Sunday, August 15, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

How did we miss this story? Back in June, New York City was considering a plan to cut school lunches in order to save money. Cut school lunches? It sounds almost impossible. Yet this is what the Wall Street Journal reported:

"Schools where students have three hot-meal choices a day will begin offering two, and those where there are two hot choices will cut to one under a budget proposal being considered by the Bloomberg administration. Combined with a plan to cut the number of schools where all the students get free lunches, the proposal is projected to save the city $23.7 million a year."

Parents contacted by the Journal were none to pleased. "This is a dramatic reversal to all the inroads that parents and food activists have been trying to make with regards to school lunch," said Elizabeth Puccini, a parent of a child at Children's Workshop School in the East Village and founder of NYC Green Schools, a coalition of parents trying to make schools more environmentally friendly, in part by addressing food issues.

That was two months ago, and with school about to resume for the fall term, I can't find anything more about it. Did New York in fact make the cuts? Maybe one of our readers can fill us in....


Ann Cooper, the nutrition director for schools in Boulder, Co., and "renegade lunch lady" is partnering with Whole Foods to try and put a salad bar in every school. According to the press release:

"From now until Sept. 29, shoppers may donate to the project at the check-out or make a donation online through Each salad bar kit costs approximately $2,500 dollars, and includes a Cambro® portable 5-well salad bar unit with all the necessary insert pans, cutting boards, knives and shipping costs. Salad bar training tools and videos for school nutrition staff will also be available through, which Whole Foods Market shoppers helped to raise funds to build last year so all schools can have access to tools for healthier food.

"The salad bars will be donated to local schools through a simple online grant process. Whole Foods Market is partnering with Cooper's nonprofit, F3: Food Family Farming Foundation, which will administer the process. Any public elementary, middle or high school within 50 miles of a Whole Foods Market is eligible to apply with the support of the school principal, nutrition service director and the superintendent of the district. The online application and full criteria is available at

"The application asks for basic school information such as the percentage of students enrolled in the Federal Free and Reduced Meal Program and participation in the school's Reimbursable School Lunch Program. Grant applications will be accepted between Sept. 1 and Nov. 1. Applicants chosen based on the grant criteria and the level of the school's commitment to sustaining the salad bar will be announced in early January 2011.'


Even some school food directors think Pop-Tarts, the little processed treat with 13 grams of sugar in each serving, are just fine to give kids for breakfast. But now Kellogg's, the company behind Pop-Tarts, wants to conquer the world and to that end has opened a store in Times Square--the hub of New York City--to hawk its brand with all kinds of products you probably have never hear of.

Listen to the account in the New York Times:

"The menu includes the Fluffer Butter, marshmallow spread sandwiched between two Pop-Tarts frosted fudge pastries; the Sticky Cinna Munchies, cinnamon rolls topped with cream-cheese icing and chunks of Pop-Tarts cinnamon-roll variety; and Ants on a Log?, which is celery, peanut butter and chunks of the Wild Grape version.

"And then there’s the Pop-Tarts Sushi, three kinds of Pop-Tarts minced and then wrapped in a fruit roll-up. “We did an internal tasting here at the building, and it was the winner,” said Etienne Patout, senior director at the Pop-Tarts brand, part of the Kellogg Company.

"Visitors can also build their own Pop-Tarts, starting with a basic pastry and asking servers to add frosting, toppings (coconut, sprinkles) and drizzle (caramel, raspberry). They can take their pastries frozen, toasted, microwaved or uncooked, but there will be no self-serve.

"There is also a Varietizer, a custom-built vending machine that carries about 23 of the regular Pop-Tart flavors (seasonal offerings, like pumpkin and gingerbread, are excluded for now). Customers use a touch screen to select six two-packs of the tarts for $12, assembling their own variety packs"

As if that weren't enough, there's a light show every hour, and computers are available to link visitors to Pop-Tarts social networking sites and video games. Ain't capitalism grand?


Meanwhile, National Public Radio reports that nearly 17 million kids in the U.S. don't always know where their next meal is coming from. Their mothers are constantly trying to make ends meat and put enough food on the table, and often it's not the healthiest food. Hence, at the same time we seed "food insecurity," the nation is battling an epidemic of obesity.

The reason: there's a glut of cheap, processed food on grocery store shelves, while fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables are too expensive for some people to afford.


Legislation approved by the U.S. Senate re-authorizing the Child Nutrition Act would, for the first time, give the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the nutritional content of foods served in school vending machines, stores, and al la carte lines. Supporters hope that signals an end to junk food in schools.

But some states aren't waiting for the feds. In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick recently signed very similar legislation into law giving state health officials authority to regulate foods sold outside the subsidized lunch line. Under this law, schools are required to offer fruit and vegetable snacks wherever vending machine food is sold.

The new law also encourages schools to buy more food from Massachusetts farmers and establishes a commission to address childhood obesity.


Finally, school districts all over the country are grappling with the issue of whether to continuing to serve chocolate and other flavored milks that rival sodas for sugar content. The dairy industry, battling to maintain milk sales, recently trotted out a study it paid for (and won't release for public scrutiny) trying to show that many kids won't drink milk at all if they can't have flavored milk.

Here's an example of how this debate is playing out, as described by a newspaper serving suburban communities outside St. Louis. (And, yes, they do mention what our schools here in the District of Columbia are doing to remove flavored milk from schools.)


  1. It’s great that Whole Foods is making this grant money available to schools, but truthfully, the cost of the bar itself (which is what this grant would cover) is not the stumbling block preventing elementary schools in my district from opening salad bars. The small salad bars used in elementary schools cost under $2,000. The greater cost is for the additional refrigeration the school cafeteria would need to accommodate all of the fresh produce for the bar; that might also require installation of additional electrical capacity, another expense. If the caf doesn’t already have a triple sink for washing the produce (required by USDA regulations even if prewashed and cut produce is used!), that is yet another expense.

    But the greatest cost of all, and the main reason why my district is not moving forward with expanding salad bars at the elementary level, is the cost of additional labor. Most of our elementary schools only have one cafeteria worker; a salad bar needs someone to continually restock it (those kiddie size bars don't hold much) and it can't be the one worker, who has to be at the end of the line to make sure the kids have taken a complete meal, and to handle the touch screen used to qualify kids for free lunch. In addition to someone stocking the bar, another issue is that the youngest kids have a hard time using the tongs at the salad bar and often just give up and reach their bare hands directly into the bins to seize what they want. Someone needs to be there to help them and monitor their salad bar behavior so that they are not contaminating everyone else's food. Because our cafeteria workers are unionized, parent volunteers can’t fill these jobs, and because we are located in a high cost of living area, the cost of paying for the additional unionized cafeteria worker is prohibitive. This is why my school district won’t be able to take advantage of the generous offer from Whole Foods.

  2. Dana, it sounds like what you need to do is form a parents group perhaps with other stakeholders and come up with a plan for fixing these issues so San Francisco can have salad bars in all its schools.

  3. Dana, I feel your pain.

    But as a Food Service Director at a large urban school district, I realized that I had to make a change. Plus, how could I keept saying, "No,no, no ... it won't work" if I hadn't even tried it?

    I piloted six slaad bars in elementary schools. My initial cost (not including labor plus 50.1% fringes, additional costs for fruits and vegetables, etc) was $5000. My true additional costs were about $200/day per salad bar.

    In the first week, at five of the six schools, my participation in lunch went up 7-9%, and mostly free kids, too. This meant that I paid for the additional costs and them some each day with the increased reimbursement I got.

    I'd say go for the grant -- if it doesn't work, then you can pull back and use the bar for the FFVP grant or as a breakfast kiosk.

    Good Luck!

  4. That's a little like saying the way to fix public education is just to ‘make all of the schools good schools’ - easy to propose, nearly impossible to execute. SF has had a very powerful and successful student nutrition committee (including many parents) for many years; working collaboratively with our Student Nutrition Services department and the Board of Education, we got all soda and junk food out of the schools back in 2003 (several years before the state began to take action); vastly improved the quality of the cafeteria meals, including salad bars at all middle and high schools, fresh raw vegetable 3 or 4 days a week at elementary schools, fresh fruit 4 days a week, all whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat pizza crust, all whole grain breads including burger buns); fresh fruit has replaced juice in the breakfast, and no cereal has more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. We have eliminated a la carte sales and replaced the snacks with full meals that are available to all students, whether qualified for free lunch or paying for their food.

    There’s lots more too, but the salad bar issue is something which requires far more money than will ever be available under the current funding scheme for school meals proposed by Congress. What would you have parents do - fund raise to pay for the necessary extra cafeteria worker at their school? That might work at the small number of urban schools in my district which have a core of middle class families, but what about the schools where most students qualify for free lunch, where most parents work 2 or 3 jobs and speak little or no English? Should they too have to fund raise to pay for another caf worker?

    And really, why should parents have to fund raise to pay for a program which is mandated by the federal government? The School Breakfast program and National School Lunch Program are federal programs, paid for with our tax dollars, and it is the responsibility of our government to provide adequate resources for the programs to be operated in the way which best supports children’s health and wellbeing. It should not fall to parents to have to raise the money to pay for this, any more than they should have to pay for teachers or textbooks or the school janitor. Down that path lies a two tier public school system, where children in more middle class schools have all of the amenities of a private school, while inner city children are housed in gloomy run down buildings with broken desks, no textbooks, and no hope. The quality of children’s school experience shouldn’t depend on how much money their families can fundraise to pay for the basics, like textbooks or food. Fund raising should pay for the extras; decent food is not an “extra.”

  5. (Continued)
    What we have found when salad bars have gone into the elementary schools (yes, we have a few) is that they are often not that popular with these younger kids. Frequently it is the parents who demand the salad bar, but when it opens, the children shun it. Demand is much higher among the middle and high school students. Our younger students do like the individually wrapped fresh vegetable that is on offer in their schools most days of the week; it might be zucchini sticks, or jicama, or baby carrots, or celery; starting this year they will also be offered fresh leafy greens one day a week, and raw broccoli too. So it’s not like they never see a fresh vegetable. Maybe they don’t need a full salad bar.

    Realistically, getting salad bars into more elementary schools is pretty low on our priority list. As our student nutrition committee is made up entirely of volunteers, there is a limit to which issues we can tackle each year, and we are far more concerned with long lines in some high schools which keep students from getting their lunch in sufficient time to eat it before they have to go back to school; with students who don’t take the free lunch to which they are entitled because they are embarrassed to have their friends believe that they are “poor”; with students who don’t even turn in the free meal application form because they are worried it will jeopardize their family’s immigration status; with students who come to school having eaten no breakfast, and not in time for school breakfast. All of these issues will get our attention before we will look at whether we need more elementary school salad bars. In the meantime, our students do get fresh raw vegetables with their school lunch, and fresh fruit, and a good healthy meal.

  6. Anonymous
    Thanks for your suggestion. We never say "No no won't work." We try everything (in pilot form) and then expand the things that do work and rethink or pull back from those which don't. We have tried salad bars at the elementary level, and they were most successful at the schools which already had very high participation rates. They did not increase participation at the other schools, and none of them came even close to paying for their cost. As our school district has the highest labor rates I have ever seen (with workers at first step earning more than $16/hr base pay, and going steeply upwards from there), your labor is probably less than ours. I'm glad it worked out for you, but in our district, salad bars for the youngest students do not increase the number of kids eating in the lunch line.

    What has worked, and where we are concentrating our efforts, is improving the thing in the center of the plate. I know of school districts that have lovely salad bars for their ES kids, but are still serving corn dogs, nachos, and other carnival style food as the entree. We don't serve that stuff and as the hot meal has gotten better, more kids are choosing to eat it.

    Just like "fixing the schools so all schools are good schools", I don't believe there is a one size fits all answer to fixing school food. More money, of course - but how to spend that money depends on what the local student population can be induced to eat. Our kids like the individual fresh raw vegetables where they don't seem excited about the salad bar. This is something we can provide without the extra labor cost; by not spending more on salad bar labor, we have more money to pay for the higher cost of the whole grains and fresh fruit. That seems to work for our students. Your mileage may vary.