Monday, January 31, 2011

Participation Jumps in D.C. Classroom Breakfast Program

The number of kids eating breakfast at school leapt 29 percent in the first month of the current school year here in the District of Columbia following adoption of a breakfast in the classroom program, according to a new report [PDF] from the D.C.-based non-profit Food Research and Action Center.

The figures mean that an additional 5,900 children who might not have been eating breakfast before are now getting a government-sponsored meal before classes started.

Breakfast is offered universally free to all public school children in the District. Last year, a "Healthy Schools Act" approved by the D.C. Council mandated that all schools where more than 40 percent of the students qualify as low-income must also offer breakfast in the classroom.

Prior to the new law, breakfast participation lagged significantly the number of children who ate lunch. In the 2009-2010 school year, for instance, the average number of students eating breakfast each day was around 18,000, reports FRAC, compared to nearly 38,000 who ate lunch.

Participation in breakfast soars to nearly 100 percent when it's offered free in the classroom. That means more kids better able to focus on learning when classes start. It also means schools take in far more federal meal subsidies that they can use to improve the food at lunch.

FRAC calculates that if breakfast participation rose to 60 percent citywide, the District would take in more than $1 million in addition federal subsides annually.n Two states already have achieved the 60 percent goal: New Mexico and South Carolina.

Chicago schools recently adopted a plan to offer free breakfast in the classroom to all 410,000 of its students.

Some parents have complained that breakfast served in the classroom would interfere with valuable lesson time. But schools that have adopted breakfast in the classroom have seen few disruptions. Many simply start the school day a little earlier, and teachers report kids are more focused.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

This Week in School Food News

Kate Adamick is a friend and frequent source for what's really going on in the nation's school kitchen because her job is trying to find ways for those kitchens to become more efficient so they can serve food cooked fresh from whole ingredients.

Kate believes that the solution to our school food crisis is to teach, equip and empower the nation's lunch ladies--whom she prefers to call "lunch teachers." She thinks most of the money schools need to serve fresh, wholesome food is already contained in local budgets, and just needs to be freed from all the little plastic cups, desserts, a la carte lines and other unnecessary googahs that eat up precious funds.

In fact, Kate opposed the six cents Congress recently allotted as a raise for school lunch support on grounds that food corporations would simply raise prices.

Most of the time, Kate seems to be on the road, teaching "lunch teachers" somewhere how to do their jobs better, or teaching other chefs how to teach the "lunch teachers." If you want to know more about what she does and what she thinks, check out this interview she recently gave The Lunch Tray blog.


In some communities, those school meals are more important than ever because kids--and their families--are getting poorer.

In Illinois, for instance, new figures show that nearly half of the state's 2.1 million public school children came from families who were considered low-income during the last school year, as the recession nudged more families toward poverty. About 45.4 percent qualified for a free or discounted school meal, the highest rate in decades.

"It's a trend I am worried about," said state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch. "We are seeing additional stress on families ... and we know this impacts students."


The Environmental Working Group thinks we should be spending lots more on fresh vegetables in schools to avoid an even bigger health care tab. Noting that the six cents approved by Congress falls far short of funding the improved meal standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the group proposes that some of the difference come out of federal crop subsidies.

The USDA's meal standards would add $150 million a year to the school meal tab in California alone. "Just buying more fruits and vegetables would cost about $75 million," the EWG writes. "That’s equal to the subsidies that went to 200 California farming operations, mostly producing cotton, dairy and rice. Each collected an average of about $375,000 a year –- a jaw-dropping sum.

"Tough budget times call for serious fat-trimming," the EWG continues. "Why give scarce public funds to the state’s largest farm operators when a fraction of that subsidy money could improve our kids’ diets and help fruit and vegetable growers who provide jobs and $15 billion in annual economic value?

"California’s upland cotton growers raked in $139 million in subsidies in 2008, yet generated slightly more than $100 million in sales that same year. No investor in her right mind would take that deal. Why do taxpayers put up with this kind of lose-lose proposition?"


Food corporations are doing a great job restraining their advertising toward kids!

Yes, that was the headline at the Better Business Bureau recently, reporting "excellent compliance" among advertisers using a "better for you" labels. A review of TV advertising directed to kids on 38 hours of children’s programming in 2010 found:

* > 75 percent of the ads were for products that provided at least 10 percent of the Daily Value of one nutrient that is a shortfall in kids’ diets or a half-serving of a food group to encourage;

* 32 percent of the ads included at least a half-serving of vegetables or fruit such as apples or applesauce;

* 33 percent included milk or yogurt; and

* 27 percent were for products or meals that provided at least 8 grams of whole grains/50 percent whole grains.

And just what were these "better for you" products? Here's a sampling [PDF]:

Burger King chicken tenders kids meal. Pepperidge Farm "flavor blasted" Goldfish. Campbell's "Speghetti-Os." ConAgra's frozen "kid cuisine double stuffed pizza." Chef Boyardee "dinosaurs." General Mills' chocolate Lucky Charms. Kellogg's Apple Jacks cereal and Keebler chocolate chip "Gripz Grahams." Kraft Kool-Aid singles and Sponge Bob "chocolate blast" Honey Maid Grahams.

And let's not forget the Lunchables with breaded chicken nuggets and mozzarella.

Impressed yet?


On the subject of advertising, The World Health Organization says governments must work with industry to restrict advertising of foods high in salt, sugar and dangerous fats targeted at children to tackle an epidemic of obesity and other diseases.

According to the WHO, non-communicable diseases now account for 90 percent of premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries, where obesity is a rising problem. Of the 42 million children worldwide aged below 5 who are overweight or obese, 35 million are in those poor countries.

Recognition that advertising of junk foods and drink rich in salt, sugar and saturated and trans fats can encourage children to consume them, while advertising can also promote a healthy diet, led the WHO's assembly last may to call on the U.N. health agency to draw up the recommendations.

The World Health Organization's executive board, meeting recently, has been discussing how to tackle the marketing of harmful food to children as part of that effort.


Here's a shocker: overweight kids might have better chances of losing weight and keeping it off if their parents learned something about healthy eating.

That's the major finding of Australian researchers who looked at how targeting the behavior of parents affects the eating habits of their children.

Obese children whose parents took classes on the importance of healthy eating and exercise lost weight and kept it off for the next two years, according to a new Australian study. Researchers said the study shows that targeting parents -- rather than the children -- can help stave off weight gain in children aged 5 to 9.

"We believe it makes developmental sense to involve only parents," said lead study author Anthea Magarey, a senior research associate of nutrition and dietetics, at Flinders University School of Medicine in Adelaide, Australia, where the study took place. "It takes the stigma away from the child and supports a whole family approach."

The researchers enrolled mostly mothers of 169 moderately obese or overweight children aged 5 to 9 years in a six-month "healthy lifestyle" course, in which parents were taught about portion size and reading nutrition labels, being a good role model for their children and setting limits.


Finally, kids in Portland, Oregon, are protesting the use of Styrofoam trays in cafeterias there.

Four Portland students in third grade through seventh grade helped tote more than 1,000 used plastic foam lunch trays in front of the local school board recently to make the case that school lunch rooms need to be more environmentally friendly.

Among Portland's 85 schools, 28 have switched to using reusable sturdy plastic trays and real silverware and another 17 are in line to make that change in the coming months.

But, more than 20 years after Portland banned restaurants from using polystyrene containers to serve food, 40 other schools continue to serve breakfast and lunch on plastic foam plates and trays with disposable plastic silverware.

School officials say switching from Styrofoam to re-usable trays isn't so easy because some schools don't have adequate plumbing to wash the trays and in high schools, kids often eat outside and don't return the trays to the cafeteria.

It's a problem nationwide. Here in the District of Columbia, schools send thousands of Styrofoam trays to the landfill every day. At my daughter's school, they have a commercial dishwashing facility but still serve the food on Styrofoam.

A "Healthy Schools Act" passed last year by the D.C. Council calls on schools to faze out Styrofoam trays over a period of years.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kids Bake Dried Fruit and Cream Scones

Very little kneading required for these scones

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

If you have a few minutes to chop dried fruit, these scones are surprising easily and some of the best we've ever tasted. They come strait from Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book, but if you aren't making them for breakfast, organize your own tea. They'd also go swell with a cup of hot chocolate.

They're made with baking powder--a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar--which activates and gives the dough some lift when you add the cream. The crumb of these scones is light and--because of the heavy cream in the mix--noticeably creamy. For dried fruits we chose what was readily available at the local Harris Teeter: apricots, cranberries and raisins. But you could just as easily use prunes or dried figs, even dried apples, I suppose, or cherries.

As usual, I let the kids in my food appreciation classes--currently baking classes--do all of the work. They struggled a bit trying to make little pieces out of dried appricots with their steak knives. But that's the beauty of cooking with kids. Give them a tool and a task to perform, and they are set for the rest of the day. Just make sure they're using the knife properly and not chopping their fingers. (We haven't had an accident yet because our first rule is, "No blood in the food!")

Start by mixing together in a large mixing bowl 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup chopped dried fruit and 1/4 cup golden raisins. Stir in 1 1/4 cups heavy cream, scraping the bowl until all of the dry and wet ingredients are incorporated. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead perhaps eight or nine times, or until though holds together in a smooth ball.

Pat the ball into a circle about 10 inches around. It will be about 1 1/2 inches tall. Cut it into 12 wedges and place these on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush the tops with melted butter (you'll need a scant 2 tablespoons) and dust with granulated sugar.

Place the scones in a 425-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until they are lightly golden.

Chopping dried cranberries

These scones are especially delicious served fresh and warm from the oven. But they will keep several days in a well-sealed tin.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Truth About "Whole Grains" in School Meals

Feds call this inedible biscuit "whole grain-rich."

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

If the U.S. Department of Agriculture has its way, kids will soon be seeing lots more whole grain food on their cafeteria trays--up to 80 percent more at breakfast under the agency's proposed new meal guidelines [PDF].

But as my colleague Lisa Suriano pointed out in this space recently, if you thought that meant spelt and quinoa suddenly making an appearance in the nation's lunch rooms, you might want to re-assess. In fact, federal rules permit products containing just 51 percent "whole grain" flour to be classified as "whole grain."

Forget the Middle Easter tabouleh. More likely, what kids will be served is lots more dinner rolls, hamburger buns, muffins and pizza crusts with added fiber. That would be the new definition of "healthy."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the 51 percent rule after the food industry petitioned the government in 1999. The USDA has its own euphamistic turn of phrase for these fiber-boosted buns and crusts. It calls them "whole grain-rich."

Ironically, the feds want schools to substantially boost "whole grain-rich" foods that contain 49 percent starchy white flour at the same time they propose cutting way back on "starchy vegetables" such as potatoes. Schools would be limited to only two weekly servings of things like french fries and potato wedges.

Not surprisingly, wheat is one of the most heavily subsidized crops in the U.S.--wheat farmers received more than $2.2 billion in taxpayer funds in 2009--while potatoes aren't. You can also add to the list of un-subsidized crops most other healthful whole grains--quinoa, barley, amaranth, to name a few--which makes them much more expensive than "whole grain-rich" products.

The only actual whole grain the USDA makes available to schools through its commodities program is brown rice, and you don't see that on school menus very often. Of the 48 grain products on the USDA’s list of commodity school foods [PDF], 17 fall under the “white flour” category and 12 under white rice. The USDA only lists three brown rice products.

The proposed meal guidelines even make a special allowance for grain-based desserts, although elsewhere the USDA says it wants to limit sugar on school menus.

According to Lisa Suriano, a nutritionist and school food educator, schools could prepare a half-cup dish of bulgur wheat for 24 cents per serving. But most schools have only $1 or less to spend on ingredients for each lunch meal. Congress, while calling for new meal standards that are bound to jack up the price of meals, only provided 6 cents in its most recent re-authorization of the federally-subsidized meals program.

Working extra fiber into school menus is only the first hurdle. The real trick is getting kids to eat it. They happen to love potatoes and rather dislike whole grains, although these do go down easier when smothered in cheese, pizza sauce and slices of pepperoni.

In Boulder, Col., schools, cooks put tabouleh--made of bulgur wheat, parsley and tomatoes--on the salad bar on pizza days because the preferred pizza crust does not contain whole grain flour. When tomatoes and cucumbers fell out of season in the fall, they switched to an Asian bulgur salad with carrots, peas and a soy-based sauce.

"I can't say either one has been super popular, but at least we've been able to introduce these items to our students," said chef Brandy Dreibelbis, who develops recipes for Boulders chools. "We stuck with the bulgur wheat, because of the low cost.'

"My hope is that someday we will be able to introduce a quinoa dish to the kids," Dreibelbis added. "I think we could be a little more creative with this ingredient, plus the healthy benefits are amazing. But unfortunately it comes down to the cost and quinoa is still slightly more expensive than bulgur."

Dreibelbis said she recently tested several commercial brands of whole grain bread sticks, but even they come with sticker shock.

"I'm sure that the students would love these with their pasta, but once again it comes down to cost," she said. "These breadsticks would add an additional eight to 12 cents per meal. When you have such a limited amount to spend, even eight cents adds up quickly."

Ann Cooper, who runs food services for Boulder schools, said they stopped serving whole wheat pasta because the kids didn't like it. But if the USDA rules go into effect as written, the regular pasta will no longer be permitted.

"I'm trying to figure out the pasta piece," Cooper said.

Here in D.C., I recently noticed a "whole grain-rich" biscuit being served for breakfast at my daughter's elementary school alongside something called "turkey cheese melt."

The processed turkey slices speckled with melted cheddar were merely unappetizing. The kids picked off the cheese with their fingers to get at the meat. The biscuit...Well, it was hardly recognizable. I happen to love a fluffy white biscuit. What would a traditional southern breakfast be without one? This thing was simply inedible. It looked like an old horse turd.

Some food traditions are better left unchanged--even at school.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What's for Lunch: Homemade Lasagna--Hold the Spinach

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Behold the beautiful lasagna "homemade" in the kitchen of my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia by the kitchen manager, affectionately referred to as "Mrs. G."

"Mrs. G" has been working in school kitchens for 23 years and does know a thing or two about making food from scratch, even though that definitely has not been the drill in D.C. schools in recent memory. Since Chartwells took over food service three years ago, she now works for Chartwells.

The lasagna was introduced this year. Lately, I have been eating the food myself. I haven't dared before--there are just too many carbs in school food for me. But in addition to recording what the food looks like and how the kids react to it, I thought it was high time I knew how it tasted as well.

I can now announce: the lasagna is divine. Okay, it's not the lasagna with bechamel sauce I would make at home. This lasagna calls for frozen spinach, prepared tomato sauce, no-boil noodles and commercially grated mozzarella cheese. Still, a superb effort I would say.

The peas, lightly cooked from the frozen state, also were delicious, as was the Caesar salad. It even came with little croutons. The dressing, I'm told, was a "light Italian," not really Caesar. Still, it was dusted with Parmesan cheese.

I can't vouch for the food service all of D.C.'s schools are getting from Chartwells. I'm limited to visiting my daughter's school, and they may be making a special effort there because they read this blog. But some days I am impressed by what the kids are seeing on their trays.

Then I noticed my daughter doing something odd with her spork. She was picking up pieces of the lasagna noodles and scraping at them. Then I realized: she was scraping away all the spinach.

Some adults have this fantasy that if we just give kids real vegetables, they will light up like Christmas trees and eat healthfully ever after. Obviously, adults don't' understand the lengths some kids will go to avoid vegetables and other "healthy" foods.

This reminds me of the story my daughter told last year about what the kids did with the raw cucumber slices that were delivered to their classes as snacks: They liked to stomp on the bags of cukes and "turn them into slush."

After picking out as much of the noddles and cheese as she could, this was the heap of spinach my daughter left on her tray. "It was just too much spinach," she told me later.

Some of the kids--not many--ate the peas and the salad. But most of this, unfortunately, also wound up in the trash. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to sharply curtail the use of green peas, potatoes, corn and other "starchy vegetables" in favor of more dark green, orange and red vegetables.

That would mean the sweet potatoes the kids didn't eat on Monday I suppose.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's for Lunch: No Seconds!

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

For some reason I can't get this photo to publish horizontally. But perhaps you can make out the items on this tray: spaghetti with meat balls, corn with carrots, green bean salad, a dinner roll and canned pears.

Even before the last of the kids had gone through the food line, others were lining up behind them for more food.

"No seconds! No seconds!" I heard the kitchen manager shouting.

Turns out what the kids were mainly after were the meat balls. I took a stroll around the lunch room and saw that most of the children had wolfed down the beef meatballs and sauce, and hardly touched anything else. Even the pasta was left mostly unmolested.

But their eagerness for more meatballs was thwarted. The lunch ladies were having none of that.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing new, "healthier" nutrition guidelines that would cut way back on starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn--two of kids' favorite foods--and replace them with more "whole grains" like this pasta and the dinner roll.

Think that means less starch? Get a load of the pasta sandwich this girl is constructing. In fact, what passes for "whole grain" in school meals is actual "whole grain-rich," meaning manufacturers can label things "whole grain" as long as 51 percent of the ingredients qualify. The rest can be refined grain. And since that's cheaper than serving real grains, that's what kids see at school.

They get a little more fiber, and a lot more starch under the new guidelines--80 percent more "whole grain-rich" products at breakfast, for instance.

But what was most tragic about this particular meal was the wonderful green bean salad that went untouched by the kids. The beans arrive frozen. The cook took care to heat them in a steamer, then "shock" them in cold water to stop the cooking process. They were not cooked to death.

To finish the "salad," she tossed the beans with red onion and chopped tomato and dressed them with oil and vinegar. It truly was a lovely side-dish lovingly prepared. I ate a heap, while the kids threw theirs in the trash.

You can't just redesign school food without talking to the kids about it. When schools present food like this kids aren't used to, there needs to be adults in the cafeteria encouraging them to eat it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What's for Lunch: Cheeseburger and Sweet Potato

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

I wondered why the meat on the kids' burgers looked a little fuzzy and then I realized it was the bread from the bun that had stuck to the burger.

You can make lots of changes around the edges of a school cafeteria tray--substituting different vegetables, salads and grain dishes using fresh ingredients. But there's not much you can do to change the processed nature of the entree at the center--unless you start cooking everything from scratch.

Otherwise, the beef burgers are bound to be highly processed and frozen, sometimes made with added soy protein to bulk them up. The whole wheat bun will never be as soft and delicious as the bun on a McDonald's burger. It's 51 percent whole grain and that's the future of baked goods in schools. If the USDA has its way, soon everything with be "whole grain-rich." Healthier, maybe, but not to kids' liking.

I ate this meal and had a bit of a knot in my stomach for the rest of the day. But I think that's just because I don't eat starchy carbs anymore. The cheeseburger wasn't especially flavorful. And the bun, as I said, was a bit grainy.

But I did love these sweet potatoes. They were perfectly cooked and you didn't need to do anything to them. They were sweet and delicious. You could tell the kids wanted to eat them. Nearly all of them took at least a nibble. But that's as far as they got. Most of it went into the trash. What a tragedy.

Here you see one boy inspecting his sweet potato, contemplating the most advantageous approach to eating it. He didn't get very far.

For many kids, this was the first order of business--the fruit cup. In this case, canned peaches.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What's Really Behind Whole Grains in School Food

Wheat flour is no substitute for actual whole grains

Guest Post

By Lisa Suriano

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed new school meal guidelines [PDF] that call for substantially more whole grains. But if you thought that meant kids would start seeing bulgur and spelt on their cafeteria trays, think again. What it really means are the same old dinner rolls, pizza crusts and bread sticks—only with extra whole wheat flour mixed in.

The federal government allows products that are at least 51 percent “whole grain” to be labeled as such. The only actual grain the USDA sells to schools through its commodity program is brown rice.

The proposed rule change would require that all grain products on school menus qualify as “whole grain-rich” within two years. Schools would have to offer students up to two grain servings for breakfast every day. Currently, schools have a choice of offering a grain or a meat or meat substitute, such as yogurt or cheese.

On the surface, the new rule sounds like positive change. The USDA says it wants to make school food healthier by cutting back on processed foods and introducing more fiber into kids’ diets. In reality, the “whole grain” foods served in school are not always what they seem.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in response to a petition filed by the food industry in 1999, ruled that foods containing 51 percent whole grains could be labeled “whole grain.” As one of the crops heavily subsidized by the federal government, wheat is much cheaper than healthy grains such as quinoa and amaranth that aren’t subsidized. That makes it a perfect candidate for cash-strapped school kitchens.

The question is, how much healthier are those dinner rolls if 49 percent of the flour in them is still refined? Flour and other starchy carbohydrates have been closely linked to the current epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

In fact, one of the things the USDA proposes to do to make school meals healthier is cut back sharply on other starchy foods such as potatoes. Potatoes are another crop the federal government does not subsidize.

The USDA has made previous efforts to promote healthier school food. In 2004, the agency launched The HealthierUS School Challenge. Participation in this program is voluntary. Monetary incentives are awarded to schools that meet specific criteria for menu planning, nutrition education and physical activity that go beyond what is required of schools that participate in the traditional National School Lunch Program.

The criteria for grains and breads are these:

•Whole grain food products must be at least the portion size of one Grains/Breads serving as defined by the USDA Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs manual.

•Whole grain food products that meet HUSSC criteria are categorized into two groups:

o Group A – Food products with whole grain(s) as the primary ingredient by weight (whole grain is first ingredient on list)

o Group B – Food products with whole grain(s) as the primary grain ingredient by weight . For example: water is the first ingredient, whole grain is the second

•Whole grain food products from Group A must be the majority of whole grain foods offered each week.

While these are effective guidelines in theory, the FDA’s definition of “whole grain” ensures that children only get one-quarter of their grain servings from actual whole grain sources.

There are many other densely nutritious grains available for human consumption—bulgar, wheat berries, barley, quinoa, millet, to name a few. However, the current system discourages their use and instead provides a loophole for cheap, refined flour.

Of the 48 grain products on the USDA’s list of commodity foods available to schools, 17 fall under the “white flour” category and 12 under white rice. The USDA only lists three brown rice products.

The USDA in issuing its new meal guidelines says it will work with schools and manufacturers to develop new whole grain products and recipes.

I’ve been closely following Fed Up With Lunch where a teacher calling herself “Mrs. Q” ate 162 school lunches over the course of a year and blogged about it. In all those meals, rice—mostly white, not brown--was served only seven times.

And even when rice was served, it was accompanied by still more starch in the form of a “whole wheat” bun or breadstick in order to satisfy the USDA’s grain requirement for school meals.

As a nutritionist with extensive experience in school food service, I believe it’s entirely possible to work within established guidelines, fulfill HealthierUS School Challenge requirements and simultaneously educate young palates about nutrient-packed whole grains.

Why do we grind so much of the nation’s wheat crop into flour? There are many other nutritious ways to enjoy wheat.

Bulgur wheat, for example, is full of fiber, potassium and iron. It’s parboiled during processing, making it a very quick cooking grain. For the around 24 cents, a half-cup of bulgur wheat could be served for lunch.

Match it with some government black-eyed peas and a piece of barbecued chicken and you have a reimbursable meal that children will eat.

Lisa Suriano is the owner and founder of Veggiecation, a curriculum-based lunch program that introduces young children to the nutritious world of vegetables.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

This Week in School Food News

Here's a shocker: food that food corporations label as especially healthy for children really isn't very healthy.

The California-based Prevention Institute [PDF] looked at more than 50 of these products and found that 84 percent of them do not meet basic nutritional standards.

More than half contained too much sugar. In fact, nearly all of the products the institute looked at contained added sugar.

More than half were low in fiber and the majority did not contain any fruits or vegetables. Thirty-six percent contained too much sodium.

But should this be a surprise? Corporations, after all, are in the business of making money for shareholders, not looking after the health of the nation's children. For that, you need government regulations or an army of parents on 24-hour watch.


The other thing food corporations are good at is worming their way into school meal programs.

Dominoes Pizza has unveiled what it's calling a "Smart Slice" program aimed at replacing the frozen pizzas schools currently serve with the Dominoes brand. The company says its pizzas are more nutritious because they have whole wheat crust and are freshly baked.

"This is a new approach to delivering pizza to schools, and we are extremely excited about the potential of Domino's Smart Slice," crows J. Patrick Doyle, Domino's Pizza president and chief executive officer. "We are pleased with the launch, and the feedback from school districts has been very positive — which makes us believe the upside is tremendous. We want to lead change in this area."

Indeed, pizza is kids' favorite food in the school lunch program. But don't be fooled by that "whole wheat" crust. Government regulations permit companies to label foods "whole grain" even when they contain only 51 percent of actual whole grain.


Jamie Oliver wants to cure U.S. schools of bad food, but schools in Los Angeles have said no thanks.

Oliver has moved to L.A. to film a new series for his television reality show, "Food Revolution." He was hoping to spend at least part of his time inside L.A. schools. But so far more than 75 school districts have closed their doors to his cameras.

To illustrate his plight, Oliver recently loaded a school bus with sand to represent the sugar L.A. kids are eating every year by drinking flavored milk. He spoke to a convention of food service workers, urging them to take up his cause with their local districts.

So far, no luck. Some are now wondering whether Oliver has taken things a bit too far. But we feel his pain. Most schools would much rather hide their meal program from public view, it's so rarely anything to brag about.


Speaking of lousy school food, we note that chicken nuggets will still be on school menus despite new meal service guidelines proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The guidelines call for more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less sodium in school food. But they do nothing to prevent giant food processing companies such as Tyson and Schwann Food from participating in the USDA program that allows schools to purchase commodity goods as frozen, processed foods.

The USDA says it wants school food to be fresher and less processed. That means companies that participate in the commodities diversion program will have to get creative. Sodium in school food will have to be cut by almost half within 10 years.

The USDA notes that Americans get most of their sodium from processed foods.


The Child Nutrition Act re-authorization recently enacted by Congress gives the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in school--meaning a la carte lines, school stores and vending machines, in addition to the federally-subsidized meal line. Already, companies are pitching healthier vending machine snacks to schools.

Bloomberg News reports that Jeff Lowell, an assistant principal at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., normally dismisses the e-mails he gets from businesses trying to sell to his 1,500 students. He was intrigued, however, by the pitch he received in September from Fresh Healthy Vending, a San Diego franchise operation that offers vending machines stocked with snacks and drinks it touts as alternatives to junk food.

"Everybody [understands] what eating right does for you and how much it ends up affecting your ability to think," Lowell says. "We decided we wanted to try it.

Lowell signed a one-year contract allowing Fresh Healthy to park its machines near Interlake's gym in exchange for 15 percent of profits. In late November, Fresh Healthy installed three machines, featuring goodies such as Kashi granola bars and Stonyfield Farm fruit smoothies, next to older machines that sell Powerade and Dasani water—though no soda—through a long-standing agreement with Coca-Cola Enterprises (KO). The top seller in the new machines so far: Pirate's Booty cheese puffs.

More than two dozen small companies are plying the healthier school vending machine market and are confident of getting a boost from the new law.

"I can't even tell you the response we're getting since this latest piece of legislation passed," says Fresh Healthy founder Jolly Backer, who launched the company in May to sell and supply franchises. He charges franchisees about $11,000 per machine, which they then manage, ordering from Fresh Healthy online and restocking once or twice a week. Fresh Healthy has machines in more than 2,000 locations, about three-quarters of them schools. "Our race is to get space," says Backer, 55.

"A lot of schools would just as soon get rid of vending programs because they haven't found out about healthy options yet." He expects revenue at the 22-employee company to at least double this year, to more than $10 million.


Finally, more schools are discovering the benefits of serving breakfast in the classroom. Walmart, which made news elsewhere this week by pledging to lower prices on vegetables and make prepared foods healthier, is helping five school districts around the country start breakfast in the classroom programs through with a $3 million pledge through the Walmart Foundation.

"Simply eating a healthy breakfast can reap very substantial improvements to academic performance and health, but too many children miss out on breakfast and start the school day hungry," said Barbara A. Chester, National Association of Elementary School Principals president, speaking on behalf of the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom. "Breakfast in the Classroom puts a fresh spin on the traditional school breakfast program by offering the morning meal to everyone in the classroom after the opening bell – a change that ensures every child can start the day with a healthy, well-balanced breakfast and be ready to learn."

Indeed, in districts with high populations of low-income children, serving breakfast in the classroom earns lots of federal subsidy dollars that can stretch to help pay for better lunch as well.

When breakfast is served in the classroom instead of the cafeteria, participation typically skyrockets to near 100 percent.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kids Bake Banana Bread with Cocoa Nibs

Banana bread: it's so darn irresistible

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow cook

Is there anything more fun than smashing bananas with a potato masher?

My wife, who hates bananas but loves banana bread, urged me to try this recipe with the kids in my food appreciation classes because "it's so easy." I suppose you could say that about banana bread in general. This is how we dispose of our over-ripe bananas. If they get too ripe and we don't have a spare second to make banana bread, we put them in the freezer for later.

Kids who wouldn't touch a banana with a brown spot on it are still mad for banana bread. Bananas just keep getting sweeter as they get older. (Not necessarily true of people, eh?)

This is another example of a delicious treat made with a chemical rise--baking soda combined with a bit of tangy yogurt. I also used this as an opportunity to introduce the kids to something called "cocoa nibs." Are you familiar? These are bits of unprocessed, unsweetened cocoa beans. Whole Foods carries them. They're not cheap. But they help produce a banana bread that's not so sweet it sets your teeth on edge like some do, and they give the bread a nice toothsomeness. Otherwise, you could substitute chopped walnuts if you prefer.

Smashing bananas is great fun

As always, we mix the dry and wet ingredients separately. In a large mixing bowl, stir together 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cups cocao nibs, 3/4 cup sugar, 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

In a second bowl, beat two eggs, then add 3 very ripe bananas (peeled, of course). Crush the bananas with a potato masher until they are almost liquid. Stir in 1/4 cup plain yogurt, 6 tablespoons melted butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry mix and stir just until everything is completely incorporated. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and dust it with flour. Then pour the batter into this and place on a rack set in the lower-middle of a 350-degree oven. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the bread comes out clean, about 55 minutes.

Remove the loaf from the pan and set on a wire rack to cool. Personally, I like my banana bread smeared with cream cheese. The kids had never heard of this, but once they tried it, I couldn't keep them away from the cream cheese.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Turkey Cheese Melt & Unbiscuit

Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Some things sound a lot better on a menu than they actually turn out to be on the plate. This "turkey ham and cheddar cheese melt" advertised on Chartwell's menu site is a perfect case in point. This is what it looked like on the kids' trays for breakfast yesterday.

As you can see, the "turkey ham," meaning turkey processed with chemicals to taste like ham, is sprinkled with grated cheese, then placed in the oven to melt the cheese. Mostly what I saw the kids doing was picking off the bits of cheese to get to the turkey. They ate the meat with their fingers.

The thing on the left that looks a little too much like it was found out in the woods is supposed to be a "whole wheat biscuit." I suppose you could conjure up a lovely mental pickture of ham and melted cheese sandwiched inside a fluffy biscuit. But I think we can conclude from this that the push for whole grains is definitely in conflict with our biscuit tradition.

I happen to love traditional southern food, and back when I was eating starchy carbs I loved nothing better than a good, homemade buttermilk biscuit. A biscuit made with whole wheat, as you can plainly see, comes nowhere close. In fact, I would call this inedible--and I think the kids agree. I didn't see any of them eating it.

We should just serve whole grains as whole grains and leave the biscuit tradition alone. But you know what? The USDA's proposed nutrition guidelines would eventually have all of the baked goods in schools made as "whole grain."

In my book, that spells the end of biscuits.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's for Lunch: Chicken Wrap

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's some news: frozen food doesn't have to be bad. For instance, you can do some pretty amazing things with frozen chicken.

Okay, so it isn't local, pastured chicken. It comes from a factory farm (CAFO: confined animal feedlot operation) far away, processed most likely by an industry giant like Tyson. But this is, after all, school food, made on a tight budget and frequently chicken is on the list of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodity foods, meaning schools get a substantial break on the price.

When you make school food, you also have to make some compromises.

In Boulder, Colorado, I had a fabulous barbecued chicken sandwich made from frozen "diced chicken." There, Ann Cooper has hired professional chefs to devise recipes that turn simple frozen and canned products into delicious cafeteria food. Here you see "honey mustard chicken," as Chartwells calls it, wrapped in a "whole wheat" tortilla with lettuce.

This is offered on Tuesday's as the cold alternate to the hot meal selection in D.C. schools. It's not true that school food has to be bad. But making it better does require some imagination and motivation to spend a little extra effort.

To be honest, however, few of the kids at my daughter's elementary school choose options like this and I think that's primarily because they just aren't familiar. As I learned during my week in Boulder, where the food services department was actively recruiting parents and student interns to help in the cafeterias, it takes active taste-testing and coaching in the cafeterias to get kids to eat new and different foods.

Unfortunately, here in D.C. we haven't seen any effort on the part of our local food services team to collaborate with parents or the broader community. We can hardly get them to communicate anything at all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Double Dose of Apple

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This breakfast looks healthy enough. You've got outmeal. You've got a carton of plain milk. But what's this? Apple sauce in one corner of the tray, and apple juice in another corner of the tray? Dueling apple products?

The apple sauce is unsweetened. That seems harmless enough. But the apple juice is another reminder that kids are exposed to entirely too much sugar--and especially fructose--on a daily basis. Fruit juice, while we've come to regard it as a healthy food, is actually a potent dose of fructose, which has been implicated as the prime culprit in our current epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver syndrome.

Among all the foods served in school, fructose stands apart for the potency of its ability to make kids fat and trigger a host of medical problems. Juice, while cheap and easy, represents nothing more than the sugary essence of actual fruit. Schools should probably just stop serving it altogether and focus on whole fruits, which contain much less sugar and more beneficial fiber.

With sodas, sugary chocolate milk and fruit juice, kids are swilling their way into a world of lifelong health problems. It's now estimated than adolescents on average consume more than 72 grams of fructose each day. That's the equivalent of 18 teaspoons worth.

We should just say no to fructose.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Word to Parents About Calcium

Broccoli: a good source of calcium

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Parents can breathe a little easier now that a group of experts in the most authoritative assessment yet [PDF] has found that kids are not suffering a “calcium crisis” as the dairy industry might have us believe.

Still, with school districts all over the country debating whether they should be serving sugar- injected chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk on a routine basis, parents too often get conflicting messages from their local food services director, their pediatrician, the dairy industry and from healthy food advocates.

Since I’ve been talking to a number of experts over the last couple of weeks, I thought I’d empty my notebook and try to cut through some of the calcium fog.

The findings by a panel of medical authorities convened by the Institute of Medicine were groundbreaking because they indicate that most Americans already get most of the calcium and vitamin D they need and gain little advantage from taking supplements.

As the panel explained, however, giving nutritional advice to an individual person is one thing, making recommendations that can be followed by an entire country of 300 million people is quite another. After considering all kinds of caveats, fudge factors and rounding variables, the panel established some numbers representing what might be called a best guess at the amount of calcium and vitamin D we should be consuming in our diet.

In so doing, the panel did identify one group of children who appear to come up a bit short on calcium. That would be pubescent girls who might need to increase their daily calcium consumption by 200 grams or so—the amount in a single serving of string cheese or a half-cup of cooked collard greens.

I spoke with Dr. Steven A. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in the calcium intake of children and was one of the panelists who wrote the IOM report. He said the group in question encompasses primarily girls between the ages of nine and 14, who currently may be getting somewhat more than 800 grams of calcium in their diets, but should be consuming “between 1,000 and 1,100.”

Why is getting more calcium so important for this age group? Medical research shows [PDF] that leading up to and during puberty, children experience a growth spurt and establish around 40 percent of the bone mass they will need in later life. Calcium and vitamin D work together to create healthy bones. The same is true for both girls and boys, but Abrams said boys already get more calcium, probably from eating bigger portions of foods with dairy in it—like cheesy pizza.

That leaves the girls. Greg Miller, a nutritionist and executive vice-president of research , regulatory and scientific affairs at the National Dairy Council, says he routinely feeds his own children chocolate milk because of the many nutrients it contains—calcium, vitamin D, potassium, phosphorous, riboflavin, to name a few—and because his children won’t drink plain milk.

Miller said studies indicate that kids offered chocolate and other milk products with added sugar get equally good nutrition as drinkers of plain milk and do not show signs of being any heavier. Indeed, the USDA has found that in the school lunch program, where kids overwhelmingly prefer chocolate and other flavored milk to plain milk, kids who participate in the hot lunch line get more calcium than kids who eat elsewhere.

But Dr. Walter Willet, chairman of the school of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told me he rejects a nutrient-based approach to diet. Milk, he said, “is not an essential nutrient”—calcium is found in lots of different foods. Plus, he said there is little evidence to suggest that children’s bone growth is being impaired by a lack of calcium. “We aren’t seeing a lot of children with fractures,” he said.

I got a very similar response when I asked nutritionist and food politics author Marion Nestle whether the dangers of sugar outweigh the calcium benefits in flavored milk.

“I see them as two distinct issues,” Nestle said. “Sugars in flavored milk are not dangerous. They won’t kill anyone outright. What they do is teach kids that all foods have to taste sweet and they don’t need to get used to eating savory foods if they don’t want to.”

Nestle continued: “Calcium is found in virtually all unprocessed foods and milk is not an essential nutrient.”

But a leading medical voice on the dangers of sugar, Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco specializing in endocrinology and obesity, argues that schools should not be offering flavored milk to children precisely because of sugar's link to obesity and a host of metabolic problems, such as diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder in children.

Lustig, however, sees the problem with children’s bone health as not one of too little calcium, but too little vitamin D. “There is certainly a Vitamin D crisis. Every kid is Vitamin D deficient today,” Lustig said. “I'm for vitamin D supplementation as a pill for all children.”

Lustig cites recommendations issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics calling for children to consume 800 units of vitamin D daily. But those were issued before the Institute of Medicine report, which recommends 600 units. The IOM panel found that while most people seem to consume too little vitamin D, measures of their blood show they have more than enough, indicating they get plenty from exposure to the sun.

Vitamin D is synthesized by the skin from sunlight.

Should schools have a specific calcium strategy besides offering chocolate milk to all students? Is there any way to target girls aged nine to 14? I asked Ann Cooper, the school food activist who serves some of the best cafeteria meals in the country in Boulder, Colorado.

In Boulder, and previously in Berkeley, Calif., where she also switched the school menu from processed convenience foods to meals made with whole ingredients, Cooper has eliminated flavored milk as an option. Kids can serve themselves plain, organic milk from refrigerated dispensers instead. I’ve had it and it’s delicious and refreshingly chilled—better than any milk in a carton by far.

Cooper says she also has plenty of calcium-rich foods on the salad bars--there’s one in every school, and kids are welcome to help themselves without limit. “We have lots of cottage cheese and yogurt,” Cooper said. “We’re serving hummus almost every day.”

“I’m not a doctor or a medical professional," Cooper said, "but I just think that with all the problems we’re seeing because of obesity in younger and younger kids—diabetes and heart disease—there’s got to be a more reasonable way to make sure those girls get enough calcium than feeding them sugar."

“The problem chocolate milk is solving is not calcium," Cooper said, "it’s the profitability of the dairy industry. They feel they’re losing market share to soda, and that’s what chocolate milk is supposed to address. If it weren’t for the Dairy Council pushing chocolate milk, there wouldn’t be this confusion. If we’re solving for calcium, then let’s talk about all the way kids can get calcium.”

Sorting through all these expert opinions is hard and I know lots of parents are concerned. Parents don't want to be caught in the middle of a debate. Mostly they just want their kids to grow up healthy. Like me, they may have an 11-year-old daughter who’s growing like crazy, who’s not only lactose intolerant but doesn’t like milk, who eats some cheese, an occasional yogurt smoothy and prefers broccoli above all vegetables--but otherwise craves carbs like every other kid.

What do you do then? As Cooper points out, kids are only in school 180 days a year. Even if they are eating breakfast and lunch at school, they’re getting most of their meals at home. Parents need to be primarily responsible.

In our own home, we offered our milk-averse daughter a choice: either she could start taking a calcium supplement every day, or she could eat a bowl of Total cereal fortified with 1,000 milligrams of calcium before she left for school in the morning.

She picked the Total.

Besides dairy products, foods rich in calcium include certain green vegetables such as broccoli and bok choy; legumes; fruits, especially figs; nuts, especially almonds; oily fish, such as sardines; and fortified juices, cereals and soy products. Here’s a more comprehensive list from the International Osteoporosis Foundation.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Potpourri: Special School Meal Standards Edition

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finally issued proposed new guidelines [PDF] for the federally-subsidized school meals program, raising again the question of whether all children deserve a chance to eat real food at school, or whether feeding them processed junk is good enough.

The proposed guidelines are little changed from recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in October 2009, representing the first update to the guidelines since 1995. The USDA was under congressional orders to bring school meal standards into line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The standards are supposed to be updated every five years, so these have been a long time in the making--much longer than Michelle Obama has been waging her "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity.

Written by a panel of prominent nutritionists, the IOM recommendations should make it somewhat easier for the nation's lunch ladies to serve healthful meals by lowering the calorie requirements at breakfast and lunch, increasing the total amount of allowable fat and cutting back on starchy foods such as potatoes and corn that have been implicated in "metabolic syndrome," a constellation of diet-related health problems including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

But the IOM, and the USDA, chose not to regulate the most dangerous ingredient of all--sugar. In a major concession to the dairy industry, the USDA would continue to allow flavored milk in the nation's public schools, although now chocolate would have to be fat-free. In the government's warped logic, this will bring down the total calorie count of a carton of chocolate (or strawberry, or grape, or root beerr-flavored) milk. But it does nothing to address the metabolic issues of sugar, which some experts have dubbed an "anti-nutrient" because of all the health problems it causes, such as the aforementioned "metabolic syndrome" and an unprecedented outbreak of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

Kids overwhelmingly choose flavored milk over plain, making it one of the few bright spots in the milk sales landscape, which otherwise has seen milk sales plummet over the years as kids embraced sugary soda and sports drinks. Dairy interests are vigorously promoting flavored milk in schools through their "Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!" campaign, endorsed also by the School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 of the nations school food service workers.

An eight-ounce carton of strawberry milk contains nearly as much sugar, ounce-for-ounce, as Mountain Dew.

But now we get to the issue of whether good school food can really be legislated from Washington. The proposed meal standards, while calling for fewer potatoes, would require more servings of green and orange vegetables and whole grain products. These, of course, are adult ideas of what constitutes "healthy" food. In reality, kids adore potatoes of any kind--it's their second-favorite food in the school meal line after pizza--and corn also ranks high on that list. Vegetables and whole grains are their least-favorite foods.

Since I visit the cafeteria in my daughter's school on a daily basis, I can also add that school kitchens have a hard time preparing vegetables that are anywhere near palatable. How many ways can you spell cooked-to-death broccoli? Cooking vegetables on a large scale is extremely difficult. Consequently, most of the vegetables that are served at my daughter's school simply get dumped in the trash. And that has been a problem the USDA has documented in schools nationwide for years.

As for "whole grain," this really depends on what your definition is. Most of the whole grain products we see on kids cafeteria trays consist of hamburger buns or dinner rolls that are merely formulated with some whole grain in them to meet the government standard. They are still loaded with refined grain that--once again--is implicated in that "metabolic syndrome."

Bringing school meal regulations more in line with Dietary Guidelines for Americans does represent something of a breakthrough. The guideline for fat content in school meals has been kept artificially low at no more than 30 percent of calories, compared to 35 percent for the general population. As a result, cash-strapped schools use sugar as a cheap substitute for real food to bring the calorie count in meals up to USDA standards. Now the required calories count would be reduced as well. The new guidelines for the first time set a minimum and a maximum calorie requirement, adjusted for children of different ages.

Along with those added vegetables and whole grains, the IOM panel figured sugar would be squeezed off school menus--with the exception of flavored milk, for which they made special allowances.

What we'll probably see as a result of the new guidelines is food manufacturers reformulating their products or perhaps creating new ones. Most schools don't serve fresh foods, but rather meals made from highly processed components that arrive frozen from manufacturers around the country, who frequently make their products specifically to conform with school meal requirements.

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a key lobbyist on school food matters, recently told The Washington Post that judging the guidelines in terms of food quality, as opposed to health measures, is a "foodie" concern. But of course the quality of food does matter if you want kids to eat it, and if you're trying to teach children the difference between real food and the junk they are exposed to every day.

What Wootan and these guidelines fail to take into account is the growing concern that schools not merely feed hungry children, but show them there is another world of food besides the junk food culture they grow up in.

It's not just a matter of putting food in kids' bellies, not when food insecurity and obesity exist side-by-side. This really is a question of social justice for our times: Whether disadvantaged children for whom the subsidized meal program is designed deserve an opportunity to eat quality food just as much as children from families who can afford to shop at a farmers market. Picture the difference between processed chicken nuggets (still allowed under the new guidelines) and cooked-to-death broccoli, versus a salad bar of fresh vegetables, fruits and maybe chicken salad.

What the public and mainstream media have yet to grasp is that serving real food in school takes radical changes on the local level, not merely tinkering with standards originating in Washington. That means an attitude change and a commitment on the part of local school officials, parents and elected leaders.

And maybe it takes a bit more than the measly six cents per meal Congress has allotted to make all these improvements.

The new guidelines are open to public comment through April 13. To submit a comment, go here [PDF] and follow the instructions.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kids Bake Soda Bread

Just a little bit of kneading is all it takes

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

I was looking forward to teaching the kids in my food appreciation classes about the simplest kind of Irish soda bread baked in a cast-iron pot. But then my wife steered me toward this recipe, which is a more Americanized take on the the classic, including two kinds of flour, a little egg, raisins and caraway seeds.

This is another lesson in quick breads, or those made with chemical rising agents--in this case baking soda and cream of tartar, mixed with buttermilk--instead of yeast. It makes a lovely loaf of semi-savory bread, well worth a little extra trouble. Serve it warm--fresh from the oven--with a pot of your favorite fruit preserves.

For dry ingredients, stir together in a large mixing bowl 3 cups (15 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, 1 cup (4 ounces) plain cake flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Add 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) room temperature butter cut into small pieces. Cut the butter into the flour until the mix resembles a loose grain. (We used our fingers for this, pinching the flour and butter together--a great activity for the kids.)

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, beat 1 egg and stir in 1 1/2 cups buttermilk. Add 1 cup raisins and 1 tablespoon caraway seeds.

Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir until everything is thoroughly incorporated. Pour the dough onto a work surface dusted with flour and knead just until the dough holds together in a soft ball. Place the ball onto a greased baking sheet, or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and pat it down until it is about eight inches around and two or three inches high. Score the top into a cross with a sharp knife.

Strawberry jam with your soda bread?

Place on the upper-middle rack of a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the bread reads 170 degrees. Allow to cool for a bit before cutting into wedges. You can also brush the top with melted butter for a nicely burnished look.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Gorging on Carbs

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
It's always interesting for me after writing about national school food issues to visit the cafeteria at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia and see what's happening on the ground.
This week I've been spending quite a bit of attention on milk, sugar and the possible health effects of too much sugar and refined carbohydrates. So what did I see at breakfast on Thursday? Not one, but two breakfast bars on this girl's tray. She had gotten an extra one from a friend, and was trying to score a third from the other kids who were sitting at the tables.
This "BeneFIT" brand bar looks innocent enough. Lately the lunch ladies have been removing them from their original packaging and serving them naked as you see in the photo. Perhaps that's to shield kids from the brand labeling. But it also removes the nutritional information. But I already have a wrapper in my files.
A single "apple cinnamon" bar delivers 290 calories derived from 48 grams of carbohydrates, including 23 grams of sugar. That's the sugar equivalent of nearly six teaspoons. The label lists "whole wheat flour" as the first ingredient, meaning kids are getting the benefit of some fiber--3 grams per serving. Still, this is a huge load of carbs. And if this girl gets her hand on three of them, she will have eaten nearly 900 calories, more than in a Big Mac cheeseburger.
In theory, there is portion control in school cafeterias. Kids can only take so much in the meal line. But what happens after they leave the meal line is up for grabs. Often, it's the kids who don't need the extra calories or carbs who manage to eat the most--sometimes multiple servings.
Sadly, there's no one in the cafeteria monitoring these things. But try to imagine a school cafeteria where parent volunteers were on hand to help coach kids on better eating habits.
Can you imagine such a thing?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lunch from Home: Steamed Dumplings

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

One of our daughter's favorite foods are steamed vegetable dumplings. We buy them frozen in large bags at an oriental market. Getting them to stay warm in her lunch box has proved a bit problematic. Maybe we need a better thermos.

Here you see a recent lunch that was quickly assembled, including the dumplings, carrots, half an apple acidulated with a little lemon juice and a couple of chocolate truffles left over from Christmas for dessert.

Daughter loves to bring chop sticks with her so she can eat her dumplings like this.

Head of Harvard Nutrition Unit Says No to Chocolate Milk

Too much sugar in school food?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The dairy industry would like to see Americans everywhere lift a glass for chocolate milk—and pour one for their kids while they’re at it. Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, sees that as a recipe for a health disaster.

Willett says the nation’s schools should not be serving sugary chocolate milk to children, adding that too many refined, starchy foods in the federally-subsidized school meals program pose a risk of obesity and other weight-related illness.

“These highly sugared milks make absolutely no sense whatsoever,” Willet said in an interview. “The use of sugar as an important part of the diet makes absolutely no sense nutritionally, especially when obesity is the number one health problem facing our nation.”

Willett and Harvard colleagues recently went public with findings exonerating fat and blaming sugar and too many starchy carbohydrates--such as those found in bread, pasta and potatoes--for many of the nation’s health problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

“People are getting 50 percent of their calories from carbs, and 80 percent of those calories are from refined starch and sugar,” Willett said. “Kids in school are getting the full brunt of that diet.”

Willett, who had not spoken out publicly on the school food issue previously, thus adds Harvard’s prestige to a growing chorus of critics questioning the routine use of flavored milks and other sugary products in school meals.

Meanwhile, an Emory University study described as the first of its kind finds that children who eat lots of sugar are at greater risk for heart disease. Released this week, the study found that sugar accounted for more than 21 percent of the calories in the diets of average teenagers, resulting in lowered levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL) and elevated levels of fat in the blood (triglycerides), both key markers of heart disease.

In examining dietary survey results compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control from 2,157 teenagers across the country, the study found that some teens got an astonishing 30 percent of their calories from sugar. Overweight children with the highest level of sugar consumption also showed increased signs of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

Most of that sugar is believed to come from sodas and other sugary beverages. Sugar, while delivering calories, has no nutritional value, and some have called it an “anti-nutrient” because of the health problems it can cause. Yet it has become a regular stand-in for real food in school meals because it delivers lots of calories at little cost.

Greg Miller, a nutritionist and executive vice-president of research , regulatory and scientific affairs at the National Dairy Council, defended flavored milk in school meals, saying he routinely feeds his own children chocolate milk because of the many nutrients it contains—calcium, vitamin D, potassium, riboflavin, to name a few—and because his children won’t drink plain milk.

Miller said studies indicate that kids offered chocolate and other milk products with added sugar get equally good nutrition as drinkers of plain milk and do not show signs of being any heavier. “Certainly we want to be concerned about sugar,” Miller said. “But I look at other places to cut sugar—less nutrient-dense foods, like cookies.”

The National Dairy Council vigorously promotes flavored milk in school through the industry’s “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!” campaign. Miller noted that companies such as milk giant Dean Foods are looking for ways to reduce the sugar content of flavored milk. “We want to be a responsible industry,” he said.

Likewise, the School Nutrition Association, which is partially funded by the dairy industry, and where dairy interests have a seat on an “industry advisory committee,” also continues to promote flavored milk in schools despite its sugar content.

The SNA represents some 50,000 of the country’s school food service workers, giving it broad influence over the kinds of foods served in school cafeterias.

SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner pointed to proposed nutrition guidelines for school meals, published in October 2009 by the Institute of Medicine, that set no limit for sugar in school meals and make specific allowances for including sugary flavored milk on cafeteria menus.

Saying they were “concerned that eliminating all flavored milk would result in a substantial decrease in milk intake,” committee members cited a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that found that children who prefer flavored milk drink just as much milk as kids who prefer plain, and get just as much nutrition without adverse weight gain.

That study was funded by dairy interests and written by nutritionists with longstanding ties to the industry.

The IOM committee also said it expected that reducing calorie requirements for school meals, increasing the amount of fat permitted, and requiring bigger portions of vegetables and whole grains would tend to squeeze sugar-laden foods such as desserts off school menus.

The recommendations, written at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have not yet been formally adopted, but are expected to be released today for public comment.

The USDA requires that schools offer milk with breakfast and lunch. Kids overwhelmingly prefer chocolate milk over plain. Estimates indicate that between 60 and 70 percent of the milk consumed in the school meals program is flavored.

Many children start their day with a government-sponsored breakfast consisting of strawberry-flavored milk containing nearly as much sugar as Mountain Dew, ounce-for-ounce, poured over a bowl of Apple Jacks or other sugar-enhanced cereal. Until recently, kids as young as five here in the District of Columbia routinely were being served the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar before classes even started, and experts say that’s not at all uncommon in school districts around the country. Some are even worse.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What's for Lunch: Taco Salad

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I bicycled the 3.25 miles to my daughter's elementary school yesterday. The thermometer read 35 degrees. Most of that trip is uphill getting to the school from our house. So I was a bit ravenous by the time I arrived in the cafeteria.

This "taco salad" looked awfully good to me. Tasted good, too.

Okay, so the meat is highly processed turkey, probably with some soy protein mixed in. It arrived frozen. And the "baked whole grain tortilla shells" Chartwells advertised on its menu site are nothing more than those "scoops" you see in the corn chip aisle in the supermarket.

But I liked some of the touches. For instance, the lettuce confetti at the bottom of the heap, though it is already prepared and bagged for convenience, got a splash of lemon juice from our lunch ladies to boost the flavor. Underneath the shredded cheese is a "southwest peach salsa" that was pretty tasty also.

And in the upper-left hand corner is something I have not seen before: a dessert crumble made with canned pear and peaches and frozen blueberries also made in the local kitchen. It wasn't terribly sugary. I think it hit a lot of positive notes.

Is this a good way to deliver those anti-oxidants in the blueberries? Or should the schools not be tempting kids at all with dessert?

The plastic cup contains ranch dressing, to be drizzled over the taco salad. I spent my lunch hour
spooning the salad into the corn scoops individually, adding a little dollop of dressing. I noticed some of the kids doing the same. What fun.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Report Challenges Dairy Campaign Promoting Chocolate Milk in Schools

A little sugar with that calcium?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

A landmark study on calcium and vitamin D nutrition recently published by the Institute of Medicine poses a serious challenge to a dairy industry campaign to sell chocolate milk to the nation’s school children, finding that only girls aged 9 to 18 might need more calcium and only by an amount contained in a half-serving of calcium-fortified cereal .

In setting new dietary standards, the IOM found claims that Americans are deficient in calcium and vitamin D to be greatly exaggerated. But the dairy industry has spent millions of dollars promoting sugary flavored milk in schools based on the idea that children are threatened with a “calcium crisis.” The industry is fighting efforts to remove flavored milk from school menus, saying kids will be in danger of not getting the calcium they need to build strong bones.

Meanwhile, a growing body of scientific evidence links sugar with an epidemic of childhood obesity as well as a host of related health problems: diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and even an unprecedented outbreak of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

According to the IOM, girls leading up to and during puberty typically consume around 823 milligrams of calcium daily. Because they experience a growth spurt during this period, they should aim to get about 200 milligrams more calcium, or “between 1,000 and 1,100”milligrams, said Dr. Steven A. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in the calcium intake of children and was one of the panelists who wrote the IOM report.

By comparison, a one-cup serving of Total cereal contains 1,000 milligrams of calcium, a cup of low-fat milk around 300, and a half-cup of cooked collard greens 200, about the same as in a single serving of string cheese.

“I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘calcium crisis.’ I’m much more in favor of policies that ensure we meet that 1,000 milligrams,” said Abrams. “What we need to do is make sure that we have a lot of different ways for kids to get to it.”

Sources of calcium besides milk, cheese and yogurt include fortified cereal and fruit juice, as well as certain green vegetables, such as bok choy, broccoli and collard greens. Dairy products contain more calcium, but the calcium in vegetables is more readily absorbed.

Abrams declined to address the question of using sugar and flavorings to entice children to drink milk at school, saying “people have different perspectives,” and noting that he sits on a board that advises MilkPEP, the dairy group responsible for the “Got Milk?” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!” campaigns.

But a leading medical voice on the dangers of sugar, Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco specializing in endocrinology and obesity, said schools should not be offering flavored milk to children. “But it won’t get fixed any time soon,” Lustig said. “The dairy industry is very tight with the USDA.”

The IOM report created a sensation when it was released in November because it debunked rampant promotion of vitamin D supplements as a treatment for everything from cancer to arthritis to diabetes. The IOM panel said there was no scientific basis for those claims and found that calcium supplements also are not necessary. Their report, based on a review of more than 1,000 studies and testimony from medical professionals, constitutes the most authoritative dietary recommendations on calcium and vitamin D to date.

Calcium and vitamin D working in tandem are essential to skeletal health throughout life. Vitamin D actually acts as a hormone, enabling calcium in its job of building and “remodeling” bones, as well as performing vital functions elsewhere in the body. In fact, there is very little study of how much calcium and vitamin D are needed independent of each other. Complicating the task of setting dietary requirements , the IOM panel said, is the fact that as well as being contained in some foods, such as oily fish and egg yolks, vitamin D is synthesized by the skin from sunlight.

Most Americans don’t consume enough vitamin D in theory, but measurements of the hormone in their blood consistently show they have more than enough, indicating they get at least some from sunshine, the panel reported.

Also unknown is the minimum amount of calcium needed for healthy bone growth. Abrams said some experts put the number as low as 600 milligrams in pubescent girls. But he said the IOM panel “chose not to set a minimum number.”

The committee took a more cautious route, adopting 1,100 milligrams of calcium daily as the “estimated average requirement” for all children aged nine to 18, meaning the amount that would ensure that at least half the children in that age group get the calcium they require. But because genetic differences can affect how well some people’s bodies utilize calcium, Abrams said the committee went a step further and established 1,300 milligrams as a “recommended dietary allowance” that would cover 97 percent of all children in the group.

Well-designed studies of children’s calcium intake and its effect on bone health are scarce. One study cited by the panel found that while children who were given extra calcium did show increased bone growth, it did not last after the supplementation ended.

The IOM report makes no mention of bone impairment being suffered by children not getting enough calcium or vitamin D outside the rare cases of rickets experienced by infants, typically those with dark skin who are breastfed. Breast milk contains less vitamin D than infant formula and dark pigment inhibits the skin’s ability to synthesize sunlight.

Milk sold commercially is fortified with vitamin D. Exactly how much calcium children consume or where they get it isn’t known, although some surveys have attempted to establish a rough idea. For many children, the federally-subsidized meals program, where milk is a required element at breakfast and at lunch, is an important source of calcium and vitamin D—at least when school is in session.

The 2007 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study published by the USDA found that the mean 24-hour calcium intake among middle-school students was 1,137 milligrams—or well within the acceptable range—for those who participated in the meals program, but 906 milligrams—less than the amount recommended—for children who ate outside the subsidized lunch line.

The USDA reports that children who participate in the federally-subsidized lunch program are four times as likely to drink milk at school than other children.

A “study” commissioned last year by the dairy industry, and performed by a company that conducts marketing research for corporate food clients, suggested that 35 percent fewer elementary school students drank milk when flavored milk was removed from the cafeteria. But the dairy industry has refused to release the full study, and some experts have dismissed it as inherently biased.

Estimates indicate that anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of all milk consumed in schools is chocolate or another flavor with added sugar. An eight-ounce serving of chocolate milk, for instance, typically contains about 14 grams of high-fructose corn syrup, the equivalent of three and a half teaspoons.

According to Lustig and other anti-sugar activists, the dangers of sugar in the form of fructose outweigh any calcium or vitamin D benefits children might get from drinking flavored milk.

Beginning in fall 2010, schools in the District of Columbia ceased serving flavored milk, following districts such as Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Co. The state board of education in Florida also has been considering such a move, but recently was asked by the state’s newly appointed agriculture secretary to put that decision on hold pending further study.