Sunday, March 20, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chicago recently became the latest big school district to embrace universally free breakfast in the classroom, stirring the usual objections from some parents that it will cut into classroom instruction. One group got 1,100 parents to sign a petition protesting the move.

"Instructional time is so important to us," one parent told the Chicago Tribune. "And the federal and state standards that have been imposed on our school leave very little wiggle room for extra things."

The same complaints were heard here in the District of Columbia last year when the public schools implemented breakfast in the classroom in all schools where at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Other schools were allowed to choose whether to offer breakfast only in the cafeteria.

Serving breakfast in the classroom dramatically increases the number of needy children who eat in the morning, from as few as 20 percent to close to 100 percent. In a 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program in 79 schools, offering free breakfast to all kids in the cafeteria increased the number of students who ate breakfast in school from 19 percent to 28 percent. At schools that served free breakfast in the classroom, participation rose to 65 percent.

In the schools I've visited, lost instruction time has proved not to be a problem. Instead, children are more attentive and the family atmosphere that food creates leads to a more productive learning environment. Some schools start the day earlier to accommodate breakfast. Teachers have found creative ways to involve breakfast in their lesson plans.

Remarkably, school officials typically report that breakfast in the classroom results in less tardiness and fewer visits to the school nurse. It's also been linked with better academic performance. Serving breakfast free to all kids in the classroom eliminates the stigma of standing in line in the cafeteria for a free meal.

And for schools with large populations of low-income students, breakfast in the classroom can generate a bounty of federal reimbursement dollars to help the meals program improve food quality overall.

Some schools are funding breakfast in the classroom on their own, spending cash up front on things like insulated tote bags or wagons to deliver food to the classroom. Others are getting an assist from the Walmart Foundation, which has pledged $3 million in seed money.

Here are several short videos that describe how breakfast in the classroom works, as reported by school administrators, teachers, parents and kids.


So what if childhood obesity weren't about kids eating too much and exercising too little, but about the kinds of foods they eat: like all those sugary sodas and starchy potato chips, for instance?

That's precisely the argument that science writer Gary Taubes makes. Taubes famously published a book--Good Calories, Bad Calories--debunking much of current nutrition thinking and placing the blame for the current obesity epidemic on insulin--the fat storage hormone--and carbohydrate-rich foods that promote insulin production in the body.

Writing in Slate, Taubes says current efforts to stem the childhood obesity crisis with the message that most foods are okay eaten in moderation, and with proper exercise, are doomed to fail. He suggests we need a national conversation about insulin, and that policy makers and leaders such as Michelle Obama should condemn foods like sodas, fruit juices and starchy convenience foods.

In fact, the USDA's proposed new school meal guidelines cut way back on starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and also make it more difficult to substitute juice for whole fruit. Still, school meals are heavily tilted toward carbs.


On the subject of sugar and obesity, here's some interesting work being done in British Columbia where medical doctors have identified sodas as a dietary marker for kids with weight problems.

Dr. Daniel Metzger, a pediatric endocrinologist at B.C. Children’s Hospital, says sugary beverages are probably the worst culprits in the obesity epidemic because they are consumed so fast and so plentifully.

“We can consume a lot of liquid carbs and not feel satiated,” he says. “Fructose [in sugar and in high-fructose corn syrup] is a particularly bad player because it doesn’t set off any fullness alarms and it is also bad for the heart.”

British Columbia obesity researcher Dr. Michael Lyon agrees agrees that added sugar — especially in the form of liquid candy — is a major factor in the rising rates of obesity, especially in children.

“Sugar-laden drinks like pop are probably the single biggest culprit. And fruit juice [even when no sugar has been added] is really no better as it is loaded with sugar and is easy to over-consume. Also, both table sugar and high fructose corn syrup contain significant amounts of fructose which, in higher amounts, promotes weight gain and may accelerate an overweight person’s progress toward diabetes.”

Lyon tells the Vancouver Sun that refined, starchy foods — such as food made from white flour — digest rapidly into glucose, which then sends blood sugar up and down like a roller coaster.

“These big swings in blood sugar keep you craving snacks and make it likely that you will overeat. There is an ever-growing body of science that tells us that cutting calories is important to weight loss, but cutting way back on sugar and refined starchy foods is a very important strategy for long-term weight management.”


School food has become a social justice issue for our time because some kids get better eating opportunities than others.

This article in The Bay Citizen explores the the diversity in school meals, not just in terms of food quality but how school food service operations are influenced by the food cultures in which the students grow up.

In low-income areas, for instance, kids resist vegetables because vegetables are not on the menu at home. They come from neighborhoods where the only place to buy food is a convenience store.

“We have a serious problem in West Oakland,” said Jennifer LeBarre, director of the Oakland school district’s nutrition service. “Liquor stores are often the only place where you can buy food.”

LeBarr says she's been revamping menus to incorporate less meat, more whole grains and scratch cooking. But she's thwarted by a low budget and the food preferences the kids bring to school. “We taste-tested vegan stroganoff,” she said, “and students liked it. But then when we put it on the menu it was so disliked.”

Changing menus isn't enough. Schools need to do so much more to coach kids--and maybe even their parents--in better eating habits.


Finally, the Chicago Tribune this week profiled what it called a "miracle worker" chef who's creating outstanding school meals kids love for $3 or less.

Chef Paul Boundas says he serves his scratch-cooked meals to about 4,500 private school students — including about 300 at Holy Trinity High School — every day for even less than the standard federal reimbursement rate of $2.72.

Harvard's David Eisenberg came to Chicago this year to learn about Boundas' program and became intrigued by its potential to improve public health. "We'd like to see if it is reproducible in other inner-city schools for other children," said Eisenberg, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Eisenberg said he hopes to find a framework to assess the program's long-term effects "in terms of their physiology, weight, obesity rates, eating habits outside school and education potential over the next several years. … If it impacts obesity, then we have a noble cause to champion."

The Trib essentially asks why Boundas, a professional chef, can pull this off while kids in Chicago's public schools are still eating standard school fare provided by Chartwells, the giant food service company.

Private schools, even if they don't necessarily spending more on food, sometimes will pay extra for the staff required to prepare better meals. I profiled just such a school here in the District of Columbia--Washington Jesuit Academy--where chefs from the catering arm of the non-profit D.C. Central Kitchen executed a similar miracle in the cafeteria.

In public schools, the food service operations are typically run by dietitians, not trained culinary professionals. And if food service management companies like Chartwells are involved, a percentage of funds are being taken off the plate in the form of profits.

There are exceptions in the public realm. Consider Berkley and Boulder, where Anne Cooper brought highly trained restaurant chefs to oversee food production. The results in food quality are obvious.

What may come as a surprise to some is that private schools are eligible to participate in the federally-subsidized meals program and many do.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Ed.

    My name is Kelly Cheeseman and I work at Walmart helping on our hunger program. Thanks for mentioning our work funding school breakfast in your post. I’m going to pass along the info for your blog to our team to make sure they are aware of your group and what you’re doing with Farm to School.

    We're hearing from grantees exactly what you mention above about how breakfast in the classroom is helping with academic performance and keeping kids healthier. In one D.C. school, the older students are serving breakfast to the younger students and it creates special camaraderie amongst all grade levels.

    I was just in D.C. a few weeks ago to announce funding to D.C. Hunger Solutions to provide equipment and training to increase the schools participating in school breakfast. Here are details on this specific grant to benefit D.C. public and charter schools.

    Thanks for your blog. I’ve enjoyed reading. Please let me know if you have questions,