Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great Clamor for Sugar-Free Schools

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Jamie Oliver at his widely followed website this week linked to this blog, Better D.C. School Food, and news that D.C. Public Schools will no longer serve flavored milk and sugary cereals. The result was more than 100 times the usual number of visitors yesterday and more than 100 comments, almost unanimously supporting the effort to reduce the amount of sugar served to kids in school.

Many of those comments, from readers around the country, constitute pleas to school officials to take similar steps to make food healthier in their school districts. It appears there is a huge demand to restrict flavored milk in particular. But the powerful dairy industry has managed to scare many parents and food service directors into believing that children will suffer horrible health consequences if they do not have access to milk laced with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavorings, colorings and other additives.

Most of the industry's flavored milk is served in schools and schools pay more for it. But an eight-ounce serving of low-fat milk already contains 12 grams of sugar--or three teaspoons--in the form of naturally occurring lactose. Chocolate milk typically has another 12 to 14 grams of sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup added, making it nearly the equivalent of Classic Coke. Strawberry milk has even more sugar, almost as much as Mountain Dew.

Parents for Better D.C. School Food have argued that school meals could be made healthier overnight simply by eliminating the sugary "treats" served to children on a daily basis, especially at breakfast. In D.C. schools, breakfast options typically include flavored milk, sugary cereals, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and fruit juice, meaning elementary school children often are consuming 50 or 60 grams of sugar--the equivalent of 15 teaspoons--before classes even start.

Ironically, despite all the regulations and standards governing the nutritional content of food served under the federally subsidized meals programs, there is no limit on the amount of sugar that can be served. Like the dairy industry, the sugar lobby in this country is a powerful force. Even the recently approved "Healthy Schools Act" here in the District of Columbia, while increasing funding for school meals and raising nutrition standards, failed to take on the sugar issue, ostensibly because there are no existing standards on which to base local regulations.

It was up to school officials to take the first, bold step.

D.C. school officials have said that in addition to eliminating flavored milk, they will also be choosing cereals with six grams of sugar or less. That would rule out virtually all of the cereals served until now by the D.C. Public Schools' current food service provider, Chartwell's. So far, however, school officials have not responded to our inquiries about possible new protocols for serving other sugary processed foods and fruit juices.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and her classmates at H.D. Cooke Elementary School were being served Pop-Tarts for breakfast in their classroom. A single serving of "whole grain frosted strawberry" Pop-Tart contains 13 grams of sugar, or a bit more than three teaspoons. Here are the ingredients listed on the packaging:

"Whole wheat lfour, high fructose corn syrup, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, Thiamin mononitrate (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), folic acid), soybean and palm oil (with TBHQ for freshness), polydextrose, sugar, dextrose, corn syrup solids, corn syrup, whole grain barley flour, glycerin, contains two percent or less of inulin from chicory root, wheat starch, salt, dried strawberries, dried pears, dried apples, cornstarch, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, moncalcium phosphate), natural and artificial strawbery flavor, citric acid, gelatin, caramel color, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, modified wheat starch, Vitamin A palmitate, niacinimide, red #40, reduced iron, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), yellow #6, riboflavin (Vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), folic acid.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What's for Lunch: Grilled Cheese from Los Angeles

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The mystery of the grilled cheese sandwich served at my daughter's elementary school--heated in its own plastic wrapper in the school kitchen's steamer--has finally been solved.

We didn't know where this sandwich came from or what was in it because the wrapper gives none of that information. But I was finally able to find the packing box the sandwiches arrive in (72 sandwiches in a box, weighing 22.55 pounds) and all was revealed.

The sandwiches are made by a company called Integrated Food Service located in Gardena, CA, outside Los Angeles. That's right: this grilled cheese sandwich travels 3,000 miles frozen so that it can be re-heated and served on the steam tables in D.C. Public Schools.

"We manufacture products for Schools and their Distributors in approximately 40 States as well as produce a wide variety of items for our private-label, retail customers.," says the company's website. "Our product mix consists of Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Hot Dogs, Breakfast Items and Mexican Items including Quesadillas, Chalupas and Taco Sticks. We also manufacture pre-wrapped Hamburgers and Cheeseburgers and offer a complete Beef line of precooked Hamburgers, Sausage Patties, Beef Crumbles and Taco Meat."

"Our unbeatable 'Hot Off The Grill' brand offers a variety of delicious, nutritious Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. We bake our bread fresh daily for the freshest, cheesiest sandwiches! They come in colorful ovenable packaging or bulk. Serve daily as a vegetarian option with tomato soup! Our whole grain sandwiches are made with UltraGrain®, by Con Agra Foods."

Integrated Food Service is on a list of 112 manufacturers approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to convert donated commodity products into processed convenience foods. That means schools can choose to use the commodity credits they earn serving federally-reimbursed meals to "buy" cheese and, rather than messing with it themselves, have it "diverted" to Los Angeles and turned into "Hot Off the Grill" sandwiches.

Of course, the schools pay hard currency for the processing and the shipping, an arrangement that's actually encouraged by the USDA. In the District of Columbia, all of these details are managed by the school system's hired food services provider--Chartwell's--which charges additional fees to run the program.

Integrated Food lists these ingredients in the grilled cheese sandwich:

"Whole grain bread: water, whole wheat flour, enriched bread flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, 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 lodite, enzyme, calcium peroxide), sugar, yeast, wheat gluten, calcium proponate (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.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Starting a School Food Revolution

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A revolution needs to eat, right?

I felt bad dragging people out into 98-degree heat for our first meetup of Parents for Better D.C. School Food. The reward was this lovingly prepared, pot-luck buffet: Laura Marks' local fritatta, Constance Newman's current muffins, Tara Flakker's quinoa and veggie salad, and my own rutabaga souffle (we harvested some gorgeous rutabaga from the garden recently).

Add a little bubbly Prosecco and you have one heck of a meeting.

Amidst the gnoshing and getting caught up, we did manage to hone our agenda for the coming months:

* Get involved with the local wellness committee and make sure the D.C. wellness policy reflects our goals of removing sugary foods from schools and replacing processed convenience foods with meals made from whole ingredients.

* Make the job of improving school food a community effort. While we are bird-dogging school food service and exposing bad food, we also need to help formulate and support positive changes. We can't just sit back and wait for school officials to pick up the slack.

* Salad bars may be our best bet to connect kids with fresh local foods they will actually eat. How do we get a salad bar in every school?

Parents are busy and difficult to organize. We can't be pulling them in too many different directions. We need clear goals and a clear plan of action that gets everyone involved.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

Food manufacturers make billions off kids and they are always finding new a more ingenious ways of marketing their products to children who aren't old enough to know they're being sold a bill of goods.

Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity recently found that the use of popular cartoon characters encouraged kids to eat junk food.

For their study, rearchers at the Rudd Center gave 40 children, ages 4 to 6, three identical pairs of snacks: graham crackers, gummy fruit and carrots.

One package of each food had a cartoon character —Scooby-Doo, Dora the Explorer or Shrek — on the front; the other didn't. Children were asked if the foods tasted the same or if one tasted better.

The findings, reported in the journal Pediatrics:

•More than two-thirds said they would choose the snack with the character on the package.

•About half of the kids said the foods tasted better from packages with the cartoon characters.

"This shows how powerful and influential these characters can be," says Yale researcher Christina Roberto, the study's lead author.


We are still learning all the health consequences of children eating junk food. Much of it is laced with high-fructose corn syrup. New research indicates that fructose may trigger certain fat cells to grow faster, helping to explain the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Meanwhile, another study links obesity and high consumption of sugary beverages with a sharp rise of tooth decay in young children.

Researchers looked at 65 children, aged 2 to 5, who received treatment for cavities in baby teeth and found that nearly 28 percent of those kids had a body-mass index that indicated they were overweight or obese.

That rate is 5 percent higher than the estimated national average for childhood overweight or obesity, the study authors explained in a news release from the University at Buffalo, in New York.

The researchers also found that about 71 percent of the children had a daily caloric intake higher than the normal 1,200 calories for their age group.


Yet another study confirms that the quickest way to make school food healthier is to get the junk out.

Schools that eliminated junk food from a la carte lines during school lunch hours have seen an 18 percent reduction in overweight or obese students, according to a new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The researchers, Associate Professor of Marketing Patricia Kennedy and Associate Professor of Finance Mary McGarvey, examined nutrition policies as well as survey information from students, parents and administrators at eight Midwestern schools, and then considered a range of other factors to gauge the effect of schools’ food policies on students’ weight.

The study suggests expanding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current ban on selling so-called Foods of Limited Nutritional Value during school meal times to include all junk food a la carte selections.

The current USDA ban doesn’t cover items such as candy bars, soda, potato chips, cookies and other high-fat snack foods. You can the actual list here.


Florida's state board of education recently considered a measure to remove all flavored milk from schools in the sunshine state, but then tables the measure when the usual controversy arose. This article in the St. Petersburg Times frames the issues.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Ohio this month wrangled over measures to remove sodas and unhealthy foods from schools in that state, as well as mandate more physical exercise. It appears high schoolers may soon have a diet soda option. School officials objected to mandating 30 minutes of exercise per day. That's been turned into a pilot project.


Snack foods may be on their way out in San Francisco. Schools there plan to remove so called "deli" lines after finding that too many low-income kids were purchasing snacks rather than participate in the federally subsidized lunch program.

Even kids who qualify for free meals sometimes feel stigmatized standing in the regular lunch line. By eliminating competing alternatives, officials hope to remove the stigma and steer kids toward healthier choices.


Finally, students at a school in Denver took matters into their own hands. Students in the Speech and Debate class at Randolph School decided lunch lines were too long, discouraging some kids from eating in the cafeteria, and the food needed some improvement. The brought in a new food vendor for a tasting, and gave a presentation to the school's administration arguing for the new vendor and a longer lunch hour.

The administration agreed, and the changes will go into effect in the fall.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What's for Lunch: Baked Chicken

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This is the last lunch of the season for us. Actually, this meal was served last week. It's hard to argue with baked chicken: unless, of course, you object to chicken cooked in a factory hundreds of miles away, shipped frozen and reheated. The kids seem to like it well enough. It has that breading reminiscent of Popeye's or something, only it's a bit more like concrete. But the breading qualifies as a grain serving under the federal rules governing the school lunch program, and each meal needs a grain offering.

There are two vegetables on this tray. Can you guess what they are? If you named ketchup, your head is still in the Reagan era. Actually, the Tater Tots, even though they might as well be bread for all the starch they contain, qualify as a vegetable. Potatoes of all sorts are kids' second-most favorite thing to eat at school, right behind pizza. And as you can see, they go to great lengths to spice up those Tater Tots with the ketchup.

Then we have the frozen peas and carrots. Would you eat these? Most kids don't eat the vegetable side dishes served in D.C. schools. They mostly end up in the trash. But the government requires that schools offer vegetables. What's a food service provider to do?

In fact, the 10-year-old who brought this tray back from the food line needn't have taken the peas and carrots at all. Under federal rules, schools are required to offer five items, and kids are only required to select three. The strawberry-flavored milk would have sufficed as the third item.

But you can say goodbye to strawberry milk. Beginning next week, school officials say they will no longer be serving flavored milk at all. If you believe the dairy industry, we should be bracing for an outbreak of rickets. How will kids get the calcium and Vitamin D they need if they are denied chocolate or strawberry milk?

Here's one case where the food services department for D.C. Public Schools actually seems to be ahead of public opinion.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Strawberries & Salad = Big Hit

By Andrea Northup

If you walked into a D.C. school cafeteria on June 3rd 2010, you may have been surprised at what you saw on students’ trays. More than 150 schools in DC featured fresh, locally-grown strawberries and salad greens as a part of their school lunches. This was part of an event called Strawberries & Salad Greens, organized by the D.C. Farm to School Network in partnership with participating schools and food service providers.

About 40,000 students in all eight wards of the District gobbled up juicy, red berries and bright green lettuce in their lunches. Approximately 7,300 pounds of local strawberries and 2,400 pounds of greens were purchased and served for the event, contributing about $20,000 to our local food economy. The produce was grown on farms in Virgina, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania (visit our strawberry page for more information about the local growers and schools involved, plus lots of great photos).

In addition to helping schools find sources of fresh, local produce, the D.C. Farm to School Network coordinated “Where Food Comes From” tables in 16 school cafeterias. At these tables, volunteers and parents displayed plants, posters, pictures, and gardening tools. As students enjoyed their meals, they were able to see, touch, and smell where their food came from.

In twelve schools, local chefs performed interactive cooking demonstrations using local strawberries and salad greens. Kids were able to help professionals prepare recipes, taste samples, discuss the importance of eating fresh, local, healthy foods, and bring home recipes to try with their families.

Keep your eyes peeled for more fresh, local foods in D.C. school meals, and more fun events like this in the future.

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

'No Flavored Milk' to Start in Summer School

The Washington Post, following up our revelation last week that D.C. Public Schools will discontinue serving flavored milk and sugary cereal, reports that school meals will be served without the usual chocolate and strawberry milk beginning next week.

Columnist Mike DeBonis further reports that schools will only be serving cereals with six grams of sugar or less. That would rule out nearly all of the cereals that the DCPS hired food service provider, Chartwells, has served in the past, such as Apple Jacks, Raisin Bran and Chocolate Mini-Wheats.

Parents for Better D.C. School Food have advocated that school meals could be made healthier overnight simply by eliminating sugar. We believe schools should stick with cereals containing five grams of sugar or less per one-ounce serving.

Kellogg's Apple Jacks contains nine grams of sugar per serving, compared to regular Cheerios, which contains only one gram. DeBonis quotes schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway as saying the schools will be testing a variety of low-sugar alternatives.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

Here's an interesting report from Jane Black at The Washington Post about how small changes--such as putting better lighting on the fruit display--can get kids to eat healthier foods at school. One finding: kids who use debit cards in the cafeteria are more likely to purchase desserts and junk food, while kids who pay cash will more likely go for the fruits and vegetables. Maybe we should limit what kids can buy with those debit cards?


Are you agonizing over how to get your kids to eat more healthfully? Here are 10 tips from Rodale, the people who brought you organic farming, on how to encourage children to eat more vegetables.


For some years, Philadelphia schools have enjoyed a wonderfully paper-free environment around their cafeterias. Meaning, kids attending schools with high enrollment of needy students ate free without having to fill out a lot of paperwork demonstrating they fall within the federal guidelines for free or reduced-price meals.

Well, that meal ticket may be about to end. Proposed federal guidelines would use participation in programs such as food stamps or welfare as "direct certification" for school meals. While that change might mean more free meals for students elsewhere in the country, it threatens to cut more than 50,000 from the free lunch rolls in Philadelphia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last year threatened to end Philadelphia's unique way of enrolling students for free meals, but there was such an outcry from the Pennsylvania congressional delegation that the USDA backed down.


Meanwhile, budget problems threaten food services in New York City schools. The city is bracing for up to $500 million in reduced aid from the state. Schools will bear the brunt of budget cuts, with thousands of teachers potentially losing their jobs.

School food services alone face a shortfall of nearly $24 million. Officials plan to reduce the variety of foods offered in cafeterias to save on the staff needed to prepare and serve the food. The plan is to reduce food service staff by 276. The city will also reduce the number of schools that participate in a program that provides free meals to all students.


Here's a rare report from the mainstream media detailing the difficulties schools have getting kids to eat healthier food.

Vegetables and whole grains have always been at the bottom of the list of things kids like to eat at school. But reporters rarely spend enough time in schools to witness what kids actually choose to eat in the cafeteria. In this report from a school district in Utah, kids walk right past a display of fresh fruits and vegetables in order to get to the chips. Other kids lick the whipped cream off the fresh blueberries but spit out the fruit. Meanwhile, kids wolf down Ding Dongs and wash them down either chocolate milk, or sodas they bring from home.

It sounds so familiar. Now, Utah parents and teachers alike are beginning to question the quality of food being served in schools there and the need to serve chocolate milk with every meal.

"If we got chocolate milk out of the school system, it would be my career ultimate moment," said one teacher.


Finally, here's a school district in Colorado that spent the last three years making the switch from the usual menu of frozen processed foods to salad bars and food cooked from scratch. They've also eliminated the chocolate milk. And so far, the reviews are good. Some kids would like to see the chocolate milk back, but overall, the changes seem to be paying off.

Yes, Virginia. It is possible to serve real food at school. But you have to try harder.

Friday, June 18, 2010

D.C. Schools to Discontinue Flavored Milk, Sugary Cereal

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Jeffrey Mills, director of food services for D.C. Public Schools, told parents at H.D. Cooke Elementary school yesterday that the city's schools beginning in the fall would no longer serve flavored milk or sugary cereals.

Mills made the remarks at a meeting to discuss staffing changes in the H.D. Cook cafeteria and further details could not be obtained. A PTA officer at the meeting said Mills told the parents that other positive changes in cafeteria menus would be made by the time school resumes in August.

Chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk, as well as sugary cereals such as Apple Jacks, Raisin Bran and chocolate-flavored Little Bite Mini-Wheats, have been standard fare for breakfast in D.C. schools. Flavored milks contain nearly as much sugar as Classic Coke or Mountain Dew, and when served alongside sugary cereals and breakfast treats such as Pop-Tarts. Giant Goldfish Grahams and orange juice, consitute meals containing 60 grams of sugar before classes even begin. That's the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, more than a quarter cup.

Some experts argue that the empty calories from sugar cause behavorial problems in school and prime children for health problems ranging from tooth decay to obesity and early onset of diabetes. Flavored milks also cause a drain on school food budgets because they are more expensive than plain milk. But the dairy industry has fought hard to keep flavored milk in school, fearing that children would drink less milk if it did not contain the added sugar.

Many D.C. students drink flavored milk at least twice a day in school, both at breakfast and at lunch, even though other sugary beverages such as sodas, sport drinks and teas have been banned from schools since 2006.

Low-fat milk typically contains 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar as lactose in an 8-ounce service. The chocolate-flavored milk in D.C. schools, from Cloverland Dairy, lists 24 grams of sugar, the added sugar coming from high-fructose corn syrup. Strawberry-flavored milk from Cloverland Dairy contains 28 grams of sugar, or seven teaspoons.

Apple Jacks cereal lists 9 grams of sugar in a 1-ounce serving, or a bit more than two teaspoons, compared to just 1 gram of sugar in a similar serving of regular Cheerios. Cereals with higher sugar content, served aggressively by the D.C. Public Schools' hired food service contractor, Chartwells, are seen as a vehicle for imprinting on vulnerable children the popular kids' brands of corporate food companies such as Kellogg's, which pays hefty rebates to have its products promoted in schools.

The move to reduce sugar in D.C. school food would be significant, since neither U.S. Department of Agriculture standards nor the District's recently adopted "Healthy Schools" act regulate the amount of sugar in school meals. It would bring the District in line with other progressive jurisdicitions that have eliminated flavored milk as a health measure. Typically, milk sales drop after flavored milk is removed, but eventually rebound once students get used to the idea of drinking plain milk.

Mills, who previously worked developing restuarant concepts in New York City, took the DCPS food services job six months ago after the positioin had gone unfilled for a year. He has promised to act aggressively to improve D.C. school food quality. We will certainly report further details as they become available.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Where's Your Milk From?

Consolidation in the dairy industry has left most of the country's milk in the hands of a few producers. Despite the many different labels you see in the grocery store, most of the milk is coming from the same group of big dairy companies, such as Dean Foods, which has been sued by small dairy farmers alleging that Dean monopolizes the milk industry and control prices.

How is a shopper supposed to know where the milk she buys actually comes from? Here's a clever feature. Find the product code on you milk carton and enter it into the box provided. It also works for a variety of other dairy products.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reasons to Avoid Hormones in Milk

Parents for Better D.C. School food advocate milk with no added sugars or flavors and no bovine growth hormone.

Most of the nation's commercial dairy cows are treated with a genetically-engineered growth hormone that encourages them to produce more milk. They also die sooner. Monsanto, the creator of this particular hormone, for years waged a campaign to prevent milk producers who don't use it from saying so on their milk labels. Then, Monsanto abruptly sold rights to the product to another company, Posilac.

There have been concerns for years about how cows might pass the growth hormone along to humans through the milk and what harm that might cause. Of particular concern is the hormone's potential for causing breast cancer even in young women.

For more on bovine growth hormone, here's a good article from the Allergy Kids foundation. And here's another from Healthy Child.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Top Chef" Flunks School Food Math

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Bravo's new season of "Top Chef," set in D.C., debuts tomorrow with a big wet kiss for Michelle Obama and her campaign to end childhood obesity. Even Obama's chef, Sam Kass, who has become more and more of a TV presence, gets into the act as a judge for episode No. 2 of the contest June 23, wherein the 17 contestants--all competing for the "Top Chef" designation, plus prize money--are supposed to make a meal with only $2.68, the same amount the federal government gives schools for reimbursable lunches.

The Obama Foodorama blog gushes that this episode "is guaranteed to be loaded with drama, thanks to the astonishingly low budget the chefs, all pros from top-level restaurants, have to work with." Except that $2.68 would be astonishingly high, if that were in fact the amount schools spend on the food they serve to kids in the nation's woefully underfunded cafeteria meals program.

Apparently, the writers at "Top Chef" failed to do their homework where school meal finances are concerned. Only a fraction of that $2.68 federal subsidy actually goes toward purchasing food. The majority is eaten up by labor and overhead. What schools actually spend on the food component of the average lunch is more like $1 or less. And the average school loses 35 cents on every meal it serves.

Makes you wonder what Kass, whose White House title is "Food Initiative Coordinator," was thinking when he agreed to his part in a show the Bravo network is billing as "from the White House to your house." Or doesn't Kass know how school lunch works either?

"The National School Lunch program's funding leaves less than $1 for the cost of food on our kids' plates, and yet it's policies demand that we serve milk, fruit and 650 to 750 calories," said "renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper. "Feeding children delicious and nutritious food, never mind regional or organic, is tremendously hard on that budget, yet school food professionals all across the country strive hard to do that every day."

Cooper has a suggestion for the "Top Chef" producers: "Perhaps instead of restaurant chefs trying to cook a meal for $2.68, we should have 'Lunch Ladies' competing to showcase what's actually possible when we cook fresh food from scratch for our kids. After that, let's give the professional chefs the USDA commodity food to deal with."

Monday, June 14, 2010

How We Are Changing Food at Our School

Guest Post
By Sara Jones

This past September, a half-dozen parents signed a sheet on a table run by our PTA at “Back to School Night” at our local elementary school to say we were interested in being on a nutrition committee. As it turns out, we all believed the school lunch needed major changes. A couple of parents working on their own had tried over the years to persuade the food services director to make various changes with varying degrees of success. This year we had enough angry parents to make a difference.

We live in Sea Cliff, NY, a quite small village in the suburbs of Long Island. It’s part of the North Shore School District, which has, by no means, the worst lunches I’ve seen. At the elementary level, no french fries, no tater tots. Entrees are not served while still in their plastic re-heatable bags. We are one of the handful of schools to always meet government standards for salt and fat in our meals when inspected. And yet – we are completely dependent on highly processed commodity foods like chicken nuggets and frozen pizzas stuffed full of additives and canned fruits and vegetables loaded with extra salt and sugar. The standards for salt and fat are a joke. Moreover – the pile of lunch bags from home is growing every year.

We were lucky that the district had a district-wide nutrition committee and monthly meeting structure in place, and we started there. We were also fortunate that our district is small and our administration accessible. The first thing we wanted was to see the labels for the food our kids were (or weren’t) eating. Essentially, we insisted we had a right to know what was in the food and had to volunteer to assemble and scan them ourselves before finally getting the labels.

If you want to change your school’s lunch – get the labels.

The information on the cans and boxes is in many cases simply stunning. The USDA commodity corn has not only added salt but sugar. The “Harvest Pizza” that Schwan processed from commodity cheese has 830 mg of sodium but no vegetables (why “Harvest”?). We went further and started calling manufacturers to confirm the chicken nuggets were fried and the green beans boiled already in the can. This information was certainly persuasive to parents and ultimately to administrators as well. We were able to get some of the worst items off the menu quickly (pancakes for lunch, fruit punch without much fruit.) but the rest will take longer.

We started a blog. We added pages to the PTA’s website. We emailed class parents, and they passed the information on to other parents. We surveyed families about the lunch. We packed the district’s nutrition meetings until the administration started showing up in force, and we knew we were getting somewhere. We spoke at board meetings or any place we knew the superintendent would hear us. We asked a lot of questions – about the school lunch program, our school’s lunch budget and what commodity foods were available. We asked to see everything.

We worked to be supportive of nutrition education and our school in general. The nutritionist on our committee visited kindergarten classes to teach about nutrition. We worked with our school’s enrichment teacher and a 5th grader launched her own letter-writing campaign to get the Child Nutrition Act re-authorized. We took a brief break to get our district’s budget passed.

Some of the changes we were talking about would not be popular with all parents, so we came up with more plans. At the school talent show, we commandeered the bake sale and sold whole grain treats without processed sugar. It was a hit – and we made some money we’d need later. We showed the film Two Angry Moms at a PTA meeting and luckily had an administrator and future ally in attendance. We held a healthy chili cook-off with students as judges and put the winning recipe on the menu. We invited a local chef to do a hands-on healthy snack demonstration with the children to show kids will eat things that are good for them. We talked about healthy eating and shopping ideas on our blog.

Someone on our nutrition committee does some work to improve our school’s lunch every day – at least one person, at least once a day. It’s a huge amount of effort and having a group of supporters behind you is critical. Meeting after meeting – and now they are constant -- district meetings, snack committee meetings, menu meetings, meetings with teachers. We stick to our core list of demands: more whole grains, more fresh fruits and vegetables, less added salt and sugar, less processing in general and more education.

We still have a long way to go. But so far, with the support of the administration, here’s where we believe we’ll be in September:

- Cancelled contracts for processing commodities into chicken nuggets, frozen pizza and mozzarella sticks. Our district will make its own chicken and get a healthier pizza locally
- No more flavored milk
- A salad bar once a week
- More whole grains – we’ve already switched the pasta and will look at rolls, etc.
- A more expensive lunch – the survey we did indicated parents would pay more than the current $2.25 if the food was better. We also felt that students paying full price should not in effect be subsidized by students entitled to a free lunch by paying less than the federal reimbursement rate for the free lunch.
- An overhaul in the desserts sold at lunch to limit salt, sugar and additives and make sure all foods have some nutritional value
- Organic fruit trees! Once our superintendent became involved he found a grant that will bring 40 organic fruit trees to the district.
- Small greenhouses (“hoop houses”) at each school funded by the PTAs

We need to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into our lunch. Our school needs to start serving breakfast. We’d love to see organic or locally grown food, and we’ll keep working. We’re trying to envision a welcoming, warm and bright lunch room where kids truly look forward to a meal that’s good for them in every sense. We want the kids to know what they’re eating, why and where it came from – and to be involved in that process. Like many of you, we don’t doubt we’ll be working on this for years.

If you’re just starting to figure out how to change your school’s lunch, get the labels and get organized. All schools are required to have a Wellness Policy that covers nutrition among other things and that requires a wellness committee which should include parents. Ask how you can be involved.

Our commodities are probably your commodities, so please visit our blog to read more about what’s for lunch – and what’s in it. We have more information about our group at our web page. Our district now posts the nutrition labels for the food.

If you’re working to change school food on Long Island in particular – please contact us!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Is There a Plan for D.C. School Food?

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. schools currently serve kids some of the worst processed convenience foods the industry has to offer, grotesquely out of step with the enthusiastic rhetoric generated around Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. And while they claim to be making improvements, school officials under Chancellor Michelle Rhee seem uwilling of incapable or articulating a vision for replacing the daily regime of frozen and packaged junk provided by its paid food serviced contractor--Chartwells--with real food.

This week I saw a very different approach when I spent time in a "culinary boot camp" outside Denver, CO. There, more than 30 cooks and food service directors from schools around the state immersed themselves in an intensive, four-day session to learn how to better manage their finances and operate kitchens that can create wholesome meals from scratch.

The "boot camp" is one step in a process of improving school food that also involves a professional assessment of food service operations to identify ways of freeing up cash, making kitchen operations more efficient, and serving healthier food. A state wellness organization responsible for organizing the boot camps--LiveWell Colorado--hopes that these initial training sessions are just the beginning of a process that could eventually transform food service in schools across the state, eliminating processed convenience foods from school cafeterias.

D.C. Schools have a new food service director, Jeffrey Mills, who previously had no experience at all in school food. His entire career has focused on developing restaurant concepts, most notably in New York City. Wouldn't it make sense for the District of Columbia, rather than asking Mr. Mills to re-invent the wheel, to emulate a progressive state such as Colorado and order a professional assessment of its food service operations?

Michelle Rhee said it was necessary to hire a professional food service company like Chartwells to get a grip on the $10 million deficits D.C. schools were running annually in its food services. Now we know that Chartwells is really about collecting millions of dollars in fees, money that could be going to improve the food kids are eating.

The good news is that there are professionals in school food service who are passionate about serving children wholesome meals made with fresh ingredients and who know how to manage finances and operations to make that kind of meal service a reality. Isn't it time for D.C. schools to get real and make like Colorado?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What's for Lunch: Pasta and Meatballs

Putting aside the strawberry milk, with its 28 grams of sugar, this pasta dish looked appetizing, even knowing that the meatballs were made from government commodity beef and shipped already cooked and frozen. In fact, these are probably the very same meatballs that were served this week as a sandwich.

Kid love pasta. And the carrots, presented raw, are probably more likely to be eaten than the cooked variety that kids would rather avoid.

But as Jamie Oliver might observe: pasta and bread? That's government standards for you.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lay's Stax

We were recently discussing how Lay's is trying to sell more chips by promoting its potatoes as locally grown. This is how one of its snack food items looks in the elementary school lunchroom where one girl has imported it from home in her back pack.

According to the label, the cheddar-flavored Stax contain, among other things, potato flakes, sunflower oil, unmodified potato starch, rice flour, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, monosodium glutimate and yellow dyes.

In other words, trans fats. Do we approve?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Curried Turkey Wrap

We've been seeing a lot more of these "wraps" lately: something folded inside a giant flour tortilla.

I sort of liked the look of the curried turkey here. But I'm not sure about all this flour tortilla. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's for lunch: Meatball Sandwich

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chartwells, the company contracted to provide meal services to District of Columbia schools, advertised this lunch on its published menu as "meatball sandwich." Here's what it looked like close up.

Getting at the meatballs was a little awkward, sandwiched as they were between two slices of bread. What some of the kids did was open the sandwich and eat the meatballs with their fingers. Kids seem to consider all kinds of foods finger-adapted in an elementary school cafeteria. Some of them ate the bread, others didn't. If you look closely, you can see that this girl removed the crust and left it behind on the Styrofoam tray.

I can't tell if the mixed vegetables were frozen, or out of a can.

This particular girl had started the meal with a lollipop she brought from home.

I thought it was worth showing different views of the sandwich. I usually encourage the kids at my daughter's lunch table to take the photos themselves. You can see from one photo to the next how their food selections vary. There's a strawberry milk on this one.

But not every kid took the vegetables. Here you see chocolate milk and the advertised fruit selection, "chilled pineapple" in a plastic cup.

After most of the kids had gone through the food line, the sandwiches switched from these to meatballs on a hot dog bun. Those also had cheese melted on them. The sauce on the meatballs smelled strongly of barbecue, but we couldn't tell for sure. Some kids thought it was regular tomato sauce, others voted for barbecue sauce.

Either way, the meatballs are made at the factory usually from U.S. donated commodity beef, then shipped frozen. I'll see if I can't track down the ingredients for the sauce.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's for Lunch: Chicken & Rice

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chartwells, the company that provides food service under contract to D.C. Public Schools, calls this "cheesy chicken with rice casserole." I'd never seen it before, but I can assure you there's no casserole involved. Notice how they try to make industrially processed convenience food sound like something off a restaurant menu, or maybe a Sunday church supper?

My guess is the rice was cooked in the kitchen's commercial steamer. The chicken, most likely from the government's commodity surplus program, probably arrived frozen, then was stirred into the rice with pre-shredded cheese. Most recipes out of the Chartwells book involve a minimum number of ingredients and just three or four steps to prepare. It would not be unkind to call them idiot proof. They are designed for kitchen workers with minimal skill and only basic cooking apparatus.

The kids seemed to like the chicken and rice well enough. At the Chartwells website, the menu also called for "glazed carrots." That's a fancy description for carrots cut into rounds that arrive frozen in bags, then are heated in the steamer. I did not observe any "glaze." They just looked dull and listless, like most vegetable side dishes that come out of the school kitchen. It's typically hit or miss whether the kids even opt to have them placed on their tray in the food line. Most of the trays I observed did not have carrots on them.

Adults seem to think that if we only put more vegetables in school cafeterias, meals will get healthier. Frankly, I think adults are a bit delusional on this point. If you spend any time at all around school lunch, you quickly realize that most school kitchens are incapable of preparing vegetable side dishes that kids will actually eat. In addition, federal rules provide that the kids only have to choose three of the five items offered, so they can usually make a complete "meal" without at vegetable side dish at all. From what I've seen, the vegetables that do make their way onto kids' trays typically end up uneaten and thrown in the trash.

One girl who did take the carrots was seated directly across from me. She speared one of the rounds with her "spork" and placed a carrot in her mouth, then quickly spit it out. "You didn't like it?" I asked. She just shook her head.

That's a fresh pear you see in the photo, plus an open container of strawberry milk. How would you rate this lunch?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Breakfast in a Bag

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's my first photograph of the new "breakfast in the classroom" in D.C. schools, taken last Friday. My daughter's school held an all-day May Day celebration (delayed until June because of the heat), and for some reason the breakfast that had been carried to the classroom from the cafeteria was never eaten.

As you can see, the food is transported in insulated travel bags, the same bags the school has used in the past to take fruits and vegetable to the classrooms for mid-morning snacks. A quick inventory revealed Honey Nut Cherrios in plastic tubs, plastic "sporks," packets of graham crackers, fresh oranges and plain and flavored milk.

According to reports from parents and students, hot items were included in the breakfasts when the pilot project began last week, but lately only cold cereals have been served.

While I was reporting on school meals recently in Berkeley, CA, I had an opportunity to pack breakfast bins for that school district's breakfast in classroom program. Breakfasts in Berkeley are much simpler and generate less waste. In this example you see a loaf of home-made banana bread from a local bakery along with kid-size apples and plain, organic milk.

On other days the bins contain packets of organic Nature's Path cereal, and sometimes juice alternates with the milk. You don't see any plastic eating utensils in the bins. When cereal is served, the students either eat it directly out of the packet, or they can pour it into the milk carton.

The Berkeley breakfasts contain much less sugar. A 1-ounce serving of Nature's Path Oaty Bites contains five grams of sugar, compared to 9 grams of sugar--a bit more than two teaspoons--in a serving of Honey Nut Cheerios. Berkeley does not serve flavored milk. The strawberry-flavored milk served at breakfast in D.C. schools contains 28 grams of sugar, a bit less than Mountain Dew.

Which breakfast would you rather your child ate?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

When does snack food become something we can have warm and fuzzy feelings about? When it's grown by local farmers, of course.

Lay's, the world's largest maker of potato chips and a division of PepsiCo, in the last year has been rolling out regional ads featuring farmers who grow potatoes. Sales of Lay's, around $2 billion annually, had slowed, especially with so much talk about obesity and people making healthier food choices.

“We had some health and wellness headwinds,” Gannon Jones, vice president for portfolio marketing at Frito-Lay in Plano, Tex., told the New York Times. So “in 2008 we started a journey of repositioning” for Lay’s. That effort paid off with “more growth in ’08,” he added, “and exceptional growth in ’09.”

“We discovered the best way to tell our story was through people,” he added. 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, Mr. Jones estimated.


Meanwhile, AlterNet takes a long look at what it says are efforts by PepsiCo to use Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign against obesity to whitewash its position as the world's largest peddler of junk food.

"In many ways, PepsiCo has been touting itself as an industry leader. The company's corporate tagline is 'Performance with Purpose,' broadly described as 'delivering sustainable growth by investing in a healthier future for people and our planet.' But how can a company whose top-selling products include Mountain Dew and Doritos make such claims?" AlterNet asks.

With revenue topping $43 billion last year and 198,000 employees worldwide, PepsiCo is the largest U.S.-based food and beverage company and the second largest food company in the world, after Nestle.


Speaking of salty snack food, the Times also had an excellent takeout on how corporate food interests have for years been waging a war to keep at bay efforts to lower the salt content of processed foods. They call it "delay and divert." Cargill enlisted Food Network star Alton Brown to sing salt's praises in a video.

The Times calls this "a moment of reckoning for salt. High blood pressure is rising among adults and children. Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.

"Since processed foods account for most of the salt in the American diet, national health officials, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Michelle Obama are urging food companies to greatly reduce their use of salt. Last month, the Institute of Medicine went further, urging the government to force companies to do so."


What's in your kid's burger?

The USDA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently issued findings that much of the U.S. meat supply is tainted with veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, continues to fail at properly monitoring the safety of the nation's meat supply. So tainted meat is regularly being approved for sale and finds its way into school lunch rooms through the federal government's subsidized meals program.

“Between July 12, 2007, and March 11, 2008, FSIS found that four carcasses were adulterated with violative levels of veterinary drugs and that the plants involved had released the meat into the food supply. Although the drugs involved could result in stomach, nerve, or skin problems for consumers, FSIS requested no recall,” says the report.

AlterNet reports that contaminants include "antibiotics like penicillin, florfenicol, sulfamethazine and sulfadimethoxine, the anti-parasite drug Ivermectin, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug flunixin and heavy metals says OIG, which oversees Department of Health and Human Services programs."


At the opposite end of the spectrum, Rodale has been running its own series of articles on school food and has these helpful tips on how parents can organize to improve the food in their schools.


In brief:

Kudos to a local television news organization in Memphis, TN, for bothering to analyze lunches served in local schools. It found that calorie counts as well as salt and fat content were "out of the acceptable range."

Meanwhile, here's a teacher in Utah who gives points, good for prizes, to students who eat healthier foods.

In Oklahoma, some are linking school food with childhood obesity. But parents are worried because the local food director says, "We have to operate like a business, like a restaurant. And we have to offer what kids want to eat. They're my customers." And apparently the kids prefer junk food.

But in Sydney, Australia, researchers recently analyzed the lunches pre-schoolers brought from home and found that 60 percent of them contained some form of junk food. Most of the pre-schools had policies banning such foods. Still, kids arrived with sugary drinks, high-fat snacks, muesli bars, cookies, cakes and chips.

Beans are a hard sell in school cafeterias. In Norfolk, VA, they're solving the legume conundrum by turning chickpeas into hummus. They serve it with raw carrots. “All of the kids love dip,” said a schools dietitian, “and they are already used to and like carrots.”


Finally, we'd like to congratulate these teens who are blogging about food. The Food News Journal recently ran a list of seven of them with brief descriptions.

Blogging is a great way to communicate about food, whether your rapping the knuckles of the local school food service director or just touting a great recipe find. Plus, it teaches kids about writing, photography, networking. Bravo.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Are You Mad as Hell About School Food?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Jane Black had a fascinating piece in The Washington Post this week about some of the city's top chefs gathering at a restaurant in January to fulminate over the woeful state of school food. I was struck by this quote from Cathal Armstrong, who has made quite an imprint on the Washington area food scene as chef and co-owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA.

"What we are feeding our children is an outrage," Armstrong is quoted as saying. "We should be marching with picket signs and pitchforks in revolution."

Does that describe your feelings about school food? Are you ready to start a school food revolution?

I'm seeing more and more parents organizing and publishing their own blogs with photographs of their local school meals. Maybe these angry parents and angry chefs ought to join forces? Include all those angry teachers as well.

Sounds like a powerful combination to me.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Say Goodbye to This Food

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Yesterday the D.C. Farm to School network was celebrating hopes for better school food in the future by placing strawberries and salad in more than 150 schools in the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the kids and faculty at my daughter's elementary school were celebrating May Day (delayed because of the heat!) with food that's on its way out.

Pictured above you see the menu for the all-day celebration, including sodas, chips, snow cones, cotton candy and candy. The kids bought tickets for the food, then were free to roam around and buy what they wanted.

Under recently passed "Healthy Schools" legislation, most of that food would be banned, unless it's provided by parents or sold during official "after school" events. I have mixed feelings. The kids were having such a good time yesterday. But should schools be promoting this kind of junk food?

The question answers itself. The world has changed.

P.S. What are fruit smacks?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Breakfast Bagel

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's a hopeful sign: my daughter continues to report no hot food in the breakfast D.C. schools are serving in the classroom. On the downside, she says the kids are still being offered chocolate and strawberry milk to pour on their sugary cereal. Note to D.C. school food services: this would be a perfect time to start eliminating sugared-up milk products from the menu.

The last reported hot breakfast item at our school was this breakfast bagel. It actually looks more like a pizza. But I recently came across the labeling from a shipping container and the correct appellation is "breakfast bagel." It's made by Schwan's Food Service in Marshall, MN, the same company I wrote about yesterday as the maker of the frozen pizza served in D.C. schools.

The breakfast bagel is also shipped frozen, 96 2.5-ounce portions in each box. In a 375-degree convection oven they take just 8 to 10 minutes before they're ready to serve, according to the package instructions. However, I don't think our school cooks them in an oven because they're served while still inside their individual plastic wrappers, as you can see from this photo. I suspect they're heated in the kitchen's steamer. Some parents are put off by the thought of kids eating food that's been heated inside plastic wrapping.

These breakfast bagels are engineered to meet federal school meal standards. According to the package, "one 2.6 oz. Breakfast Bagel provides 1 oz. equivalent meat/meat alternate and 1 serving of bread alternate for the Child Nutrition Meal Pattern Requirements."

The bagels are "topped with law moisture part-skim mozzarella cheese and mozzarella cheese substitute, turkey sausage and textured vegetable protein product, and pizza sauce."

Here are the ingredients:

"Toppings: Mozzarella cheese/mozzarella cheese substitute (low moisture part skim mozzarella cheese [pasteurized milk, cultures, salt, enzymes], mozzarella cheese substitute [water, corn oil, nonfat dry milk, modified food starch potassium chloride, sodium citrate, sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium tripolyphosphate, tri-calcium phosphate, magnesium oxide, ferric orthophosphate, vitamin A palmitate, niacinamide, zinc oxide, cyanocobalamin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6)]), turkey sausage and textured vegetable protein topping (turkey sausage [mechanically separated turkey, water, spices, salt, potassium chloride, garlic, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, torula and brewers yeast, wheat gluten, soy protein), sugar], water textured vegetable protein product [soy flour, zinc oxide, niacinmide, ferrous sulfate, copper gluconate, vitamin A palmitate, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, vitamin B12]);

"Crust: Enriched wheat flour (niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid, malted barley flour, ascorbic acid), water, sugar, contains 2% or less of: malt syrup (barley malt extract, corn syrup), yeast, salt, dough conditioner [vegetable gum, L-cysteine, enzymes], calcium propionate;

"Sauce: Water tomato paste [not less than 28% soluble solids], modified food starch, sugar, corn oil, dextrose, salt, spices, dehydrated onion, dehydrated romano cheese [pasteurized cultured cow's milk, salt, enzymes], garlic powder, paprika, citric acid, beet powder."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What's for Lunch: Marvin Schwan's Pizza

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

What could this 10-year-old eating lunch in a grade-school cafeteria in the District of Columbia possibly have to do with a 23-year-old guy delivering ice cream in rural Minnesota?

The answer, of course, is the pizza the girl is eating. It came from a multi-billion company started by Marvin Schwan, who broke into the food business in 1952 schlepping ice cream in an old panel truck out of Marshall, MN.

Today, according to the company's website, Schwan's Food has a presence in some 50 countries and employs more than 17,000 people. And it's still privately owned. Marvin Schwan was known as the "emperor of ice cream" when he died of a heart attack at age 64. But along the way, he built a diverse empire on the principles of feeding frozen convenience foods to the masses.

In 1970, the company placed a simple ad in the Wall Street Journal: "Wanted: Frozen Pizza Manufacturer." The result was Schwan's purchase of the Tony's brand pizza and its manufacturing facility in Salina, KS. That's a Tony's pizza the girl in the picture is eating.

Today, Schwan's has pizza plants in England, France and Germany as well as in the U.S. It also claims to be the world's largest maker of egg rolls.

It does seem a bit ironic that some companies are getting extraordinarily rich in part by selling frozen convenience foods to schools that say they're too poor to feed kids real food. Pizza is, hands down, the favorite food of American school children. This one arrives frozen in 28-pound boxes of neat little rectangular slices. Just 15 to 20 minutes in a 375-degree convection oven and the pizzas are ready to serve.

Here, according to one of those boxes, is what the pizzas are made of:

"Crust: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, defatted soy four, yeast, contains 2% or less of soybean oil, isolate soy protein, sugar, GDL (glucono-delta-lactone, DATEM, sodium bicarbonate, salt, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, dough conditioner (wheat starch, L-cysteine hydrochloride, ammonium sulfate);

"Topping: Low moisture part-skim mozzarella cheese (cultured pasteurized part-skim milk, salt, enzymes);

"Sauce: Tomatoes (water, tomato paste [not less than 28% soluble solids]), modified food starch, sugar, contains 2% or less of dextrose, salt, spices, onion, dehydrated romano cheese (sheep's and cow's milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), garlic powder, paprika, citric acid, beet powder."

These pizzas are engineered at the factory to meet school meal specifications. Each 4.69-ounce portion of cheese pizza "provides 2 oz. equivalent meat/meat alternate, 2 1/2 servings of bread alternate, and 1/8 cup vegetable for the Child Nutrition Meal Pattern Requirements."

Schwan's is on the government list of 112 companies authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn raw "commodity" food products donated by the federal government to its school meals program into finished processed foods that schools can serve directly to kids. That gives Shwan's fairly exclusive access to some 31 million children who eat a federally-subsidized school lunch every day.

Welcome to the business of school food.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Breakfast in the Classroom, D.C. Style

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

With no fanfare at all, schools in the District of Columbia have been rolling out a program of serving breakfast in classrooms instead of in cafeterias. The idea was piloted in a single elementary school at the beginning of the year. In April it was extended to 11 more schools. Last week, six more were added including my daughter's school, H.D. Cooke. More are slated to come on line beginning today.

Originally scheduled to begin on Monday, but then postponed, our new breakfast program started in earnest on Wednesday when we arrived at school to find the cafeteria closed. No more kids waiting in line for trays of hot food or cereal and milk, juice and Goldfish Grahams. Instead, food was packed into insulated bags and carried to the classrooms. My daughter reported that on the first day kids had a choice of a hot meal--pancakes and syrup--or a cold meal--cereal and milk. I had hoped to sit in as an observer and take pictures, but so far, I have not gotten a response from the chancellor's office to my request for a clearance.

Instead, I rely on reports from parents who have been sitting in on classroom breakfast. Here's one:

"The breakfast is delivered to the classrooms in those blue insulated bags that they've always used to deliver the fruit/vegetable snacks," this parent wrote in an e-mail. "On Wednesday, day 1, the bags brought to [name of student]'s preschool class contained flavored milks, so not surprisingly, several kids were having their sugary Cinnamon Toast Crunch with chocolate milk. By day 2 the flavored milk had disappeared -- I'm not sure why, but I know the preschool teachers don't let the kids have flavored milk for lunch except on Fridays, so maybe they told whomever to only send white milk for breakfast.

"Day 2's choices were Honey Nut Cheerios or a warm pizza bagel half in a bag, plus an orange. Today it was a sugarfest: Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Frosted Pop Tarts, each accompanied by a differed kind of cookie (regular graham crackers or those fish-shaped ones). Fruit was a whole pear.

"For the most part the fruit did not get touched and in theory would have to go in the trash, because it was already "served." Same goes for the undrunken milk. I told [name of teacher] that I was appalled by the waste...Aargh!"

My daughter, who is in the fourth grade, also reported that by Friday there was no more hot food being offered in the classroom and that only plain milk was being served.

Food access advocates have been pressing for breakfast service in classrooms as a way of ensuring that needy kids are fed at the beginning of the day, before classes begin. Breakfast is universally free for the 45,000 students who attend D.C. Public Schools. Under "Healthy Schools" legislation recently passed by the D.C. Council, the city would extend free breakfast service to another 25,000 students who attend charter schools by providing an additional 30 cents for each breakfast served to students who qualify for reduced-price meals based on income.

"Healthy Schools" also includes an additional 10 cents per meal to help pay for breakfast, in addition to federal subsidies of up to $1.46 for students who qualify for a free meal.

Because schools receive federal subsidy payments for breakfast as well as lunch, districts with high percentages of needy students can generate a lot of money by serving breakfast to a captive audience in the classroom, rather than waiting for kids to show up in the cafeteria. In Berkeley, CA, for instance, participation in breakfast exploded, from 9 percent district-wide to 61 percent after classroom breakfast was implements. Participation in elementary and middle schools stands at a whopping 96 percent, and means that income from breakfast helps pay for a pricier lunch made from scratch with fresh ingredients.

But a key to the Berkeley success story is keeping breakfast simple. Small packets of cereal alternate with bagels and cream cheese, juice with plain milk, and typically a piece of fresh fruit, such as an apple, is served. That's it. If D.C. schools follow suit, then we could see the end of hot breakfasts consisting of things like scrambled eggs pre-cooked and shipped frozen from Minnesota, pizza bagels, and frozen egg-and-sausage quesadillas. It would only be a short step from there to phasing out sugary processed treats such as Pop-Tarts and Goldfish Grahams, and eliminating all the sugar kids are consuming with their chocolate and strawberry milk, typically served with juice as well.

Indeed, breakfast in the classroom, done correctly, could be a big win for everybody: healthier food for the kids, more money for school meal programs and less waste for the landfill.