Friday, September 3, 2010

Serving Cheap Calories from Sugar

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I had originally intended to focus in this post on the cottage cheese you see in the photo. Serving cheese products seems like a great way to address the concerns of parents that kids aren't getting enough calcium. But then the apple juice on this tray caught my eye and I wondered what would happen if you removed it, since it contains so much sugar (2.5 teaspoons in a 4-ounce serving, or about the same as Coca-Cola).

But then I started to add up the calories in this meal, which Chartwells offers at my daughter's elementary school as the cold alternate breakfast on Thursdays. Under D.C.'s "Healthy Schools Act," schools must serve children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade a minimum 350 calories for breakfast. The Kix, with four grams of sugar, contain just 70 calories, the low-fat milk 110 calories, the apple juice 55 calories and the cottage cheese I'm guessing around 45 calories. (It looks to be about one-quarter cup).

With a total of 280 calories, this meal, by my reckoning, already falls short of the minimum prescribed by law. Take away the apple juice, with its dose of calories from fructose, and this breakfast would be 36 percent shy of the calories prevailing law says the schools should be serving every day.

That helps explain why school food service operations have become so addicted to sugar. Sugar adds a cheap boost of calories to meat meal program standards. But more than any other ingredient, sugar is linked to the current epidemic of childhood obesity, as well as health consequences such as elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and even non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

Maybe that's why some schools are so desperate to hang onto flavored milk: not for the calcium and other nutrients, but for the calories that come with the added sugar.

What could you put on this tray that would satisfy the requirements for calories, would not add sugar, and wouldn't bust the food services budget?


  1. Let's see:

    A hard boiled egg has 70 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein. No appreciable sugar.

    Unfortunately, most kids probably won't eat the yolk but at least on paper that would work (and in practice the kids would at least get some protein from those egg whites)

    Apple with Peanut Butter (or sunbutter)
    apple: 55 calories, 11 grams sugar (but better to get it from real fruit) 2.5 grams of fiber
    2 tbsp peanut butter: 188 calories, 8 grams protein, 1.9 grams of fiber, 16 grams fat. My kids love this combination and can eat it pretty quickly if the apple is sliced. Maybe switch the peach for an apple to save on cost for duplicate fruit. (Can you get local apples?) Sunbutter nutrition is pretty similar, with 200 calories, 16 grams of fat, 4 grams of fiber.

    String cheese: 70 calories, 4 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein. (Perfect fit, really)

    Larger portion of cottage cheese, possibly offer with some kind of fruit topping to make up missing calories. Even if it's somewhat sugary at least it would have some fat and protein in the cheese to accompany it.

  2. That plate sure could use some color! Maybe a smoothie? I don't know cost or calorie count or even if schools could do it. Blend the cottage cheese (or maybe yogurt) with oj, berries and even some greens (I do this with my kids and they don't mind them this way), add some whey and you would have a protein rich, colorful, drink to balance the lack of color on this plate. As an added bonus, the kids might even eat the cottage cheese (because my guess is that those calories went in the garbage anyway).

  3. Great reporting Ed. Seems like an opportunity to add a banana, carrot, or something along those lines. I'm sure those would put it over budget. BTW great to hear you on Kojo. We're waiting in the wings!

  4. The USDA sets minimum calorie levels for school breakfast at 554 calories. Typically local entities are not allowed to usurp federal regulations (that is, a state or school district can't weaken federal regs, just strengthen them) and while mandating a lower minimum for calories seems like it would be "strengthening" the policy, currently it would be viewed as "weakening" it because the intent of the USDA was to ensure that students eating school meals received at least a certain minumum percentage of their daily caloric requirements for the day through school meals. All of this may change with the new child nutrition reauthorization, and the former minimums for calories may become maxiumums instead (currently there is no maximum level for calories in either school breakfast or lunch.) The 388 calories you mention is the federal minimum for preschool breakfast only; by Kindergarten the federal minimum is 554.

    However, I am not that familiar with the situation in DC - because of its unique status as not really being a "sate", perhapos they are allowed to circumvent USDA regs in this matter and establish their own minimum standards for calories?

  5. Ed: This is why HISD is so reliant on animal and graham crackers in our breakfast. COOKIES for breakfast!