Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holy Cassoulet! Kids Make a Simpler Version

This cassoulet doesn't take three days

You can't get more authentic southwest France than cassoulet, but the classic version--with duck confit, sausage, and various iterations of pork--takes so long to make I had no hope of introducing it to my food appreciation classes. Plus, duck confit is not a standard item at our local grocery. But our friend Kate Hill, who lives and cooks in Gascony, urged us to try a faux version, a simple pork and beans stew. That brought to mindmy own short-cut cassoulet, an improvisation using a particularly meaty variety of lima bean we grew in the garden.

Put it all together and you get the quick cassoulet we made in our classes this week. You can make it even quicker if you use canned beans. But I made of point of searching the bulk aisle at Whole Foods for a dried cannellini bean (or white kidney bean) that I prepared ahead. Add some bacon and lamb and you're almost home.

I recommend starting with dried beans for flavor and texture, which means beginning your cassouleta day ahead. You'll need 2 cups of cooked beans, which translates as somewhat less than 1 cup of dried beans. Soak these overnight in plenty of water, then cook until just tender in a pot of water with 1 onion, cut into quarters, and 1 bunch thyme plus 1 bay leaf tied in a bundle. Set aside.

Cut 2 thick strips of smokey bacon into 1/4-inch strips and saute these in a heavy skillet until almost crisp. Remove the bacon and in the rendered fat brown 4 ounces lamb stew meat, cut into medium dice and seasoned with salt and pepper. Place the bacon and lamb in a mixing bowl along with any pan juices.

In the same skillet, saute in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or bacon grease) 1/2 medium onion cut into small dice. When the onion begins to soften, add 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine. Cook until onion begins to brown. Scrape onion and garlic into mixing bowl with meat. Add 2 cups cooked beans and 1/2 14-0unce can diced tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss well.

Pour the cassoulet mix into a small casserole. Pour in just enough chicken stock to rise to the top of the bean mix, then top with fresh bread crumbs. For these, I purchased a large, round loaf of pain au Levain at Whole Foods, but any sturdy, country-style bread would do. We used three thick slices, separating the bread from the crust and cutting it into small pieces. The kids ate the crust, and the crumbs we toasted lightly in a 350 degree oven, or just until they were dry. (Please, do not use canned bread crumbs for this.)

Cover the casserole with foil and place in a 350-degree oven for about 1 1/2 hours, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Remove the foil and use a spoon or spatula to mix the bread crumbs into the bean mix. Return casserole to the oven and bake another 20 minutes, or until a new crust begins to form.

I have to say, some kids were put off by the look of this rustic stew. Maybe they just don't like beans. But the others loved it. And why not? The flavors will take you all the way to Toulouse.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Lunch from Home: Pasta & Processed Stuff

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

At first glance this looks like a pretty healthy lunch--pasta in a thermos and a fresh apple. But on the side we have the processed stuff.

That four-ounce container of Yoplait Whips!--key lime pie-flavored yogurt "snack"--contains a whopping 21 grams of sugar, or five teaspoons worth in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. That's almost twice as much sugar, ounce-for-ounce, as in chocolate milk.

Then there's some kind of Special K bar. Unfortunately, I didn't get a good look at it and can't read the label from the photo. Maybe one of our readers recognizes it and can fill us in.

Need we repeat? Sometimes the lunch from home is worse--sometimes much worse--than what the schools are serving.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Big Dairy Puts Big Scare Into Parents to Push Chocolate Milk--But for How Long?

Drink chocolate milk or else!

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Los Angeles schools are prepared to announce they will no longer serve flavored milk beginning in the fall, according to a report yesterday in the Los Angeles Times. Superintendent John Deasy says he will make that recommendation to the L.A. school board in July. Could this surprise development in the nation’s second-largest school district spell the end of chocolate milk as we know it?

Faced with a cultural shift away from milk in favor of drinking sodas, the U.S. dairy industry has pulled out all the stops to scare parents and school food service directors into believing that kids will collapse in a heap of rickets and osteoporosis unless they have access to milk tarted up with sugar.

It’s no surprise that kids love sugar and sweets of all kinds--including chocolate milk and strawberry milk and grape milk and any number of other flavors. The question is whether the dairy claims are true, and whether enticing kids to eat foods laced with added sugar is a good thing in the midst of an obesity epidemic that threatens to cut short the lives of a generation of children and send the nation’s health care bill through the roof.

Don’t be fooled. The dairy industry would like you to think this fight is about nutrition, but it’s really about money. Since the end of World War II, annual milk consumption in the U.S. has plummeted from 45 gallons per person to around 20 gallons today, with milk losing market share to all kinds of sodas, juices and sports drinks sweetened with cheap high-fructose corn syrup. The one bright spot on this sorry trend line is flavored milk: Since 1975, sales of chocolate and other milk products with added sugar have tripled.

In the federally-subsidized school meals program, milk enjoys special status. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose primary job is to promote sales of the nation’s farm products, has singled out milk as the one food that must be offered to all 32 million children who eat the government-sponsored lunch. It’s required at breakfast, too, and an estimated 70 percent of the milk kids drink at school is flavored. Many schools have eliminated sodas, but they still serve strawberry milk containing nearly as much sugar as Mountain Dew.

With so much on the line, the dairy industry has funded research to bolster its cause. For instance, in its “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!” campaign, the industry cites three research papers as supporting its contention that adding sugar to milk encourages kids to drink it, with no harmful effects. Through this lens, chocolate milk emerges as the healthy alternative to Coke.

In all three cases, those papers were either written or co-written by Rachel K. Johnson, a nutritionist who until 2008 was dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Vermont, a state with deep roots in the dairy industry. Johnson specializes in child obesity issues with “an emphasis on the nutritional role of dairy foods,” according to the university. She continues to teach nutrition there and might as well be on the dairy payroll as well: All three of the studies in which Johnson was involved were in fact funded by dairy organizations. She lists herself as an advisor to the National Dairy Council and the International Dairy Foods Association.

Biased though it may be, industry-funded research, with its gloss of scientific authority, makes its way into widely circulated professional journals such as the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Adolescent Health. It then migrates into findings of medical groups like the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dairy groups reference these to convince food service directors, pediatricians and parents that kids must have flavored milk.

The result is a kind of public relations echo chamber in which dairy industry messages based on “research” it pays for are parroted by proxies in the health and education communities who also have financial ties to dairy.

To further whip up public hysteria, dairy interests claim that if flavored milk is removed from schools, kids will stop drinking milk altogether. As proof, they site a “study” purporting that in seven different school districts milk consumption dropped an average 35 percent over a three-month period when chocolate milk was taken away. Kids drank 37 percent less milk even a year after the move to plain milk had taken place, according to these findings.

Very likely, some kids do drink less milk when sugary milk is taken off the menu. But this was no scientific study. It was written by a marketing research firm hired by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP), the industry-funded group responsible for the famous “Got Milk?” campaign. The company in question--Prime Consultant Group—is a major player in consumer analysis and sales strategies that lists among its clients Coca-Cola, PepsiCo International, Kraft Foods/Nabisco, Sara Lee and Proctor & Gamble.

MilkPEP refuses to make details of its “study” available for public scrutiny. Yet it immediately touted the new “findings” to the nation’s school food service directors through the School Nutrition Association, which represents some 53,000 cafeteria bosses.

MilkPEP is a program mandated by Congress and overseen by the USDA that collects money from milk producers and uses it to promote milk consumption. MilkPEP and the National Dairy Council are listed as “patrons” of the School Nutrition Association, meaning they pay at least $10,000 in annual dues to support SNA activities. A MilkPEP representative also sits on the SNA’s “industry advisory board,” along with representatives from corporate food giants such as Tyson, Sysco and General Mills.

In August of last year, shortly after the “study” was unveiled at the SNA’s annual conference in Dallas, the SNA hosted a “webinar” for its members titled, “Keep Flavored Milk from Dropping Out of School.” The SNA advertised the webinar this way on its website: “Learn about free resources available to use with parents, school officials, and other interested parties to help show that student nutrition and food budgets are negatively impacted when flavored milk is removed from schools.”

Jamie Oliver, while filming his second season of the Food Revolution television series, ran into the same buzz saw in Los Angeles. There, a special break-out session on the need to retain flavored milk—led by a dairy industry representative—was held at a conclave of the California School Nutrition Association. Jamie was filmed attending the session and making his objections known.

In the face of such concerted and well-funded efforts by the dairy industry, opponents of flavored milk would seem to be hopelessly outgunned. In fact, you might say this fight is rigged in the dairy industry’s favor. Yet no less an authority than Walter Willett, head of the nutrition department at Harvard University, says milk containing added sugar should not be offered to children in school, and that milk itself “is not an essential nutrient.”

The prestigious Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently knocked some of the stuffing out of the milk industry’s claim that children face a “calcium crisis.” In the most authoritative scientific statement to date, an IOM panel of experts said most Americans get all the calcium and Vitamin D they need.

As far as school children are concerned, one segment of the population that might need extra attention is pubescent girls. According to the IOM, girls leading up to and during puberty typically consume around 823 milligrams of calcium daily. Because they experience a growth spurt during this period, they should aim to get about 200 milligrams more calcium, or “between 1,000 and 1,100” milligrams, said Dr. Steven A. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in the calcium intake of children and was one of the panelists who wrote the IOM report.

By comparison, a one-cup serving of Total cereal contains 1,000 milligrams of calcium, a cup of low-fat milk around 300, and a half-cup of cooked collard greens 200, about the same as in a single serving of string cheese.

In an interview, Abrams--who also advises MilkPEP--told me: “I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘calcium crisis.’ I’m much more in favor of policies that ensure we meet that 1,000 milligrams. What we need to do is make sure that we have a lot of different ways for kids to get to it.”

In other words, milk isn’t the only way to get calcium. It’s available in lots of other foods. Milk is not required in the schools of most other countries. According to Oliver, flavored milk is prohibited in schools in Great Britain and the rest of Europe.

More ominously, emerging science paints a dire picture of sugar as a trigger for obesity and related health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease. A 6,000-word feature article appeared in the April 17 edition of the New York Times Magazine under the headline, “Is Sugar Toxic?”

Robert Lustig, a specialist in childhood obesity and pediatric hormone disorders at the University of California, San Francisco, is at the center of this report. Lustig, who helped write the American Heart Association’s guidelines on added sugar, is convinced that the fructose in ordinary sugar as well as in even sweeter high-fructose corn syrup is intimately connected with the obesity epidemic and so-called diseases of modern civilization because of the way it is metabolized in the liver, like alcohol.

Sugar represents not just empty calories, Lustig insists. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself.” Lustig says Americans are consuming more calories than ever because their appetite suppression mechanisms are disrupted by eating too much sugar, especially in sodas and other sweetened beverages.

Lustig worries about a worldwide outbreak of obese infants and an epidemic of fatty liver disorder in children caused by too much sugar. Research finds that female adolescents get 20 percent of their total energy in the form of added sugars, meaning sugar that does not occur naturally in food. Even for children aged 6-11, the figure is an astonishing 19 percent.

Needless to say, Lustig does not approve of chocolate milk in school. Gary Taubes, one of the nation’s foremost science writers and author of the New York Times article, is convinced sugar is dangerous even though the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive.

Some medical researchers Taube’s interviewed have eliminated sugar from their personal diets because they believe it may cause common forms of cancer.

The U.S. government has been slow to fund adequate studies of sugar in the diet, and the sugar industry has vigorously fought efforts to issue guidelines on sugar consumption. In fact, in all the volumes of rules governing the school meals program, sugar is one ingredient the USDA does not regulate at all. Cash-strapped schools use it as a cheap way to boost the calorie count in their food. The USDA’s proposed new meal guidelines were specifically written to leave room for flavored milk, even while lowering the number of calories schools can serve in meals.

I’m not waiting for “conclusive” science either. Like school officials in Los Angeles and other forward-thinking districts, I believe we have enough information to know that we as a society—and kids in particular—have gone way overboard in our taste for sugar, a food substance that wasn’t even widely available for most of human history.

I sympathize with parents who are perplexed and worried about kids getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. But we can’t play Russian roulette with our children’s health. All of us need to change the way we eat and stop teaching kids to expect sugar with their food every day, especially in the one-size-fits-all meal program at school.

In at least one respect I agree with the dairy industry: We need to get children off soda. We need to teach them to like plain milk again--as well as other fresh, wholesome foods that deliver the nutrients they need. Here’s one great way to get Vitamin D and build strong bones: go outside and exercise.

As much as the dairy industry would like us to believe otherwise, flavored milk is not a solution. It’s part of the problem. If kids are to drink chocolate milk at all, it should be reserved for an occasional treat—at home with parental supervision, not in school.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Cranberry Muffin

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Tuesday seems to be homemade muffin day at my daughter's elementary school. We see all different kinds of muffins--or "muffin squares," as Chartwells calls them--made by our kitchen manager. She's been working in cafeterias for 25 years, so I guess making a muffin is nothing new to her.

This particular muffin is made with cornmeal, flour, eggs, sugar and dried cranberries. I liked it--a bit sweeter than I'd make it for myself. But still, it was a good muffin. I could easily see it next to a cold glass of buttermilk.

But I don't think the kids liked the cranberries much. This is what I saw on quite a few trays: kids picking the cranberries out of the muffins.

"I don't like cranberries," one girl explained.

You can't really argue with that. Dried cranberries are definitely a matter of taste. And what kids don't like, they won't eat.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lunch from Home: Pasta "al Fredo"

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's one of daughter's favorite meals: spaghetti al fredo. It's not easy to keep pasta warm for lunch when it's packed in the morning. But we created the illusion of warm pasta by putting it on a warm plate and wrapping it in foil.

She's also got a slice of her favorite Robusto cheese, some carrot sticks and a container of strawberry-flavored apple sauce.

Daughter probably likes her pasta too much. When all else fails, it's her go-to food, and it's not always whole grain. In the not too distant future, if new USDA meal guidelines are approved, all pasta served in school will have to be "whole grain-rich," meaning at least 51 percent whole grain flour.

Even school food geniuses like Ann Cooper are having a tough time getting kids to like whole grain pasta. One day at my daughter's school, I noticed the kids lining for seconds on their spaghetti and meatballs. They'd wolfed down the meatballs and were asking for more, but they rejected the whole grain spaghetti. It all went into the trash.

On the other hand, if you mix a meat sauce into the pasta the kids will eat it--even though they say they really don't like the noodles.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Who Knew? Kids Love Chicken Liver!

Squishy, slimy chicken liver: kids love it

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Sometimes I like to test the kids in my food appreciation classes with a food I'm sure they'll find repulsive. Not long ago it was squid. This week, I brought them chicken liver. And just to challenge them even more, I urged them to pick up with liver in their hands and feel it. Pretty gross, no?

I think it's important for kids to experience food with all of their senses--including their sense of touch. And if we're going to kill animals, I think they should learn about all the edible parts. Of course they backed away from the chicken livers at first. But pretty soon they were playing with them and having a great time, as you see here. And when the livers were cooked--surprise!--the kids wolfed them down asked for more. (Well, maybe not all of the kids. But a surprising number, I'd say.)

This was all part of our continuing world culinary tour. We've been lingering in Spain recently, cooking all kinds of tapas or small plate dishes. But it was time to move on to France. The southwestern part of that country is known for its various treatments of ducks and geese, as in confit of duck--or duck preserved in its own fat--and turned into a delectable stew with beans and pork called cassoulet. I would love for my kids to make cassoulet, but it takes about three days to prepare properly, so I searched through Paula Wolfert's definitive book, The Cooking of Southwest France, and found a recipe for a watercress salad with duck (or chicken) liver.

Not having ready access to duck liver, I opted for the chicken liver at the local supermarket. I also switched baby salad greens for the watercress. In any case, this is a wonderful salad with crisp apple, strips of salami, walnut oil and sherry vinegar--ingredients we don't use every day, but truly representative of a certain part of the world where they pay close attention to the flavors derived from particular local ingredients.

Start by soaking one chicken liver per person in lightly salted milk for at least three hours. I'm not sure exactly what the milk is supposed to do, except perhaps soften the liver flavor. Then rinse the livers thoroughly in a colander and drain them well. Set the colander aside over paper towels so the livers can dry a little while you prepare the rest of the salad.

You'll need half of a crisp apple, unpeeled and thinly sliced. Toss the slices with the juice from 1/2 lemon, then add 1/2 leek, cleaned and thinly sliced. Add a mix of baby greens--or watercress if you have it.

Cut one slice of garlicky salami per person, then cut the slices into thin strips. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, make a vinaigrette with the juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, 1 tablespoon walnut oil and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and whisk until thickened.

To finish the livers, cook in a heavy skillet with plenty of butter over moderately low heat. You don't want to burn the livers, just cook them gently until lightly browned. Turn them once. When they are cooked through, remove from heat.

Toss the salad with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Arrange the salad on individual plates and garnish with the sliced salami. Place chicken livers in the middle of the greens and serve. Watch the kids gobble it up.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs on a Muffin

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A year ago this egg/muffin sandwich probably would have been made in a factory and sent to the school frozen, where the kitchen crew would have heated it in a steamer still wrapped in plastic.

Things are a bit different now since Jeffrey Mills arrived on the scene as the new food services director for D.C. Public Schools. He retooled the Chartwells menu item by item, replacing most of those highly processed frozen convenience foods with meals made from actual ingredients.

That means our lunch ladies are actually cooking from scratch in many cases. To make this breakfast, for instance, they scramble the eggs using liquid eggs that arrive in cartons. Okay, they're not whole, farm-fresh eggs from chickens raised on pasture. This is still school food we're talking about, made on a tight budget.

Also, most elementary schools wouldn't see breakfast served like this. They're eating breakfast in the classroom, which substantially increases participation for all those kids who might not be getting a good meal at home first thing in the morning and brings in extra reimbursement dollars from the federal government to help fund the program.

I've tasted this egg sandwich and the muffin is pretty bland. Imagine what the food will be like if they remove half the salt. That's what the USDA proposes schools do over the next 10 years in its new meal guidelines.

Some kids aren't interested in all that bread. This is how they eat the eggs--with their fingers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Corporate Food Interests Censor Talk of Rebates in School Meals

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Giant food service companies apparently will do whatever it takes to squelch information about the impact of rebates on meals served to children in the nation's schools.

At a recent conference hosted by the American Association of School Administrators, representatives of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who had paid $5,000 to participate in the conference at Denver's convention center were forced to leave after being told that the information they were handing out on industry rebating practices "slandered" at least one of the other participants, which included food service giants Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo.

Jordan Ash, an SEIU worker from St. Paul, Minn., was manning the union's booth in the conference's exhibition area Feb. 17 alongside Pizza Hut and numerous other vendors when he said he was approached by one of the event's organizers, Kay Dillon.

AASA represents thousands of the nation's school superintendents and principals, billing itself as "committed to creating the conditions necessary for all students to become successful, lifelong learners." The education conference is an annual event, which this year focused on issues bearing on education reform, including "federal funding for education, budgeting in the new economy and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," according to the group's website.

Ash said a lengthy discussion with Dillon ensued about some of the literature Ash was handing out, aided by a Denver-based SEIU cohort. The materials included a Bloomberg News report describing last year's settlement between the New York attorney general's office and Sodexo, in which the food service behemoth agreed to pay $20 million to resolve claims it had withheld food manufacturer rebates--or discounts--that should have been credited to its school district clients.

That settlement has reverberated through school food circles--Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells serve meals to millions of school children nationwide every day. The deputy attorney general in New York handling the state's investigation recently told a gathering of the School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 cafeteria workers, that rebates create "an inherent conflict of interest" in the choice of foods served to children, as they favor highly processed convenience foods marketed by giant manufacturers such as Tyson and Kellogg.

Ash said Dillon was vague about the precise reason he was being ejected from the conference, except that his materials were offensive. "We actually went through with her which materials were acceptable. Basically, any materials that mentioned any company by name were not acceptable," Ash said. "We asked if we could talk about the [New York] settlement without naming names, and she said no, because everybody knows who the company was."

At its website, the AASA lists Aramark as a "visionary"--or top tier--corporate sponsor of the conference, along with textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill Education. Chartwells is listed as a "supporter," along with Blackboard Inc. and the SEIU group that was ejected, Campaign for Quality Services. Sodexo lists the schools administrators group as one of its "strategic partners."

Campaign for Quality Services says it aims to organize workers, parents and community leaders of various stripes to improve the quality of government services, including school food and custodial services. Sodexo and the Service Employees International Union have been at odds for years over labor practices. Sodexo recently filed suit against the SEIU alleging illegal organizing tactics. The union maintains a website called "Clean Up Sodexo," which calls the Sodexo suit a corporate attempt to silence union voices.

Nonetheless, Ash said he reminded Dillon that the SEIU had been welcomed at prior AASA events, including the group's conference last year in Phoenix. "She said a lot has happened in the last year."

Dillon did not return several telephone messages and an e-mail seeking her side of the story.

In addition to tossing Ash and his SEIU coworker from the exhibition area, Dillon also cancelled a workshop that had been scheduled and paid for by the union group featuring school food consultant Barry Sackin. Sackin, who until 2005 was a chief policy advisor and Capitol Hill lobbyist for the School Nutrition Association, was scheduled to talk to school administrators about ways to better manage their food service contracts, and how to avoid traps involved in food manufacturer rebates. A video of the presentation he was planning to give, along with an account of the Denver incident, was posted online by Campaign for Quality Services.

Ash said he had paid the AASA for use of an e-mail list to notify some 1,300 school administrators about Sackin's workshop and was expecting robust attendance. Sackin said he was five minutes from walking out of his California home to catch a plane to Denver when he got a call from Ash saying the workshop had been cancelled.

"I do a lot of presentations on a variety of topics, a lot of it in the policy arena," said Sackin. But this was the first time any of his talks had been created such a stir.

"You have nothing to fear in presenting facts. It sort of seems contrary to our national beliefs that you should inhibit open discussion on issues of importance," said Sackin. "The whole point of it is, here’s what the law says and here’s what’s been found through audit [in New York], and here are things you should look at as business managers and consider to get the value of what you contracted for."

Sackin said school administrators need to learn these lessons because they are vastly overmatched by giant food service companies when it comes to negotiating contracts. Jeffrey Mills, the food services director for D.C. Public Schools, is said to be highly dissatisfied with his district's contract with Chartwells for a variety of reasons, including rebates and certain promises to reduce the district's deficit spending on meals that he says turned out to be fairly weak promises after all.

The Denver AASA conference is not the only venue where the mention of school food rebates has raised corporate hackles. In March, John F. Carroll, the deputy New York attorney general conducting the rebate investigation, spoke before more than 800 members of the School Nutrition Association attending the group's legislative conference. In the audience were representatives of Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells--all corporate sponsors of the SNA--as Carroll described at length how he believes rebates have corrupted school food where management companies are involved.

The SNA posted a video of Carroll's speech on YouTube. But it didn't last long. Some weeks later it was removed from the YouTube site. I was able to obtain a copy, and restored the video to my blog post here, and at the Better D.C. School Food blog.

SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said in an e-mail: "The video was taken down after several LAC [Legislative Action Conference] attendees expressed concerns about the speech." When asked to elaborate, Pratt-Heavner replied: " We don't have a list of the individuals or their specific concerns."

She later added: "John Carroll spoke at a School Nutrition Association Legislative Action conference for 45 minutes at the Association's invitation. As you know, SNA made the video available on YouTube for several weeks, allowing reporters and writers like yourself to access the speech, and that coverage of his speech is still available online. That said, SNA is a membership organization, and when our members contact us with concerns about our resources and materials, we respond accordingly."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Blueberry Muffin Square

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

This "blueberry muffin square" is part of what has become "homemade" muffin Tuesdays at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia. Yes, our "lunch ladies," some of whom have worked 25 years or more in school cafeterias, do know how to cook things from scratch.

The "muffin" is made with corn meal, flour, sugar and frozen blueberries at the bottom of a stainless hotel pan, then cut into squares. I've tried it and it's pretty good. But just in case there wasn't enough starch on the breakfast tray, someone in the Chartwells home office decided to add "oven-baked hash browns"--or so said the online menu. As you can see, these became the ever-popular tater tots.

One other thing you might notice: although our school has a dish washing machine and normally serves meals on re-usable plastic trays, some meals are served on Styrofoam. Turns out there's a reason for that. Blueberries tend to stain the plastic, according to the kitchen manager, and kids won't eat off trays with blueberry stains.

The "Healthy Schools Act" approved by last year by the D.C. Council would have schools discontinue Styrofoam and adopt more eco-friendly trays at some point in the future.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

D.C. Schools Food Director Calls Chartwells Contract "Crap"

D.C. schools food services chief Jeffrey Mills

D.C. Publice Schools food services chief Jeffrey Mills is deeply disappointed with the district's contract with cafeteria giant Chartwells, The Slow Cook has learned, calling the agreement "crap" and outlining plans to establish nine satellite production kitchens the schools can use to make their own food sometime in the future.

Two new pilot food programs--one with D.C. Central Kitchen, another with Revolution Foods--have revealed the cost of lunch they provide to be $1 cheaper than what DCPS pays Chartwells. The pilot contractors are paid a flat rate to provide meals, while Chartwells receives an annual management fee, a fee for each meal served, plus reimbursement for all of its expenses.

What's more, Mills says he has to "police everything they [Chartwells] do," and still finds Tyson chicken, high-fructose corn syrup and other objectionable items on kids' cafeteria trays, even after he has specifically rejected them.

Mills is said to be convinced that he could "save $10 million" if D.C. Central Kitchen and Revolution Foods replaced Chartwells entirely, but those companies are not equipped to handle more than half the district's 123 schools. Mills envisions serving food cooked from scratch in all of the district's elementary schools, for instance. But that, he has said privately, is not likely to happen in the coming year.

Former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee hired Chartwells in 2008 after declaring the schools unable to manage their own food service. At the time, according to former Chief Operating Officer Anthony Tata, the schools were losing between $11 million and $14 million annually on their cafeteria operations, buying pre-made "re-heat" meals trucked in from a suburban factory.

The initial contract with Chartwells called for a $28 million food services budget, under which Chartwells would reduce the flow of red ink to no more than $6 million annually. But Mills now says that "only $1 million of the reduction was guaranteed."

Chartwells also caused the schools a good deal of embarrassment. In January of last year, after spending a week in the kitchen of my daughter's elementary school, I published a series of blog posts detailing the highly-processed frozen convenience foods Chartwells routinely served at lunch--chicken nuggets, tater tots, "beef crumbles" and grilled cheese sandwiches made in Los Angeles and re-heated in their plastic wrappers. Breakfast was even worse. Along with frozen scrambled eggs and "french toast sticks" with high-fructose corn syrup, kids were eating Apple Jacks cereal doused with strawberry-flavored milk, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins.

On some days, children as young as five consumed the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar before classes even started.

Subsequently I learned from documents obtained through the Freedeom of Information Act that Chartwells had turned over to the schools more than $1 million in rebates it had collected from large food manufacturers such as Kellogg, Pepperidge Farm and Otis Spunkmeyer. An assistant attorney general for New York State has said the rebating practice creates "an inherent conflict of interest" in the choice of foods served to children. Food service companies operating under a "cost reimbursable" contract, as is the case in D.C., are required to credit the schools for all rebates or discounts they receive.

The rebates Chartwells reported to D.C. schools represented five percent of total purchases, compared to the 10 to 15 percent that New York Assistant Atty. Gen. John F. Carroll says is the industry average he has encountered in his investigation of rebating practices there. It took D.C. school officials nine 9 months to get an accounting of food rebates from Chartwells, and Mills is said to be suspcious still that the schools are not receiving their due.

Chartwells is a subsidiary of Compass Group, a British-based international food service corporation that reported $23.5 billion in sales last year.

In December 2009, Tata tapped Mills, a restaurant developer from New York City, to be food services director, filling a position that had been vacant for more than a year. Within months after my expose of the food Chartwells was serving, Mills decided to remove all flavored milk from D.C. Public Schools and undertook an item-by-item overhaul of the Chartwells menu.

Around that same time, the D.C. Council approved a "Healthy Schools Act" that provided more money for school meals--10 cents for breakfast, 10 cents for lunch, and 5 cents for every lunch containing a locally-grown component. Consequently, meals look substantially different in D.C. schools today. Kids can choose from organic yogurt and home-baked muffins for breakfast. Lunches range from a scratch-cooked spinach lasagna to roasted bone-in chicken to a Cajunp-seasoned tilapia filet.

This year schools have saved $1 million on food, even while serving breakfast in the classrooms of most elementary schools for the first time and implementing a supper program in 99 schools. Breakfast in the classroom boosts participation and brings in federal susbsidy dollars that can be used to improve food quality. The supper program also is a money maker. Meals cost $1.40, but are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agiculture to the tune of $2.92 each through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.

With the addition of these two programs, the schools expect to serve 2 million more meals this year. Still, participation in the lunch line is down 1.5 percent.

The trouble now is the kids frequently won't eat the roasted local sweet potatoes or the lovingly prepared green bean salad. They need coaching, and schools need to reach out more to parents. Mills reportedly would like to see principals and teachers eating with the students. "Motivated principals make all the difference," Mills is quoted as saying. But the schools face "huge challenges with internal staffing."

Monday, April 18, 2011

NY Times' Sugar Bombshell

Science writer Gary Taubes

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

We may look back on this week as the moment when public opinion finally turned against the idea that fat is what makes us ill and embraced the emerging science implicating sugar as the nation's number one threat to good health.

In Sunday's New York Time's Magazine, science writer Gary Taubes makes the case that sugar--not fat--is the agent behind our most pressing health problems, including obesity and the various degenerative ailments associated with "metabolic syndrome," including diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease. If true, this would overturn more than 30 years of ill-conceived nutrition and health policy in this country, recognizing what a growing number of medical researchers have already concluded: fat is not the problem, carbs are. The reason for America's shocking level of obesity and related health issues lies with our addiction to processed, carbohydrate-rich foods, starches, and especially sugar.

The implications for those of us primarily concerned with children's health are clear: kids should not be drinking sodas or sugary flavored milks. They need to stop indulging in all kinds of snack foods and desserts that now play such a prominent role in children's eating habits. School menus should be sugar-free--and that goes for chocolate milk, too.

The most vocal of medical authorities now blaming sugar is Robert Lustig, a specialist in childhood obesity and pediatric hormone disorders at the University of California, Berkeley. We've written about Lustig and quoted him here before. Taubes describes his 2009 lecuture called "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," which at last count had been viewed 973,123 times at YouTube and has been increasing viewership at a rate of some 50,000 per month.

In his 90-minute talk, Lustig outlines in some detail how the fructose contained in either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is treated by the body as a toxin; how, unlike glucose, the sugar derived from other carbohydrates such as bread and potatoes, fructose is converted into fat in the liver, triggering not just "metabolic syndrome," but, in Taubes' view, many common cancers as well. Lustig blames sugar for a worldwide epidemic of fatty liver disease in children.

Most importantly, Lustig insists that the obesity epidemic we are so concerned about is not just about too many calories, but eating the wrong kinds of calories--specifically, too much sugar. Sugar represents not just empty calories. "It's not about the calories," Lustig says. "It has nothing to do with the calories. It's a poison by itself." Lustig says the reason Americans are consuming more calories is because their appetite suppression mechanisms are disrupted by eating too much sugar, especially from soda and other sweetened beverages.

"In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it's clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat," Taubes writes. "This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers."

How much sugar do you have to eat before it becomes toxic? That's the $64,000 question. The last time the federal government looked at this, in a 1986 Food and Drug Administration report, it was estimated sugar did not pose a danger at what was then the current level of consumption: 40 pounds of sugar per person per year of "added sugar," meaning in addition to what the normal person would get from eating fruits and vegetables. That's 200 calories per day of sugar, Taubes says, or less than the amount in a can and a half of Coca-Colar or two cups of apple juice.

"But 40 pounds per year happened to be 35 pounds less than what Department of Agriculture analysts said we were consuming at the time--75 pounds per person per year--and the USDA estimates are typically considered to be the most reliable," Taubes writes. "By the early 2000s, according to the USDA, we had increased our consumption to more than 90 pounds per person per year."

Obesity rates in this country correlate neatly with increasing consumption of sugar, and especially high-fructose corn syrup, which contains more fructose than table sugar as is not only sweeter but cheaper than cane sugar. Now researchers are finding that many forms of virulent cancer thrive on the insulin the body produces in response to sugar. Obesity and diabetes go hand in hand. Likewise, people who are obese or diabetic are more likely to develop some form of cancer.

That has some medical researchers swearing off sugar in their personal diets. "I have eliminated refined sugar from my diet and eat as little as I possbly can," says researcher Craig Thompson, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, "because I believe ultimately it's something I can do to decrease my risk of cancer."

Lewis Cantley, director of the Cancer Center at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center at Harvard Medical School says, simply: "Sugar scares me."

Unfortunately, little funding on the dangers of sugar has been forthcoming from the federal government. The National Institutes of Health is funding a few small studies. Taubes suggests these need to be bigger and of longer duration. But even though the current science is not as conclusive as Robert Lustig believes it to be, Taubes says he's convinced.

"Officially I'm not supposed to worry because the evidence isn't conclusive, but I do."

That's good enough for me.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A story about a public school in Chicago that prohibits students from bringing lunch from home reverberated around the world this week. The principal of Little Village Academy explained that she implemented the policy six years ago because of the junk--including sodas and flaming corn chips--that kids brought from home.

"Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," principal Elsa Carmona said. "It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke. But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception."

A spokeswoman for Chicago schools said it was unknown how many of the city's schools have similar policies because the decision is left up to individual principals. But shouldn't a policy this controversial be spelled out in the district's wellness policy?

It's a well known fact that the food at school, bad as it usually is, often bests the health-defying stuff parents pack for their kids. Case in point: check out the "lunch" one fourth-grader brought to my daughter's school cafeteria last year, consisting of a giant cupcake (the icing has already been licked off), a bag of Oreo cookies, a lollipop and a can of Sprite.

This was not at all unusual. This same girl almost always brought a soda for lunch, as did some of the other kids, most of whom qualified as "low income." My daughter has since transferred to a different school where the children are more affluent and come from many different countries. There, some of the kids routinely bring highly processed Oscar Meyer Lunchables, and last week I saw a girl chugging an Izze soda. Sure, it was made with fruit juices. But a bottle of the blueberry variety still contains 31 grams of sugar, or nearly eight teaspoons.

So where would you draw the line? Should parents be able to send their children to school with anything they want in their lunch box? Or should we exclude sodas. In D.C., sodas are banned from vending machines. So should kids be allowed to drink their own in the cafeteria? What about candy? Cupcakes? Lunchables?

In France, the kids eat the lunch that's served in school or they go home for lunch. But Americans don't seem to care about what other countries do--especially France. Some critics see the policy at Little Village Academy as the ultimate expression of the nanny state. But does cherished notion of freedom of choice mean freedom to feed your kid to death?


The debate over chocolate and other flavored milk in school cafeterias continues to rage. The dairy industry and many school food service directors argue that kids won't drink milk unless its sweetened and thus will be missing an important source of calcium and Vitamin D. Food activists like Ann Cooper counter that chocolate milk should be considered a "treat" and served only occasionally at home.

The dairy industry has been working on formulae that are less sweet and use cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. ABC News had a couple of kids test the new product. "It's too watery," said one. But she'd drink it if it were the only thing available.

Now comes Jamie Oliver with a national media campaign to remove flavored milk from schools. "When kids drink chocolate and strawberry milk every day at school, they're getting nearly two gallons of extra sugar each year. And that's really bad for their health," proclaims the new "Food Revolution" petition.

A fact sheet [PDF] quotes the Harvard University School of Public Health as citing sugary drinks as a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation "surveyed parents and found that the majority agree that their child’s school should limit access to unhealthy snacks and sugar sweetened beverages. Schools should include flavored milk in this category."

In the opening episode of Oliver's latest "Food Revolution" television series in Los Angeles, he had a crew fill a school bus with sugar (or sand) to illustrate the point. Does this make Oliver a school food hero, or nanny in chief?


One of the problems in the sugar conversation is knowing who to trust. For instance, the American Dietetic Association is supposed to be "your source for trustworthy, science-based food and nutrition information." But the ADA recently announced a new partnership with Coca-Cola. It now counts Coke and Pepsi as corporate sponsors.

In announcing the deal with Coke, the ADA says it will give the soda giant "prominent access to key influencers, thought leaders and decision makers in the food and nutrition marketplace." The nutrition group praises Coke as being as being committed to "product innovation and nutrition education, helping to meet changing consumer wellness needs through beverages and serving as a resource for health professionals and others interested in the science of beverages and their role in healthful living."

Nutrition activist Marion Nestle says on her blog this week that such blurring of the lines between corporate greed and non-profit groups is one of the reasons she now agrees that food stamp recipients should not be allowed to use their government stipends to buy sodas.

"Soft drink companies have gotten a free ride for years," Nestle writes. "They moved into schools and created an environment that makes it socially acceptable for children to drink sodas all day long. If sodas are now under scrutiny for their role in obesity, it is because soda companies are reaping what they have sown."


Would you believe that moms drink more sugary sodas than women without children?

That's according to a story from NPR, which says parents need to think more about eating better and exercising more.

An analysis of the eating and exercise habits of more than 1,500 young adults found moms and dads with kids 5 and younger exercised less than similar people without kids. Overall, the moms in the study consumed an average of 2,360 calories compared with 1,992 calories for the similar women without kids.

University of Minnesota researchers conclude that "parenthood may be contributing to poorer dietary intake and higher BMI" in young moms. Both moms and dads appear to exercise less, too. The results of the research were published online by the medical journal Pediatrics.


Here's one Florida family's prescription for giving up processed food:

- No refined grains such as white flour or white rice

- No refined sweeteners such as sugar, any form of corn syrup, cane juice or anything artificial like Splenda

- Nothing out of a box, can, bag, bottle or package with more than 5 ingredients

- No deep fried food

- No "fast food"

- Only locally raised meat

- Only water, milk, 100 percent fruit juices, naturally sweetened coffee and tea, and wine or beer - to help the adults keep their sanity!

"Some may be asking, wouldn't you starve if you didn't eat any of those things?" says blogging mom Lisa Leake. "Which is a true testament to how much our society has become dependent on highly processed foods when, in reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

"For the next three or so months," Leake explains, "we would embrace whole grains, organic fruits and vegetables, meat from our local farmers' market, wild-caught seafood, nuts, dairy products and natural sweeteners - in moderation of course - such as honey and maple syrup. And to make this new diet work we would have to become very resourceful food shoppers, pack food in our suitcases on trips, try lots of new recipes and deal with a lot of dirty dishes."

You can read more at 100 Days of Real Food.


Finally, some lunch ladies will do almost anything to get their students to eat better.

For Michelle Seebode, the cafeteria manager at Bay View Elementary School in Hampton Roads, Va., that means often dressing up as food. One day, for instance, she might just show up for lunch dressed as a pea pod--all in the spirit of getting kids to try healthier foods.

During National School Breakfast Week in March, Seebode posed as characters such as the Incredible Edible Egg super hero, complete with an egg white, yellow yolk and a cape. The superhero told the students that eggs are packed with protein. Another day, Seebode was Shirley “To Be Fit” Holmes, the fictional cousin of detective Sherlock Holmes. Shirley’s job was to clue the students in on the importance of breakfast. And as Miss Cowcium, Seebode told students that from dairy products, “you can get calcium and protein to grow strong.”

Seebode donned the pea pod outfit on St. Patrick's Day and walked around during the lunch with a basket of stuffed vegetable toys – broccoli, green pepper and avocado.

“It’s nice to be able to get out of the kitchen sometimes and interact,” Seebode said. “Kids are starting to learn it and enjoy it.”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

More Tapas: Kids Make Mushroom Canapes

Making mushroom canapes like a pro

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

If you can saute mushroom, you can easily make these mushroom canapes served as a Spanish "small plate," or tapas. What sets these apart from the standard sauteed mushrooms are the seasonings of paprika and white wine vinegar. They're a perfect appetizer.

Start by slicing 30 cremini mushrooms and heating 3 tablespoons or more extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy skillet. Turn the mushrooms into the skillet and tossing, adding more oil if the mushrooms seem dry. It helps to season the mushrooms with salt at this point to draw out the moisture in them, which will evaporate as you cook. Stir in 2 cloves garlic, minced and continue cooking. When the mushrooms have shrunk in size and darkened, add 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar and 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika. Continue cooking until the mushrooms are quite tender.

The aroma of this dish is so enticing, it drew people into our kitchen from down the hall.

Adding white wine vinegar

Remove mushrooms from the heat and stir in a small fistful of chopped parsley. Finish your tapas by spooning the mushrooms over small slices of bread or toasts spread on a decorative platter. We used a thinly sliced baguette, lightly toasted under the broiler.

You can make the dish even more inviting off with a decorative dusting of more chopped parsley.

Note: Mushrooms have virtually no calories or carbohydrates but are a rich source of fiber, potassium, niacin and important minerals. If exposed to ultraviolet light, mushrooms also contain large quantities of Vitamin D.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What's for Lunch: Turkey Barbecue

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

My first thought about this meal was that it seemed a bit odd to serve the turkey equivalent of classic pulled pork barbecue as a big blob on a Styrofoam tray. It wouldn't be served this way in any barbecue joint I know of. The meat would be on a bun, served as a sandwich.

The kids I think were put off by this strange looking brown heap and consequently barely touched it, even though it was quite good. It was prepared from seasoned turkey breasts that arrives at the school kitchen pre-cooked and frozen. One of the cook's then tore it into to shreds and mixed it with barbecue sauce, as you see here. Instead of being a sandwich, a roll was served on the side. The kids didn't eat it either.

In fact, the barbecue was quite good. Otherwise, this meal contains a deceptive amount of sugar--it's in the barbecue sauce, in the baked beans, and in the commercial cole slaw. This was another instance where the kids seemed to be fine with the idea of not eating very much lunch at all.

Just to be sure, I took a walk around the lunchroom and saw that while a few of the kids dug into the barbecue, or picked at the beans, this food went mostly uneaten. It just got dumped in the trash.

Could it be that the national lunch program's one-size-fits-all approach to loading kids up with every food group every day is just wrong? Is it possible that kids could get by with lots less food, saving tons of money?

Oh, and that price lookup sticker on the pear is hard to miss. It says the pear came from Argentina.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

What's for Lunch: Tilapia!

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Look! Clean fish fillets being served in D.C. Schools!

This tilapia with a bit of Cajun seasoning makes a beautiful tray, no? Next to it is something else I that seems very new" "crunchy spinach," which means frozen spinach mixed with corn, bits of green pepper and sunflower seeds.

Who do you suppose cooked up that recipe?

Here's a what the kids saw when they came through the food line.

And here's what the "crunchy spinach" looked like in its hotel pan.

Okay, now for the bad news: As great as this meal looked, most of the kids in the lunchroom with my 11-year-old daughter didn't eat it.

To be more precise, I'd say about half of them at least tried the tilapia, and some of those were wolfing it down. "The ones who are eating it say it's the best thing ever," said one of the teachers who was monitoring things.

They also ate the canned pears and poked at the rice. But forget about those green beans and the "crunchy spinach." They wouldn't touch it. I tried the spinach. As much as I liked the concept, it was too cold. Almost frozen. Kids don't like spinach in general, and they seem to be really put off by exceptionally cold vegetables.

The tilapia fillets arrive frozen and are heated fairly easily. I wonder how the cost compares to other entrees the schools serve, especially the processed ones like those phony "grilled" chicken patties.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jamie Oliver: Home Run?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Did you watch the opening episode of Jamie Oliver's new Food Revolution series in Los Angeles last night?

Even if you think reality television is a bit hokey, Oliver did a brilliant job of pinpointing some of the school food issues that often make me want to quit this job.

One is the indifference of many parents to what schools are serving kids as food.

Let's acknowledge up front that there are some incredibly active and engaged parents working on this issue. Sometimes you don't hear about them: they are totally focused on fixing their neighborhood school, not making a name for themselves in the blogosphere. But generally speaking, most parents are AWOL. What will it take to motivate them, if not the current health crisis affecting our children around food?

Secondly, I hope you took proper note of how schools would just as soon not have prying eyes looking into their food service operations.

Los Angeles is no different from most school districts I've encountered. The food they serve is kept secret, away from public view. Why? Because even in districts that claim to be exceeding the most stringent government standards, what they are actually serving is crap. You can't know that from the menus. You have to be present in the cafeteria and see what the kids are getting on their trays.

My wife and I watched the show together and she was horrified over the segment where Oliver demonstrated the ammonia treated beef that's used as a filler in hamburger, and the fact that the government does not consider it an ingredient. It doesn't appear on any label.

Finally, it was plain to see why the dairy industry is winning the battle over chocolate milk (read sugar) in schools. Oliver showed up at a California School Nutrition Association convention where a dairy rep was holding forth in a breakout session on why schools need to keep flavored milk.

Sugary flavored milk is a big winner for Big Dairy, which explains why the industry is spending millions on its "Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!" campaign. It has operatives all over the country telling school food service directors that kids will dissolve in a heap of rickets and osteoporosis if they don't have access to milk containing the sugar equivalent of Mountain Dew.

The dairy industry buys its way into school nutrition associations with sponsorships on the state and the national level, which gives it immediate entree to hold those sales talks where it enlists food service directors in its cause. The industry then trots out a bogus "study"--really a marketing report it paid for--showing that kids won't drink milk unless it has sugar in it. It pulled the same trick most effectively with a gullible Washington Post reporter yesterday.

As Oliver pointed out, the U.S. is probably alone in the developed world in allowing dairy interests to push sugary milk in schools. According to Oliver, flavored milk is not allowed in schools in Great Britain, nor in all of Europe.

Oliver was totally dejected at the end of the episode, when his crew filled a school bus with sugar (or sand) to demonstrate how much of the sweet stuff Los Angeles kids are consuming each week, but only a handful of parents showed up to see it.

If I have any beef at all with Jamie Oliver, its the tired and incorrect information he often gives about what causes people--or children--to get fat. It's not the fat in the mayo or the ice cream, Jamie. It's all the carbs in the hamburger buns, the fries, and the sugary milkshakes.

Otherwise, right on, Jamie.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Wash. Post's Sorry Coverage of Chocolate Milk

Kids love sugar any which way

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The most popular story in today's Washington Post concerns the "controversy" over flavored milk in schools. Two jurisdictions in the paper's readership area--the District of Columbia and Fairfax County--have recently banned milk with added sugar from their cafeterias. But because of complaints from the community, Fairfax County this month announced that it is re-introducing chocolate milk, except with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.

As if there's a difference!

Too bad the Post reporter behind the story didn't do a little more homework. He might have reported how D.C. parents have pressed to eliminate flavored milk and the incredibly sugary breakfasts Chartwells routinely was serving in D.C. schools, and how sugar unregulated by school meal standards has no place on the menu in the middle of an obesity epidemic.

He might have mentioned the recent report from the Institute of Medicine finding that children are not suffering a "calcium crisis," as the dairy industry would have us believe.

He might have noted that prominent nutritionists, such as Walter Willett, head of the nutriton department at Harvard University, declare that milk is not an essential nutrient.

Or that the "study" so often cited by the dairy industry as indicating kids won't drink milk if it doesn't have sugar in it was really no study at all. It was paid for by the dairy industry!

Or that the problem with chocolate milk--or strawberry milk, or root beer flavored, or grape flavored--isn't the calories, it's the metabolic effects of sugar directly linked to obesity and a host of serious health problems, such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. Sugar is a key player in the so-called "metabolic syndrome."

Healthy school food advocates really need to get their talking points in order on the issue of flavored milk. It's not enough to compare chocolate milk with apple pie. People like apple pie too much. There are plenty of scientifically sound reasons to object to sugary milk served in schools. Reporters for powerful media outlets such as The Washington Post should know what they are.

Fortunately, D.C. Public Schools officials--most importantly food services director Jeffrey Mills--are sticking by their decision to keep sugary milk off the menu. This is something we now want to encode in the district's wellness policy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

No More "Offer Versus Serve"

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Some weeks ago the kitchen manager at my daughter's elementary school informed us that daughter would no longer be allowed to decline the milk at mealtime even though she is lactose intolerant. Consequently, she would just throw the milk in the trash.

Up to that point D.C. Public Schools had practiced something called "offer versus serve." Under USDA rules [PDF], schools must give high school students the option of declining one of the four items offered for breakfast, or two of the five items offered for lunch. Offer versus serve is optional in elementary schools, but most school districts--including D.C.--use it.

Until recently, that is. It really bothered me to watch my daughter and other kids routinely toss perfectly good food like unopened cartons of milk or uneaten pieces of fruit directly into the trash. But despite weeks of pestering the food services personnel, I could not get anyone to tell me why the policy had been changed.

Then I got the word through a back channel: offer versus serve had been eliminated in D.C. elementary schools to speed up the food lines.

Apparently, some school officials complained that allowing small children to choose which foods they wanted--or didn't want--on their trays took too long. At my daughter's school, for instance, 30 minutes is allotted for lunch. Usually, the last kids through the line have about 15 minutes to eat. But the lines in other schools are longer, meaning the kids only have a few minutes to actually eat their food after waiting to be served.

So that's the situation here in the District of Columbia: the trash cans fill up with good food so that children will have more time to eat their meals.

In my daughter's case, it means getting a phone call from a dietitian at Chartwells, the district's food service management company, telling us that lactose-free milk--at extra cost--has been ordered specially for her so that anytime she takes a school meal she will get a carton of that to throw away instead.

Turns out daughter just doesn't like milk--period--unless it's to pour over cereal.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Potato growers are pushing back against the USDA proposed school meal guidelines that would for the first time limit the amount of potatoes schools can serve at lunch.

The National Potato Council has launched a website encouraging readers to petition the USDA for those fries kids love so much. The website describes potatoes as a health food, full of nutrients such as potassium and fiber and with none of the fat that food activists worry so much about.

According to the Potato Council, most schools have gotten rid of their fryers and 80 percent of the fries served in school these days are baked. (Well, they've probably been fried a little at the factory before they were frozen and shipped.)

Potatoes in various forms are kids' second-most-favorite food in the lunch line, right behind pizza. So why in the world would the USDA want to limit the "starchy vegetables" kids can eat--potatoes, corn, peas, lima beans--to just one cup per week?

According to the Institute of Medicine panel that developed the proposed guidelines, schools need to serve a greater variety of vegetables and especially dark green and orange vegetables. And what the Potato Council conveniently does not mention in its pitch is the strong association between starch and the various health problems associated with obesity: diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease.

A growing body of scientific evidence links sugar and refined carbohydrates with the mechanisms that lay on fat and trigger the so-called "metabolic syndrome," including unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and arterial plaque.

The USDA's guidelines are just the latest blow to the potato industry. Last year the USDA issued a permanent ruling striking white potatoes from the list of allowable foods under the federally-funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.


The deadline for submitting comments on those proposed USDA school meal guidelines is coming up fast--April 13.

To recap, those guidelines would lower the number of calories schools must serve at meals and, for the first time, set a maximum calorie limit. The guidelines increase the amount of fat allowed to 35 percent of calories from 30 percent. They call for bigger servings of vegetables--with an emphasis on dark green and orange vegetables. Within two years, all grain products would have to be at least "whole grain-rich," meaning 51 percent whole grain. And over a 10 year period, schools would be required to cut the amount of sodium in food by half.

Under the proposed guidelines, no more than half of the fruits in meals could be served as juice, and there would be less allowable substituting of fruits for vegetables. They would also discontinue nutrient-based meal planning--meaning no more junk food laced with vitamins.

One thing the guidelines do not do is regulate sugar, so chocolate, strawberry and other flavored milks would still be allowed--as long as they don't contain any fat.

Here's a good summary published recently in Education Week. (Why do reporters keep saying the guidelines stem from Congress' recent re-authorization of the lunch program? Not true! They've been in the works for years.)

According to the USDA, the guidelines will probably force schools to ditch some processed foods and cook more from scratch. They will also raise the cost of lunch by an estimates 15 cents and breakfast by a whopping 51 cents. The School Nutrition Association, representing thousands of school food service directors, says it's all too much, too fast. Some are now whispering that the high cost may prompt some schools to stop serving breakfast altogether.

Others say this is just what the doctor ordered for the nation's cafeterias and the 32 million kids who participate in the national school meals program. One thing is for sure: by taking away foods kids crave and asking them to eat more vegetables and whole grains, we are embarking on a nutritional experiment on a huge scale, and with unknowable results.


Here's more on the problems with starch in kids' food. A pediatrician and author alarmed by the growing number of obese babies has started a campaign called "Get the White Out," meaning stop feeding small children starchy white foods such as refined rice.

Dr. Alan Greene says starting children on good eating habits should begin as early in life as possible. But the first solid food many parents feed their infants is refined rice in the form of rice cereal, which registers only slightly lower than table sugar on the glycemic scale.

"Babies’ long-term food preferences and metabolisms are influenced by early food exposures," Green says. "At this critical window of development, ripe with opportunity, we are giving babies a concentrated, unhealthy carb. Metabolically, it’s not that different from giving babies a spoonful of sugar."

According to Greene, the primary solid food for infants through their first birthday is white rice cereal, helping to form their taste preferences for life. "No wonder kids crave kids' meals and junk food."

Greene says the goal of his "White-Out Movement" is to "mobilize parents, grandparents, retailers, manufacturers, and pediatricians to end this practice forever and to get white rice baby food off of store shelves and out of babies’ mouths by Thanksgiving 2011."

Here's a link to Green's website, including a video in which he argues that the quickest, cheapest way to combat childhood obesity is to remove unhealthy foods, especially carbs such as rice cereal.

"Let every child's first grain be a whole grain," Greene declares.


Note to parents: It's okay to bribe your kids to eat vegetables.

A recent study in London measure the impact of giving children stickers or praise when they ate their vegetables compared to kids who don't receive any reinforcement for eating healthier.

Weeks and even months later, researchers found that the kids who initially got the stickers or praise continued to eat the vegetables on their own.


Speaking of bribes, here's how the American Beverage Association helped quash a proposed soda tax in Philadelphia: they give millions of dollars to the local children's hospital.

Reported the Philadelphia Inquirer: "When City Council was considering a soda tax last spring, doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia testified about the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks. On Wednesday, the hospital announced that it would expand its obesity program with the help of $10 million from the very industry that produces them."

The tax was projected to bring in $20 million for obesity-prevention measures and more money for the general fund. The idea fizzled in May without going to a vote.

Michele Simon at Appetite for Profit says tactics employed by the beverage industry echo those used by Big Tobacco to fight regulation.

"A $10 million donation may be a lot of money for a children’s hospital, and some good will likely result from the funds. But it’s a drop in the bucket for the soft drink industry, a small cost of doing business and a worthy investment," writes Simon. "Especially because the proposed beverage tax was projected to bring in $77 million in just one year, with $20 million specifically allocated to obesity prevention programs. And with no strings attached. Somehow I doubt we will see any research coming out of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that could ruffle the feathers of the beverage lobby."


Finally, not all of the nation's 100,000 schools participate in the federally-subsidized lunch program. Some schools in affluent areas opt out because they've learned they can actually make money by charging parents more for designer meals.

In the Piedmont area near San Francisco, for instance, a company called Choicelunch caters to the upscale preferences of wealthy parents with entrees costing $6 or even sushi for $6.25.

"They have worked with us on locally sourced foods and they address all our parents' need regarding food allergies," Heather Meil, the parent volunteer coordinator at Havens Elementary, told The Bay Citizen. "They just rolled out gluten-free chicken nuggets. Our children are very sophisticated eaters. Their top choices are sushi and pot stickers."

For every Choicelunch sold, the school's Parents Club receives $1.80. Meil said the parents are using the money to boost the math and science program and help pay for a technology coordinator.

We can't say it enough: It's great to be rich in America.

For every Choicelunch sold, the school’s Parent Club receives $1.80. “It is seen as a fund raiser,” Meil said of the lunch program. “We serve 90 to 120 lunches a day, so over the school year we bring in 30 to 40 thousand dollars.”

She said the Parent Club was using the extra money this year for math and science resources and enrichments and a technology coordinator, among other things.

She said the Parent Club was using the extra money this year for math and science resources and enrichments and a technology coordinator, among other things.

Source: The Bay Citizen (