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.


  1. But Ann Cooper's program in Boulder is still losing money hand over fist, and her district is looking at having to either raise meal prices or make cuts to the program next year to achieve financial stability.

  2. Dana, I know how much you hate the idea of any school district serving great food within budget, but to say Boulder "is still losing money hand over fist" is a gross exaggeration. They are actually pretty close to breaking even, and this in a district where the "free and reduced" population is only 14 percent. Against incredible odds, Ann Cooper has very nearly pulled this off--she never promised the program would break even short of three years. And she's managed to mobilize the community in all kinds of ways around this project. A little skepticism is certainly in order. But I think your dire comments are premature. We'll just have to wait and see how this plays out.

  3. Ed, I've worked as a volunteer for over 8 years to help improve the school food in San Francisco; I often spend 20 hours a week or more on this. I am not fishing for a lucrative book contract or consulting gig, and my own children have all graduated already, so the work I do in no way benefits me or my family. I donate this much time and effort to making food better for the children of my district, especially the low income children who get most of their nourishment from school meals, because I believe the food CAN and SHOULD be better. But after 8 years of working on the front lines every day, I have no illusions that this can be done with the current government funding, which is woefully inadequate. To pretend that I "hate the idea of any district serving great food within budget" is very mean-spirited and certainly not accurate.

  4. No doubt the schools in San Francisco are better for all your efforts, Dana.