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 (

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