reported that “[s]everal food writers, including a New York Times reporter, have been subpoenaed by a meat producer as part of its $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC in regards to the network’s coverage of a beef product dubbed ‘pink slime’ by critics.”

Because of my successful petition in 2012, some of you asked whether I, too, had received a subpoena from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the plaintiff in this lawsuit and the maker of lean, finely textured beef (“LFTB,” aka “pink slime.”)  I didn’t speak about it publicly at the time but, based on a motion filed by BPI in South Dakota state court, I knew a subpoena was likely on its way.  In mid-August, BPI’s process server showed up at my door.

Although I’m not a party to or otherwise involved in BPI’s lawsuit, BPI wants all of my private communications in 2012 with the parties they’ve sued, including employees of ABC News and the two former USDA microbiologists who first expressed concern about the meat filler in private emails, some of which were later made public by the New York Times.

I do have information responsive to this request, but I’m asserting the protection of the First Amendment and Texas’s “shield law” (a statute giving journalists a qualified privilege against disclosure of their material in cases like this) so that my confidential communications, source material and work product remain private

Here’s why I felt it was important to take this stand.

Whether the issue is GMO labelinganimal welfare practices, or the disclosure of questionable ingredients — from the yellow dye in mac-in-cheese to the LFTB hidden in ground beef — consumers clearly care about food transparency.  And precisely because we’re not affiliated with traditional media outlets, food policy bloggers like me have the freedom to focus exclusively on such issues, often devoting considerable time and effort to inform readers about, and advocate for, these causes.  But if bloggers and other “citizen journalists” are going to face lawyers and subpoenas whenever they gather information on potentially controversial topics, they may well think twice before they post.  And that sort of chilling effect ultimately harms us all.

I’ll keep you informed of any developments with respect to the subpoena.  And thanks to my attorney – better known around here as “Mr. TLT” – for taking time out of his own busy work schedule to represent me in this matter.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here.  And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”


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Invoking the Cherished Bake Sale to Undermine the Smart Snacks Rules

american cupcakeBack in November, 2010, only a few months after starting The Lunch Tray, I wrote about running my children’s elementary school Election Day bake sale.  In that post I expressed a little bit of ambivalence about selling sweets to raise money  — ambivalence that would evolve over the next four years into outright activism against junk food in schools  —  but at the time I was clearly charmed by the old-timey, innocent feel of the event.  I wrote:

. . . . the bake sale I’m running today couldn’t be more Norman Rockwell: there are flags and buntings everywhere, kids clamoring to take a turn behind the cash box, and almost all the goods are homemade. 

It’s just that sort of nostalgia for the old-fashioned bake sale that’s now being cynically exploited by those seeking to undermine the new Smart Snacks in School rules.

Promulgated under the 2010 the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) and becoming effective this past July, the Smart Snacks rules greatly improve the nutritional profile of foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day in outlets like school stores, vending machines, cafeteria snack bar lines — and yes, school fundraisers.  These rules impose sensible limits on fat, calories and sodium, while requiring that school snacks be fruits, vegetables, whole-grain or dairy products, or a combination of those foods.

But right from the start, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack knew he would have potential public relations disaster on his hands if he didn’t reassure the American public that the cherished school bake sale would survive the HHFKA’s passage.  So many right wing politicians (including Sarah Palin) and conservative outlets like Fox News were erroneously claiming that the law would “ban bake sales at schools” that Vilsack felt the need to write a letter to Congress to assure the public that the USDA would “consider special exemptions for occasional school-sponsored fundraisers such as bake sales.” Nonetheless, Fox news still warned its viewers to “[s]ay good-bye to homemade brownies and Rice Krispie treats” when President Obama signed the HHFKA into law.

Fast forward to 2014 and the bake sale furor still hasn’t died down.  A few weeks after the Smart Snacks rules went into effect this summer, Secretary Vilsack again felt the need to reassure the public, writing a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Healthy School Meal Rules Allow for Bake Sales.”  In that post he reminded readers that:

USDA has given states complete authority to set policies on fundraisers and bake sales that work for them. States are free to allow fundraisers and bake sales featuring foods and beverages that don’t meet the new standards during the school day if they choose. They, not USDA, are responsible for determining the number and the frequency of these events each year.

But granting this freedom to states that are hostile to federal regulation puts the Smart Snacks rules at risk. For example, Georgia’s Board of Education, claiming that the rules are an “absolute overreach of the federal government,” voted 9-1 this summer to allow Georgia schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days.  This means that, despite the Smart Snacks rules, any type of junk food may sold to Georgia school kids for fully one-half of the school year.  And at the time of the vote, Dr. John Barge, the state’s schools superintendent, again invoked the cherished “bake sale” when speaking to the press:

 “We don’t have enough teachers in our classrooms and now we are expected to hire some type of food police to monitor, whether we are having bake sales or not. That is just asinine.”

But perhaps no one has exploited the symbolism of the bake sale more effectively than Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who yesterday announced his introduction of H.R. 5417, i.e., “the Bringing Awareness and Knowledge to Exempt Schools Against Legislative Encroachment Act,” or, the BAKE SALE Act.  According to Poe, this legislation, if passed, would “prohibit any funds from being used to implement USDA’s new, unrealistic rule for school fundraisers and bake sales.”  And in an email to supporters announcing the BAKE SALE bill, Poe raised the specter of the federal government reaching right into the kitchens of brownie-baking moms:

In order to comply with the new rule, parents across the country will have to figure out the calorie, sugar, sodium, and fat count for the goods they prepare for a school bake sale.

But now let’s ask ourselves why the Smart Snacks rules were drafted to regulate school fundraisers in the first place.  Was it because a few times each year, parents were setting up tables of homemade Toll House cookies and muffins to raise a little money for the school dance or to send the band to Disneyland?  Or was it because the trade in highly processed, competitive junk food on school campuses was brisk, profitable, and often took place on a daily basis?

A few examples from my own district, Houston ISD, might be instructive.

Here in HISD, for years it has been common practice for high school PTAs, student groups and sports teams to set up fundraising tables at lunch — every single school day — to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to doughnuts to Chinese food.  These veritable “food courts” of junk food have proven so lucrative that many principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when our state (which used to have its own competitive food rules) issued hefty fines after audits of school campuses.  The money flowed in so fast from junk food sales — literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively — that principals often simply regarded those fines as the cost of doing business.

Does that sound like a quaint “bake sale” to you?

Or let’s talk about the school nurse with whom I served on HISD’s School Health Advisory Council several years ago, before Texas’s draconian education budget cuts eliminated his nursing position.  At this nurse’s particular elementary school, the student population was overwhelmingly Hispanic (an ethnic group predisposed to diet-related diseases) and he told me how he routinely examined the necks of those small children and found the tell-tale dark stripe on their skin that’s the first sign of Type 2 diabetes.  But the principal of that school, faced with the same state budget cuts that would result in the nurse’s dismissal, was so pressed for funds that he egged his students on to buy and sell chocolate bars from each other each week, holding out the allure of a “free dress” pass or homework pass for kids who made their sales quota.

Is there anything quaint about that story?

Ultimately, what’s shocking to me is that the adults so passionately fighting to undermine the Smart Snacks rules are making no secret about why they’re doing it.  It’s all about the money.

For example, here in HISD, I was dismayed when a school board member who is otherwise committed to student health expressed discomfort at the idea of banning junk food sales at his/her own child’s high school because the money from such sales was so significant.  When Georgia passed its 30-fundraisers-a-year exemption, the school board chairperson and superintendent issued a joint statement which read:

These fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs. . .

And yesterday in his email, Congressman Poe wrote that if the Smart Snacks rules are not defunded:

Bake sales and other food-based school fundraisers will be regulated to extinction, leaving schools without funds for certain school programs, field trips, athletic competitions and other activities.

What’s stunning here is the short-term thinking so vividly on display.

In junk-food-fundraiser-happy Georgia, the state ranks 35th in per-student spending, 35% of Georgia school kids are overweight or obese, and obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually.  Here in Texas, we rank a dismal 46th place in per-student spending, our high schoolers are among the most obese in the nation, and, by one estimate, obesity will cost Texas employers a stunning $30 billion a year by 2036.  Yet in 2013, Texas state lawmakers passed a law intended to protect daily high school junk food fundraising from the reach of the HHFKA.  But wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars that will be spent on obesity-related healthcare toward school funding, which would eliminate schools’ dependence on the junk food fundraising that contributes to obesity?

As was the case in Georgia’s so-called “bake sale showdown” this battle tends to be framed as “a decision that weigh[s] federal school nutrition regulations against local districts’ efforts to raise funds,” but let’s be utterly clear about what’s really going on here:  it is a decision that weighs student health against local districts’ efforts to raise funds.  And the only reason why that trade-off is palatable for so many adults is because the most serious health consequences of a junk-food-rich diet generally won’t manifest themselves until long after kids graduate from the schools they helped fund with their junk food purchases.

And, at that point, they’re conveniently going to be somebody else’s problem.

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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Will Some States Try to Undermine the “Smart Snacks in School” Rules?

When the “Smart Snacks in School” rules went into effect on the first of this month, it was good news for the health of school children. These rules, which were mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, represent the first significant federal effort to regulate “competitive food,” i.e., the foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day through outlets such as vending machines, school stores, cafeteria “a la carte” (snack bar) lines and school fundraisers.

But even as the federal government took a big step forward in improving school snacks, it appears that some states may be determined to undermine these rules in any way they can.

Here’s the background.  In recognition of the long tradition of food-based school fundraisers such as the bake sale (and likely also to minimize backlash from cash-strapped school districts), the USDA planned to have a provision in the Smart Snacks rules allowing each state to determine a maximum total number of “exempt” school-sponsored fundraisers per year, i.e., fundraisers held during the school day at which junk food can legally be sold.

While the Smart Snacks rules were still in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for how this would work in practice. In the first proposal, states would be required to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion over the number, with no federal oversight.

In my own letter to the USDA commenting on the draft rules, I wrote:

Here in HISD and in many districts around the country, it is not uncommon to see on high school campuses numerous, daily fundraisers conducted during the lunch hour, most of which offer foods of poor nutritional value.  These sales greatly undermine participation in the federally subsidized school meal program, have a real and negative impact on student health and they undercut whatever nutrition information students are receiving in the classroom.

I understand that USDA will allow states to set their own limits on fundraisers offering foods and beverages which do not meet its proposed nutritional guidelines.  However, I’m concerned that cash-strapped school districts may successfully prevail upon states to grant liberal limits with respect to such fundraisers.  It is my recommendation, therefore, that the second of USDA’s two options be adopted, i.e., the option which allows for some USDA oversight on the frequency of such exempt, food-based fundraisers.

Nonetheless, despite receiving many comments like mine, the USDA ultimately chose to give states complete autonomy over fundraiser exemptions.  So the Smart Snacks rules now provide that if a state takes no action, the number of exempted fundraisers will be zero. And for states wishing to set their own maximum number of exempt fundraisers per year, the USDA has issued a guidance document in which it cautions:

… it is expected that State agencies will ensure that the frequency of such exempt fundraisers on school grounds during the school day does not reach a level which would impair the effectiveness of the Smart Snacks requirements.

From my own (admittedly cursory) research, it appears that only a handful of states have yet issued policies setting the number of maximum allowable exempt fundraisers for this coming 2014-15 school year.  A few states (Texas, Arizona and Michigan) have affirmatively set the number at zero, even though this is already the baseline when no state action is taken. Other states have conducted surveys of school administrators to find an acceptable number; based on such feedback, Indiana will allow two exempt fundraisers per school per year and Idaho will allow ten per school per year.

And then there’s Georgia.

fried chicken junk food competitive greasy
Even after new federal snack rules are in effect, will this be a weekly sight in Georgia schools?

Earlier this week, Stacy Whitman of School Bites alerted me and a few other food advocates to this rather alarming press release from the Georgia Board of Education, in which Georgia state officials decry the Smart Snacks rules as “federal overreach” and, in a clear effort to thumb their noses at the USDA, indicate that they plan to set the number of exempt fundraisers at 30 per school per year (which comes out to, approximately, one junk food fundraiser per school per week).  If that weren’t troubling enough, the state also plans to evaluate on a case-by-case basis any school’s request to hold even more junk food fundraisers per year.  (You can listen to Georgia state officials criticizng the Smart Snacks rules in this local news segment.)

It remains to be seen if other states, also chafing at what they consider to be federal “nanny state” interference, will follow Georgia’s lead and set their number of exempt fundraisers at the same — or even higher — level.  It also remains to be seen if the USDA, in keeping with its “expectation” that schools won’t use this loophole to effectively gut the Smart Snacks rules, will attempt to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, for an excellent discussion of how parents and other advocates can combat efforts like Georgia’s to unreasonably exploit the exempt fundraiser loophole, be sure to check out Nancy Huehnergarth’s excellent new post here.

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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