Sunday, May 29, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The USDA's proposal to cut back on potatoes in school lunches is kicking up a storm of protest.

Proposed school meal guidelines would permit just one cup of potatoes and other starchy vegetables per week. That includes corn, peas and lima beans as well. That got the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which found lots of potato growers and school officials who think limiting spuds on kids' cafeteria trays is unfair.

The New York Times picked up the story, rehashing the 60-day all-spud diet of one Chris Voigt, head of the Washington State Potato Commission, who was moved to protest the federal government's exclusion of potatoes from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Some members of Congress are none too pleased. Forty of them penned a bi-partisan letter to USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack protesting the move against potatoes.

“It’s a great vegetable and I don’t know why we are picking on the potato,” said Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, who signed the letter. “I think this is very much an overreach.”

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) took to the congressional blog to complain.

"To remove or limit vegetables from schools that our children and grandchildren actually like and will eat is simply misguided," Schmidt wrote. "But to make it more difficult for our schools to provide the best nutrition to those most in need of it is more than misguided, it is irresponsible."

Poor Margo Wootan. The stalwart school food lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest is left trying to explain that potatoes must go because kids need "more balance" in their diet. They should be eating more green vegetables, she says.

Wootan and the CSPI are so invested in the tired notion that fat is behind all of the nation's health problems she can't bring herself to mention the huge body of science implicating starchy, glycemic foods such as potatoes in obesity and other chronic dietary afflictions such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

Yes, Margo, there is a good reason to limit potatoes. You just need to start telling people what it is.


Perhaps not surprisingly, food manufacturers are protesting efforts by the Obama administration to limit the way they advertise to children.

Ordered by Congress and written by a team at the Food and Drug Administration, the guidelines say foods that are advertised to children cannot exceed limited amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, sodium or trans fat. And they must include healthy ingredients, such as fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy products or whole grains.

The sugar limits would pose a problem for many foods currently marketed to children. Under the guidelines, one serving of a food aimed at children could not exceed 8 grams of sugar. A single serving of Count Chocula cereal currently contains 12 grams of sugar; a serving of Frosted Flakes contains 11 grams.

“I can’t imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to reduce obesity,” said Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers and retailers.

The guidelines are voluntary, but manufacturers still protest. They says they're doing just fine with their own "voluntary guidelines."

“This is a classic case of backdoor regulation,” said Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers.

When it comes to our kids' health, we can trust America's corporate food industry. Can't we?


On the subject of food marketers: Could Ronald McDonald be forced to retire?

A campaign started by the nonprofit watchdog group Corporate Accountability International has asked McDonald's to give Ronald his walking papers as a way of dialing back the marketing of junk food to kids.

A letter signed by more than 550 health professionals and organizations--among them the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, and well-known nutritionists and doctors such as Andrew Weil--was scheduled to run in ads in the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Metro, Boston Metro, San Francisco Examiner, Minneapolis City Pages and Baltimore City Paper.

The letter asserts that "the contributors to today's (health) epidemic are manifold and a broad societal response is required. But marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem."

But McDonald's corporate headquarters was having none of it.

"We are committed to responsible advertising and take our communications to children very seriously," McDonald's said in a statement. "We understand the importance of children's health and nutrition, and are committed to being part of the dialogue and solution. We serve high quality food, and our Happy Meals offer choice and variety in portions just for kids. Parents tell us they appreciate our Happy Meal choices."

Except, of course, in San Francisco, where Happy Meals are banned.


What to do when good ol' American enterprise invades the school yard?

School officials in Novato, Calif., are wondering whether there should be some kind of law to deal with the food trucks selling ice cream, chips and soda right outside the schoolhouse door, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Novato schools banned junk food in 2007. Now as many as five food trucks park in front of Novato High School at lunch time and the kids swarm around.

The school's principal, Rey Mayoral, said fights have broken out between drivers over choice parking locations, forcing him to call the police on more than one occasion. And the scores of students flocking to the trucks sometimes snarl traffic, he said.

"These trucks are contradicting everything we are trying to teach the kids" about nutrition, said Mr. Mayoral. "And what makes matters worse is it's getting dangerous."

City officials have been hesitant to enact limits on the trucks, saying they would be costly to enforce at a time of deep financial strain. At a city council meeting earlier this month, after an hour-long presentation from school leaders, the council decided against passing an ordinance.

Mike Frank, Novato city manager, says the city will explore ways to rid the trucks from around the schools, but cautioned that he is reluctant to dedicate police officers to the issue.

"We'll find a creative solution to deal with the problem, but we cannot afford to have police officers sitting around schools," says Frank.


Is there such a thing as cruel and unusual punishment for kids in the cafeteria?

Students in one school in Harrisburg, Pa., reportedly are served cold sandwiches instead of a hot meal "as punishment for acting up and being unappreciative of the hot meals being offered in the school’s cafeteria."

The Patriot-News reports a school administrator as explaining the move this way: “We created the opportunity where we could show them what the bare minimum would be,” adding that the bare minimum remained a balanced meal including fruit and vegetables.

The administrator, who did not want his name used, said that some parents and students did not understand the measures taken to correct behavior issues, such as students not cleaning up their eating area.

Since the corrective action was taken, the administrator said, student behavior has improved.

Meanwhile, eyebrows were being raised in Minnesota over the way schools were handling students unable to pay for their meals.

In some districts, students receive a bread and butter sandwich for a few days. Others receive no meal at all. In an effort to get parents to pay, many districts stamp children's hands, sometimes with a dollar sign or the words "lunch money."

Legal Aid surveyed 182 school districts, about half the districts in the state, to find out what schools do when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. The group found that 30 districts stop feeding children whose parents don't pay. Most districts do not provide the regular school lunch to children without money and instead offer an alternative lunch, often a sandwich and milk. Only 22 districts provide unlimited hot meals to all children.

Minnesota Public Radio in its own interviews found some school districts that said hand stamping was necessary, while others called the practice unacceptable. Most food nutrition directors said they have little choice but to deny the full lunch to students without money.

"There's a lot of people out there who think we should feed every kid, but that's not realistic," said Jason Forshee, the food nutrition services director for Waseca Public Schools. "My goal is not to lose $20,000 every year. My goal is to break even."


Here's some better news coming out of Minnesota: Schools in Minneapolis beginning this summer will stop serving flavored milk.

"Consuming chocolate milk every day can train a child's palate toward sweetened foods," said Rosemary Dederichs, the district's director of nutrition services.

"While we recognize that some children may no longer choose to drink milk at school, we believe that the decision was made in the best interest of our students," said Dederichs. She noted that even skim chocolate milk has 8 grams more sugar per serving than 1 percent or skim cartons. The district's chocolate milk also contains high-fructose corn syrup.

In March, Minneapolis schools also removed sugary cereals from the menu as part of an effort to wean kids off sugar.


Finally, some more brightness on the school food landscape: a long and detailed interview with advocate Debra Eschmeyer.

Vegetable farmer, former communications director for the National Farm to School Network, and recently a Food and Society Fellow, Eschmeyer has helped start a novel organization that puts youthful volunteers to work helping schools build food gardens and engage kids in the act of eating more healthfully in the cafeteria.

Food Corps, as the organization is called, has caught on like wildfire. It's already established in 10 states in its first year, having picked 50 members from 1,230 applicants. "The idea is to start with a strong cadre of 50 at the 10 host sites and then grow, so that in a decade we can have 1,000 members in all 50 states," Eschmeyer says.

Eschmeyer says, "I’ve never felt more confident about the future of our country when it comes to reversing childhood obesity."

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