Sunday, March 6, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

One of the things that most startled me when I began monitoring the food served in the cafeteria at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia was the load of sugar routinely served for breakfast.

Between the Apple Jacks cereal, the strawberry milk, the Pop-Tarts, the Giant Goldfish Grahams and the Otis Spunkmeyer muffins kids regularly were eating the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar before classes even started.

I've been told it's even worse in some jurisdictions. Sure enough, here's an op-ed piece from the Los Angeles Times describing a similar breakfast consisting of Frosted Flakes, chocolate milk, fruit juice and coffee cake with more added sugar than a can of Coca-Cola.

These sorts of breakfasts exceed the daily sugar limit recommended by the World Health Organization, which is 10% of total calories, or 50 grams (12.5 teaspoons) a day for an adult diet of 2,000 daily calories. Children should be consuming even less. Sugar is intimately linked with obesity and other weight-related health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

Los Angeles operates the largest school breakfast program in the country. The school district's wellness policy does include a section on added sugar. It states, for example, that cereals may not contain more than 7 grams of added sugar per ounce, but this cutoff is high enough that Frosted Flakes and Frosted Mini Wheats are allowed. Moreover, without an overall sugar cap for a meal, it's possible for children to select a loaded combination of sweet items.

Neither do federal meal guidelines set any limits for sugar. As we found here in D.C., schools and their food service management companies have an extra incentive to serve popular, sugary products: they receive big rebate checks from manufacturers such as Kellogg, Pepperidge Farm and Otis Spunkmeyer.

It's easy to make school food healthier, especially at breakfast. Just remove the sugar.


How much influence do kids wield over the food served at school? In Parkersburg, W.Va., kids recently went on strike, refusing to eat in the cafeteria. On a recent Friday, Wood County Schools served 288 fewer meals, compared to the usual 440.

Students, who organized the boycott using Facebook, told the local newspaper, "The past couple years we have dealt with lunches that were too small and unappetizing, but now we are taking a stand."

One student left this online comment at the newspaper site: "The unappetizing meal offerings are countywide. A couple of weeks ago, hot dog sauce was discontinued, at least in the elementary schools. The reason given was that there was too much sodium in the sauce."

Another said this: "Yes, the food is unappealing and the portions are small. However, we mainly did this because we PAY for a full lunch (entree, side, dessert, fruit/vegetable and a milk). Lately, however, we have not received fries. The meals are small enough. When you take away our side, there isn't enough food to get you through the end of the school day."

Food Service Director Beverly Blough said she wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.

"I would be very interested in what they (the students) would like to see on the menu. We are open to their suggestions," Blough said. "We would be glad to have any one of those students to participate in the (Wood County Schools) wellness committee so they can have a voice."

Apparently, kids get upset when their favorite fast foods are removed from the cafeteria. And it's not just elementary or high school students. The student newspaper at Yale University recently made special note that the cafeterias were serving chicken nuggets (or a scratch-cooked version) after they had been removed from the menu.


Here's a great interview on the subject of school food with sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All, a study of the federally-subsidized school meals program.

Poppendieck says it's time to re-imagine entirely how we serve food to kids at school.


A new study published in the journal Pediatrics finds that sleeping and eating problems in young children go hand-in-hand.

Among parents of 681 healthy kids 6 months to 3 years old, Israeli researchers found that those whose child had behavioral insomnia were more likely than other parents to say their child had eating issues as well.

And parents whose children were diagnosed with a feeding disorder were more likely to say they had trouble getting their child to sleep at night.

When asked if mealtime was a "problem," one-quarter of parents of children with insomnia said that it was; that compared with nine percent of other parents.

Similarly, 37 percent of parents whose children had an eating problem said that sleep was also an issue. In contrast, only 16 percent of other parents said the same.

The current findings, they say, suggest that doctors should be aware that the two issues commonly go together, and help parents find ways to manage both.


Everyone seems to know that childhood obesity is a huge problem. But apparently, most parents don't recognize it when it affects their own children.

In a poll of 1,940 parents in Ottawa, Canada, fewer than 10 per cent described their children as overweight or obese. In reality, population-wide studies tracking body mass index show 26 per cent of the region’s children and teens are overweight or obese.

The survey showed the way parents viewed their children’s eating habits also didn’t fit with reality. Of those polled, more than 80 per cent believed their children had “very good” to “excellent” eating habits.

However, when asked specifically about their children’s intake of fruits and vegetables, only 16 per cent of parents said their children ate the recommended five or more servings daily.

In addition, one-quarter of the parents surveyed admitted their children drank soda or other sugary beverages at least four times a week.

The survey also found that more than half of the parents polled said their children ate fast food at least once a week. Nearly 40 per cent reported that their children ate supper in front of the television at least once a week.


Finally, schools in Sitka, Alaska, are giving new meaning to "local" food. They've started serving fish caught in their own waters.

Sitka’s fish-to-schools program launched in January, and is aiming to serve locally-caught seafood twice a month at Blatchley Middle School for the rest of the year.

Said one sixth-grader: “I think it was great. One of the best lunches I’ve ever had."

And what was so good about it?

"It was nice and fresh. Most of the food is pre-made and then heated up. It was something fresh for once.”

Lexi Fish, who works for the Sitka Conservation Society, said her goal in promoting local fish to schools "is that with more student involvement and parents knowing about this program, more kids will choose to eat hot lunch on the days when there is local fish being served.”

Fish grew up in her family’s fishing business. She took on the fish-in-schools program last fall when the idea emerged out of Sitka’s annual health summit. Fish says she found immediate support for the idea among Sitka’s processors.

“You know in a lot of areas in the lower forty-eight there’s a big farm-to-schools movement where there’s locally-caught produce served in schools and kids learn about where this food comes from in their state or in their region," Fish said. "For us, the first place to start with that is fish. It increases the awareness of what we produce, and what is abundant locally, and then there are all the health benefits as well.”

Fish anticipates that grants and donations will continue to be a part of Sitka’s fish-to-schools program for the near future. She says $100 can provide fish for sixty-six meals

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