Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

For all the ink they've spilled on Michelle Obama and her fight against childhood obesity, the national news media have been conspicuously absent from efforts to expose the insidious role of corporate money in school cafeterias and how a secret system of industry rebates rules over the food kids eat at school.

Last year I reported that Chartwells, the giant food service company, a subsidiary of the even bigger, $21 billion Compass Group, had claimed $1 million in rebates from its food suppliers in the course of serving meals to children in the nation's capitol.

Rebates are money manufacturers pay to providers like Chartwells as an incentive to purchase large volumes of product. They help explain why schools serve Kellogg's Apple Jacks for breakfast, along with Pop-Tarts and Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, and why Tyson's chicken nuggets and Schwann frozen pizzas show up on cafeteria trays so frequently for lunch.

Shortly after I posted my reports, Sodexo, another food service giant, agreed to pay a $20 million settlement in New York over rebates it received and failed to pass on to its school district clients, as required by law.

On Tuesday, John F. Carroll, the New York deputy attorney general who presides over that state's ongoing investigation of rebates, told members of the School Nutrition Association why he thinks rebates create an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to deciding what sorts of food schools should feed children.

At play are billions of corporate dollars that wash over the nation's school meals program in an ultra-secret system of corporate deal making, too often at the expense of unwitting lunch ladies. You can watch the video here.


In case you thought corporate influence over the food kids eat couldn't get any worse, here's a development in Michigan worth watching: a group of ultra-conservative Republican state legislators has proposed a bill that would require schools to turn over cafeteria operations to the likes of Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark.

The bill would also require schools to privatize their janitorial operations and bus fleets--essentially anything not directly related to teaching reading and math, though perhaps privatizing teaching is next on their agenda.

Republicans control both branches of the state legislature as well as the governor's mansion. It's still unclear whether this particular bill has the blessing of the GOP leadership. Its stated purpose is to control costs in the public sector (where have we heard that before?). Ironically, hiring a corporate food service management company with shareholders to pay can prove much more expensive for schools that currently operate their cafeterias in-house.

As school officials in D.C. are learning, keeping Chartwells as the primary provider under a cost-reimbursable contract is much costlier than hiring food contractors at a flat rate. Just think what D.C. schools could do if they got their act together and just made the food themselves, rather than paying a for-profit company to do it.


Corporations of all kinds have their hands in feeding children--more so, apparently, than many parents. And they will fight to the death any well-meaning efforts to reduce that influence.

Here's a case in point: the famous battles to impose special taxes on sodas, which deliver the sugar so intimately linked with an epidemic of childhood obesity and chronic health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

A recent report out of New York shows that the American Beverage Association, which vehemently opposed ex-Gov. David Paterson's proposed tax on sugary sodas, was by far the state's most active interest group last year, spending $12.9 million to sway legislators.

Paterson proposed the penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks as a way to provide the state with much-needed revenue and to curb the unhealthy drinking habits of children.

Coming in a distant second among lobbying spenders was the state's primary teachers union--New York State United Teachers--with $6.4 million, according to the Public Interest Research Group.


Corporations, when they aren't looking for new ways to influence the foods kids choose--and fight any government efforts to regulate the $10 billion they spend on advertising to children every year--sometimes throw a few bucks into the pot to burnish their image.

The latest example is Kellogg, which has launched a campaign to feed needy children in exchange for photographs of breakfast sent in by the public.

The New York Times reports that each breakfast photo a user uploads to the Web site, the Kellogg Company will donate a breakfast to a child who might otherwise go without. The project is part of a national advertising campaign for Kellogg called Share Your Breakfast, which will support National Breakfast Day on Tuesday.

The campaign is the largest integrated marketing effort for Kellogg, including broadcast, print, digital and social media, said Doug VanDeVelde, the senior vice president for marketing and innovation at the Kellogg Company.

“We find there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to breakfast,” Mr. VanDeVelde said. “We just felt like as the breakfast leader, we should do something about that.”

To that end, Kellogg worked with the national nonprofit volunteer organization Action for Healthy Kids with the goal of donating a million breakfasts to underserved children for the 2011-12 school year.

Schools where at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals will receive the breakfasts. The Kellogg Company will donate up to $200,000 toward the effort.

As of a week ago, more than 800 photos of breakfasts had been uploaded. About half the photos featured Kellogg products, while others were more daring inventions like a plate of fried eggs flanked by blueberries, accompanied by a few leaves of baby spinach surrounded by toast slathered with peanut butter and topped with banana slices.


First lady Michelle Obama recently has taken some heat from the likes of Sarah Palin and other conservatives who don't like the federal government telling people what they should or shouldn't eat. That, they say, is a perfect example of the "nanny state" at work. Kids should be able to choose cup cakes for lunch, rather than broccoli, if they want.

With a raging obesity epidemic already costing the country some $300 billion in weight-related medical treatment and lost productivity, others disagree with that assessment. In fact, a new poll finds that Americans by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent margin believe that government should have a role in solving the obesity problem.

Blacks and Hispanics concur by overwhelming margins--74 percent and 83 percent, respectively.

Independents side with the mainstream. Fifty-seven percent of them also think government should be fighting obesity.

Who are these people who think government should stay out of the obesity conversation? That would be Republicans--57 percent--and especially conservative Republicans, 61 percent of whom side with Sarah Palin.

Voters who identify themselves as Tea Party members oppose government involvement by a margin of 65 percent.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted Feb. 22-March 1 among 1,504 adults.

While Pew finds a majority of Americans supporting the government playing a significant role in reducing obesity among children, the public does not view the fight against obesity as a major policy priority for the president and Congress.

In Pew Research’s annual policy priorities poll in January, just 19% rated dealing with obesity in this country as a top priority, the lowest among 22 items tested; nearly as many (14%) said it should not be done at all.


Finally, experienced parents know well enough not to take their kids into the cereal aisle at the supermarket. Here's why: A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds that children prefer the taste of cereal when the packaging features popular cartoon characters.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the results are in line with recent research from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which also found that children were more likely to enjoy the taste of foods when they were branded with cartoon characters.

In this latest research, 80 children aged four to six were shown boxes of cereal branded equally as either ‘Healthy Bits’ or ‘Sugar Bits’, and half of each featured media characters. The children were asked to rate the taste of the cereal on a smiley face scale of one to five after sampling the cereal.

“Almost all children liked the cereal, but those who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a box without a character on it,” the researchers found.

In addition, children who were presented with the cereal branded as ‘Healthy Bits’ reported liking it more than those who were presented with the cereal named ‘Sugar Bits’. Children who were shown a box branded ‘Sugar Bits’ without cartoon characters reported liking the cereal significantly less than those in the other three groups. And there was no significant difference between children’s liking of the ‘Healthy Bits’ cereal whether or not the packaging featured a cartoon character.

“The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste,” the authors wrote. “Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children’s assessments of nutritional merit.”

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