Sunday, June 5, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

No, the sky isn't falling on the national school meals program, although you might be led to think so from some recent reports out of Congress.

The House Appropriations Committee released its markup [PDF] of agriculture spending for 2012 and left intact the reimbursement rate for school meals--including the six-cent raise Congress approved last December.

But in its report [PDF] on the spending legislation, the GOP-dominated committee made clear its unhappiness with proposed USDA nutrition guidelines that would raise the cost of school lunch an estimated 15 cents and cause a whopping 50-cent increase in the cost of providing breakfast.

The USDA has said these increases would be the result of requiring schools to serve lots more green and orange vegetables, more whole grains, fewer calories and half the salt currently used. Originally designed by the Institute of Medicine in a process that began well before Barack Obama was elected president, the guidelines deliver what many school food activists have been demanding for years: healthier meals using less processed foods and more whole ingredients cooked from scratch.

The GOP sentiments are more in line with those of the corporate food industry, which would prefer to keep things just the way they are. Reducing salt and calories and cooking from scratch can't be good for giant convenience food manufacturers such as Tyson, Kellogg's and Schwan Food. Industry, along with school food service companies such as Chartwells, and many of the nation's school food service directors, have been urging a "go slow" approach, or perhaps even pilot-testing the guidelines before mandating them nationwide.

This week's GOP broadside raises the volume of dissent over the proposed guidelines, which have also drawn congressional ire by calling for a sharp cutback on potatoes and other starchy vegetables in school meals. Potatoes have already been eliminated from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

In its report, the GOP states: "The Committee urges restraint and practical timelines for implementing new national nutrition standards in the school breakfast and lunch programs. As many of the representatives in states and local school districts have cautioned, an overly aggressive implementation schedule and unrealistic demands on changes in nutrient content can lead to burdensome costs, estimated to be about $7 billion over 5 years. Therefore, the Committee directs FNS to issue a new proposed rule that would not require an increase in the cost of providing school meals."

Congressional committees can't tell government agencies what to do. That's why we have an executive branch. So take this as bluster and grandstanding as the GOP tries to appease its base.

Still, the Republicans have a point. The USDA could hardly have picked a worse time to require state and local governments to fork over bundles of cash for school food. They're worse than broke. Most are cutting back programs--even school spending. And from where I sit--watching kids eat in the cafeteria on a daily basis for the better part of the last year--there's no guarantee that all these vegetables, whole grains and "healthier" foods won't end up in the trash.

Unfortunately, there's nothing about the new guidelines that really engages children in the act of healthier eating. And if experience teaches anything, it's that menu changes don't mean much unless adults are willing to work overtime marketing better food to kids.

These guidelines merely perpetuate misguided thinking that kids' eating habits can be legislated on a national level.


It's hard to believe that serving breakfast to kids in the classroom has stirred up so much trouble in Chicago.

Schools in the Windy City this year embraced universal breakfast in the classroom as a way of guaranteeing that kids are all adequately fed when they start their lessons. Breakfast in the classroom has the added benefit of generating lots of federal reimbursement dollars, especially in districts with large numbers of needy children.

In other jurisdictions, breakfast in the classroom has been hugely successful, improving kids' ability to focus, reducing discipline problems and visits to the school nurse, getting children to show up on time, and creating more of a family atmosphere in the classroom.

Mrs. Q, the anonymous Chicago teacher who writes the Fed Up With Lunch blog, has been doing a great job lately documenting how breakfast in the classroom has unfolded there. According to her accounts, there have been few problems and many gains.

But many parents apparently are upset that they are losing control of what their kids are eating and that breakfast served in the classroom may be cutting into instruction time. (Chicago has the shortest school day in the country, I'm told. In other jurisdictions, schools simply start the day a little earlier to make room for breakfast.)

And now the head of Chicago schools--John-Claude Brizard--says he's got some issues, too. Especially those French toast sticks he says are being served "with an inch of syrup."

Well, food choices are a whole other kettle of fish. And that may just be Chicago's fault for choosing a flat-rate contract with its food service provider, Chartwells. In this case, Chartwells has very little incentive to serve better food and every reason to seek out the cheapest ingredients that deliver the most in rebates from manufacturers.

Note to Mr. Brizard: if you want better food, switch to a cost-reimbursable contract. Then you can tell Chartwells exactly what you want to see the kids eating and you can pay for it if it's more expensive.


The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a report saying that most children--including athletes--should not be consuming sports drinks and especially not energy drinks. They are better off rehydrating with plain water.

The AAP says many kids are confused about the significant differences between sports drinks, which contain carbohydrates and electrolytes, and energy drinks, which are loaded with caffeine and other stimulants.

But in either case, kids are better off avoiding them, especially in the middle of an obesity epidemic.

"Sports drinks can be helpful for young athletes engaged in prolonged, vigorous physical activities," says the AAP, "but in most cases they are unnecessary on the sports field or the school lunchroom."

Says one of the report's authors, Dr. Holly J. Benjamin, a member of the AAP's Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness: "For most children engaging in routine physical activity, plain water is best."

Benjamin continued: "Sports drinks contain extra calories that children don't need, and could contribute to obesity and tooth decay. It's better for children to drink water during and after exercise, and to have the recommended intake of juice and low-fat milk with meals. Sports drinks are not recommended as beverages to have with meals."

Meanwhile, the dairy industry, which frequently cites the American Academy of Pediatrics as supporting chocolate milk, has been heavily promoting the idea of sugary flavored milk as a way for athletes to rehydrate after a strenuous workout. Or does the AAP still think water is the better option?


Are scratch-cooked meals always better than processed?

The Department of Education in Hawaii apparently thinks so. Beginning in August, a majority of all entrees in the state's schools--15 out of the 25-day menu cycle--will be made from scratch.

"The mission is to have less processed food and use basic ingredients instead of opening up a box and heating up something," said Glenna Owens, director of the school food services branch. The district, which makes 100,000 meals daily, already serves about 10 entrees from scratch but the new initiative moves toward making a majority of the meals that way.

"It's hard work, but I believe it's tastier when it's made from scratch," said Cindy Saffery, who manages three cafeterias on Oahu's Waianae Coast said. "It's like feeding our own children."

But Margo Wootan, the widely quoted school food lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, doesn't seem very impressed. Wootan told the Associate Press that cooking from scratch doesn't automatically translate into better food.

"I don't know of any evidence that shows cooking from scratch is healthier than if you don't cook from scratch.," Wootan said.

She should probably stick to writing legislation.


Finally, in the never-ending battle over flavored milk in school comes perhaps the most artfully written argument yet for ditching chocolate milk altogether. This post by Christina Le Beau at the Spoonfed blog, is chock-a-block with references and hits all the right notes.

"Flavored milk in schools isn’t good for kids, no matter how it’s justified," Le Beau writes. "It’s questionably nutritious, sugared-up, adulterated with thickeners and fake colors and flavors, and processed to within an inch of palatability. It’s the symbol of a system that feeds kids calories and chemicals sold as nourishment. And it’s the product of a spin machine that has too many people believing that milk is a magical calcium elixir and, thus, that any milk is better than no milk."

Indeed. Why cling to something that symbolizes the worst about our approach to feeding children: that there is a cheap and easy shortcut to good health. If kids are going to drink milk, adults need to man up and teach them to like milk without the sugar and phony flavorings.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the mention. I like how that article mentions that reactions to the breakfast program breaks down on socio-economic lines. Also the new CEO states that a one-size-fits all policy may not work for a district that large. True.