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."

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