Monday, February 28, 2011

What's for Lunch: Pizza and Uneaten Veggies

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I was intrigued by this "Sicilian cheese pizza with whole wheat crust"--so described by Chartwells at its menu website--because I had never seen a pizza so thin.

Turns out it was made with rectangular pieces of flat bread that conveniently fit precisely at the bottom of a stainless hotel pan. They're then slathered with tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese.

The pizza, big slabs of it, did not look especially appetizing on the trays. But I tried it and it was quite good--if a bit limp. The "crust" was very soft. I wouldn't call it a crust at all.

What also fascinated me about this menu was the selection of sides. The green beans are pretty standard. But this celery? Really?

The Chartwells menu called for carrots with salad dressing, so I'm guessing the celery must have been a substitution for carrots that were never delivered.

The beans, delivered frozen, were steamed and seasoned with phony butter. I liked them, but the kids didn't touch them. They didn't touch the celery either. I took a walk around the cafeteria and didn't see a single child eating the beans or the celery. I may have missed a couple. But from what I could tell, all of these vegetables simply got dumped in the trash.

This is what most of the trays looked like after the kids finished their pizza.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

This Week in School Food News

We recently suggested this may not be the best time to follow through on Congress' new edict that schools start raising the price of meals, not when schools already are owed millions of dollars by families whose children are eating the meals at school but not paying for them.

Meanwhile, more reports have surfaced about schools substituting sandwiches for full-blown hot meals when children fail to pay. Along with these reports come some misperceptions about how the federally-subsidized meals program works.

A recent CBS News health blog, for instance, suggests that public schools are required to offer meals through the national school lunch program. They're not, and not all do. This particular blog post further implies that schools somehow are skirting the law by serving a sandwich and juice box for lunch. But there's nothing in the school lunch regulations that says schools must serve a complete meal to children who don't pay.

In fact, there's nothing wrong with a sandwich for lunch per se. The rules governing the meals program permit a wide range of options--as long as they conform with the USDA's requirements for calories and nutrients.

Under the "offered versus served" system that most school use, schools must offer students five items at lunch representing the various food groups--including milk--and children must select at least three. It is conceivable--but not likely--that a sandwich could satisfy most of those requirements. Still, sandwiches--or wraps--are routinely offered as a cold alternative to the hot entree here in the District of Columbia, along with a number of side dishes and a selection of milk.

But giving a kid who can't pay for a full meal a cheese sandwich and a juice box instead singles her out for ridicule among her peers. And if the sandwich meals don't satisfy the USDA requirements, then the schools can't claim the $2.72 the federal government pays for a reimbursable lunch. It's that simple.

But as this online article published by MSNBC points out, foregoing the federal reimbursement may be the best option for some schools. In Lee County, Fla., schools cut losses by 80 percent after they started serving sandwiches to kids who didn't pay.

Unfortunately, the MSNBC report muddles the question of whether it was skimping on ingredients that resulted in the savings, or whether they got kids who were eligible to sign up for free or reduced-price meals, resulting in more reimbursements.

No, the issue isn't whether sandwiches are an acceptable lunch option. Heck, I grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and considered liverwurst with mayonnaise a special treat. The question is how schools deal with children who come to school hungry in depressed economic times, and whether forcing school districts to raise prices is a good idea now--or ever.

The School Nutrition Association is asking the USDA to at least test price hikes in a pilot program before implementing the mandate nationwide.


The shelves are nearly bare at many of the nation's food pantries. Families fallen on hard times can't afford to buy food. And, yes, kids are coming to school hungry. Who are the first responders to these kids in need? Often, it's the teachers.

Here's a story in USA Today reporting that two-thirds of teachers nationwide say they have students who come to school hungry. Sixty-one percent of those teachers say they regularly purchase food for their classrooms, spending $25 a month on average.

Stacey Frakes, who taught third, fourth and fifth grades at Madison (Fla.) County Central School and now works as an instructional coach for an elementary school, says sometimes kids would come to her class and put their heads on their desk and almost cry.

When she asked them what was wrong, they'd tell her they hadn't had any breakfast. She kept peanut butter crackers on hand to give them, and one time gave a student her own lunch.

She says hungry students "couldn't focus at all. All they could think about was wanting food. They would ask, 'What time is lunch? Is it lunchtime yet?' "


For some kids, it's not so much a question of being able to afford the food at school, but finding time to eat it.

This report from Albany, N.Y., finds that teenagers sometimes have no scheduled lunch period because they are taking extra courses. Or they may skip breakfast just to get a few minutes more sleep. Or they may be tempted to buy a couple of a la carte treats instead of a full lunch, then find themselves craving food after school and eat whatever they can get their hands on.

In many schools, the problem starts with lunch schedules that don't allow enough time to eat a proper meal. Some kids are only allotted 15 or 20 minutes for lunch. At my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia, lunch is 30 minutes. But I recently watched the clock and noticed that some of the kids waited more than 15 minutes in line to get their food.

When I asked one girl recently why she hadn't eat much of the food on her tray, she said she had not had enough time. And I've noticed this problem is often worse in low-income schools. That's because fewer kids there bring a lunch from home and fewer lunches from home means more kids waiting in line for food.

It's even a problem in Berkeley, Calif., where the meals program was famously re-invented by Ann Cooper and Alice Waters.

As any teacher can tell you, kids who don't have time to eat, don't get enough to eat, or eat primarily junk, have a hard time focusing in class.


There's been a push to get fast food outlets to put calorie and nutrition labels on the foods they serve. But now comes research indicating that calorie labels on fast food do little to affect kids' purchasing decisions.

New York became the first U.S. city to try to attack the U.S. obesity epidemic by requiring fast-food restaurants to list the calories of their foods on menus in 2008. The hope was that better-informed consumers would make better food choices.

Researchers at New York University wanted to see how effective the city's law is at getting parents and young people to think twice about ordering high-calorie foods.

The team gathered restaurant receipts and surveyed 427 parents and teenagers at fast-food restaurants both before and after mandatory labeling began in July 2008.

The researchers found that after labeling began, 57 percent of New York teens surveyed said they noticed the calorie information and 9 percent said this information influenced their food choices.

"What we didn't see is any change in the number of calories before and after labeling started," Dr. Brian Elbel of NYU, who led the study, told Reuters. "We also didn't see any changes in the number of calories for choices parents were making for their kids."

The foods teens bought amounted to about 725 calories per meal and the food parents bought for their children were about 600 calories per meal.

The study found that most teens underestimated the amount of calories they had purchased, some by up to 466 calories.


But if kids just exercise more, they can work off those extra calories, right?

Better check your understanding of why people become obese, because here's more research indicating that exercise does not correlate with lower measures of body fat or body mass index (BMI).

The results from this small study of eight-year-olds were presented at the Obesity Society's 2010 Annual Scientific Assembly. While the findings challenge the idea that kids who exercise more are less fat, researchers did find that exercise positively influences the distribution of fat on the body in ways that can lead to better health.


Finally, reporter Monica Eng at the Chicago Tribune recently reported that fewer kids in Chicago schools are choosing the subsidized hot meal since healthier foods were introduced. Eng writes that she interviewed dozens of students who said the new food provided by Chartwells was "nasty."

"Complaints arise with the reformulated items, including new pizza products with grainier cardboardy crusts," Eng writes. "The same goes for overly tangy and tomatoey red beans with whole wheat pasta; chalky whole wheat macaroni salad; a mixture of beans, cheese and tomato called 'enchiladas'; nearly flavorless rice and beans; brown-tinged, formaldehyde scented iceberg salad in a cup; a stiff flour tortilla wrapped around fish sticks named a 'fish taco'; canned pears that taste like wet toilet paper and, worst of all, waterlogged and unsalted boiled vegetables."

The one thing kids seemed to like was a "spicy chicken patty" with 60 ingredients that was reintroduced to try and quell student dissatisfaction.

Eng says she was skeptical of the kids' complaints at first. "But as a former food reviewer I decided to taste the meals myself, and I discovered the kids are absolutely right."

"If I were served the [Chicago Public Schools] versions of these foods in a restaurant, I would send them back immediately," Eng concludes. "At the very least, I would sprinkle the vegetables with a few crystals of salt, but students are not allowed salt and cooks are never allowed to use it on meals made in CPS kitchens. If these were my first tastes of broccoli, zucchini and carrots, I might never want to try them again."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kids Bake Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Mixing batter requires concentration

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

This week marked our last session in this year's baking segment and I wanted the kids to end on a super-delicious note. So here's a carrot cake sure to satisfy the most demanding sweet tooth. Kids like sugar too much. So remember: food like this is intended as a special treat, not something to be consumed on a daily basis.

Carrot cake has the added advantage of requiring quite a bit of vegetable prep. That may not seem like an advantage to the average home cook. But if you are trying to keep a group of children busy in the kitchen, there's nothing like peeling and grating carrots. Hand a kid a vegetable peeper and she will occupy herself for the rest of the day.

This cake calls for a whole pound of carrots. We do everything by hand. But if you do not feel so inclined, feel free to plug in your food processed to speed up some of the chopping and mixing this recipe calls for.

First, prepare a 13-by-9-inch baking pan by greasing the inside of the pan, lining the bottom with a sheet of parchment paper and greasing the parchment paper. Set aside.

Kids will peel carrots all day

To the pound of peeled and grated carrots, add 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teapsoon baking soda, 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, place 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar and 4 large eggs. Mix these together with a whisk and beat well until frothy and thoroughly combined. Continue beating while drizzling in 1 1/2 cups canola oil. Beat until the oil is completely emulsified.

Pour the wet mix into the dry mix and stir until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and place in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. You might turn the pan from front to back halfway through the baking process.

Allow the cake to cool at least two hours before removing it from the pan. Invert it onto a cutting board or serving platter and prepare the frosting. Process 8 ounces softened but still cool cream cheese, 5 tablespoons unsalted butter softened but still cook, 1 tablespoon sour cream and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. We used the back of a wooden spoon for this, but you can also use a food processor. When the mix is smooth, scrape down the sides of the bowl and add 1 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar. We used a rubber spatula to gently work the sugar into the cream cheese mix until it was completely incorporated and there were no lumps.

A dense and moist carrot cake

Use an offset spatula to first spread a thin layer of frost over the top of the cake. This will trap any crumbs so they do not show through when you spread the rest of the frosting.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Glycemic Bomb

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Just when you thought we'd gotten rid of the tater tots, they show up on the breakfast menu. My daughter couldn't wait to dig into hers. In fact, kids wolfed down the potatoes and ran back to the food line for more. After pizza, potatoes are kids' favorite food in the federally-subsidized meal program.

But with all of the other starches and sugars on this tray, were potatoes really necessary? The USDA's proposed new meal guidelines would cut back sharply on "starchy vegetables" such as potatoes, corn and peas. But they would also add 80 percent more grains to breakfast in the form of "whole grain-rich" products.

In other words, kids will be getting tons more starch, as long as it contains 51 percent "whole grain." So don't be looking for actual whole grains, but rather processed foods that have "whole grain" added.

This particular breakfast is full of starch and sugar. Consider what Chartwells advertises as the "all natural whole grain bluenanaberry muffin," next to it the "oven baked hash browns" that are actually re-heated, processed tater tots. Then there's the 4.23-ounce container of "fruitables" juice, containing 12 grams of sugar and the four-ounce container of Stonyfield organic yogurt containing another 13 grams of sugar.

Between the juice and the yogurt alone kids are consuming the equivalent of nearly six teaspoons of sugar, to which is added the starch from the potatoes and the muffin. Most people still fixate on fat in kids' diet, while it's the starch and sugar in foods like this that are intimately linked with rampant illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

That's quite a lot to be trying to disguise with soothing labels such as "all natural" and "organic" and "100 percent juice."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Oatmeal

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Mark Bittman on the op-ed page of the New York Times recently took McDonald's to the wood shed for offering customers "healthy" oatmeal that actually contains 21 ingredients, including lots of sugar.

I'm happy to report that schools here in the District of Columbia are still serving an unadulterated oatmeal made very simply with Quaker quick oats and water.

As you can see in the photo, it was served this morning with a cup of canned fruit and string cheese. A four-ounce container of juice also was available, along with plain low-fat or skim milk.

The kids don't exactly tear into the oatmeal. But it's certainly better than the stuff McDonald's is serving.

But schools can get oatmeal wrong, too. Here's a photo of a similar breakfast served at my daughter's D.C. elementary school last year. Yes, that big blob of stuff that looks like a tennis ball left out in the rain is actually a scoop of oatmeal. They were serving some pretty nasty turkey sausages the as well, along with chocolate and strawberry milk, which have since been removed from the menu.

Best advice where oatmeal is concerned: keep it simple.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Finger Food

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

One of the more amusing (or not) aspects of school meals is watching kids try to cope with actually eating the foods they are served with the available plastic cutlery, which does not include either a knife or a fork.

Using their "spork"--or combination spoon and fork--kids often will attempt to shovel unwieldy foods directly into their mouth. But just as often they dispense with the niceties of cutlery altogether and just go at food with their hands.

I've seen them scoop up mashed potatoes with their hands and plaster it on so-called Salisbury steak. I've seen them pick the noodles and cheese out of their spinach lasagna and eat it with their fingers. This morning, they were devising ways to consume a crusty waffle (reheated from frozen) and breakfast patty of turkey sausage.

As you can see in the above photo, one girl's solution was to make a kind of sandwich out of the waffle and the sausage. She proceeded to munch away at the waffle until it matched up perfectly with the sausage.

The brown stuff in the lower left was advertised at the Chartwells website as a "warm cinnamon apple topping" for the waffle. But I did not see any kids deploying it as such. Mostly it went uneaten and was thrown in the trash.

My daughter, who arrived a little later than most of the other kids, waited about 10 minutes for the kitchen to prepare a fresh batch of turkey sausage. But when she tasted it, she threw it back onto the tray. "That's nasty," she said.

This highly processed patty is colored to look like a traditional pork sausage, but the flavor is entirely missing. In fact, it is somewhat over seasoned with red pepper flakes, but otherwise is totally bland, as if it hadn't been salted at all. So between the soggy cardboard-like texture and spicy flavorlessness, this sausage is a turnoff. Although I must say most of the kids ate it anyway and went back for seconds.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Much Food do Kids Throw Away at School?

Kids eat what they want and throw the rest away

Experts say they can't be sure kids will actually eat the increased portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains called for in new USDA school meal guidelines. And now the Chicago Tribune reports that kids in Chicago are turning up their noses at healthier food. At one school, the Trib measured and found that hundreds of pounds of food were being tossed in the trash ever day at just one school. That included whole apples, oranges and bananas, entire cartons of milk, unopened boxes of cereal.

I observe the same phenomenon every day at the elementary school my daughter attends here in the District of Columbia. I usually stop in twice a day--breakfast and lunch--and photograph the food while watching to see what the kids are eating--or not eating. What I see routinely are kids rejecting "healthier" foods, especially vegetables and whole grains.

Recently, for instance, I was surprised to see kids lining up for seconds at lunch before some kids had even been served their first portions. Turns out what they wanted were the meatballs that came with their whole wheat spaghetti. Otherwise, the pasta along with a wonderful green been salad, a side of corn and a whole wheat roll all went into the garbage can.

So called "plate waste" is nothing new to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program. In fact, schools use an "offer versus served" option in the meal line designed to cut down on food waste. In order to qualify for federal reimbursements, schools using this option must offer at least five items representing the various food groups, along with milk. But kids are only required to select three of the items. The program is mandatory in upper grades, and optional in elementary schools.

The USDA has studied food waste in school cafeterias, but not since 2002. That study [PDF] did not collect new data, but surveyed the existing studies researchers were able to locate. Their conclusions:

* Food waste comprises about 12 percent of total calories selected by students in the meal line, as reported in the USDA's 1991-92 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment. This is said to be in the "normal" range. But some studies have found the figure ranging as high as 37 percent.

* Food items most frequently thrown away uneaten are salad, vegetables and fruit.

* Girls throw away more food than boys.

* Younger kids trash more food that older kids.

* The value of wasted food is probably around $1 billion annually.

Researchers found that some strategies, such as allowing kids to create their own plates at "food bars," help cut down on food waste. But food bars are difficult to implement because of the additional equipment involved. Plus, after the kids make their selections, they then must pass a cash register or "point of sale" station so that an adult can confirm that they have taken the correct foods in the required portion sizes. Imagine the traffic congestion this can create in the cafeteria.

Rescheduling lunch so that it follows recess has been found to reduce food waste, as does giving kids more time to eat. Lunch that is scheduled too soon after breakfast can result in more plate waste, as can scheduling lunch too late, giving kids time to snack on other foods.

Another way to reduce waste is to serve better food. But the Tribune reported that one of the reasons children in Chicago rejected the cafeteria food was because it wasn't seasoned. The USDA's proposed guidelines would reduce salt in school food by half over 10 years to reflect the advice given in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Americans get most of their salt from processed foods, which means the food industry will have to find ways to make processed food with much less sodium, or schools will have to start cooking a lot more meals from scratch. Most are not equipped to do so at the moment.

The USDA also is funding research into how behavioral science might be deployed to get kids to actually eat healthier foods rather than throwing them away.

Schools may also be able to increase student acceptance of foods by involving them in menu selection and by incorporating nutrition education programs that include taste-testing foods in the cafeteria before they are served. As I've noted many times, the menu here in D.C. has improved significantly in the last year, but there's nobody in the cafeteria talking to the kids about it. Consequently, I've seen all sorts of great food--sauteed local zucchini, for instance, or roasted local sweet potatoes--going straight into the trash without the kids so much as trying it.

The proposed USDA meal guidelines call for doubling fruit and vegetable portions and vastly increasing "whole grain-rich" products in the food line. These changes are likely to increase the cost of serving school food dramatically. But unless steps are taken to engage kids and their parents in this process, my guess is that a great deal of that food will end up at the landfill.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Buyer's Remorse Over Healthier School Food?

Who will pay for healthier school food?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow cook

School food is poised to look less like prison fodder and more like a Moosewood Restaurant buffet if new USDA guidelines are adopted. Colorful vegetables—lots of them—more whole fruit, more whole grains, less salt, less processed junk—that’s the plat du jour. The only question now is, who picks up the check?

A tight-fisted Congress would only ante up 6 extra cents for school lunch in its recent re-authorization of child nutrition programs. Now the USDA says that’s not even close to covering all the goodies school food advocates have been asking for. Between more expensive ingredients and the increased labor needed to turn them into meals, the USDA estimates [PDF] school lunch soon will cost an extra 15 cents, and breakfast a whopping 51 cents more.

That compares to the $2.72 the federal government currently pays schools to provide a fully-reimbursable school lunch, $1.48 for breakfast.

According to wonks in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services branch, the money to pay for these long-awaited changes will just have to come from state and local governments that at the moment are worse than broke. In other words, schools will be switching out frozen tater tots for fresh sweet potatoes and replacing processed beef crumbles with scratch-cooked spinach lasagna at the same time law makers are sending pink slips to teachers, shuttering health clinics for the poor, and unscrewing light bulbs in street lamps to resolve the worst budget deficits since the Great Depression.

Is anyone else feeling a teeny bit of buyer’s remorse?

I count myself among those who think the food served to kids in school could be a whole lot better. But something about the notion that kids must have fresh local broccoli on their lunch trays while teachers worry about the next mortgage payment doesn’t sit right. I’m doubly conflicted, because after a year of writing about school food on a daily basis, and monitoring what goes on in the cafeteria at my daughter’s elementary school here in the District of Columbia , I know that kids routinely refuse to eat and throw in the trash vast quantities of those very same vegetables and whole grains that constitute such a large portion of the looming school meals bill.

And it's not just me. Here's a Chicago Tribune story exposing the same thing in cafeterias there. The Tribune found hundreds of pounds of food being tossed in the trash in a single school, including unopened cartons of milk and juice, uneaten oranges and bananas, whole cartons of cereal. Just as they do here in D.C., Chicago school children describe the healthier food as "nasty."

We are about to embark on a multi-billion-dollar culinary experiment with unknowable results. This is faith-based nutrition on a huge scale. Nationwide, the USDA says the proposed changes will add $6.8 billion to the cost of preparing school meals in the first five years, compared to the $13 billion the federal government spends annually on school feeding programs.

State and local governments currently contribute around nine percent of the total cost of school food service. In California alone, the new guidelines will add $75 million to the annual bill just for fruits and vegetables, according to the Environmental Working Group. Where will Sacramento, currently in utter budget meltdown, come up with such a sum? The EWG proposes diverting money currently paid to subsidize dairy, cotton and rice farmers.

In an effort to wrap my head around all this, I recently spent a few hours reviewing financial briefs for all 50 states. I could hardly have assigned myself a more dismal task. It truly is a blood bath out there. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [PDF], states are seeing the worst decline in tax revenues ever recorded. So far, at least 46 states have reduced services and 30 have raised taxes to some degree. With billions in federal stimulus dollars drying up, local budget woes will only get worse—and stay bad for years to come. Even education spending is now fair game for deficit hawks.

Consider these factoids:

Newly-elected California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed closing a $25 billion budget gap by cutting salaries for non-union state employees, slashing funding for higher education by 20 percent and even reducing aid for K-12 schools if voters don’t approve tax increases.

Los Angeles, described as on the brink of bankruptcy, is planning to send pink slips to 4,000 teachers, just in case the city needs to let some of them go.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called his state “functionally bankrupt,” and proposes to close most of a $10 billion budget shortfall by reducing education funding and Medicaid.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tells voters he will not raise taxes, but his approach to addressing an $11 billion budget deficit would include cutting $820 million in education funding.

Arizona is so broke, lawmakers are considering mortgaging state office buildings.

And in Madison, Wis., thousands of state workers—including teachers--recently rallied to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to cut their benefits and bargaining rights--and his threat to call out the National Guard if things get out of hand.

Here in D.C., extra funding for school meals approved under a “Healthy Schools Act” narrowly avoided budget cuts last year. But now the city faces a huge new shortfall of some $600 million, much larger than anticipated.

How does all of this square with the idea that schools should be feeding kids fresh chicken on the bone rather than re-heated chicken nuggets? Advocates would say we need to embrace the USDA guidelines in order to head off an epidemic of childhood obesity--and the nearly $300 billion estimated annual cost of medical care and lost productivity due to weight-related illness. But do kids really need a full-blown restaurant meal covering all the food groups every day?

Already schools on average lose more than 30 cents on every lunch they serve. They may soon be forced to start charging students higher prices. Yet Lucy Gettman, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, says the outlook for funding school meals may not be so dire. Some states and some school districts have already been moving toward the kind of food service the USDA is proposing.

But there’s more turbulence on the horizon. Pending standards for food sold in vending machines and in school stores—presumably requiring healthy choices rather than candy, chips and soft drinks—will likely cut into food service revenues, Gettman said. Congress has also told the USDA to examine how schools assign operational costs to food service, another potential drain.

“Over the last few years, three dozen states have either changed state laws or have considered changing state laws regarding school nutrition,” Gettman said. “Every state and every school district is probably going to be in a different place. Some may be very close to meeting some of the standards. But for those that haven’t, there may be a very wide gap.”

The School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 school cafeteria workers across the country, is looking for ways the federal government can contribute more to pay for the new meal standards. For starters, they are asking the USDA to consider giving schools credit toward commodity food purchases for serving breakfast.

The USDA currently awards schools about 20 cents toward purchasing commodity goods for every lunch meal they serve. The program does not cover breakfast, and many schools are now trying to increase breakfast service by offering it in the classroom, which serves the dual purpose of ensuring kids aren’t forced to learn on an empty stomach while also generating more federal reimbursements for the food program.

Still, I can’t help thinking there ought to be a way to make school food much less complicated. There must be a better funding mechanism that doesn’t pit kids against other worthy government programs for the needy.

Maybe it’s time for a national guilt relief act in the form of a big, fat federal tax on soda and junk food that pays for school lunch. Now that's something I would not lose any sleep over.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kids Bake Blueberry Oat Bran Muffins

Sweetness from fruit instead of sugar

Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

When I told the kids in my fifth-grade food appreciation class we'd be making muffins sweetened with apple sauce and orange juice and blueberries instead of granulated sugar, they literally turned on their heels and ran out to the playground.

No kidding. I was left standing there alone with a dumb look on my face. I'd hoped to teach them that baked goods don't necessarily need sugar. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything.

The incident illustrates the lengths to which kids sometimes will go to avoid "healthy" foods. Still, we try to introduce healthier options. Sugar is probably the biggest villain in our current dietary woes, and most of us don't get enough whole grains--or fiber--in our diets. So don't be afraid to make these muffins at home, since they are rich in fiber and don't contain any granulated sugar at all.

In fact, I used to make these muffins all the time for my private clients who requested healthier meals. They will keep a long time in the freezer.

To make 12 standard muffins, stir together in a large mixing bowl 1 1/2 cups oat bran, 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

In a separate bowl, blend 2 eggs, 1/2 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons canola oil and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated, then fold in 1 1/4 fresh or frozen blueberries and 1/2 cup chopped walnuts. Scoop the batter into a greased muffin tin and sprinkle rolled oats over the batter, pressing lightly with your fingertips.

Place the muffin tin in a 400-degree oven and bake approximately 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes our clean. Serve these warm, with a glass of first-class buttermilk.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs with Veggies

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The lunch ladies at my daughter's elementary school turned liquid eggs into this fabulous dish of scrambled eggs with broccoli, carrot, onion and cheddar cheese. It looked so good, I had to try some myself and it was terrific.

Unfortunately, the kids were less enthusiastic. "The eggs are different," said one fifth-grader. Well, of course they were. They were scrambled instead of being served cut into squares, explained the kitchen manager.

Chartwells at its menu website also advertised "whole wheat toast or all natural whole brain banana bread" with this breakfast, but I didn't see it.

Kids are often terribly picky sometimes. My daughter, for instance, would never eat this because of the bits of vegetables in it. She likes her veggies served separately in a recognizable form. But that just proves again that you can't just invent new stuff, re-write the menu and expect kids to eat it.

Most parents would never know. They'd look at the menu and think they're kids are getting an improved version of school food. But there's a step missing in the process: you have to market the new foods to the kids. That means getting staff or volunteers into the cafeterias talking to the kids, conducting tastings, coaching them on better eating habits.

This would be a great role for parents to play--cafeteria coaches. Schools in Boulder, Colorado, have had great success with this approach. But in D.C., the schools don't involve parents. They barely even talk to us.

Why is that?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's for Breakfast: French Toast Except the Crust

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I couldn't help being amused by the sight of how meticulously one child at my daughter's elementary school had avoided eating any of the crust off this piece of French toast.

To me, this is the perfect metaphor for how willfully kids will sometimes foil every attempt adults make to force "healthier" food on them. When all is said and done, kids will still be kids.

As I've written here many times, what I see day after day is kids throwing good food--typically vegetables and whole grains--into the trash. The reason: "It's nasty," the kids say.

So are we just throwing tax dollars drown the drain by insisting that schools put more vegetables and whole grains on kids' cafeteria trays?

For years, one of the biggest obstacles to better school food has been the people who run the cafeterias--the food service directors who insist "the kids won't eat it." Well, it seems they are right. But is that the end of the story? Will kids eventually eat this stuff if we just keep trying? Do we need adults in the cafeterias encouraging the kids to try different foods? Will the mere sight of sweet potatoes, broccoli and whole wheat french toast day after day somehow influence their food decisions tomorrow, the next day, years from now?

For me, this brings to mind one of the funniest lines from a great movie, Shakespeare in Love, when the theater manager is asked how the play will possibly go on when everything is falling apart.

"I don't know," he replies. "It's a mystery."

How we make school food work for kids and adults is still very much a mystery.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Cheetos!

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here in the District of Columbia, your nation's capitol, kids can bring just about anything they want from home to eat at school--and they frequently do.

Here's one fifth-grade girl grabbing a handful of Cheetos at breakfast. She has her junk food mostly concealed in a back pack. In fact, I think she had just finished the school-provided breakfast (it's free to all students) when she started on the Cheetos.

She just munched away while continuing a conversation with friends at their table in the cafeteria. No one took any note that she was eating this before classes even started:

Notice the trans fats (hydrogenated oil), artificial flavors, monosodium glutamate, artificial colors and of course the huge amount of sodium--290 milligrams in a single one-ounce serving. But I don't really need to point that out, do I?

What's more curious is that most schools seem to have absolutely no rules against this sort of thing or any kind of adult monitoring in the cafeteria. Or would that be too much like the "nanny state" that Sarah Palin rails against? Should kids really be able to eat anything at school? Or is it just the food schools offer for purchase the we should be concerned about?

Seeing this girl with her secret bag of Cheetos (actually, I think she had more than one bag) brought to mind some of the horrendous meals I saw last year at the elementary school my daughter attended then.

Get a load of this lunch brought to school by a fourth-grade girl: a bag of Oreo cookies, a huge cupcake (the icing has been licked off), a can of Sprite and a lollipop.

Thankfully, I haven't seen anything quite that bad this year. But I'm sure it still happens.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Still Think Raising Lunch Prices is a Good Idea?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

At a time when many families are least able to pay—and are racking up millions in debt at local cafeterias—Congress would profoundly alter the school meal landscape by forcing schools to raise prices.

Schools that now charge only $1.50 for lunch would, over time, have to increase the price to at least match the federal contribution for a fully-subsidized meal--currently $2.72--according to a provision in Congress’ recent re-authorization of the federally-subsidized school meals program.

The mandate for higher prices passed virtually undetected as the public debate over the school food bill focused on the measly six-cent raise Congress gave the program and some $2.2 billion lawmakers borrowed from the food stamp program to pay for it.

The measure is aimed at children who do not qualify as low income and pay “full price” for school lunch. Some have hailed it as a potential boon for school kitchens. The USDA estimates it would, over 10 years, generate some $2.6 billion in additional revenue—assuming millions of kids don’t opt out of the program and start bringing food from home. (Would you pay full price for the food most schools serve?)

The current practice of giving a price break to kids deemed able to pay is seen as unfair because it drains money that should be supporting poor children. One prominent food writer even suggested that bands of rich kids—kids with “parents making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year”—were mooching cheap food in schools here in the nation’s capitol. (D.C. school officials would certainly like to know who those children are, since families making that kind of money typically send their kids to one of the private schools that proliferate here. Participation in the meals program drops sharply with higher income and family education level.)

The cost of complying with new federal meal guidelines that call for more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less salt, may well force cash-strapped schools to raise the price of lunch and breakfast. But what school districts are grappling with at the moment are too many families who should be paying for their meals, but don’t.

In New York City, for instance, schools since 2004 have absorbed at least $42 million in unpaid lunch fees, and now principals are being told they must collect the money or have it docked from their budgets.

Of the city’s 1,600 schools, 1,043 owe a collective $2.5 million to the department for meals served in the first three months of this school year. That puts them on track to be $8 million behind by the end of the school year.

Under city rules, elementary and middle school students who are behind on payments but come to school without their own lunches must be fed the same meal as everyone else. High schools are not required to feed such students.

Similar stories are playing out in school districts across the country, reports the New York Times.

Schools in Albuquerque have started serving cold sandwiches and milk, instead of full hot meals, to students whose parents fall behind on their bill. In Wake County, N.C., those students may eat as many fruits and vegetables as they want, but not the rest of the lunch offerings.

Framingham, Mass., hired a constable to collect money from parents, but the schools are still short $40,000. School officials make repeated phone calls to parents and send letters home, to no avail. “I struggle every day to recoup these funds — every day,’’ said Brendan Ryan, the school system’s food services director.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), representing some 53,000 cafeteria workers across the country, reports that nearly 40 percent of its members saw an increase in unpaid meals in the last year.

School food advocates look to the federal government to pay for school meals. Instead, Congress, faced with its own budget crisis, is trying to pass the cost onto struggling state and local governments—and now parents unable to make ends meet.

A House version of the bill called for it expire after 10 years and for the USDA to perform and impact assessment after four years. But in a frantic effort to pass the legislation before Congress adjourned last year, the Senate’s version imposing price hikes was adopted unchanged.

The SNA says the feds need to take a second look and test the idea before forcing schools to raise prices nationwide.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

There was a huge knee-jerk response to a British study suggesting a possible link between a diet of processed foods and low IQ in children. But what the study really showed is how foolish it is to cherry pick nutritional research to support your personal food agenda.

In this case, researchers noted that there is very little data indicating the effects of a processed food diet on intelligence. They attempted to examine how eating lots of processed foods might affect IQ in children, compared to a "traditional" diet of meat and potatoes and a "healthy" diet with more vegetables and fish.

Controlling for other variables, such as parental influence and socio-economic status, they could only find a "weak but novel" association between diet and intelligence. The key word here is "association," because nowhere did the researchers suggest they had discovered any kind of cause and effect.

In fact, after adjusting for a wide variety of potential confounding factors, researchers reported that many associations between IQ and dietary pattern were lost, and those that remained “were markedly attenuated.”

That said, we all know it's better to feed kids real food and not processed junk, right?


Meanwhile, another study suggests that starting infants on solid food too soon can lead to obesity.

Conducted by researchers at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard, this study examined 847 children. In the first four months of life, 568 of the babies were breastfed and 279 were formula-fed. By age 3, 9% of the children in the study were obese.

The researchers found, however, that bottle-fed babies who received solid foods before age 4 months were at much higher risk for obesity. Among babies who were breastfed for at least four months, the timing of solid food was not linked to obesity at age 3. Bottle-fed babies who did not receive solid foods until at least 6 months also did not have an increased risk of obesity.

Writing in the journal Pediatrics, the authors of the study noted that solid foods are often introduced too early because the parents believe the baby is hungry or because the infant is already large.

The results seem to support breastfeeding, as it "may promote self-regulation of an infant's energy intake, and the mother may learn to recognize her infant's hunger and satiety cues."


Recognizing that childhood obesity is a problem and actually doing something about it are two different things. Here's an inspiring story about one young woman who plans to bicycle 6,000 miles around the country, bringing health and fitness lessons to schools.


State and local governments facing the worst budget crisis since the Great Depression are looking for any and all ways to cut spending. But a brief flirtation with the idea of withholding funds for school breakfasts was eventually shot down in Colorado's state legislature.

Three Republicans on the state senate's budget committee voted to deny schools access to some $124,000 in funds supporting school breakfast, causing Democrats to howl in protest. Finally, another GOP senator agreed to restore the breakfast funding.

The funds are intended to help children who otherwise would have to pay 30 cents for "reduced-price" breakfasts. The state agreed to subsidize these children in 2007, but the program had spent more than originally anticipated.

"I just don't think this is an appropriate place to be cutting K-12 education," said Sen. Keith King, (R-Colorado Springs). "We had the money. We have some kids that needed that program."

In these tough economic times, and especially with federal stimulus money running out, the budget axe is falling ever closer to traditionally safe spending targets, such as education and school feeding programs.


The USDA's proposed new school meal guidelines, calling for more servings of fruits and vegetables, more wholes grains, and fewer kid favorites such as potatoes and salty processed foods, has local school districts wondering what the costs of these changes will mean for local budgets and whether kids will actually eat the food.

If you follow this blog on a regular basis, you know that our daily observations indicate that children generally reject vegetables in the cafeteria and throw whole wheat pasta in the trash. How to reconcile this behavior with the push for "healthier" school food?

Here's one story that popped up on our radar screen and here's another. And here's a report about the state legislature in Iowa prohibiting schools there from growing their budgets even for inflation in the next two years.


Finally, school food revolutionary Jamie Oliver has moved to California to tape a new series on obesity but he's been shut out of schools in Los Angeles. They don't want his prying cameras anywhere near the cafeterias there.

Oliver has mounted a mighty campaign to get that decision reversed. And now a glimmer of hope has emerged: Dennis Barrett, director of food services for L.A. schools, has invited the celebrity chef to propose three weeks' worth of healthy menus. The concession will be made as long as Oliver follows federal and local regulations and stays under the 77 cents-per-serving budget that the city allows.

Really? Seventy-seven cents is all they spend on lunch in the City of Angels? Last I heard from Ann Cooper, she was spending $1.13 in Boulder.

Maybe they mean breakfast.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kids Bake Sour Cream Coffee Cake

You have to beat this batter a lot

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The first thing my wife said when she heard that my food appreciation classes would be making this classic coffee cake by hand was this: "Be sure to tell the kids that it will be a lot better if they make it with an electric mixer."

We don't use electric gadgets in our cooking classes. We make everything by hand. In the case of this particular cake, my wife was dubious because the batter requires quite a lot of beating to get it to expand to its proper volume. But then she tasted the cake.

"Hmmmm," she said. "This is pretty good."

So I guess you can make these things by hand. But she's also correct: the batter does need a lot of beating. If you're doing it alone, your arm will be tired. So invite a bunch of kids to help. Or, just use your electric mixer. (And do be afraid to use your Cuisinart where chopping is called for, if that's your preference."

This is one of the more complicated recipes we've tackled. Getting the cake finally into the oven took the better part of an hour and you'll get numerous bowls and tools dirty. But the effort is worth it. Everyone exclaims that this is the best coffee cake they've ever eaten, with swirls of cinnamon and brown sugar inside and a topping crunchy with pecans (and of course more brown sugar and cinnamon.)

Be sure to read the recipe through entirely once or twice or even three times until you have a firm understanding of all the ingredients and how to use them. There are several steps.

First, make a streusel filling and topping for the cake as follows: In a bowl, mix 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar and 2 tablespoons cinnamon. Transfer 1 1/4 cups of this mixture to a second bowl, mix in another 1/4 cup dark brown sugar and set aside. This will be your streusel filling. Save the remainder for the topping.

For the topping, chop together 1 cup pecans and 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces. Mix this with the remaining flour, sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon mixture. Set aside.

For the cake, blend 4 large eggs with 1 cup sour cream and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. Set aside.

In a separate, large mixing bowl, mix together 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 3/4 teaspoons baking soda, 3/4 teaspoon salt. Blend with 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) softened butter and 1/2 cup sour cream until the dry ingredients are moistened. Then add about 1/3 of the egg and sour cream mixture and beat until fully incorporated. Continue adding the egg and sour cream mixture in two more batches, beating briskly until the batter has increased substantially in volume, becoming aerated and lighter in color.

Pour two cups of the batter into a greased angel food cake pan. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the surface of the batter. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup of the streusel filling mix (the one without the nuts). Add another two cups of batter as before and add the remaining streusel filling. Scrape the remaining batter into the pan, and finish by sprinkling in the topping with the nuts. In fact, this will be the top of your cake eventually.

Place the cake on a rack adjusted to the lowest setting in a 350 degree oven. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a long toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. (The original recipe called for baking 50 to 60 minutes. But using two different ovens, I found that consistently to be not long enough.)

Possilby the best coffee cake ever made by hand

Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the pan 30 minutes at least. Then carefully score around the edges of the pan with a slender knife and invert the cake onto a cutting board. Invert it again onto a decorative platter so that it is right-side-up.

Plan to present this to family or friends at a special occasion. We're making it as part of the parents tea we are planning for later this month to conclude our baking classes.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What's for Lunch: Turkey Sandwich

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

People wonder why schools go to all the trouble trying to make a different hot lunch every day. Can't kids just eat sandwiches? Peanut butter and jelly put me through school for years.

Well, this is a blast from the past: a turkey sandwich on "whole wheat" bread. But this was an alternate selection to the hot entree, which was chicken.

The alternates--a different one for each day of the week--are often quite tempting. You just don't see kids choosing them much, except on this particular day when they seemed to like the looks of this sandwich. At the Chartwell's menu website, it was advertised as a "turkey and cheese whole wheat wrap." I'm guessing they ran out of the whole wheat flour tortillas the kitchen normally uses to make those wraps.

And just in case there might be any shortage of carbs on this tray, one of the side dishes is a big scoop of rice. Looks like some broccoli in another corner.

Here's what the sandwich look like after it emerged from the plastic. I would have made mine slathered with mayonnaise. Still, it looks good enough to eat.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Bagel and Egg

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

These scrambled eggs are made from liquid eggs--but that's an improvement over the eggs that were prescrambled in a factory and shipped to the schools frozen, right?

Any way you slice them, bagels are loaded with carbs--more than several slices of bread. Now they're billed as "whole wheat," but that only means they contain 51 percent whole wheat flour by law. The rest is starchy plain flour.

The USDA's proposed meal guidelines would increase grains at breakfast by 80 percent--and within two years, all grain products on kids' trays would have to qualify as "whole grain-rich." Meaning at least 51 percent.

Kids do seem to like the "whole grain" bagels better than the whole grain pasta, which typically ends up in the trash.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lunch from Home: Fettucine al Parmesan

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Is it any secret that kids love noodles?

Here's the simple lunch one boy brought to school recently: fettuccine pasta with peas on the side. The pasta appeared to have been dusted with Parmesan cheese, little more, and the boy was wolfing it down.

If the USDA has its way, noodles like this won't be served in the federally-subsidized school meal program. All grain products will have to be "whole grain-rich," meaning at least 51 percent whole grain.

The only problem with that is, kids don't really like whole grains. In fact, I recently witnessed a spaghetti and meatball lunch where the kids inhaled the meatballs and tomato sauce, but wouldn't touch the "whole grain" pasta.

And yet switching to "whole grain-rich" will add a considerable expense to school meals. Do you suppose kids will grow to like whole grains?

Monday, February 7, 2011

What's for Lunch: Cubano Turkey Sandwich?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

A traditional "Cuban" sandwich is made with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and maybe some yellow mustard all squished together on a special griddle between two slices of Cuban bread.

Chartwells was advertising what you see here as a "turkey Cubano." I thought it looked--and tasted--more like pulled pork without the barbecue. For some reason, many of the kids rejected the cheese.

Here's a closeup of the sandwich. It's made from a pre-seasoned, roasted turkey breast that the kitchen manager chopped into small pieces, much as you would do with pulled pork.

The aroma was not so appetizing. But the flavor of the sandwich, built with two slices of "whole wheat" hamburger bun, was not so bad. I might have exchanged the cheese for some barbecue sauce.

This is what it looked like when you removed the top.

And here's the meat revealed after peeling back the cheese.

Kids seemed to like the beans, the spinach salad not so much.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Food corporations apparently are doing a heckuva job marketing their products to pre-schoolers. A recent study found that kids as young as three were able to match their favorite foods with product brands.

In one experiment, researchers at the University of Oregon looked at the association between the taste preferences of 108 preschool children and their emerging awareness of brands of fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages.

The children were shown 36 randomly sorted product cards — 12 related to each of two popular fast-food chains, six related to each of the two leading cola companies, and six depicting non-related products. All of the children were able to place some of the product cards with the correct companies, which demonstrated that they recognized these brands.

Researchers say the results suggest that fast food and soda brand knowledge is linked to the development of a preference for sugar, fat and salt in food.

Message to parents: watch what your feed your kids.

T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business, says, "Repeated exposure builds taste preferences" for the sugar, fat and salt manufacturers use to hook consumers starting at the youngest possible ages.


Or maybe we should get rid of adults entirely and let kids design their own meals?

Research at the University of Bath in Great Britain suggests that children should play a central role in designing school meals. Commissioned by the Welsh Assembly, the university's report says students should have a real say in improving nutrition standards and how to make nutrition a central part of the school curriculum.

As part of the research, students were given an unprecedented level of influence over school food service, including interviewing vendors to find the best deals and designing cafeteria layouts to shorten lines and eliminate litter.

The proposed changes would make cafeterias less like businesses and more akin to social enterprises that become an integral part of school life. The report also suggests restricting off-campus eating and instead developing alternative food concessions for older students.

Paul Pivcevic, research team leader, said: “Changing the diet of school pupils is about more than just improving canteen provision. Every school needs a revolution to make nutrition and eating part of the very fabric of school.

“Schools," Pivcevic said, "need to support a sea change in pupil democracy and pupil-driven innovation to make fun and to ensure that eating at school impacts at home and on soaring obesity levels and health inequalities.

“The voices of children and young people will need to count in new and innovative, even challenging ways. Without their input and collaboration canteens will simply carry on as before, as an oversubscribed, under resourced re-fuelling stop in the middle of the day, a second best to most to eating at home, or eating on the high street.'


National Public Radio says Michelle Obama and Congress are late to the party when it comes to improving school meals. Other countries, NPR says, have been at it for at least a decade. And here's a slide show to illustrate what they've been up to.

One of my favorites is a photo of a plate in a London school loaded with potatoes, corn and peas. Under the USDA's proposed meal guidelines, all of those vegetables would be tightly restricted in school cafeterias as too starchy.

Guess NPR hasn't read the fine print in those guidelines yet.


Teaching kids about nutrition could mean getting them more involved in growing food. That's the thinking behind Alice Waters' "Edible Schoolyard" in Berkeley, Calif. And here's another program in Los Angeles that's getting kids involved with food on the ground level.

Too bad the rest of the country doesn't have California's year-round garden climate.


Some research has suggested that kids who participate in the federally-subsidized school meals program are fatter than kids who bring meals from home. Now comes research indicating that government food assistance programs contribute to the obesity epidemic in cities where the cost of living is high.

The reason: In more expensive cities, aid recipients resort to lower-cost, less nutritional foods.

This study was conducted by Elizabeth Rigby of The George Washington University and Rachel Tolbert Kimbro of Rice University. It was commissioned by the SRDC, housed at Mississippi State University, and it is part of the Food Assistance and Nutrition Information Series.

There are a variety of food-security programs designed to help low-income families stretch food budgets. In addition to SNAP and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, older children of low-income families are fed meals or snacks through child-care centers and schools.

"Because these programs reach children at young ages and influence what they eat, they have strong potential to combat obesity," the study found. "Yet in recent years, evidence has emerged that some of these programs may have counterproductive effects."

Fresh produce, for instance, is simply beyond the reach of aid recipients in more expensive urban areas. Too many people resort to less nutritious processed foods.


Schools in New Haven, Conn., are celebrating the addition of new salad bars in the cafeteria.

They are among the schools receiving salad bars as a result of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move Salad Bars to School!" campaign.

Ann Cooper, who's handling the application and grant process for the campaign out of her offices in Boulder, says they've already received $1 million in donations and delivered 400 salad bars since the effort began in January.

Organizers hope to place 6,000 salad bars in schools over the next three years.


Finally, according to TIME magazine, not all parents and school principals are happy about the USDA's proposed food guidelines, which would force schools to serve more whole grains and healthy vegetables, and cut back on french fries and processed foods.

Beef jerky, Rice Krispie treats and four varieties of Mazzio's pizza are a few of the à la carte choices in the lunchroom at Jenks High School outside Tulsa, Okla., where football is king and the players have royal appetites. But those items, plus the one-pint cartons of whole chocolate milk beloved by many players — average weight on the offensive line is 250 lb. — could be on the chopping block.

Same goes for the ice cream bars and Fruit Roll-Ups that make 7th grade tolerable for middle schoolers nationwide. And say goodbye to the cart laden with baked goods that a special-education class in Tooele, Utah, wheels around school every Friday to raise money for needy classmates.

"Just a typical unfunded mandate," sighs Jenks principal Mike Means as he contemplates guidelines predicted to cost schools an extra 14 cents per lunch — of which the feds will pay only 6 cents. Washington hopes that school districts will get more creative in controlling expenses and menu planning. Principal Means thinks kids about to enter the real world need to learn how to make choices on their own — without the government breathing down their gullet. Do they want a slice of pepperoni pizza or a healthier serving of turkey-pepperoni pie?

On the à la carte line at Jenks, healthier options have been introduced: baked chips, fruit cups and whole-grain Animal Crackers. Pat Meadows, who runs the school district's nutrition program, frets that if the changes get too radical, kids will rebel and parents will go back to sending in Lunchables and Twinkies.

"We had a Chick-fil-A night and made $800," says Emily Burns, a mother of three who sits on a PTA board at a Tulsa elementary school. "People feel bad" about the fried food, she admits a bit sheepishly, "but it's $800, and that can buy a piece of equipment for our school."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kids Bake Orange Poppy Seed Cake

Applying elbow grease to cake baking

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Ever tried to cream butter and sugar with the back of a wooden spoon?

Most people would use an electric mixer. But we don't cotton to electric gadgets in our food appreciation classes. We do everything by hand on the theory that if kids know how to make things manually, they will better appreciate making them later with labor-saving devices. Besides, what did chefs do before they had electricity? Kids learn a lot about ingredients through intimate contact with them. I believe they should touch everything they cook.

But this is no sermon. The point is to make an orange poppy seed bundt cake as described in the original Silver Palate cookbook. Here's a warning: this recipe is loaded with sugar. But that's fine with the kids. As far as they're concerned, the sweeter the better. We are now preparing for a parents "tea" later in the month when we will display all of our creations on a spectacular buffet, along with tea, coffee and sparkling cider.

This is our first bundt cake and the hardest part, as I may have mentioned, is the first step: creaming the butter and sugar. You'll need 1 stick room temperature butter (eight tablespoons) and 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar. Most of you will probably pass on beating them together with a wooden spoon the way we did and choose the electric blender. Your choice. Creaming by hand is a lot of work. My wife tasted the final result and declared the cake a bit heavy. We probably didn't beat the butter and sugar enough. You want to mix them until they are light and fluffy.

Next, add 4 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a separate bowl, mix together 2 cups flour, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add this mix to the creamed butter and sugar alternately with 3/4 cup milk--some dry mix, then some milk. Dry mix, milk. And so forth. Mix well after each addition, but don't beat the batter too much at this point.

Pouring batter into bundt pan

To finish the batter, fold in 1/3 cup popper seeds, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and the grated zest from two oranges. Pour the mix into a greased bundt pan and bake in a 325-degree oven for 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then invert the pan and remove the cake onto a serving platter. The final step is to soak the cake with a syrup of orange juice and sugar. Pour 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/2 cup sugar into a small sauce pan. Heat until bubbles begin to form, then simmer for about 5 minutes, or until syrupy. Use a long toothpick or skewer to poke holes deep into the cake, then pour the syrup over the cake.

Serve warm if possible. The kids might complain that their slices aren't big enough. Pay no attention. There will be plenty of cake left for the next day.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What's for Lunch: Chicken on the Bone

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

What happened to chicken nuggets?

They've been replaced by real chicken on the bone. These chicken pieces arrive frozen, then they're roasted in a convection oven. I've tried them, and they're pretty good. The kids also like them. In this case, according to the Chartwell's website, they come "Caribbean jerk seasoned."

A couple of otherwise things on this tray are noteworthy. The broccoli, for instance, is "local," meaning purchases from growers here in the Mid-Atlantic region. And the kitchen seems to be making a more concerted effort not to obliterate the broccoli in the cooking process. I can't vouch for all of the kitchens in all of the District of Columbia's schools, but at least our lunch ladies are taking some care around the vegetables.

Secondly, that brown rice you see in the "bayou rice and beans" is what passes for "brown rice." There's a big push to serve more "whole grains" in the federally-subsidized school meals program. Brown rice happens to be the only grain that's available to schools through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodity foods program. Everything else is processed, as in that dinner roll in the photo.

And boy, were the bananas ever green.