Sunday, October 24, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

A new study estimates that 17 percent of all U.S. medical costs are obesity related, resulting in a total health tab for the nation of $168 billion annually. The study also doubles what was previously thought to be the added cost for individuals to deal with weight-related illness, putting it at $2,800 per year.

What's to blame for the nation's horrible eating habits? An article in the journal Nutrition says the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Dietary Guidelines for Americans have failed. Americans have followed advice to limit fat and cholesterol consumption but keep getting fatter. Could it be because of all those grains and starches the USDA has been recommending?

Nutrition says, "the macronutrient content of the diet has shifted in the direction recommended since the 1977 dietary goals. Total and saturated fat intakes have decreased as a percentage of caloriesd for men, the absolute amount has decreased, whereas carbohydrate intake has increased. Notable from the DGAC Report is the absence of any concern that this shift in macronutrient content may be a factor in the increase in overweight/obesity and chronic disease; the proposed recommendations suggest that this trend should not only continue but also become more pronounced."

Even toddlers are at risk. The food giant Nestle, in a recent study, reports these findings:

One-third of toddlers and 50 percent of preschoolers eat fast food at least once a week.

25 percent of older infants, toddlers, and preschoolers do not eat even one serving of fruit on a given day, and 30 percent do not eat a single serving of vegetables.

French fries are still the most popular vegetable among toddlers and preschoolers.

71 percent of toddlers and 84 percent of preschoolers consume more sodium than recommended on a given day.

The USDA appears to be taking its own stand against too many carbs by crossing potatoes off the list of foods that needy mothers can purchase with their federal food dollars under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

The USDA issued an interim ruling on the potato following a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine, which has also recommended more greens and orange vegetables and less potatoes in school lunches, where the potato is treated as a vegetable--not a starch--and is the second-most favorite food among children, after pizza.

The USDA is said to be considering a permanent potato ban for the WIC program beginning next year.


It's nothing new for the federal government to promote lousy food. The so-called "check-off" programs mandated by Congress and overseen by the USDA collects funds from food producers and use them to boost consumption of various food products. Here are some of the accomplishments to date involving one such program--the dairy check-off--according to a recent report:

Partnering with Domino’s Pizza to develop pizzas using up 40% more cheese than usual. This worked so well that other pizza chains are doing the same thing.

Partnering with McDonald’s to launch McCafe specialty coffees that use up to 80 percent milk, and three new burgers with two slices of cheese per sandwich. The result? An additional 6 million pounds of cheese sold.

Partnering with General Mills’ Yoplait to develop yogurt chip technology that requires 8 ounces of milk.

Maintaining momentum for single-serve milk by offering white and flavored milk in single-serve, plastic, resealable bottles.


Parents send their kids to school hoping they might find a safe haven there from outside influences such as the rampant marketing of commercial products and especially food products that kids otherwise are routinely exposed to.

Unfortunately, corporations are relentless in their pursuit of young minds and the parents' dollars, as evidenced by the many promotions and tie-ins to extra-curricular activities sponsored by food businesses.

Here's a case where a mother who didn't own a television couldn't figure out why her child was so excited about buying SunnyD, until she learned that the company was sponsoring a book giveaway in exchange for purchases of its products. A handout her son had brought home from school read as follows:

Dear parents and guardians,

I’m very excited to tell you about a program our class is participating in that will bring free books to your child’s classroom. It’s called the SunnyD Book Spree, and the program will donate 20 books when our class sends in 20 SunnyD UPC labels. The program will also award hundreds of books to the ten schools that collect the most labels. Please help us get our free books!

In San Francisco, law makers are flirting with the idea of barring the use of free toys as a incentive to sell fast food loaded with sugar, salt and fat.

The food industry usually wins such battle with its huge lobbying clout and well-constructed talking points aimed at blaming consumers for their own health problems. This article describes five of the industry's favorite tactics for obfuscating the issues.


Here's something to raise the "yuk" factor over school meals: More than half of public school in Philadelphia failed their most recent health inspection, and a staggering 66 percent of charter schools were out of compliance.

Some schools on the list were hit with as many as 20 risk-factor violations, ranging from mouse feces found on cooking utensils to food being stored next to chemicals.

In New York, kids have other reasons not to like the food. The New York Post recently asked students to rate the food served in city schools and they didn't hold back.

"I am one of the haters," proclaimed one 10-year-old girl. "Only because I think that cheeseburgers that are squished like someone slept on them for a week, mushy and gushy fruit, and milk that tastes sour and smells like a rodeo (or public bathroom) are barf-worthy."

"The hamburgers are nasty. They are my least favorite because they have no taste," echoed one eighth-grade boy. "Can't they make real hamburgers that are fresh?"

So how do you get kids excited about food?

J.M. Hirsch, food editor for the Associated Press, tells PBS how he's taught his six-year-0ld son to share kitchen experiences and learn to appreciate different foods. And don't miss the video in which Hirsch explains why he gave his son a chef's knife of his own at the ripe age of two.


Congress still can't get its act together to renew the Child Nutrition Act that funds school meals. The U.S. Senate, in its infinite wisdom, would take $2 billion from the food stamp program to fund a measly six-cent increase in the federal government's school lunch subsidy. What's going on?

CNN recently took a look at the miserable state of the school food and in one episode highlighted San Francisco parent activist Dana Woldow, who has been a frequent commenter at this blog. Elsewhere Woldow posted a poignant essay on how the USDA has failed on its promises to deliver healthful meals to school children.

What's the solution? Some researchers think the use of clever psychology could help guide children to making better food choices. But really: hiding the chocolate milk behind the plain milk, or making desserts less obvious? Why not just eliminate them entirely?

If the federal government won't step up, is charity the answer? Debra Eschmeyer, communications director for the national Farm to School Network, is building FoodCorps, a cadre of volunteers who would help tend school gardens, provide nutrition education and work to incorporate local produce in school meals.

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