Monday, May 31, 2010

Are Schools Food Deserts?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

"Food desert" has become a popular term to describe urban and rural areas where people don't have access to fresh, nutritious food, rely heavily on fast food restaurants and convenience foods to feed themselves, and learn only bad eating habits.

Isn't that the very definition of a moden public school cafeteria in the United States today? From what I've seen, kids in most public schools have little access to fresh, nutritious foods and rely almost entirely on industrially processed convenience foods for meals. What vegetables there are in school meals typically are cooked to death and unpalatable. They're served anyway because the federal government requires them.

At breakfast, kids are doused with sugar in the form of processed packaged foods such as Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and sugary cereals such as Apple Jacks. Even the milk is tarted up with high-fructose corn syrup and colorings to make it more like strawberry. These are exactly the same kinds of foods kids buy at corner convenience stores in food deserts, the kinds of foods Michelle Obama says are contributing to an epidemic of childhood obesity.

In short, kids at school are taught bad eating habits.

The more I think about it, the more schools strike me as a perfect example of a food desert. Maybe if more people looked at it that way, and looked at children as victims of an industrially processed convenience food culture, they'd get behind efforts to revolutionize the way we feed kids at school.

Happy Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

With one of the worst childhood obesity problems in the world, Mexico is clamping down by eliminating many popular foods from its schools.

Schools in Mexico don't have cafeterias. Instead, kids purchase food from vendors and food stalls who set up shop on school grounds. Under new rules, vendors will no longer be able to sell soft drinks, sweets such as salted tamarind candy, pork rinds and atole, the thick and sweet cornstarch-based beverage served piping hot in the morning.

Also getting the axe: tortas, the often overstuffed, greasy, meat-packed sandwiches popular in Mexico, unless they are "light" versions, meaning made with beans, avocado and cheese, or chicken-and-vegetables. Only low-fat tacos, burritos and salads will be allowed.

President Felipe Calderon launched a nationwide anti-obesity campaign in January, saying the incidence of obesity among youngsters has tripled in Mexico over the last three decades. About 26 percent of all Mexican children are overweight.


Move over school breakfast and school lunch, here comes school dinner.

To keep hunger away, more and more schools are starting to serve early supper during after school under a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

The program currently reaches kids in 13 states and the District of Columbia, providing reimbursements for meals served to at-risk kids in communities where at least 50 percent of households fall below the poverty level.

"What it allows us to do is provide those kids with an extra nutritious meal before they go home because some kids go home to nothing," said Susan Eckes, director of child nutrition programs for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada in McCarran, Nev.

In Baltimore, about 2,000 suppers are made by students in a vocational high school to further their culinary degrees.

Around the country, about 49,000 children benefit from the after-school meals each day. The program is expected to cost a total of $8 million from 2009 to 2013, the USDA said.


Still, nothing beats having dinner with family. Research shows that kids who eat dinner with their families regularly are more emotionally stable and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They get better grades. They have fewer depressive symptoms, particularly among adolescent girls. And they are less likely to become obese or have an eating disorder.

Parents can help model healthy eating when families share dinner together. Here's an excellent article detailing why families should dine as a unit as often as possible.


Tired of your child being exposed to sugary flavored milk at school? Here's a school in Vail, CO, where parents succeeded in getting chocolate milk removed from the cafeteria.

“I've never talked to a doctor that recommends my child drink chocolate milk,” said the mother of one fourth-grader. “At home, we offer milk, 1 or 2 percent. Of course, when she comes to school, my daughter is going to choose chocolate milk.”

Meanwhile, at a high school in Roseville, CA, high schoolers got so fed up with the woeful food in the cafeteria they've planted a garden to grow some of their own food.

“Our generation has grown up completely disconnected from agriculture,” said one sophomore. “There’s no such thing as a Cheetos tree. I don’t want to eat something that’s been mistreated or is not in its natural form. If I can’t pronounce it, I shouldn’t be putting it in my body.”

And in Beaufort County, NC, a new nutrition director has schools cooking from scratch using 1960s and '70s recipes culled from a USDA library.

“We’re getting back to the grassroots of child nutrition,” said nutrition director Gwyn Roberson McBride.

The move comes at a time when school systems statewide are facing unprecedented challenges in providing nutritious meals for their students. About 60 percent of the school food programs in North Carolina are operating in the red, and many school systems have chosen to cut back on the number of school cafeteria workers and focus solely on pre-made foods.


Tight budgets have been a real money maker for big food processors like Tyson. Rather than hire skilled chefs and deal with raw ingredients, school districts use a federal commodity food program to have their school lunch items manufactured by some 112 companies such as Tyson, ConAgra and JR Simplot that specialize in making school food on a huge scale.

Rules laid down by the USDA actually encourage schools to seek out industrially processed convenience foods. Big processors could see their business threatened if schools opt to make food from scratch with fresh ingredients. But the financial realities of school meal programs make that extremely difficult in most cases.

School food consultant Kate Adamick says schools should take the money they fork over to giant processors and use it instead to train their kitchen workers how to cook.


Finally, with sales growth slowing, Lay's, the country's largest maker of potato chips, has decided it needs to embrace the trend toward healthy, local foods by marketing its chips not as a snack, but as a real food made from potatoes grown by real farmers.

The company's advertising campaign, started last year, addresses the perception among many consumers that its chips came from "not real potatoes." The latest elements of the ad strategy include significantly more ads for local markets, reports the New York Times, with regional farmers as the stars; an online “Happiness Exhibit” photo gallery at the brand’s Web site,, which reinforces the theme of the campaign, “Happiness is simple”; five new regional flavors like Tangy Carolina BBQ and Southwest Cheese and Chiles; and reformulated versions of the Kettle Cooked varieties of Lay’s.

“We discovered the best way to tell our story was through people,” said a Lay's executive. Enter the farmers, more than 80 of them from 28 states like California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The campaign includes, in addition to its presence on, television commercials, magazine ads, signs in stores and a wooden billboard, planned to go up in San Francisco, that is being hand-carved. There are more than 150 elements of the campaign customized for local markets.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Lunch from Home

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

In a film that we recently featured here about the city of Rome switching from re-heated factory meals to school food cooked fresh from scratch, one important element in the system's success was removing choices from school lunch and prohibiting children from bringing food from home. Here in the states, school systems such as the one I recently visited in Berkeley, CA, also prohibit kids from importing snack and junk foods. But that is not the case here in the District of Columbia.

In fact, in recently approved "Healthy Schools" legislation, while schools are expected to remove junk foods and sodas and raise the standards of meals served, a big exception is made for "food" supplied by parents. At my daughter's school, you see kids in the cafeteria reaching inside their backpacks for all kinds of things. Here's an array that one girl brought as part of her lunch: a bag of Oreo cookies, a lollipop, a chocolate cupcake and a can of Sprite.

Still wondering where all the sugar is coming from in kids' diets, or why we're battling an epidemic of obesity?

Most of the icing from that cupcake got left behind in the plastic container it came in. The girl simply passed it to the boy sitting next to her, who was only too glad for this unexpected finger food treat.

On another day, the girl brought "Lunch Makers" chicken nuggets from Armour, and a big, 4.4-ounce Hershey's chocolate bar. She broke the chocolate bar into squares and shared them with the kids at the rest of the table.

Friday, May 28, 2010

What's for Lunch: Turkey & Fingers

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

How do you like your turkey?

Lunch on Tuesday was this processed turkey luncheon meat, folded into a log, drizzled with a canned "gravy" that looked strangely like olive oil with pools of brown running through it. Like most of the food in D.C. schools, the turkey typically arrives frozen, usually from the Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar, MN, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods that bills itself as "one of the largest turkey processors and marketers in the world."

There's also a biscuit, serving as the grain in this meal, and the dark stuff in the upper right in the vegetable--spinach. You can pretty much count on the kids not eating that. "Nasty," as my daughter would say.

The turkey looks easy, but it does pose a problem. The only utensil the kids have to eat with is a plastic "spork," or combination spoon and fork. It doesn't cut meat.

One solution is the shovel method. Here you get the spork underneath a slice of the turkey meat, and quickly raise it up to your mouth and grab it with your teeth, as this 10-year-old girl is demonstrating. This takes good hand-eye-mouth coordination.

Another, more relaxed method is simply to tear with fingers and eat by hand. Another 10-year-old girl, seen here, was daintily pulling the turkey into pieces and raising it to her lips. I think I like this method better. She almost makes it look like the turkey is supposed to be eaten this way. The gravy does make a bit of a mess, though.

The Calories that Count

By Dr. Susan Rubin

Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. When it comes to food, we’ve been counting calories for years expecting a weight loss result that hasn’t materialized. While the food industry would like us to believe that ‘’energy balance” is all that really matters, it's time for us to take a good long look at the mythology behind calories in our food.

Morgan Spurlock demonstrated in his movie Super Size Me that most Americans don’t have a clue as to what a calorie is. A calorie is a measure of heat. It’s the amount of energy necessary to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celcius.

Based on the laws of thermodynamics, we are led to believe that the food we eat contains a certain amount of calories and that these calories are “burned” based on a set daily rate that depends on our activity level. In other words, you can “burn” more calories by exercising. Theoretically, if we eat less and exercise more, we will lose weight.

Of course, the food industry loves to make you feel guilty about not exercising enough. It helps to reinforce this false belief that it all comes down to calories. PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi recently stated, “If all consumers exercised, did what they had to do, the problem of obesity wouldn't exist.”

The science behind calorie burning works in a closed system such as a lab in which all factors can be isolated and measured. Our bodies are not simple machines that take calories in and burn them in a straightforward fashion. We are highly complex biological and energetic systems, not closed systems like those found in a science lab. It is virtually impossible to calculate how we burn calories because many variables impact our metabolic rate. This is one of the reasons that more than 80% of all diet strategies fail.

Common sense would tell you that 100 calories of sugar water is not the same as 100 calories of sautéed kale. Our bodies are way smarter than what the food industry would like us to believe. Changing portion sizes and creating “better for you” packaged processed foods is simply a Ponzi scheme that keeps everyone from realizing the big picture. Calorie cuts won’t solve the obesity crisis, but it will continue to create healthy profits for the food industry. The 1.5 trillion calorie cut recently pledged by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation in response to the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity is a fancy ploy to avoid legislation that might keep these money-making products out of schools.

There is another calorie count that is far more important than the food industry’s smoke and mirrors. Right now, 10 calories of fossil fuel are required to make every 1 calorie of industrialized food. Considering we now consume six barrels of oil for every one barrel we discover, we need to understand that we’ve got to create ways to produce food using less oil. The underwater oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is a grim reminder that the era of easy oil is over. Let’s consider just some of the ways the food industry burns calories.

Fertilizers and pesticides used to grow food are derived from natural gas and petroleum. Machinery used in planting and harvesting industrial food guzzle large quantities of fossil fuels. Packaging utilizes plastics, another petroleum product. Most food products travel thousands of miles en route to their final destination burning more fuel. Some are refrigerated or frozen, burning yet more calories of energy so we can conveniently buy these foods and beverages everywhere. Burning these calories results in more CO2 in the atmosphere and pushes us closer to peak oil.

When we start to consider how many resources are used to produce those “low calorie” edible food-like substances, we end up with real costs to our health, our wallets and our environment. How do we produce food that supports our health and burns fewer fossil fuels? The best food is closest to home: backyard gardens are the answer to both. The White House Task Force on Obesity should recommend gardens be placed in every schoolyard and outside every town hall. This strategy would cut trillions of calories and put better food on our tables.

Dr. Susan Rubin is a nutritionist, former dentist and organizer of Better School Food.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

D.C. to Pay for "Healthy Schools" with Sales Tax on Sodas

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The D.C. Council yesterday agreed to fully fund the recently approved "Healthy Schools" initiative, but not with the "soda tax" proposed by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). Rather, the city will begin imposing a more traditional sales tax of six percent on all soft drinks sold in the District.

What, you might be asking, is the difference between these two approaches to taxing sodas?

The beverage industry vigorously campaigned against the 1-cent excise tax on sodas because it would have raised the shelf price that consumers see when they purchase soft drinks. The sales tax of six percent, by contrast, appears only on the sales receipt after beverages have been purchased.

Although the industry also opposed the sales tax, it brings the District in line with neighboring Maryland, which already taxes soft drinks at six percent. Virginia levies a much lower 2.5 percent sales tax.

D.C. council members were more comfortable with the traditional sales tax approach because it is already familiar, in contrast to the more progressive excise tax, which was aimed not only at raising money to improve food served in the District's public schools, but also was seen as a weapon to combat obesity by making sugary sodas more expensive.

The penny-per-ounce excise tax would have only applied to sugar-sweetened beverages. Diet drinks, calorie-free drinks, juices (with at least 70% juice), milk, coffee, and tea would have been excluded. The six percent sales tax applies also to artificially sweetened beverages, including diet and zero-calorie drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks. It will not apply to beverages containing milk, coffee, juice or tea.

The one-cent excise tax also had a cap of 30 cents per container.

The six percent sales tax is projected to raise more revenue--$7.92 million annually--than the penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages--$6.3 million. Costs associated with the "Healthy Schools" initiative are expected to run about $6.5 million per year.

But the "soda tax" may not be dead. An aide to Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who authored the "Healthy Schools" legislation, said last night she will continue to press for the one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages sold in the city. "Because the obesity epidemic is such a enormous health crisis in the District (73% and 72% of residents in Ward 7 and 8 are overweight or obese!), Councilmember Cheh plans to continue to push for a penny-per-ounce excise tax because it is a good health policy."

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Quesadilla Inc.

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I'll bet you hadn't guessed that this "breakfast quesadilla" is made by the same company that makes the infamous "scrambled eggs" that travel 1,100 miles pre-cooked and frozen from a factory in Minnesota to schools in the District of Columbia.

That's right, Michael Foods, Inc., of Minnetonka, MN, bills itself as "the world's largest egg processing company." Besides frozen scrambled eggs and frozen "breakfast quesadillas," the company sells an array of egg products you probably never heard of--and others you have no doubt seen on your grocer's shelves.

"From our plants in the U.S. and Canada, we offer a complete line of Easy Eggs® Extended Shelf Life refrigerated liquid, frozen liquids, dried powders, pre-cooked, and other value-added specialty egg products," reads the company website. "Our brands of Papetti's®, M.G. Waldbaum and Inovatech Egg Products have a long history throughout the foodservice/catering, commercial baking, retail and food processing industries as providing leadership roles in the development of egg-based products to meet the needs of the modern operator."

Apparently, one of those "modern operators" would be D.C. Public Schools, or its hired food contractor, Chartwells-Thompson.

From Michael Foods, "modern operators" can purchase a whole line of liquid eggs, frozen eggs, dried eggs and something called "extended shelf life eggs." The "breakfast quesadillas," shipped frozen, then re-heated in a steamer while still in their plastic wrappers, are sold under the Pappetti's "Table Ready" brand. (Sorry, no clue who or what "Pappetti" is.)

This is what the quesadilla looks like fresh out of its plastic wrapper. In the background you can see one with wrapper.

Last year Michael Foods posted gross earnings of more than $1 billion. It's being sold by current owners Thomas H. Lee Partners, an investment group, to a division of Goldman Sachs--GS Capital Partners--for $1.7 billion.

That's a lot of eggs.

In case you were wondering what's in those quesadillas, here's the ingredient list from the box they came in. Each 3.24-ounce portion contains:

"Tortilla, enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, vegetable shortening (partially hydrogenated soybean and or cottonseed oils), contains 2% or less of the following: baking powder *sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, corn starch and monocalcium phosphate), salt, calcium propionate (organic acid and calcium salt), distilled mono and diglycerides, sorbic acid and baking soda. Filling: whole eggs, cooked turkey sausage (mechanically separated turkey, water, textured vegetable protein concentrate, caramel color), salt, spices, paprika, flavoring), pasteurized process low fat mozzarella cheese (culture milk, water, skim milk, sodium phosphates, salt, sorbic acid (preservative), enzymes, Vitamin A Palmitate), pasteurized process reduced fat cheddar cheese (cultured milk, water, skim milk, sodium phosphates, salt, annatto color, sorbic acid (preservative), enzymes, Vitamin A palmitate). Contains 2% or less of the following: modified corn starch, salt, citric acid, xanthan gum.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Rome Changed School Food

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

It didn't happen in a day, but Rome completely changed the food it serves in its schools, from pre-packaged, factory made meals to food cooked daily from scratch for all 160,000 of its public school students.

Here's a great, 27-minute film explaining how school officials in Rome accomplished the switch from factory meals to food made from fresh and largely local, organic ingredients. It took a determined food services director and lots of political will power. A coalition of local caterers (including Sodexo, the international food services giant) was brought on board to work within the schools budget. Kitchen staff had to be trained how to cook. Local suppliers had to be brought into the loop gradually.

Parents also are involved. They form "kitchen commissions" that routinely visit school kitchens to make sure ingredients are fresh, kitchens properly maintained. They also routinely visit cafeterias and taste the food. Kids get lots of soups and pastas made with fresh vegetables. They sit at tables laid with fresh linens and eat off real plates, using real cutlery.

In Rome, every child 14 and under receives a hot meal in school. One thing they don't get is a choice about what to eat. They also are not allowed to bring snacks or meals from home. Teachers are expected to sit with their students for lunch to encourage good eating habits.

This kind of school meal service is costly. Rome spends nearly $7 for each lunch, about $1.70 for ingredients. In the U.S., the federal government pays $2.68 for a fully-subsidized lunch. Most schools spend less than $1 on ingredients. But in Rome, parents pay half the cost. Italians see more expensive school meals as an good investment against the price of treating diseases caused by obesity.

But even in Italy, kids are influenced by the junk food culture that surrounds them. Some things they refuse to eat, and teachers are discouraged by how much food kids leave on their plate, to be thrown into the compost bins. (At least it's composted, not just sent to the landfill.) One-third of Italian seven- to 11-year-olds are overweight or obese. Kids are taught about healthful food habits and good nutrition in class.

This is an uplifting look at how school food can be when everyone works together. There's no reason we can't do that here--is there?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Update: Classroom Breakfast False Start

Confusion reigned at my daughter's elementary school this morning after an initiation of breakfast in the classroom failed to start.

The school's principal said she received an e-mail at 8:30 last night from food services saying the breakfast service in classrooms was cancelled, at least for today. She did not know if or when the program would be rescheduled.

In the cafeteria, the door to the food line, usually closed at 8:30, remained open with kids queued up waiting to get in. We had received a phone call from the school over the weekend notifying us that breakfast would be served in the classroom beginning at 8:45. But one parent said she never received that call.

Breakfast in Class

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Are D.C. Public Schools starting breakfast in classrooms?

We got an automated phone call over the weekend from my daughter's elementary school--H.D. Cooke--announcing that beginning today, breakfast would be served in the classrooms at 8:45. According to the call, kids would still be able to get breakfast in the cafeteria starting at 8:00 am, but then we got an e-mail from the PTA president on the school listserv saying breakfast would no longer be served in the cafeteria. So we have confusion.

Why is this happening? That part is unclear. There was no announcement from the school system but I have sent questions to the press office. Breakfast in classrooms had been one aspect of "Healthy Schools" legislation recently approved by the D.C. Council. But the new law has not gone into effect yet.

Child nutrition and food access advocates have been pressing for breakfast to be offered in D.C. classrooms as a way of making sure that kids are well fed in the morning while attending school. As I learned from my recent visit to the schools in Berkeley, CA, this method of serving breakfast can also generate huge amounts of funds from government meal programs. In Berkeley, the participation rate for classroom breakfast is 96 percent. Government subsidy payments for breakfast help pay the extra cost of making lunch from scratch.

Stay tuned. I will be reporting more on this classroom breakfast program here in the District of Columbia.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

Can a soda tax rescue "Healthy Schools" legislation?

Probably not. From everything we hear, the D.C. Council will deep-six a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soft drink that Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has proposed as a means of funding some $6 million worth of improvements to meal programs in D.C. Schools.

The money would help make breakfast universally free in all D.C. schools--including charter schools. It would also provide breakfast in classrooms in needy schools, remove the "reduced price" category from school lunch by subsidizing students who now co-pay, and kick in an extra 10 cents toward food for both breakfast and lunch and a 5-cent bonus for meals containing local produce.

The Council unanimously approved the "Healthy Schools" bill, but seems less inclined to provide money for it with the city's budget stretched. Advocates argue that such a tax would improve the health of D.C. residents and save the city millions in health care costs by driving down consumption of sugary drinks. The beverage industry, meanwhile, wants none of that, and has launched a campaign of radio ads and automated telephone calls to D.C. residents to defeat it.

The tax has been attached to the city's general budget measure, scheduled for a vote May 26.


Michelle Obama is leveraging her celebrityhood as first lady to wage a soft-gloved campaign against childhood obesity. Jamie Oliver, meanwhile, has been in this fight for years already and knows that it can take more than gentle persuasion to change the food schools serve. Here's a piece in the Washington Examiner contrasting the two approaches.


Officials in New York City are trying to make school principals pay some $6 million in uncollected school lunch fees, but so far without luck.

The city originally had given the principals until Friday to ante up, but changed course at the last minute, giving them another year to gather the money. With the city’s education budget facing large cuts, reports the New York Times, the Department of Education is trying to get principals to crack down on parents who fail to pay.

A letter sent to principals this month advised them that any unpaid fees at the end of the year would be deducted from their school budgets for the coming year.


Rachel Ray may have been Food Networks equivalent of a sex kitten, but Congress is learning she has a sharp tongue when it comes to getting better food into the nation's school. Ray spent some time on Capitol Hill recently browbeating lawmakers about the need for them to pony up with funding for the federal school meals programs.

"How could you go to any state in the union and say you are not for an extra couple of cents to eradicate hunger, to make our kids healthier, stronger, better focused?" Ray said at one point. "It doesn't make any sense that you would even have to have a long conversation about that, to me."

Ray reportedly told Congress, "Find the money now and get it done or you are going to be part of sinking our ship down the line."

You go, Rachel.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually promotes the idea of schools using processed government commodity products in school meals. Instead of accepting meat, grains and vegetables directly from the government and working them into meals, schools essentially trade commodity credits they earn from student participation in the federally subsidized meal program to have those raw products shipped instead of corporate processors, who turn them in cooked meal items that only need re-heating at school

Chef Ann Cooper explains how it works.


Finally, the Rodale Institute, champion of organic farming methods, details how some schools in Colorado are incorporating fresh, local products into school meals. And here are schools in Ohio doing very much the same thing.

It's a movement, people.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Sugar Wrapped in Plastic

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Originally I had planned to publish this as the alternate breakfast to the ball of oatmeal that was served at my daughter's elementary school this week. But it's just as well to focus on how much of the food offered in D.C. school cafeterias consists of processed package foods, especially at breakfast. Missing from this tray is the cereal, such as Apple Jacks, that comes in a sealed plastic tub and the ubiquitous strawberry or chocolate milk the kids pour on it.

The juice you see here is typically frozen, or at least partially frozen. It arrives that way at the school, then is moved into a walk-in refrigerator to defrost, but rarely spends enough time there to defrost completely.

What I want to focus on today is the Otis Spunkmeyer "Delicious Essential" apple cinnamon muffin. Otis Spunkmeyer was the creation of Kenneth B. Rawlings and his wife Linda, who began in the food business in 1977 with a fresh-baked cookie store in Oakland, CA. After expanding to a chain of cookie stores, they eventually left the retail business to sell frozen cookie dough nationwide, and later muffins and other baked goods.

The name "Otis Spunkmeyer" was the creation of the Rawlings' 12-year-old daughter.

After the company reached some $200 million in annual sales, the Rawlings sold it to a private investment group, and in 2006, the company passed to IAWS Group for $561 million. IAWS is described as an "international lifestyle food business" with operations in the United Kingdom, France, Canada and the U.S.

In 2008, IAWS merged with Hiestand Holding AG, a Swiss baked goods and convenience food company with operations in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Malaysia, Japan and Australia. The new company is called ARYZTA AG, which reported combined revenues of $2.3 billion.

ARYZTA AG continues to operate Otis Spunkmeyer out of San Leandro, CA.

Otis Spunkmeyer continues to do a land office business selling frozen cookie dough for school and other types of fundraisers. The company advertises its "Delicious Essentials" muffins this way on its website:

Made with Whole Grain (1.8oz size only)
Fortified with 25% Daily Value of 10 nutrients
No more than 30% calories from fat
Less than 10% calories from saturated fat
0 grams trans fat
Less than 35% added sugar by weight
No partially hydrogenated oils
3.6 oz muffin size meets CN requirements for two bread servings
1.8 oz muffin size meets CN requirements for one bread serving

In other words, the muffins have been designed to meet standards for school meals set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
These muffins are engineered using a number of industrial food additives. Here are the ingredients for the apple cinnamon muffin, as listed on the company website:

Enriched Flour (Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Sugar, Eggs, Invert Sugar, Apple Sauce, Brown Rice Flour, Soybean Oil, Water. Contains 2% or less of the following: Food Starch—Modified, Leavening (Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Corn Starch, Whey Protein Concentrate, Cinnamon, Salt, Potassium Sorbate as a preservative, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Propylene Glycol Monostearate, Monoglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Xanthan Gum, Lecithin, Caramel Color. Nutrient Blend: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Zinc Oxide, Calcium Sulfate, Reduced Iron, Niacin, Vitamin D-3, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid, Riboflavin, Thiamin Mononitrate, Biotin, Vitamin B-12.Contains: Milk, Wheat, Eggs

Oh, and each apple cinnamon muffin contains 15 grams of sugar, almost four teaspoons worth.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What's for breakfast: Oatmeal?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I was wondering why so many kids were exiting the food line with just a turkey sausage link on their trays. Then I saw what was being offered with the sausage. That furry ball you see in the picture that looks like a rolled-up woollen sock is supposed to be oatmeal. I don't know how anyone would eat it, or why any adult would think this would appeal to a child.

The 10-year-old girl to whom this tray belonged never touched the "oatmeal." It went straight into the trash after she ate the sausage.

Two other parents were sitting at the table this morning, just being near while their kids ate. One of the mothers originally is from Nigeria. She said she did not understand the food being served in our school here.

"In Africa, everything we eat is fresh," she said. "We don't have food like this. No frozen food. You buy your food fresh, and you eat it that day."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

School Food in Lyons, France: Where Taste and Culture Matter

Guest Post
By Nicholas Morin

Directed here from an article in the New York Times, I've been interested in reading this blog and I thought I could share something with you in return: I live in Lyons, France, and I have a 6-year-old daughter. She eats at school every day, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you what she eats at her school.

Obesity is rising in France: from about 6% of the population in 1990, to a little under 10% today. But that's still very low compared to more than 25% in the US. And Wikipedia tells me that "while French youth culture has gravitated toward fast food and American eating habits (with an attendant rise in obesity), the French in general have remained committed to preserving certain elements of their food culture through such activities as including programs of 'taste acquisition' in their public schools".

Yes, my daughter has a "taste acquisition" class in school: it's part of the curriculum here to be taught about food, not just as something abstract (remember the "food pyramid"?), but official programs say children should be taught about different tastes. And they are also encouraged to talk about what they feel when they taste something. Children are taught that food is something cultural, something you experience: food as taste and culture.

This cultural bias towards food and it's importance shows in what children eat when they eat at school. Even though each school contracts independently with a catering company, selecting offers from the marketplace, schools have to abide by national guidelines in the contracting process. Those guidelines mandate certain things about food security or waste management, but they also mandate things about the diet itself.

For instance, the guidelines require that each menu should have at least one dairy product, three courses, etc. At the local level, parents get the menu for every school day about three months in advance. Here's what my daughter had last week:

Monday: Grated carrots with a light vinaigrette; roasted chicken wing with cauliflower in a "béchamel sauce", aka "white sauce"; blue cheese; a fruit.

Tuesday: Cold vegetable pie with vinaigrette; fish with a tomato sauce; pasta; cheese; a fruit.

Wednesday: No School

Thursday: Green salad; veal with olives and beans; a yogurt; a fruit.

Friday: potato salad; cheese omelet with spinach; fresh goat cheese; a yogurt.

That's it. Does anything about this sound wrong to an American ear? Besides a lot of cheese?

Choice: There is no choice. Children don't get to choose if they'd rather have cauliflower or fries. It's mandatory: cauliflower for all! If your kid hates it--well, she'll eat better tomorrow: it's spinach day!

But in truth, my daughter loves to eat there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Welcome New York Times Readers

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If you are visiting our parents blog for the first time, please feel free to take a look around. A few months ago, after I ran a series of articles at The Slow Cook blog documenting the industrially-processed convenience foods being served at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia, many people wrote me asking what we could do about it. We formed Parents for Better D.C. School Food.

We are a Google group, a Facebook page, and this blog, which tries to document with photos and written nutritional analysis the food that the D.C. Public Schools' contracted provider--Chartwells-Thompson--serves on a daily basis.

One of our primary concerns is the sugar level in these meals packed with flavored milk, juices, candied cereals and cookies at breakfast. D.C. children, who have one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation, routinely consume up to 60 grams of sugar in school cafeterias every morning. That's the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, more than a quarter-cup.

Unfortunately, there are no standards regulating the amount of sugar that can be served in school meals sponsored by the federally-subsidized meal programs, nor are there any limits on sugar in meals in the "Healthy Schools" legislation recently approved by the D.C. Council. There is now a battle over a "soda tax" proposed as a means of funding the "Healthy Schools" bill.

Every day, you can see children like the one in this photo pouring strawberry-flavored milk containing 28 grams of sugar in a one-cup portion over brand-name cereals such as Apple Jacks containing even more sugar. This is no studio shot. It was taken at H.D. Cooke Elementary School here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House where Michelle Obama is waging her own war on childhood obesity.

We called this meal "glycemic bomb" because of all the starch and sugar involved. Carbohydrates like this turn into glucose--a form of sugar--when eaten, triggering an insulin response. Insulin is a powerful hormone linked to obesity and attendant, crippling diseases such as diabetes.

This is the kind of industrially-processed convenience food served every day for lunch in D.C. schools. "Healthy Schools" legislation would not eliminate this food, but it would provide extra money to D.C. schools for food, even to incorporate local produce into school meals.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What's for Lunch: Rib Sandwich or Chef's Salad?

The menu for D.C. schools posted by Chartwells-Thompson calls this a "BBQ beef riblet." It may look like ribs, but I guarantee its never been near an actual beef rib. And cattle don't have "riblets." They have Fred Flinstone-size ribs. So this is something that's been re-constituted and shaped to look like ribs, just like the phony grill marks the food processors put on the "beef teriyaki bites."

The menu also called for fresh baby carrots. The 10-year-old who took this meal might have simply declined the carrots. I didn't see any on any of the kids trays. (Hardly surprising, since the kids don't like them.) Between the beef, the bun and the beans (also a vegetable), this qualifies as a complete meal.

The alternate was this gorgeous chef's salad. This got me thinking that maybe the food services administration has beefed up the staff at my daughter's school in response to all the blogging I've been doing about the meals served there. Salad is often an alternate, but you don't see them putting on the nine's like this very often.
It's true the meat is all processed government turkey, even the stuff that looks like ham. And the lettuce is the usual iceberg, most likely from California. Still, it looks great. The one drawback was an absence of dressing for the salad. I asked the boy to whom this lunch belonged if there weren't any dressing for it and he said, "I didn't see any."
Score lots of style points for this effort.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Egg burrito

Just about all the food served in D.C. schools arrived frozen or canned. But egg burrito? This will require further investigation.

Here's what it looks like inside. Some sort of scrambled egg with tomato salsa inside a giant flour tortilla. Note the double dose of sugar on the side, chocolate milk with orange juice.

This was the alternate breakfast: yogurt, graham crackers, orange juice. Which do you think is better?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wilting Spinach at Washington Youth Garden

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The Washington Youth Garden, located at the National Arboretum here in the District of Columbia, does some wonderful work reaching out to local schools with science, cooking and gardening instruction. It's very much like the Edible Schoolyard that Alice Waters started in Berkeley, CA, except that in addition to the actual gardens and programs that take place there, Youth Garden instructors travel to teach classes in city schoolrooms as well.

Yesterday, one of those classes was invited to the garden for a cooking demonstration with me as the guest chef. Keep in mind, this is all happening al fresco, under the shade of a huge tree, except that it was cold and cloudy and threatening to rain the whole time. The Youth Garden has a propane stove to cook on and a few rudimentary tools. I brought along my big, iron wok and a plan to show the kids how to wilt spinach.

I wasn't sure exactly what was growing in the garden. So I brought along plenty of supermarket spinach--enough to feed 25 curious kids and their teachers.

First we had some fun washing the spinach with the hose and spinning it dry. The kids took turns. They love doing things like spraying water and handling the salad spinner.

Next we cooked some minced garlic at the bottom of the wok with extra-virgin olive oil. Then add lots of spinach leaves. This is why I love to use the wok. It holds lots of greens. I showed the kids how to press the spinach leaves down with their hands to make good contact with the hot oil. Then they took turns turning the spinach and garlic.

We improvised a lid using a metal bowl. That helped the spinach cook faster. Then we drained it out of the wok and dressed it with a little more olive oil, some salt, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

Do I need to tell you how much they loved the spinach? They were crying for second and third helpings.

They also got to pick a little spinach before it started to rain and forced them back on their bus.

Kids love to pick vegetables. Does that make them better vegetable eaters? The teacher said they're crazy for the salad bar they have at school. I'd like to see that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What's for Lunch: "Grilled Cheese"

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The "grilled cheese" sandwich in D.C. schools is actually two factory-toasted slices of bread surrounding a thick layer of oozing, processed, Velveeta-like cheese that arrives at schools frozen, then is re-heated in a steamer while still in its plastic packaging.

As far as the peas and carrots go, only about half the kids in the lunch room had them on their tray. I saw only one child eating them. She was picking at them with her fingers. The rest went in the trash.

When I asked why they weren't eating them, one 10-year-old replied: "They're nasty."

Even though it clearly is not grilled, it comes in this package with a wacky, animated sandwich on the front and the words "Hot off the Grill," as well as "Grilled Cheese." Do you suppose kids know that their leg is being pulled?

Here's a close-up of what the cheese looks like. There's plenty of it. Some of it gets left behind in the packaging. I saw several kids turning the plastic packaging inside-out and chewing on it to get the rest of the cheese.

There's one boy, considerably overweight, who seems to be the go-to guy for other kids who don't want to eat their food. Here he is working on his second sandwich, thanks to one of his classmates who didn't want hers. When I suggested that one might be enough, he replied: "But I'm hungry."

Notice the chocolate milk to wash it all down.

"Hot off the Grill" comes from Integrated Food Service in Gardena, CA. According to the label on the shipping container, each 5.01-ounce sandwich provides "2.0 oz. equivalent meat alternate and 3.25 servings of bread."
The listed ingredients are:

"Whole grain bread, water, whole wheat flour, enriched fread flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, nicacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), bread base (sugar, soy oil, dextrose, salt wheat flour, mono & diglycerides, calcium stearoyl lactylate, wheat gluten calcium sulfate, diacetyl tartanic acid esters of mono & diglycerides, ammonium sulfate, ethoxylated mono & diglycerides, guar gum, ascorbic acid, monocalcium phosphate, potassium iodite enzyme, calcium peroxide), sugar, yeast, wheat gluten, calcium propionate (preservative). Processed American cheese. Reduced fat American cheese (milk, salt, cheese cultures, enzymes, water, nonfat dry milk, whey, cream, sodium citrate, salt, sorbic acid (added as a preservative), soy lecithin (non sticking agent), APO carotenal (if colored). Soybean oil. THIS PRODUCT MAY CONTAIN COMMODITY CHEESE DONATED BY THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE.

"Allergens: wheat, milk, soy."

Monday, May 10, 2010

What for Lunch: Turkey Sandwich, Chips from Home

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This looks a lot like the lunches I ate when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure I always brought a brown bag lunch from home with some kind of sandwich. Except I don't think we had "turkey ham" in those days, made out of turkey thighs "chunked and formed." And a plastic cup with mayo?

The kids are probably more likely to eat the carrots in this plastic bag than the steamed carrots they are often served. (Did you know that these are not actually "baby" carrots, but regular carrots that are industrially "sanded" to make them look junior-size?)

This was the alternative: spaghetti with meat sauce. I believe these are the famous "beef crumbles," made with government commodity beef and soy protein by a company in Cincinnati. They arrive frozen and are poured into a steamer to reheat, then sauced. The spaghetti also is cooked in a pan in the steamer, proving that you don't actually need a stove to make school food.

And this is what one fourth-grade girl brought from home to eat with her lunch. In some public schools, this would not be allowed. Junk food is confiscated.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

Mexico, which has an even worse obesity problem than the U.S., is on a path to ban junk foods from school and require at least 30 minutes of physical exercise for school children.

The Mexican legislature's lower house approved the measures based on figures showing that obesity in the country has tripled over the last 30 years. Some 70 percent of Mexican children between the ages of five and 11 are classified as overweight. A 2006 health survey found that 40 percent of Mexicans are obese.


Major food companies that promised to cooperate with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to combat child obesity may be getting cold feet. A report in Bloomberg Newsweek says that a recent meeting between food industry representatives and the Food and Drug Administration turned testy when the FDA said it wants measures to force complliance with healthier food objectives.

The FDA is considering "red-light, green-light" labeling on package fronts, or possibly a five-star ranking system, to help consumers quickly determine whether a product is healthy or not. The agency wants companies to voluntarily agree to front-of-package standards by the fall and has "not ruled out regulatory approaches" to force compliance, says Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's commissioner for foods.


In a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Marion Nestle lays out all the ways the sugar industry has blocked standards that might otherwise control the amount of sugar kids get in school meals.

U.S. Department of Agiculture rules regulate just about everything pertaining to school meals, including tight restrictions on fat and the servings of grains, meats and fruits and vegetables children should be served. But the greatest danger to children's health may come from all the sugar they eat--especially at breakfast, with all those candied cereals, Pop-Tarts and chocolate milk they're served. So far, there's no regulation covering all that sugar at all.


Introducing healthier foods to children and explaining why some foods are better than others is one of the toughest challenges parents face. Here's one dad struggling to figure out where he's gone wrong and why his kids aren't foodie gourmets.

Of course he hasn't done anything wrong. He just hasn't accepted that where food is concerned, kids often have a mind of their own.


Finally, Ann Cooper, the "renegade lunch lady," gave some excellent tips on her blog for parents who want to change the school food in their community. Get active in your local school! Connect with the national movement for change! Voice your concerns to Congress!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Your Support Still Needed for "Healthy Schools"

By Andrea Northup

As the Coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office on a landmark piece of legislation - the Healthy Schools Act. The Act passed through the final Council vote on Tuesday May 4th. It now goes on to the Mayor’s desk for his approval, then to a 30-day consideration period in the U.S. Congress. Then the bill becomes a law, funding is secured, and its provisions are implemented.

I had the good fortune to run into the Mayor a few weeks ago as he campaigned in my neighborhood. When I asked Mayor Fenty if he would pass the Healthy Schools Act, he claimed enthusiastically that as a champion for the District’s schoolchildren he “couldn’t wait to sign the Healthy Schools Act.” Let’s hope he keeps his word and moves the legislation forward!

The next step is to be sure that this bill is funded. The Council is holding a Healthy Schools Act Revenue Hearing on May 12th - watch for the details on We need to be at the Wilson Building in full force testifying about the importance of fully funding this bill. On May 26th, the Budget Support Act will be finalized. The BSA houses the Council’s amendments to the Mayor’s proposed budget, including revenues for legislation like the Healthy Schools Act.

But let’s go back to the long, involved process that led to this piece of legislation. As an advocate for more healthy, local and sustainable food in D.C. schools, my role was to reach out to the real experts here in the District who know school food. I talked with food service providers, producers and distributors, parents, teachers, kids, and other stakeholders along the chain from seed to cafeteria tray. I reached out to school food policy experts in other states, and on the national scale. I asked them all the same question - how can state-level policy help us get more healthy, local, sustainable foods into Washington, DC schools?

I had conversations, emails, meetings, and conference calls. And I wasn’t the only one - advocates and activists across the District gathered ideas, comments and concerns from their constituent bases. Councilmember Cheh’s staff pulled these ideas together in an inclusive, transparent and quite commendable way.

This is an important piece of legislation for many reasons. Like I said, creating the bill was transparent, open and “kosher.” Second, the bill acknowledges that child hunger, obesity and environmental degradation are complex issues, and it tackles those issues from a number of different angles. And third, Councilmember Cheh is dedicated to funding this bill. Whether through a “soda tax,” or other means, she assures us that her office will not rest until the bill is fully funded and implemented.

And we as advocates won’t rest until the issues of child hunger, obesity, and environmental degradation are at bay. We have a long road ahead, but this bill is one small step in a long, slow journey.

Andrea Northup is coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network.

Friday, May 7, 2010

You Call This Breakfast?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
This morning's breakfast at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia looked like the siege of Leningrad: bread and potatoes.

Does it get any starchier than this?

Some of the kids had their usual strawberry milk and orange juice with this, so in addition to the starch there was plenty of sugar. This choice of breakfast seemed so odd that I checked the online menu that's posted by Chartwells-Thompson, the food service provider for D.C. schools. The menu advertised scrambled eggs and toast, plus an option of cereal and Giant Goldfish Grahams.

My guess is that there weren't any scrambled eggs in the school freezer this morning. Maybe they were never delivered. Otherwise, they're cooked in a factory in Minnesota with about 11 other food industry ingreints. The ladies in the school kitchen simply dump them in a steamer and reheat them. The kids are not particularly fond of the scrambled eggs, but that would have been your protein this morning.

I can't call Whitney Bateson, the nutritionist for Chartwells-Thompson, because she won't answer my questions for publication. She will only talk to parents individually. And questions I submitted to the D.C. Public Schools' new food service director, Jeffrey Mills, way back on March 12 still have not received a response.

It's not at all easy figuring out why our kids are being fed at school the way they are. But we keep trying.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Egg & Cheese

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's something I had not seen before: an egg patty, smeared with processed cheese, served alongside a bagel.

Presumably, the egg patty is supposed to be sandwiched between the bagel slices.

I wondered if the egg patty came from the same place as the scrambled eggs served at my daughter's elementary school. Those are cooked with about 11 other food industry ingredients in a factory in Minnesota and shipped frozen. Well, just about everything served in the school cafeterias in the District of Columbia is made in a factory somewhere and shipped frozen.

From what I saw, the kids approached this breakfast tentatively. They seemed more interested in the bagel than the egg. They just didn't like the looks of that cheese. Can you blame them?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's for Lunch: Cheese Bread

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The marinara sauce (in the cup) was pretty weak, and it's not clear exactly how this is supposed to work. Are the kids supposed to pour the marinara sauce on the cheese bread? Or are they supposed to dip the oversized, rectangular bread into the round, plastic cup?

I saw mixed reactions. Some kids just sat and stared at it and didn't eat at all. Others ate it, although tentatively. They didn't care much for the canned green beans.

This was the alternate: curried turkey wrapped in a big, flour tortilla. This little girl brought her own soda from home, to go with the chocolate milk, I suppose.

What's for Breakfast: Pizza!

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Parents may hate to hear it, but pizza is the all time favorite food of kids at school. But pizza for breakfast? Is that a good idea?

Like most meal items served in District of Columbia schools, it arrives frozen from Schwan's Food Service, Inc., in Marshall, MN. Schwan's Food Service calls this product "Tony's Breakfast Bagel." It's not clear who Tony is, or why he insists on calling this product a "bagel" when the label says it's covered with "pizza" sauce and even to the untrained eye is clearly a pizza.

Is Tony embarassed to be serving pizza to children for breakfast? (I would print the ingredient list here, but it's too long, full of things like sodium citrate, and sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium tripolyphosphate and magnesium oxide, and ferric orthophosphate. So many sodiums and phosphates....)

But clearly this item is designed for children. Because right on the box label it says that one 2.6-ounce "breakfast bagel" provides one ounce "equivalent meat/meat alternate and 1 serving of bread alternate for the Child Nutrition Meal Pattern Requirements." For a nutrtionist back at a computer trying to figure out what to order for school breakfasts, this sort of information from a food processor in Minnesota makes the job much easier.

The instructions on the package advise cooking the "breakfast bagel" for eight to 10 minutes in a convection oven set to 375 degrees. But at our school, it's placed in a commercial steamer and heated while still inside its individual plastic package. It comes to the serving line piping hot. (The temperature in Washington hit 88 degrees the day this was served, a record.)

This is what it looks like after the wrapper's removed, to be washed down with chocolate milk and orange juice.

This little girl was using the plastic wrapper to hold the pizza. How else do you eat it?

But my daughter declared, "This stuff is nasty." She was referring to the turkey "sausage" topping on the pizza. "It tastes raw," she said. So she picked it all off. The other kids started removing their sausage, too.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Raisin Bran "The Worst"?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Raisin Bran is a "healthy" cereal, right?

Not according to a recent health column published on the Yahoo! site. Columnist David Zinczenko called Kellogg's Raisin Bran with the smiling little sunshine on the cover "the worst iconic cereal" of all. It's all about sugar. Here's what he had to say:

"It'll be hard to find a more sugar-loaded cereal than Raisin Bran. It’s sweeter than even Lucky Charms, Reese’s Puffs, or Cocoa Krispies. Some of that sugar can be attributed to the raisins’ natural blend of fructose and glucose, but the real culprit is the sticky white armor of sucrose that enrobes each piece of fruit. Both Kellogg’s and Post are guilty of this raisin mistreatment, so what should be a legitimately healthy bowl of fruit and grains pours out closer to a candy-coated dessert."

Fact is, giant food companies like Kellogg's give out huge sums in "discounts" (some people call them "kickbacks") to food service companies like Chartwells-Thompson--the one that provides food service for D.C. schools--to carry their products. And since Chartwells-Thompson serves millions of meals to kids all across the country, we can only imagine what those "discounts" add up to each year.

So there are corporate incentives to steer kids to sugary cereals like Raisin Bran, and also imprint the Kellogg's brand on them in the process.

In the breakfast above, this elementary school child had on her tray 11 grams of sugar in the Raisin Bran, 28 grams of sugar in the strawberry-flavored milk, 11 grams in the orange juice and six grams in the graham crackers. That's 56 total grams of sugar, or the equivalent of 14 teaspoons. (The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of "added" sugar per day for an adult woman.)

But if you can't eat good ol' Raisin Bran, what can you eat? Zinczenko recommends another Kellogg's product: All Bran. Just add a few of your own raisins.

Monday, May 3, 2010

What to Do About the White Stuff: Sugar in Schools

By Susan Rubin, DMD

As a dentist fresh out of school in the late 1980’s, I was idealistic and passionate about my new profession. I gave lots of “tooth talks” at schools and childcare centers every February, during Children’s Dental Health month. It wasn’t until I started having kids of my own that I learned the truth about sugar: it damages more than just your teeth.

My wake up call came when my first daughter was 7. She arrived home bouncing off the walls, happy and proud to have earned four Skittles in a spelling bee. I also found fruit roll-up wrappers in her back pack. Apparently in addition to the teachers rewarding kids with candy, this sticky string was being sold in the cafeteria.

The more I looked into what was happening in the cafeteria and the classroom, the more shocked I was. Our school was swimming in sugar. While most teachers and parents could tell themselves that this was okay in moderation, somehow it never really sat right with me. I saw the damage with my own eyes every day as I drilled, filled and billed.

I wondered why anyone would let their kid have a series of sugar hits throughout the day. Despite anesthesia and laughing gas, having a cavity drilled and filled is no fun if you’re a child or an adult. The irony is that tooth decay is completely preventable.

At the end of 1999, I put down my dental drill and went back to school to study integrative nutrition and Chinese herbal medicine. I became a full time school food advocate and holistic nutritionist. In my new line of work, just like in dentistry, I deal with the damage done by refined sugar every day.

My education taught me that sugar doesn’t just rot your teeth and widen your waistline. Contrary to what the food industry likes to tell us, sugar is not just an empty calorie. Sugar is a serious anti-nutrient that creates a host of problems that extend beyond obesity and tooth decay. Let me just name a few:

Cardio-vascular disease: refined sugar consumption raises triglyceride levels, creates an inflammatory situation that promotes heart disease.

Refined sugar depletes minerals and vitamins B and C, resulting in lowered immunity, weaker bones.

Sugar impacts behavior

C. Keith Conners, author of Feeding the Brain, showed that children given a sugar rich breakfast became restless and hyperactive. All you really need to do is ask any teacher or parent, they have lots of first hand experience with this fact.

Sugar can be addictive. Serge Ahmed, PhD, a scientist who specializes in addiction research, clearly demonstrates that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward. His cocaine-addicted laboratory rats consistently chose sugar over cocaine (Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin L. & Ahmed, S.H., 2007).

Cathleen DesMaisons,PhD, author of Potatoes Not Prozac and Little Sugar Addicts makes the case that up to 50% of the population is “sugar sensitive”, a nice way of saying addicted. According to Dr. DesMaisons, people who are sugar sensitive respond to sugar, white flour products and alcohol in a completely different way than regular or non-sugar sensitive folks. The biochemistry of a sugar sensitive person is unbalanced, leading to a whole host of problems and setting them up for sugar addiction, alcoholism, depression, obesity and more. I’ve seen this scenario myself in 10 years of private practice.

Juice is another sugar hit that impacts children’s health in a negative way. In my past life as a dentist, I worked to convince my local pediatricians not to start toddlers on juice. I saw loads of damaged teeth due to sippy cups and juice boxes. More recently, pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustic MD gave a presentation on the health impacts of fructose found in HFCS and in fruit juice (Sugar: The Bitter Truth.)

Juice has been part of WIC and the National School Lunch Program since the Nixon Administration. I would like to see the USDA reconsider the inclusion of juice in these programs when they re-evaluate the Food Pyramid. Perhaps they should invite Dr. Lustig to testify. Unfortunately major juice manufacturers such as Tropicana (owned by Pepsi) and Minute Maid (Coca-Cola) have lots of clout and will work hard to make sure that it won’t happen.

Despite all the attention on school food reform in the past years, our kids continue to ingest hazardous amounts of sugar in schools. Some school districts pat themselves on the back because they sell Vitamin Water instead of Coca-Cola. Welch’s Fruit Chews may have replaced Fruit Roll Ups in some schools. These are, in my opinion, examples of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

No doubt, your local dentist is busier than ever, drilling, filling and billing. Sports drinks are even more cariogenic than soda. "Healthy” granola bars are another great indirect revenue source for your dentist. In some areas of the country, Mountain Dew remains in school fairs and fundraisers. Mountain Dew is notorious to us dentists. Physicians in Maine are being trained how to extract teeth because there are not enough dentists to deal with the growing cases of "Mountain Dew mouth."

Chocolate milk and “flavored” milks are another source of refined sugar in schools. I was happy to see Jamie Oliver blast the flavored milks in his last episode of "Food Revolution." Sadly, it will take more than his outrage on TV to get those sugar sweetened beverages out of schools.

After more than a decade of school food advocacy, I’m well aware of how entrenched sugar is in schools. Perhaps it's time to take another approach. After all, schools are supposed to be teaching our kids. How about we raise the Food IQ about sugar? Not just in health class where most schools teach the Food Pyramid. Let’s put sugar education into the basic four: Math, English, Social Studies and Science.

Math: Here’s an elementary level math problem:

Calculate the number of teaspoons in 20 oz. bottles of Nestle’s Qwik , Coca-Cola and Minute Maid Lemonade .

First you’ve got to consider serving size: 20 oz. is 2.5 servings.

Next you’ve got to turn grams into teaspoons: 4 gm = 1 teaspoon.

Once you’re done with the math calculations, take some white sugar, count out those spoonfuls and fill up empty 20 oz. bottles.

Bonus: Calculate the number of teaspooons of sugar in a school year’s worth of chocolate milk.
English: Chew on This,by Eric Schlosser, and Omnivore's Dilemma (Young Reader’s Edition), by Michael Pollan, are two great books for young readers.

Older readers could check out a classic book, Sugar Blues by Willian Dufty.

Social Studies: Sugar has a colorful history. Studying sugar and the slave trade would be a good place to start.

Older students could read Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind, which has a great segment on sugar.

Science: Learn about how sugar is made from sugarcane It takes 17 feet of sugarcane to make 1 cup of sugar. What happens to the nutrients in the process?

Learn about tooth decay. Do some experiments using soda, sports drinks and other liquids. Watch how fast baby teeth dissolve!

Once teachers and students start to learn more about refined sugar, this will help to pave the way for its reduction in school food.

Dr. Susan Rubin is a school food advocate, holistic nutritionist, and retired dentist. She is the founder of Better School Food. Her work was featured in the movie, Two Angry Moms.