USDA Helps Struggling Districts Meet Healthy School Food Standards

usda logoThe School Nutrition Association is seeking to roll back the healthy school food standards in Congress, and its primary justification for doing so is that districts around the country are unable to comply with those standards.

Given conflicting data indicating that 90% of districts are already meeting the standards successfully, many school food advocates have asked the obvious question:  instead of weakening nutrition – a move that directly harms kids – why not put more effort into helping the small minority of districts that are struggling?

The good news is, that’s exactly what USDA is now doing with a program called the Team Up for Success Training Initiative, which brings together successful districts and those in need of assistance, helping the latter overcome their challenges without compromising on children’s nutrition.

The Team Up program began with a pilot last year and was so successful that it’s now being rolled out sequentially across the country.  The first Team Up this year will take place in USDA’s Southwest region on April 14-15, when school nutrition directors from Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico will meet at the National Food Service Management Institute on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

Last week I had a chance to speak with Bill Ludwig, USDA’s Southwest Regional Administrator, about the initiative.  He told me that goal of the two-day conference is simply to give struggling districts “a new tool kit, a set of best practices and technical assistance to make implementation a little easier.”

Ludwig notes that it’s usually the smaller districts around the country, those without a lot of resources, which are having the most trouble implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHKFA) standards.  “Some of the larger districts have a little more opportunity,” he told me. “More dollars and staff and nutritionists.  Dallas ISD is a good example.  Its director [Dora Rivas, interviewed by TLT last year here] is just outstanding.  If you look at the schools in Dallas, all of them were HealthierUS Schools before the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  They didn’t have to do anything in 2012 [when the HHFKA was implemented] because they had surpassed those requirements a number of years before. They have a lot more experience than a small district just now trying to implement the HHFKA.”

During the Team Up conference, struggling districts are not formally paired with mentors.  Rather, according to Ludwig, ample opportunities are provided throughout the two days for informal networking, with the hope that school nutrition directors will form multiple mentor/mentee relationships that will last long after the conference is over.

Future Team Up regional meetings will take place throughout the year, as follows:

  • May  – Northeast region
  • June  – Western region
  • July – Midwest region
  • August  – Mid-Atlantic region
  • September – Mountains Plains region

To learn more about Team Up and to view webinars from the prior conference, school nutrition professionals can visit this link and/or contact their regional administrator for more information.

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How You Can Help Improve Daycare Meals

Last fall I wrote a piece for Civil Eats about the low nutritional quality of food served in some federally funded daycare meal programs, and how concerned parents actually need a doctor’s note if they want to send in healthier food for their child.

In a follow-up Civil Eats post in February, I told you how new proposed USDA rules would give daycare food its first major overhaul since the Johnson administration, but that the rules still have some glaring deficiencies.  For example, if a daycare provider chose to ignore the proposed rules’  “best practices,” an acceptable breakfast could still look like this:


The comment period on the proposed rules ends on April 15th and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has made it easy for you to weigh in.  By clicking on this link and sending the pre-written email, you’ll be telling USDA that you support stronger standards for daycare food.

The CSPI requests are not pie-in-the-sky; as noted in my most recent Civil Eats piece, the lack of adequate funding for daycare meals unfortunately does impose some limits on how nutritious those meals can ever be.  But, if adopted, CSPI’s proposed changes to the rules would at least close some of the worst loopholes, such as one which allows children to be served juice at every single meal to satisfy their fruit and vegetable requirements.

If you care about daycare food, please take a moment to sign and send the CSPI email to USDA.  Thank you!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,600 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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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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