Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vegetarian Alternate: Taco Chips

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This is the standing "cold" alternate lunch for Fridays in D.C. elementary schools, according to the menu posted on Chartwells website. Chartwells calls this, "western corn and black bean salad with whole grain tortilla shells and homemade BBQ ranch dressing."

To me, this looks like frozen corn tossed with canned black beans next to some corn tortilla scoops you usually see in the chips aisle at the grocery store. I don't see the "homemade BBQ ranch dressing." What would you put it on? The pear had been served with the main lunch the day before, and of course milk--either low-fat or non-fat--is always available for the kids to choose from.

How would you rate this meal? Is this a meal?

Monday, August 30, 2010

What's for Lunch: Chicken Sandwich

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

My daughter looked at the Chartwells menu for lunch, saw it was a chicken sandwich and decided she didn't want any part of it. She packed her own lunch. She just doesn't like the processed chicken patty on this sandwich. The lettuce and tomato salad you see here is actually intended as a topping for the sandwich, with a plastic container of barbecue sauce to finish it off. It looked more like peanut sauce to me, and I don't think I saw any of the kids use the salad or the sauce as it was intended. Were they supposed to get instructions in the food line?

What looks like cucumbers is actually "locally grown zucchini," according to the Chartwells website. I assumed the pear was local, but the website does not say so. The schools would get an extra five cents from the District of Columbia to pay for this lunch by virtue of the zucchini being local. But vegetable side dishes are a hard sell in the cafeteria, and the kids were not exactly attacking these zucchini.

I stayed through the entire lunch period to see what the kids did with their pear. Was it ripe? Was it edible? Would they eat it? It turned out to be a little hard, but the kids seemed to like it. Like most whole fruit served in schools, it was bigger than they needed. But what they did eat, they ate with relish. In Berkeley, Calif., the schools have found an orchardist who sells them his small, kid-size apples. Would it be hard--cheaper maybe?--to find growers here who can supply smaller fruit?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Should chocolate and other flavored milks be banned from the nation's schools?

That was a hot topic this week. The New York Times weighed in with a look at the issue, describing how the dairy industry, with help from the School Nutrition Association, is waging a campaign to keep chocolate milk on school menus, while school food crusaders such as Ann Cooper are taking it off.

The piece looks very much like the one we posted here after after the School Nutrition Association announced it would hold a free "webinar" explaining why it's important for schools to continue serving flavored milk. We revealed that dairy interests are big contributors to the SNA and sit on its industry board of advisers.

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, ran an interesting "pro/con" discussion on the flavored milk issue. Taking the pro-chocolate position was Rachel K. Johnson, a dietitian and assistant provost at the University of Vermont, who has figured prominently in the dairy group's campaign. The Times casually revealed that Johnson, former dean of the college of agriculture at the University of Vermont, has been funded by National Dairy Council in her research.

On the "con" side of flavored milk was Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Research at Yale University, who argues that kids consume too much added sugar and that flavored milk should be a "treat" served by parents at home, if they choose. Schwartz said she found data from an industry sponsored study showing a severe drop in milk consumption when flavored milk was removed "unconvincing."

But the dairy industry is moving ahead full speed with its campaign with financing from MilkPEP, a government-sponsored group whose sole purpose is to advertise on behalf of milk consumption. They recently posted a five-minute YouTube video--titled "Chocolate Milk is Tasty Nutrition"--featuring a school food services director in Colorado who also has featured prominently in the industry "study" and its promotional materials.

The dairy group has a website, Milk Delivers.org, tied to the study and illustrated with a gallon-size jug of chocolate milk and chocolate colored graphics. In addition, the industry sponsors a second site dedicated to the cause, Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk. Not surprisingly, according to the New York Times, 71 percent of milk sales are now attributed to flavored milk with added sugar, and the majority of those sales take place in schools.

Dairy interests have gone so far as to offer prizes to schools that drink the most chocolate milk. One high school in Iowa won $10,000 after four seniors there helped boost chocolate milk consumption to an average three containers of flavored milk per student per day, the sugar equivalent of drinking of 12-ounce can of Classic Coke.

The Midwest Dairy Council in June announced that it had selected 17 schools to receive grants of up to $3,000 because of the efforts of athletic teams to encourage chocolate milk as a "refuel beverage." The dairy industry also awards $7,500 college scholarships to "scholar athletes" who help promote milk, using endorsements from top athletes and this website to help sell the cause.


Jamie Oliver. who won an Emmy for his "Food Revolution" reality television series, was fuming over a decision by a newly elected conservative government to lift strict nutrition standards in school meals and make meal improvements voluntary.

Elsewhere, the news is full of stories about schools making improvements to their food service--or at least trying.

* In New Orleans, new salad bars are on the way.

*Outside Hartford, Conn., schools are removing sweets and introducing healthier snacks.

*Florida is considering removing flavored milk from its schools.

*One man outside the nation's capitol is making a booming business out of delivering healthy meals to private schools.

*Houston schools reportedly are adding more freshly cooked vegetables, including brussels sprouts, acorn squash, bok choy and edamame, and serving chicken nuggets less often.

*Denver is waking up to the benefits of breakfast, with Colorado offering cash prizes for schools that increase breakfast participation.

*Schools in Abilene announced they would no longer offer cakes, cookies and brownies with lunch.

*USA Today reports that professional chefs increasingly are getting involved in the effort to improve school food.

*Food service workers in Santa Barbara County, Calif., have been attending "culinary boot camps" to learn how to cook food from scratch.

*High school students increasingly are opting for culinary careers, and some people now think home economics should be mandatory.


Finally, Oprah has a slide show of school meals around the world. But if you are looking for a long list of reasons not to eat the food at school, here it is.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Kix

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Breakfast in a District of Columbia elementary school has a pared-down look this year. Gone are the Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins we saw virtually every day in the past. Food Serivices Director Jeffrey Mills, who took the job some eight months ago, has said he wants to eliminate processed foods as much as possible from school menus.

Also gone are the flavored milks with so much added sugar that kids drank with breakfast and with lunch. The new choice is low-fat or non-fat plain milk. And sugary cereals such as Apple Jacks and Chocolate Frosted Mini-Wheats are no longer an option. The schools now serve only cereals containing six grams or less sugar, such as these Whole Wheat Honey Kix, which contain only four grams of sugar per serving.

As you can see from this photo, kids sometimes can also choose a piece of string cheese with breakfast. On Wednesday they were offered zucchini bread and cottage cheese. Cheese, cottage cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium for kids who don't drink milk--like my daughter, who is lactose intolerant.

Between the sugary cereals, the flavored milk, the fruit juice and the sugary processed treats, kids in D.C. schools used to consume up to 60 grams of sugar (15 teaspoons) before classes even started. Does that make sense in the middle of an obesity epidemic?

Parents who were distressed over the amount of sugar being fed to kids in school are glad to see these changes, which also teach valuable lessons about what healthy food looks like. What do you think? What is your local school serving for breakfast?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Is There Enough Corn on this Tray?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chartwells listed "taco salad" with ground turkey meat and "baked whole grain tortilla shells" as the entree for this meal. So what was the thinking behind including still more corn in the form of corn on the cob as the vegetable?

The menus at Chartwells' website also called for a "locally grown nectarine" with this meal. But as you can see, the fruit is a banana. The nectarine would earn school food services an extra nickel from the D.C. treasury for being local. So if this is simply a matter of a delivery slip-up--or maybe a few schools getting bananas instead of local nectarines--how will the food services department account for that when it comes time to ask the city for its locally-inspired check?

Now that school is back in session, a number of wrinkles are starting to become apparent in the "Healthy Schools" law passed this year by the D.C. Council, such as a possible accounting nightmare where the local food component is concerned.

Meanwhile, my daughter was so taken with the idea of tacos for lunch that she decided not to bring a lunch from home. Tragically, she was one of the last kids in line and by then the kitchen had run out of tacos. The alternate was salad. She doesn't like salad. So this is what she got for her $1.25:

Under the "offers versus served" rule that prevails in the federally subsidized school food program, this qualifies as a meal. Children are offered an entree, milk and three other items. They must choose three. Even kids who pay full fare are underwritten by the feds to the tune of 25 cents. This year for the first time, kids who only qualify for "reduced price" meals don't have to pay anything at all. The city is picking up the tab, care of the "Healthy Schools Act" passed earlier this year and a sales tax imposed on soft drinks.

Fortunately, daughter really likes black beans, bananas and corn on the cob. Not so fortunately, this corn on the cob was obviously the frozen variety and cooked to death. It was mealy and dull. Most of the kids declined to eat it. They also shied away from the black beans, which Chartwells advertised as "Southwest beans." They looked straight out of the can to me.

Kids are terribly inventive around lunch. Look how they dealt with the corn on the cob: speared on the end of their spork to make for easier eating.

This was how the alternate looked. In fact, it was a delicious looking salad, complete with croutons.

What's for Breakfast: Granola Parfait

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's a real switch from the Pop-Tarts, Golden Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer Muffins we've seen in past Chartwells breakfasts: homemade granola.

This granola was made from dry oatmeal mixed with brown sugar and baked fresh in the school kitchen. It was then tossed with dried blueberries that arrive frozen and canned peaches, then spooned over the raspberry yogurt I described yesterday. The dish is garnished with more blueberries and slices of local peach.

What a revelation! We don't need to buy pre-packaged, processed "treats" from corporate food factories. We can actually make our own. (Thanks to the local kitchen ladies.)

Not to complain, but the yogurt in this "parfait" hardly needs much sugar with all the sugar in the granola and the peaches. (Chartwells is calling this "all natural yogurt" on its menu website, even though the ingredient list is a mile long and heavily dosed with sugar). Otherwise, this is a great idea for mixing dairy, grains and fruit. And notice the plain, fat-free milk on the tray. D.C. no longer serves flavored milk with added sugar.

Local Peaches Mystery Solved

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

On Tuesday I contacted D.C. schools wondering why the "local peach" that was supposed to be on my daughter's breakfast tray looked so much like canned peaches instead. I also inquired where parents needed to look to find the ingredients for school menu items, as required by the new "Healthy Schools Act."

Yesterday I received a kind of robo e-mail from the Office of the Chief Operating Officer (Anthony Tata) clearing up the mystery of the canned-versus-local peaches, plus much more that I thought might interest parents. Here is the complete text of that e-mail:

"Good Afternoon, Mr. Bruske:

"Thank you for your email about your student’s peaches, and for bringing your concerns to our attention. Jeff Mills [food services director] followed-up on your concern and visited the school to discover that Stoddert was indeed off-menu. We double-checked with all our schools, and Stoddert was the one school to serve canned peaches that day, which is unacceptable. A formal complaint has been lodged with Chartwells, and we are re-doubling our efforts to ensure that this does not happen again.

"Thank you for being a watchdog for your student’s school. Parents like you keep us, and our vendors, accountable. We want to make sure your blog readers know the process for lodging a menu complaint if they have concerns at any time about the food served at their schools: they should email officeoftheCOO.inquiries@dc.gov, which is checked regularly throughout the week. Each email is taken seriously, and we always appreciate when parents and community members bring things to our attention.

"In regard to the nutritional information you asked about, we are still working to upload all the information and working with our vendors to ensure that it is correct. In a few months we will be revamping our entire menu website to be more interactive. We will be sure to let you know when we’re about to launch.

"Thanks, as always, for your inquiries"

I feel a little embarrassed making Jeff Mills go to all that trouble. It's scary to think that a few missing peaches can ruin his whole day and draw him away from all the important work he's doing trying to upgrade the food for the D.C. Public Schools' 45,000 students.

Still, I can only report what I see. And if we're truly concerned about the food kids are eating, the only thing that really matters is what actually ends up on their cafeteria trays.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What's in This Burger?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Under the "Healthy Schools Act" passed by the D.C. Council earlier this year food service must post the ingredients "for each menu item" in a place where the public can see them.

When I asked a spokeswoman for the schools on Tuesday where I could find this information, she sent me a link [PDF]that took me to a site that lists nutritional information for some menu options, but no ingredients. I asked again about the ingredients, and am waiting to hear back.

D.C. schools are also supposed to tell where produce served in the meals originates, and that information is available on the link provided above.

As you can see from this photo, some things never change. The burger and bun are still highly processed, manufactured in distant factories and shipped to schools frozen to be re-heated. Ditto for the potatoes. Even though this tray looks a bit dreary, however, the sliced cucumbers and tomatoes are something new and fresh, as is the cantaloupe from Arnold Farms in Chestertown, Md. It arrived whole at my daughters school and one of the cooks removed the rind and seeds and cut it into these bite-size pieces. It doesn't get much fresher or more local than that. (And the fact that it's local entitles the school meal program to a five-cent bonus from the city.)

Another thoughtful touch is this "homemade" dressing. Chartwells bills it as a "Greek herb mayo." That translates as mayonnaise with some dried oregano and vinegar stirred in by our own school kitchen. That's quite a departure from the prepared Kraft dressings previously served with mile-long ingredient lists of preservatives and industrial additives.

In case you were wondering, the "whole grain" hamburger bun comes from Bake Crafters Food Company in Collegedale, Tenn. The ingredients listed on the shipping package are these:

"Water, whole wheat flour, unbleached unbromated enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folice acid), sugar, wheat gluten, contains 2% or less of: yeast, salt, soybean oil, hydrated monoglycerides, wheat lactylate (CSL), calcium propionate (for freshness), calcium stearoyl, ammonium sulfate, enzymes, ascorbic acid (dough conditioner), azodicarbidamide (ADA), L-cysteine hydrochloride, calcium peroxide."

The "fully cooked char-broiled hamburger patty" comes from Don Lee Farms in Inglewood Calif. It lists the ingredients as these:

"Ground beef (not more than 20% fat), seasoning (salt, hydrolyzed soy protein (caramel color), dehydrated onion and garlic, maltodextrin, spice, sugar, torula yeast, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium inosinate, natural flavoring)." It may contain soy, and contains "commodities donated by the United States Deparment of Agriculture."

Cooking instructions are 12-15 minutes from the frozen state in a 350-degree convection oven.

Now, try to imagine listings like this for every menu item the schools serve for the entire year.

Out with Flavored Milk, In with Flavored Yogurt

Is sugary yogurt better than sugary milk?

D.C. school officials have ditched chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk because of the added sugar. But yesterday the kids who chose the alternate cold lunch at my daughter's elementary school were served a raspberry flavored yogurt with even more sugar, ounce-for-ounce, than Mountain Dew.

Other parents have noted that the same type of flavored yogurt is being served as part of breakfast to pre-schoolers.

Fortunately, the serving size is fairly small--just four ounces--meaning kids are eating at most 16 grams of sugar. That's 33 percent more than the naturally occurring lactose in an 8-ounce carton of low-fat milk. It works out to four teaspoons of sugar in that little plastic tub.

Apparently, finding a flavored yogurt without a ton of sugar isn't easy. Have you ever checked out the yogurts at the grocery store? They're full of sugar. In fact, most of them are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Maybe the food service folks in D.C. Public Schools thought this particular variety of yogurt was not so bad because it's sweetened with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. But as far as your body is concerned, the two are equally bad.

The yogurt is made by Upstate Farms, otherwise known as Upstate Niagra Cooperative outside Buffalo, N.Y., a group of Western New York dairies that's been in business since 1965, according to their website. Could we ask them to try making a yogurt for schools with less sugar?

In addition to live bacteria, these are the ingredients listed on the label: cultured pasteurized Grade A non-fat milk, sugar, water, raspberries, modified corn starch, whey, natural flavors, purple carrot concentrate, tricalcium phosphaste, gellan gum, potassium sulfate (for freshness), citric acid, carob bean gum, Vitamin D3.

A 4-ounce container counts as one "meat alternate" in the federal school lunch scheme. The other items in the cold alternate lunch were an individual piece of string cheese and wedges of pita bread. According to the Chartwells menu, the Wednesday alternate is supposed to contain a "hummus combo" to go with the pita, carrot sticks and "locally grown cucumber coins."

One thing you learn fairly quickly hanging around a school cafeteria is that the meals served are not always identical to the meals on the menu published at the Chartwells website.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's for Lunch: Spinach Lasagna

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Pictures of school lunch in the past were usually a horror show. Rarely did you see anything you'd describe as "pretty." But look at this meal served in D.C. schools yesterday. It's obvious that the work our food services staff have been doing the last few months is paying off.

Intead of a desert of browns, we have a symphony of greens. The lasagna is so much more welcome than the re-heated chicken nuggets or "beef crumbles" of the past. (Note to Chartwells menu writers: We know this lasagna isn't "homemade." Please give a real descriptor, like what's in it.)

And look at the salad. Not that factory iceberg from California, but real Romaine lettuce with a creamy dressing. The peas don't look cooked to death, as the broccoli and carrots usually are. And most prominently we have a seasonal peach, and a "local" peach at that. It was picked at Crown Orchards in Batesville, Va., according to the D.C. Public Schools website.

(My daughter reported that what she got with her lunch was a nectarine and it was "great," though still a little hard.)

I'd be very curious to know whether this kind of meal is more expensive than what our schools were serving last year. The "Healthy Schools Act" passed recently by the D.C. Council allots 10 cents more for each breakfast and each lunch served, to be paid from sales taxes on sodas.

Now, not all of the kids were especially taken by the spinach lasagna. One little boy I noticed wouldn't touch it at all because it was "too green." And while the peas looked lovely, only a few of the kids were really digging into them. Vegetable side dishes are a tough sell in a school cafeteria. As much as adults would like kids to eat healthier foods, vegetables and whole grains are their least favorite.

Still, you'd be pressed to find a school meal that looked better than this. The kids were getting an eyeful of what real food made with care should look like. And all the kids were drinking plain milk--no more chocolate or strawberry here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Yesterday's Lunch: Teryaki Chicken

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I hate to miss a school meal, especially the first one of the year when D.C. food service staff are pushing to make improvements. But I could not be in the cafeteria yesterday. I did, however, manage to find out what was in the teryaki chicken Chartwells served.

That would be the "fully cooked, coated" eight-piece, bone-in chicken from Tyson. According to the packing label, these are the ingredients, besides the chicken: Water, seasoning (salt, hydrolyzed corn protein, extrose, onion powder, autolyzed yeast extract, garlic powder, soybean oil, spice extract), sodium phophates.

And the chicken was "coated with": Water, coating (modified corn starch, tapioca dextrin, dried whey, soy protein isolate, sodium alginate, caramel (color), sodium tripolyphosphate, methylcellulose, guar gum).

The cooking instructions call for 10 to 15 minutes in a 375-degree convection oven from the frozen state.

Also on the menu was a "whole wheat roll," a "crunchy" spinach salad, "orange glazed" carrots and "locally grown" watermelon. Under the "Healthy School Act" passed earlier this year by the D.C. Council, the schools receive an extra five cents for every lunch that includes a locally grown component, meaning from within the Mid-Atlantic region.

The spinach, on the other hand, came from a place called The Salad Farm in Salinas, Calif. That business is actually a complex of growers and processors that harvest crops in both California and Arizona. The history, starting with a man named Lex Camany, who worked in lettuce fields to make money for college, is worth a read. At one point, Camany conducted agricultural research for the Mexican government. Then he started a strawberry department at Hartnell College.

So many American success stories touch the federal school meals program.

What's for Breakfast: Local Peaches?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This is what Chartwells was serving for breakfast this morning at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia: turkey sausage on "whole wheat biscuit," according to the menu published at Chartwells' website, along with "locally grown peach," and orange juice.

The turkey sausage looks pretty much like the sausage we're used to seeing, and the "whole wheat biscuit" looks a lot more like an English muffin, or maybe a cross between bread and an English muffin. Calling it "whole wheat" is a bit of a stretch, I think. Maybe it had some whole wheat in it.

As for the "locally grown peach," that sure looks like canned peaches to me. It certainly isn't a peach, and it certainly has been processed somehow. Not that that has to be a bad thing. The question would be whether there's added sugar in it.

The "Healthy Schools Act" provides a five-cent bonus for each lunch meal--but not breakfast--that contains a component that is "locally grown and unprocessed."

This proves once again that you can't judge school meals by what's written in the published menus. You really need to see what the kids actually end up with on their trays--and what they actually eat.

Speaking of trays, this one is re-usable, not the disposable Styrofoam stuff we saw at every meal last year. But this is also a different school. My daughter has transferred.

Menus for D.C. Pilot Programs

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Central Kitchen broke new ground yesterday, cooking meals from scratch for seven public schools in the District of Columbia as part of a pilot program. According to its published menu, lunch consisted of herb-roasted chicken, "oat roll," field corn summer succotash, and Shenandoah melon salad. The vegetarian option was summer pasta salad.

Central Kitchen staff is cooking meals in the kitchen at Kelly Miller Middle School and delivering the food to these six other schools:

* Thomas Elementary School, 650 Annacostia Ave. SE.

* Burrville Elementary School, 801 Division Ave. NE.

* Alton Elementary School, 533 48th Pl. NE.

* Kenilworth Elementary School, 1300 44th St. NE.

* Marshall Elementary School, 3100 Ft. Lincoln Dr. NE.

* Prospect LC, 920 F St. NE.

This pilot program marks the first time in recent memory that food has been cooked from scratch in D.C. public schools. Besides making these meals for school children, D.C.Central Kitchen sources produce from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to feed 4,500 people in shelters and soup kitchens on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, Revolution Foods is making "portable" meals for seven other schools, meaning the food is prepared and packaged at Revolution Foods' facility in Glen Burnie, MD, then delivered to the schools to be re-heated.

The lunch yesterday was baked ziti with "zesty hamburger" and cheese, cut vegetables, and fruit. The vegetarian alternate was listed as macaroni and cheesed with baked beans, cucumber salad and fresh fruit.

These are the seven school Revolution Foods is feeding:

* Amidon-Bowen Elementary, 401 Eye St. SW.

* Hearst Elementary School, 3950 37th St. NW.

* Anacostia Senior High School, 1601 16th St. SE.

* Eastern Senior High School, 1700 East Capitol St. NE.

* Johnson Middle School, 1400 Bruce Pl. SE.

* Wilson Senior High School, 3950 Chesapeake St. NW.

* Peabody Elementary School, 425 C St. NE.

Unfortunately, school officials won't let us see the meals being made or the food being served as part of their effort to tightly control information about the new food service. They've even instructed the contractors--D.C. Central Kitchen and Revolution Foods--not to talk to the press. Why feeding children should be shrouded in secrecy and at whose orders is a question that itself remains shrouded in secrecy.

Otherwise, if you would like to see the published menus for D.C. Central Kitchen and Revolution Foods, you can go to the DCPS website here and click on one of the schools in question.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Got Un-Flavored Milk?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Notice anything different about this milk cooler at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia?

This is the place kids head first when they enter the food line in the cafeteria. In the past, there was always a scramble to get there and grab either a chocolate- or a strawberry-flavored milk. It wasn't uncommon at all to see kids at breakfast pouring a strawberry milk containing 28 grams of sugar (6.5 teaspoons) into a plastic container of Apple Jacks cereal with another 8 grams of sugar (2 teaspoons). When you added in Pop-Tarts, fruit juice and Giant Goldfish Grahams, kids in D.C. frequently were eating 60 grams of sugar (15 teaspoons) before classes even started.

And you're wondering why we have an obesity epidemic?

But earlier this summer D.C. Public Schools officials quietly determined to ditch the flavored milk and serve only cereals with six grams of sugar or less. Despite the absence of any fanfare, the decision sent reverberations around the country, and even to the United Kingdom, where Jamie Oliver featured it on his website.

True to their word, D.C. schools this morning had no flavored milk on display in the cafeteria, just what you see in this photo: low-fat and fat-free milk and orange juice. Not shown are the tubs of Honey Kix cereal being offered. They contain 4 grams of sugar per serving, according to the label.

Now we just have to get the fruit juice switched to whole fruit. Fruit juice delivers a concentrated dose of sugar in the form of fructose. It's cheap, but much better would be whole fruit, which not only contains less sugar, but also delivers the fiber that's squeezed out in the juicing process.

So take a bow, parents. Your hard work shining a light on what schools serve in the cafeteria has already paid benefits. Food service officials say they've been busy testing new products and making changes to the menu their hired food service provider, Chartwells, will be serving this year. We need to be there with the kids in the cafeteria to see how those changes unfold.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

For the third year in a row, adults polled by the University of Michigan rank obesity as their top health concern for children, just ahead of drug use and teen pregnancy. But adults have a hard time recognizing obesity in their own children and changing the behaviors that lead to obesity appear even harder.

Forty percent of the 2,064 adults surveyed put obesity at the top of their list of concerns. Among blacks, though, smoking was the biggest worry, and among Hispanics the top concern was drugs.

Meanwhile, the most obese kids keep getting fatter, and a faster rate than everyone else.

Overall measures of body mass index, waist circumference and triceps skinfold thickness in kids have been steadily increasing in the last 10 years. But new research published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity finds that the biggest increases occurred in the fattest 20 percent of children. The bigger measurements--especially in waist size--were most pronounced in black girls and other ethnic groups.

Researchers said the racial disparities became more pronounced over time, especially between black girls and white girls.

A study scheduled for publication in the journal Pediatrics finds that black, Hispanic and American Indian girls are two to three times more likely than white girls to have a high body mass index. And while obesity rates for Hispanic girls peaked in 2005, they continue to rise for black and American Indian girls.

The study found that overall, 38 percent of kids were overweight, 20 percent obese and 3.6 percent "severely obese." Boys, as a rule, were more likely than girls to have a high body mass index for their age.

Not helping is a growing price gap between healthy foods and junk foods. A study at the University of Washington finds that foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grain products keep getting more expensive compared to "nutrient-poor" food containing lots of fat, sugar and refined grains.

Between 2004 and 2008, the researchers found, the most "nutrient dense" foods increased in price by nearly 30 percent, while the grocery story price of the least nutrient dense 20 percent of foods increased by only 16 percent. They found that the top quintile of nutrient dense foods cost $27 per 1,000 calories, compared to just $3.32 per 1,000 calories for the bottom quintile.

Sill, about 1 billion of the world's people obese, about 1 billion are hungry at the same time. How can hunger and obesity exist side-by-side?

Blame it on an increasingly consolidated industrial agriculture system that turns on more and more cheap, non-nutritious food. Our federal government underwrites the price of a Big Gulp soda by subsidizing the corn that goes into making the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens the soda.


Proposed legislation in San Francisco would attack the obesity problem by limiting toy giveaways to kids at fast food restaurants to meals that meet strict nutrition guidelines and contain at least some healthy food.

The bill, apparently the first of its kind in a major metropolitan area in this country, would prohibit toys with meals containing any one item with more than 200 calories or 480 milligrams of salt. An entire kids meal could have no more than 600 calories.

The restrictions would wipe out all but a handful of "Happy Meal" offerings at McDonald's, and leave none that contain a even a small hamburger. Meals that come with toys would also be required to contain a serving of fruit or vegetable.


But at least one jurisdiction is moving in the opposite direction. Schools in Licking County outside Columbus, Ohio, have decided to ditch meals cooked from scratch and instead buy pre-packaged re-heat meals from Preferred Meal Systems.

School officials said the move will save money because fewer skilled staff will be needed to serve meals made in a factory and shipped frozen. A regional sales director for Preferred Meal Systems said many of the 28 Ohio schools districts and charter schools that signed new contracts this year were motivated by saving money.

"No one is making anything from scratch any more," said Jolene Rellinger. "We're not doing anything different than a normal school district. We're just doing it in our own kitchen."

But some parents wonder: Just how do you get fresh, local vegetables in those pre-packaged re-heat meals?

Friday, August 20, 2010

D.C. Schools Attempt to Manage Food News

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

School resumes here in the District of Columbia on Monday, Aug. 23, and I was hoping to give readers a first-hand glimpse of how D.C. Central Kitchen was cooking food from scratch for seven of the District's schools as part of a new pilot program. The world wants to know how the Central Kitchen, a non-profit agency that makes food for 4,500 of the city's homeless, manages to work fresh, local produce into kids' meals, and whether the kids actually eat it.

I had already talked to the Central Kitchen about it and gotten a green light. But after waiting nearly a week for clearance from the D.C. Public Schools' general counsel's office, the clock ran out on my proposal to be embedded in the kitchen at Kelly Miller Middle School, where the Central Kitchen staff will be preparing those meals. After many urgent messages to the schools' press secretary, Jennifer Calloway, I received an e-mail last night from someone named Katie Test, the communications coordinator for the Office of Family and Public Engagement.

Here's the text of Test's e-mail:

"I’ll be handling some of our media requests, and have been working on your proposal. We love the idea of you observing the DC Central Kitchen from-scratch lunch programs, and are pulling together a waiver for you to sign. We’d like to invite you and other interested reporters to observe the lunch period at one of our schools, and will also be able to set you up with interviews with key DCPS and DCCK personnel."

She continued:

"I’m sure you understand that back-to-school time, especially in the middle of an exciting new pilot program like this one, is extremely busy. We want to grant your request for access while being respectful of the work that needs to be done in the kitchen and the people who need to do it.

So stay tuned! We’re getting the paperwork set up and I’ll be back in touch with a few potential dates that fit everyone’s schedules."

Of course I wasn't looking for dates that fit everyone's schedules. I just wanted to get into the Kelly Miller kitchen with my camera and notepad. Test seemed to have skated completely around my original request. So I asked her why I couldn't just play fly on the wall at Kelly Miller, the same way I have done at the central kitchen in Berkeley, Calif., in the "culinary boot camps" in Denver, in the kitchen at Washington Jesuit Academy.

This is how Test responded:

"Given your extensive background in the subject, I’m sure you completely understand the hectic nature of our kitchens during the start of school, especially while we’re piloting a brand new program. While we’re happy to revisit your request to embed for a longer period of time later in the year, we’d still like to have you come in to see how the meals are assembled and served during a lunch period in the next few weeks. I know from your conversations with Jennifer that you’re eager to get a peek, so this is the best solution to balance everyone’s needs."

She concluded:

"We’ll continue to get the paperwork in line, and if you are interested in lunch period access, I’ll identify some potential dates for access for a lunch period."

I translate all of this as meaning that the D.C. Public Schools, after getting so much bad press over the food Chartwells has been serving, is incredibly nervous about the launch of new pilot programs and feels they have to manage every little step the media take around it. But maybe after the dust settles they'll realize that what this is about, after all, is simply people cooking food and trying to make meals from the measly $1 worth of ingredients the federal meals program provides.

We get that. The next step is simply letting the tax-paying public know exactly how it's done. As far as good news for the schools goes, it's an almost guaranteed home run.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Menu Advisory Committee?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Did you know that under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that govern school meal programs any school district that uses a contracted food services management company such as Chartwells, Sodexo, Aramark must "establish an advisory board of parents, teachers and students to assist in menu planning"?

I ask because after I discovered this provision in the federal rule book yesterday I took a quick poll of the people who have been most involved in school food issues lately in the District of Columbia and none of them had heard of any such a committee existing here. (Being the one journalist in town covering school food in any great depth on a regular basis, I would have expected myself to have heard of a menu advisory committee if one existed, but this is news to me. Except a dim recollection draws me back to the school district's original contract with Chartwells where, on page 22, there's a provision stating: "The contractor shall participate in the formation and establishment and periodic meetings of DCPS advisory board, comprised of students, teachers, and parents, to assist in menu planning.")

With classes scheduled to begin on Monday, the D.C. Public Schools sent out a newsletter that arrived in the mail yesterday, including an item entitled, "New school year, new menu, more choices, better food." Here's the text:

"What's new? Take a look at our menu. It features more whole-grained foods and meals lower in fat and sugar. And all menus will feature fruit and veggies from farms in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina."

Food Services Director Jeffrey Mills has also said recently that he and his staff have been busy tasting new "products" and trying to make D.C. school menus better. Was a committee of parents, teachers and students involved in this effort? Certainly, neither Mills nor his staff reached out to us or advertised a menu planning committee that I know of.

But for all you other parents out there whose school districts employ a food service management company to provide meals, this is one way you can make a difference. Has your school district established a menu advisory committee as required by federal law? If not, insist that they do so. If they are just keeping it secret, shine a light on it and sign up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One Dollar, One Lunch

Cross-posted from Maria Rodale's blog, Maria's Farm Country Kitchen.

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

What kind of lunch could you make for $1?

That’s approximately the amount schools have to spend on ingredients, after they pay for labor and overhead, out of the $2.68 the federal government provides for a fully subsidized meal. Most schools lose around 35 cents on every lunch they serve, according to the School Nutrition Association. Yet the US Senate, in agreeing recently to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which funds school meals, could only bring itself to toss in 6 extra cents out of the vast federal budget. That’s hardly more than what school meal programs receive automatically as a cost of living adjustment.

School kitchens are maintained in a state of perpetual poverty, yet the “lunch ladies” behind the steam tables are expected to perform a miracle every day: Make a meal that’s not only balanced and nutritious, but that also entices kids who’d just as soon lunch on pizza and fries or maybe grab a bag of chips and Gatorade out of a vending machine if their mom didn’t insist they take a lunch from home.

I was reminded of this the other morning while cruising a local farmers’ market. I was hungry and stopped at one vendor for a quick breakfast of an apple. The clerk placed my lovely little Golden Crisp on the scale and announced the price: $1. Imagine that. One apple at the farmers’ market costs about the same as what my daughter’s local elementary school here in the District of Columbia uses to create an entire meal.

The image is important because that apple, and the other fresh produce our local farmers grow, is exactly the kind of food we’re telling Americans they should be eating to keep weight off and stay healthy. First lady Michelle Obama has made fresh fruits and vegetables her personal cause, suggesting in her “Let’s Move” campaign that if we only ate more of these and fewer Pop-Tarts and Pepsis, we might solve our national obesity problem.

But as Americans are exposed to more and more pictures of what schools actually serve in the nation’s cafeterias—through Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution television series, or via blogs like Better DC School Food—that provide graphic documentation of what kids eat when their parents aren’t around, they can’t help but conclude that a feeding program that has been hugely successful for decades battling hunger is now grossly out of sync with our modern image of what constitutes good food.

The yawning disconnect between Michelle Obama’s White House garden and the industrially processed reality that most of the 31 million kids in the federal meals program face every day in the food line poses a couple of profound yet simple questions: What should kids be eating in school? And who’s going to pay for it?

Traveling the country in search of the cutting edge in school food, I’ve found that there are, unfortunately, no consensus answers to those fundamental questions. But while many school districts seem content to serve their students what can only be described as junk, others are making a supreme effort to overcome the seemingly impossible math that grips the subsidized meal program.

Yes, you heard this crusty old reporter right: There’s reason for hope.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Getting Fresh Produce to D.C. Kids

Guest PostAdd Image

By Katherine Bryant

Greetings from Delaware, the watermelon capital of the world!

Recently I had the good fortune to join a small group of D.C. school food service providers, Farm to School Network Coordinator Andrea Northup, and a D.C. City Council staffer on a trip to Delaware--a fitting ‘initiation’ into my role as DC Farm to School Network intern. The goal of the trip was to get a feel for Delaware’s local food supply, and explore how that supply can connect with the demand for local foods in the D.C. school system.

Our knowledgeable and well-connected host--fourth-generation watermelon farmer and Delaware Fruit and Vegetable Association president David Marvel--led our energetic and passionate group on a wonderful journey of learning, networking, and of course, eating!

Just a two-hour drive from the District of Columbia, Delmarva (a catchy name for the Eastern Shore region of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) makes its mark as the epicenter of watermelon production, with a notable portion of the country’s corn and lima bean yield as well. Our first stop was the S.E.W. Friel sweet corn farm.

We were able to snag a few minutes with the farmers amidst the business of a season full in swing--which means around the clock harvesting, packing, distributing and marketing of products. We stood in awe of the over 13-feet tall machines capable of harvesting 60,000 lbs of corn per hour. We chatted with some of the many folks who work in concert to bring that sweet corn all the way from seed to harvester to tractor-trailer truck to storage facility to point-of-sale (e.g. supermarket) and finally to some lucky family’s home.

Would you have guessed that both schoolchildren and Delmarva watermelons use the same form of transportation? In our exploration of the watermelon’s journey from farm to table, we learned that retired school buses are rendered windowless and accompany teams of migrant workers as they walk through fields tossing watermelons on board. The roads of Delaware are jammed with melon-filled buses on their way to washing facilities, auctions or markets.

We saw Lakeside Farms. It was here that we met Sean Cloughtery, Managing Editor of American Farm. He shared our adventures with the farming community.

We watched in fascination at the Laurel Produce Auction as truckloads of locally-grown produce were paraded and sold to the highest bidder by what appeared to be inconspicuous nods. From mid-July until mid-September, the Auction sells an average of 2.3 millikon watermelons!

We paid a visit to the Kenny Brothers cucumber sorting and grading facility, for a glimpse into how a cucumber becomes a pickle. The facility washes, sorts and ships 15-20 truckloads per day to local pickle manufacturers - each truckload containing five-acres worth of cucumbers!

Over lunch, we met and shared ideas and best practices with the inspired folks behind the Delaware Farm to School Network, a coalition of Delaware Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and private/non-profit sector partners led by Nemours Health & Prevention Services.

We also stopped at Fifer’s Orchard and Market and tasted some of the best peaches in Delaware. And of course, no day would have been complete without a stop at the Delaware State Fair, complete with animal auctions, 4-H and FFA displays, kettle corn, and John Deere farm equipment.

The trip offered a valuable perspective on the scale of production needed to feed the children of Washington, DC; the kindness and generosity of those local food producers and their willingness to meet that demand; and the tremendous process involved in getting food from farm to cafeteria tray.

When it was over, we piled into our van, District-bound and laden with some of the best fruits and vegetables available in Delaware. We also came home with big dreams for schools and growers and how to narrow the gap between them.

Katherine Bryant is an intern with the D.C. Farm to School Network, and a seasoned community food security advocate.