Sunday, May 30, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

With one of the worst childhood obesity problems in the world, Mexico is clamping down by eliminating many popular foods from its schools.

Schools in Mexico don't have cafeterias. Instead, kids purchase food from vendors and food stalls who set up shop on school grounds. Under new rules, vendors will no longer be able to sell soft drinks, sweets such as salted tamarind candy, pork rinds and atole, the thick and sweet cornstarch-based beverage served piping hot in the morning.

Also getting the axe: tortas, the often overstuffed, greasy, meat-packed sandwiches popular in Mexico, unless they are "light" versions, meaning made with beans, avocado and cheese, or chicken-and-vegetables. Only low-fat tacos, burritos and salads will be allowed.

President Felipe Calderon launched a nationwide anti-obesity campaign in January, saying the incidence of obesity among youngsters has tripled in Mexico over the last three decades. About 26 percent of all Mexican children are overweight.


Move over school breakfast and school lunch, here comes school dinner.

To keep hunger away, more and more schools are starting to serve early supper during after school under a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

The program currently reaches kids in 13 states and the District of Columbia, providing reimbursements for meals served to at-risk kids in communities where at least 50 percent of households fall below the poverty level.

"What it allows us to do is provide those kids with an extra nutritious meal before they go home because some kids go home to nothing," said Susan Eckes, director of child nutrition programs for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada in McCarran, Nev.

In Baltimore, about 2,000 suppers are made by students in a vocational high school to further their culinary degrees.

Around the country, about 49,000 children benefit from the after-school meals each day. The program is expected to cost a total of $8 million from 2009 to 2013, the USDA said.


Still, nothing beats having dinner with family. Research shows that kids who eat dinner with their families regularly are more emotionally stable and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They get better grades. They have fewer depressive symptoms, particularly among adolescent girls. And they are less likely to become obese or have an eating disorder.

Parents can help model healthy eating when families share dinner together. Here's an excellent article detailing why families should dine as a unit as often as possible.


Tired of your child being exposed to sugary flavored milk at school? Here's a school in Vail, CO, where parents succeeded in getting chocolate milk removed from the cafeteria.

“I've never talked to a doctor that recommends my child drink chocolate milk,” said the mother of one fourth-grader. “At home, we offer milk, 1 or 2 percent. Of course, when she comes to school, my daughter is going to choose chocolate milk.”

Meanwhile, at a high school in Roseville, CA, high schoolers got so fed up with the woeful food in the cafeteria they've planted a garden to grow some of their own food.

“Our generation has grown up completely disconnected from agriculture,” said one sophomore. “There’s no such thing as a Cheetos tree. I don’t want to eat something that’s been mistreated or is not in its natural form. If I can’t pronounce it, I shouldn’t be putting it in my body.”

And in Beaufort County, NC, a new nutrition director has schools cooking from scratch using 1960s and '70s recipes culled from a USDA library.

“We’re getting back to the grassroots of child nutrition,” said nutrition director Gwyn Roberson McBride.

The move comes at a time when school systems statewide are facing unprecedented challenges in providing nutritious meals for their students. About 60 percent of the school food programs in North Carolina are operating in the red, and many school systems have chosen to cut back on the number of school cafeteria workers and focus solely on pre-made foods.


Tight budgets have been a real money maker for big food processors like Tyson. Rather than hire skilled chefs and deal with raw ingredients, school districts use a federal commodity food program to have their school lunch items manufactured by some 112 companies such as Tyson, ConAgra and JR Simplot that specialize in making school food on a huge scale.

Rules laid down by the USDA actually encourage schools to seek out industrially processed convenience foods. Big processors could see their business threatened if schools opt to make food from scratch with fresh ingredients. But the financial realities of school meal programs make that extremely difficult in most cases.

School food consultant Kate Adamick says schools should take the money they fork over to giant processors and use it instead to train their kitchen workers how to cook.


Finally, with sales growth slowing, Lay's, the country's largest maker of potato chips, has decided it needs to embrace the trend toward healthy, local foods by marketing its chips not as a snack, but as a real food made from potatoes grown by real farmers.

The company's advertising campaign, started last year, addresses the perception among many consumers that its chips came from "not real potatoes." The latest elements of the ad strategy include significantly more ads for local markets, reports the New York Times, with regional farmers as the stars; an online “Happiness Exhibit” photo gallery at the brand’s Web site,, which reinforces the theme of the campaign, “Happiness is simple”; five new regional flavors like Tangy Carolina BBQ and Southwest Cheese and Chiles; and reformulated versions of the Kettle Cooked varieties of Lay’s.

“We discovered the best way to tell our story was through people,” said a Lay's executive. Enter the farmers, more than 80 of them from 28 states like California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The campaign includes, in addition to its presence on, television commercials, magazine ads, signs in stores and a wooden billboard, planned to go up in San Francisco, that is being hand-carved. There are more than 150 elements of the campaign customized for local markets.