Monday, July 26, 2010

Gone Fishin'

We will be on vacation until August 9. Meanwhile, please take a look around the blog and read our previous posts.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The American Dietic Association is supposed to be a group of nutrition professionals who give us unbiased advice about how to eat for health, right?

Well, now comes news that the ADA has just inked a sponsorship deal with Hershey's the candy maker. Hershey has something it calls its "Center for Health & Nutrition" that "develops and supports cutting-edge scientific research for products and technologies to provide consumers with a range of snacking choices..."

If you trust your "snacking choices" to Hershey's, then you'll be glad to here they're teaming up with the nation's nutritionists. In fact, the American Dietic Association is heavily sponsored by the food industry. Sponsors include PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Aramark, Kellogg, General Mills, the National Dairy Council, Mars.

All good sources of health advise, wouldn't you say?


The School Nutrition Association recently named Fairfax County, VA, as its "District of the Year in School Nutrition." The designation comes with a $25,000 prize.

Fairfax was cited for involving students in monthly taste tests, hosting nutrition education sessions with teachers, introducing students to new fruits and vegetables each month, teaching kids about healthy food choices and creating on-line videos for parents about healthy snacking.


Kids are getting involved in food issues in all kinds of ways. Here's and 11-year-old girl who grows food for the homeless, shown with her 40-pound cabbage.


Not to be outdone by a pre-teen, Encinatas school district officials in San Diego, CA, are setting aside five acres as an organic farm to grow fruits and vegetables for student lunches. The schools are looking for a farmer partner to grow the food. Officials said they hope the farm will substantially improve the amount and quality of produce on cafeteria trays.


Some schools in Provo, UT, are borrowing recipes from Ann Cooper, the "renegade lunch lady," in order to switch from corn dogs and chicken nuggets to "chicken caesar wraps" with a side of spinach and tomato salad.

The meals are provided by Luncboxers, a local company that makes meals for Provo charter and private schools.


Finally, in Denver, local chefs are heading a three-week program of food demonstrations and training for school kitchen workers showing how local food can be incorporated into school meals. As a result, some 30 Denver schools will become "scratch cooking" sites, and kids will have more access to salad bars, fresh bread and grassfed beef.

Denver schools see the training as a future requirement for employment in its school kitchens.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Coke & Pepsi Infiltrate Health & Medicine

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The announcement this week about Sodexo paying $20 million to New York State to settle fraud claims involving rebates in school food should sound alarm bells across the country about the corporate influence in our kids' health. But we've barely scratched the surface with rebates and how they influence school food, and rebates are just the tip of the iceberg.

Elsewhere it's being reported that Coca-Cola has become a money-paying sponsor of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Belatedly, the doctors are now debating whether embracing Coca-Cola and its messaging about how soft drinks fit into a healthy lifestyle is a good thing.

Meanwhile, the CEO of PepsiCo somehow managed to get two full pages in the annual report of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to air her "personal perspective." The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is one of the country's largest funders of health initiatives.

Pepsi was busy on the university front as well. The Yale School of Medicine has embraced Pepsi as the funder of a research lab and a fellowship.

Corporations already pretty much rule over Congress. Should we be at all alarmed that they are now insinuating themselves everywhere in the non-profit world as well?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sodexo to pay New York $20 Million for School Meal Rebate Fraud

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Sodexo, one of the world's largest food service companies, has agreed to pay New York $20 million to settle complaints that it fraudulently pocketed rebates from food manufacturers that it was supposed to turn over to some 21 school districts and the State University of New York, New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo announced yesterday.

"This company cut sweetheart deals with suppliers and then denied taxpayer-supported schools the benefits," Cuomo said in a statement. An investigation revealed that over a five-year period beginning in 2004, Sodexo "received significant rebates from the suppliers without acknowledging or passing the savings on to these schools--in violation of the contracts [between Sodexo and the schoolsl] as well as state and federal laws."

New York's investigation was sparked by two former Sodexo employees, brothers John and Jay Carciero, who were general managers for the company in Massachussetts and were "outraged when they discovered Sodexo's practice of pressuring food and beverage vendors to kick back huge rebates and then secretly pocketing the savings rather than passing them on to government clients as required by their contracts," according to a statement released by the Carciero's attorney. The clients included hospitals, universities, schools, and nursing homes.

John Carciero complained he was fired after he complained internally about Sodexo's rebate practices. Jay Carciero said he was demoted and later fired for the same reason. The brothers filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Sodexo under the federal False Claims Act in Massachussetts, and later added claims under similar state laws in New York.

The settlement was described as the largest ever under New York's false claims statute that did not involve Medicaid.

Jay Carciero has since died. John Carciero yesterday issues a statement, saying, "My brother, Jay, and I were angry when we learned that Sodexo, a mult-billion dollar company, was ripping off school lunch programs and other government food services. The millions of dollars from the rebates should have gone back to schools and other government clients. Sodexo betrayed the trust of the clients it was supposed to serve and hurt taxpayers at the same time."

Under New York state law, the Carcieros as whistleblowers are entitled to $3.5 million of the $20 million settlement. The rest is to be divided among the school districts involved.

Manufacturers commonly give rebates for purchases from large food service companies such as Sodexo, Chartwells and Aramark. Under federal law, contractors are supposed to credit those rebates as part of their invoices, so that federal agencies are paying only "net costs." Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules governing the federally-subsidized school lunch program, school contracts with food service providers must explicitly state that all rebates will be credited to the schools. But it has been widely assumed in school food circles that the big food service vendors were not passing on to school all of the rebates they receive. The rebate issue is cloaked in a shroud of secrecy by industry players.

The investigation in New York "has revealed that it is common practice within the food service industry for service providers like Sodexo to leverage their size and market dominance to obtain these rebates from vendors that supply food products, equipment, and supplies," said Cuomo. Those rebates typically amounted to about 14 percent of Sodexo's purchases from suppliers, according to the New York Attorney General's office. Cuomo said his investigation "continues to examine the rebating practices of other large, multi-national corporate providers of food service and facilities management."

A report I recently published based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that D.C. Public Schools had received more than $1 million in rebates from Chartwells, its contracted food service provider, since Chartwells took over the job two years ago. The rebates help explain why children in D.C. schools are often served brand-name products of dubious nutritional value. But the rebates Chartwells declared on its invoices totaled only 5 percent of purchases, a rate some observers say is low--and certainly far less than the 14 percent cited by Cuomo in the Sodexo case.

D.C. school officials said they requested an itemized accounting from Chartwells last October of where the rebates it claimed had come from, but had only recently received it, some nine months later. They have not made it public.

At attorney for the Carcieros in Washington, D.C., Colette G. Matzzie, said in a statement, "New York is not the only state where Sodexo operates school cafeterias and accepts rebates from vendors. With so many state and local governments short on funds, we hope that other governments will look to what New York has done for its citizens and make sure that Sodexo and other food vendors pass along savings to those who are paying the bills."

As part of the settlement announced yesterday, Sodexo must:

* Disclose in future contracts with public entities that it is receiving rebates and indicate whether rebates will be retained by Sodexo or credited to the client.

* Provide written disclosure to school district clients for the next two years that it is receiving off-invoice rebates.

* Establish a hotline for clients to call with any questions concerning rebates.

* Pay for an independent auditor's review of its off-invoice rebate program for the next three years.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Restaurant Chefs Propose Taking Over D.C. School Cafeteria

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A group of prominent D.C.-area restaurant chefs has volunteered to introduce a novel concept in school service to one Capitol Hill elementary school: collaborating with parents to take over kitchen operations on a non-profit basis, replacing prepackaged and reheated factory meals kids currently eat with food cooked from scratch and served with real plates and cutlery.

Led by Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, the group would undo the historically knotty issue of school food finances by putting parents to work as volunteers in the cafeteria at Tyler Elementary and using the savings in labor to buy better food, much of it from local growers. The proposal has been approved by D.C. Public School food services, but is still being reviewed by the school system's procurement division, meaning much paperwork, red tape and potential snags remain between now and August 23, when classes resume.

Armstrong's involvement with Tyler Elementary stems from a meeting last year with White House assistant chef and food advisor Sam Kass. This would appear to be the first time that first lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign has extended its reach into an actual school food service operation.

Armstrong was at the school yesterday to inspect its ancient kitchen and conduct an inventory of equipment needs, taking photographs of everything in sight. He found a space with lots of room to walk around in--and house temporary offices for school staff--but only a gas-fired convection oven for actual cooking. The oven has been used to reheat the packaged meals trucked in from a factory in suburban Maryland. The chefs group, which includes Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck, R.J. Cooper, formerly of Vidalia, and noted pastry chef David Guas, hopes to turn the space into a fully operational kitchen with equipment donated by manufacturers, including a stove, a dishwasher and sinks.

With only a few weeks to go before school resumes, Armstrong and his cohorts were piecing the project together on the fly, Armstrong, who said involving parents in daily cafeteria operations is crucial to the project's success, met with about 20 Tyler Elementary parents last week at the home of one of the parent organizers, Dan Traster. Traster said an issue of concern to may parents is whether they can find time to help. But Traster said he already is getting calls from parents who are eager to participate.

"People work and they're concerned about whether they'll be able to make the time to help in the cafeteria," Traster said. "But we have many parents who are really passionate about the food issue. They want to do whatever they can."

It was still unclear exactly what role parents would play--most likely not cooking food, but perhaps serving meals from the steam table, clearing dishes and otherwise assisting with meal service in the cafeteria. Traster said he th0ught it would be "a miracle" if the chefs were actually serving meals on the first day of school. But he thought they could be up and running sometime in September or early October.

In an interview at Restaurant Eve last month, Armstrong said the venture began when Kass in a meeting last October provided chefs with a list of local schools to visit and urged them to find way to get involved in improving school food. Armstrong was assigned to Tyler Elementary at 1001 G Street SE, an economically diverse school with a student population of 300, 81 percent of them black, 12 percent white. Sixty percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the federally-subsidized meal program.

Armstrong said he was alarmed by the food he saw being served at the school through the school system's contracted food service provider, Chartwells. "It was just awful stuff," he said. In January he met with other chefs at Brasserie Beck, where he reportedly said, "What we are feeding our children is an outrage. We should be marching with picket signs and pitchforks in revolution." Armstrong subsequently formed a non-profit corporation--Chefs as Parents--to fund and operate a school venture.

Allison Erdle, executive director of Chefs as Parents, said yesterday that the group is seeking financial donations, but already has pledges for up to $100,000 to fund the start-up at Tyler Elementary.

School meals have always been hamstrung by poor financing. The federal government currently provides $2.68 for a fully-subsidized school lunch, but most of that goes to pay for labor and overhead, leaving only about $1 for meal ingredients. As a result, many schools don't actually cook at all, but rely on reheating cheap, industrially processed convenience foods--those famous chicken nuggets and tater tots--for their cafeteria menus. Reducing the labor end of the equation--in this case by substituting parent volunteers--would free up cash to purchase better ingredients.

Armstrong, who was a 2009 James Beard nominee for "Best Mid-Atlantic Chef," is an outspoken advocate of fresh, local foods. He sits on the board of Fresh Farm Markets, which operates several farmers markets in the city.

Among the group's goals: "Get rid of all processed food filled with preservatives, additives, food coloring and other chemicals. Find local farmers, ranchers and dairies from which to buy directly. Find foods that are at their peak of ripeness," as well as those that are "organic or sustainably produced to the maximum extent possible." Also, the group would "send positive messages about eating to children and lure them into the kitchen."

Under the proposal the group submitted to D.C. Public Schools, the chefs would train and hire a full-time chef to run the Tyler Elementary kitchen, but it was still unclear what other paid staff might be needed. The group would "start with a menu comprised of simple, delicious and kid-friendly meals," but "our vision and mission includes expanding the food options over time." The proposal also foresees "integration of food and cooking in to the academic curriculum through kitchen and garden classroom....We plan to include the children where possible in cooking workshops and invite teachers to work with us to integrate the kitchen and garden into their lessons..."

The proposal calls for working with "nutrition professionals to address the larger issues at hand caused by type-2 diabetes and childhood obesity, as well as linking food and meals with behavioral and other issues..."

Tyler Elementary is undergoing renovations. The cafeteria was being used to store all sorts of tables, chair, shelving, filling boxes and other paraphernalia. But Armstrong said he was happy with what he saw--especially the big gas line leading to the cooking area, the commercial-quality exhaust hood, and a newly installed steam table.

The project seems like a page from the past, when PTAs ran some school cafeterias. But could this be the future of school food--as charitable cause?

Said Armstrong: "It's the only way."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Chef's Perspective on D.C.'s Pilot Food Programs

I crossed paths with Lisa Suriano at the Fed Up with Lunch blog, where readers voted her a "Titanium Spork" award for her crusading efforts on behalf of school food. Because her family provides school meals through their catering company in New Jersey, I asked Lisa if she would give us her view of the two pilot programs D.C. school officials have announced to serve upgraded menus in the coming year. Each will use private contractors to provide food for seven schools, one with "portable" meals delivered to the cafeteria, the other meals cooked from scratch on site. Lisa, recently returned from a trip to Italy to witness the progress school meal program in Rome, sent this guest post---Ed Bruske

Guest Post
By Lisa R. Suriano

When Mr. Bruske asked me to guest blog, he sent me the RFPs (request for proposals) that the D.C. schools submitted for their new, healthier pilot lunch programs. He was curious to find out my thoughts on the documents. Before I get into my response, perhaps I ought to briefly explain my background.

My name is Lisa Suriano. I have grown up with the school food industry as a figurative member of my family. My father, an exquisite culinarian, has owned a food service management and consulting company for my entire life and I now assist him in operating that business. This past May I completed a Masters of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. I also hold a deep passion for nutrition education. I have developed an efficient education program--Veggiecation--that enables schools and food service programs to collaborate in making positive change. Most recently, my fascination and devotion to school food led me to seek out an interview with Paolo Agostini, the official nutritionist of the Municipality of Rome, Italy. Rome prides itself on having one of the most progressive, nutritious and locally procured public school lunch programs in the world. (Stay tuned for a complete report on my visit.)

I perused the very thorough RFP from D.C. schools. It is a far-reaching and rather complex document. It should be applauded for addressing so many elements of the school food issue. (For instance, competitive foods, increased participation, a greater variety of nutrients). There is so much I would like to comment on, but I feel it's best to address the final products: the menu, the ingredients and the students' response and acceptance of it.

The sample menu and the guidelines are alright. They are balanced and varied for the most part. It would be nice to see an emphasis on other grains besides processed wheat and corn products. (Almost every meal contains one or the other.) I recognize that cooking grains requires more equipment and labor investment than serving a slice of bread. However, a grain such as whole-wheat couscous made into a salad or a side dish is incredibly quick cooking and very kid-friendly.

The guideline to feature green and orange vegetables was definitely positive. Yet, carrots and oranges were the only orange foods on the sample menus. Kids will eat pumpkin and butternut squash when it is properly presented (such as pumpkin chili or cinnamon-roasted butternut squash). I was hoping to see other orange vegetables suggested on the menus. Also, I found it interesting that there were no specific stipulations for the meat/protein component of the meal. I suppose this is perhaps too large a political issue to combat at this point. Still, I want to note that Rome's broad-minded approach to affording a higher-quality "center of the plate" component is to require that meat be served only two times, while pasta, fish, eggs and legumes round out the rest of the week.

On the surface, a menu can sound just fine. It is more important that whole foods are being used to create these menu items. From my experience, I know that quality food products are available on the market for schools to purchase in bulk. I also know that pricing for these products is determined heavily by commitment and usage. Therefore, I think a major key to producing these "from scratch meals" with high quality ingredients is to incentivize manufacturers with contracts for large purchases of healthy, whole food products.

For example, if pricing for an organic yogurt or locally produced yogurt can be negotiated down through bulk purchasing agreements, the success of this pilot program is more feasible. (I know that the New York City Department of Education has had success doing this with the local dairy company, Upstate Farms Yogurt.) I believe this could be accomplished with a greater number of other ingredients. Perhaps local producers could be favored for statewide supply contracts. Rome did this by giving preference and higher points to contractors that could guarantee the shortest amount of travel time "between harvest and intake." I am not sure that food service companies here could accomplish this independently, without the government's assistance and regional availabilities taken into account. I believe the District of Columbia Public Schools Office of Food Services would need to be involved, as well as other regional districts.

Finally, in order for this to be a sustainable program, the kids have to want and eat the food. I feel that no one, children in particular, will make healthy lifestyle choices without being educated and excited about their value and taste. Without fostering understanding first, efforts to improve nutrition will be futile. Nutrition education and connecting children personally to their food is a vital component of the success of any program.

If an environment that teaches about and values healthy food choices is created, the program will receive the support it needs internally (meaning, higher participation rates). But this requires the belief and encouragement of parents, teachers and administrators. Neither food service companies nor government initiatives can effect change on their own.

Monday, July 19, 2010

To Vend, or Not to Vend

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Is it better to try and upgrade the food in school vending machines, or just get rid of the vending machines altogether?

More and more schools are trying to stock their vending machines with healthier items with less sugar, fat, salt and sometimes even full meals. But some critics say schools should get out of the vending machine business and focus on making school meals better.

When I was in Colorado recently for "culinary boot camp," the local food service director complained that the company that managed the school vending machines insisted on trying to sneak junk food into the offerings. The explanation was simple: that's what kids like best.

You can read the full story from Associated Press here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Should obese children be treated as "abused" and placed in foster care?

A group of medical experts in England and Ireland thinks so, according to an article published recently in the British Medical Journal. At least 20 cases of children being removed from their homes because of obesity had been reported in the previous year, the article noted, and apparently such cases are beginning to surface in the U.S.

Weight issues sometimes are associated with other forms of parental abuse.

"Parental behaviors of concern include consistently failing to attend appointments, refusing to engage with various professionals, or with weight management initiatives, or actively subverting weight management initiatives," the experts wrote.

Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Academic Pediatrics finds that parents often don't recognize when their kids are overweight.

"Parents don't recognize weight problems or don't know how to make things better," said one of the study's lead authors. "Even if they do, there are often barriers to healthier eating or more activity for these families."


Here's a middle-schooler right here in the District of Columbia who took a novel approach to educating her peers about obesity. She used an online tool called Survey Monkey to poll her classmates on the question of whether schools should measure the body mass index of students and include the results on kids' report cards.

The results:

Most of the 120 students surveyed at the private middle school said height and weight measurements should not be taken at school and that BMI should not be included on report cards. But 50 percent did not know the meaning of BMI. Eighty-seven percent thought kids should be educated on the topic of obesity.

Nearly every one of the middle-schoolers cited lack of exercise as the main cause for obesity, with too much fast food consumption coming in second.

And here's the first-hand account of a D.C. high school senior helping to deliver fresh produce to the city for a farm to school event.


Lack of exercise as a primary culprit behind the obesity epidemic is a popular notion. Indeed, it is a cornerstone of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign against obesity. But a recent British study concludes that the popular perception is backwards: it isn't that lack of exercise causes people to be overweight, it's that overweight leads to less exercise.

Researchers found that exercise had virtually no effect on a study group of overweight children. Rather than exercise levels, the cause of excess weight gain, the found, was especially linked to sugar, such as the sugar in soft drinks, along with excessively large portions at meals and high-calorie snacks.

Instead of being an issue of burning calories, the study concluded that obesity is more likely to stem from metabolic consequences, which sounds very much like the conclusion drawn in this compelling lecture on YouTube by pediatric endocrinology professor Robert Lustig, who also blames the obesity epidemic on the proliferation of sugar and especially high-fructose corn syrup in the food chain.

And in case you needed reminding how much junk kids eat, here's a great photo from the Daily Mail showing what the average kid consumes in a year.


A report funded by the European Union finds that governments must step forward to control junk food advertising to children. The food industry cannot be depended on to police itself.

Many European countries are making progress in limiting the amount of junk food advertising to kids, according to the policy director of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. But there is "chaos in the details." Most countries don't address advertising according to calorie count or nutrient content.

Food companies that have volunteered to participate in the restrictions are sticking to their pledges, but the pledges have loopholes. "They don't all stick to the same criteria around the definition of marketing, what age group of children and what foods are covered."

The only solution, the report suggests, is for governments to step forward and make the requirements more explicit and firm.

Meanwhile, several U.S. government agencies are said to be working on strict standards for marketing junk food to children but the status of that effort is cloaked in mystery. Speculation is that food groups are leaning on the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more favorable treatment.


What happens when you raise kids without TV. Here's one mom's story about how much her children love kale and dislike sodas and McDonald's.


Finally, here's an inspiring story of how the lunch ladies in one Pennsylvania school district turned a deficit into a surplus with hard work and cooking food from scratch. "We decided to treat our kids and teachers like customers," said Northern Leheigh food services director Susan Bahnick.

Another important factor in Bahnick's success: she decided to involve the kitchen staff in food service decision making. Morale improved when kitchen workers took a stake in the results.

Friday, July 16, 2010

School Meal Reauthorization Passes House Committee

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A House version of the bill to re-authorize the federal Child Nutrition Act, which funds school meal programs, passed overwhelmingly in committee yesterday, including $8 billion in new funding over 10 years, about a 10-cent boost for each school lunch served.

The bill would expand the number of children who receive free meals from the government but perhaps more importantly would give the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to establish standards for foods served outside the cafeteria--such as in vending machines--and remove junk foods from schools.

Among other things, the bill as amended includes pilot programs for organic and vegan foods. A Senate committee version of the re-authorization provides a little more than half as much in new funding. Either way, critics complain that what Congress is proposing as a boost for school meals isn't nearly enough, a won't even put an apple on kids' cafeteria trays.

The re-authorization has been delayed to the point that some are now wondering whether Congress will manage to reconcile the two versions of the bill and pass something because the current session ends. The Child Nutrition Act did not make it onto the Senate leadership's short list of priorities. If Congress doesn't pass the re-authorization this year, the whole process would have to start over again next year with a new and possibly much more conservative Congress.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stop Tax Write-Offs for Junk Food Advertising to Kids

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Parents for Better D.C. School Food are firm believers that one of the quickest ways to make school food healthier is to get sugar and other junk food out of kids' diets. Now Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is proposing to fund better nutrition and anti-obesity programs by removing the tax deduction corporations claim for the junk food advertising they aim at children.

This is no small matter. The food industry currently spends about $10 billion annually on advertising its products to kids, and we aren't talking about fruits and vegetables. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that out of 8,000 television ads that aired during children's shows, not a single one promoted fresh produce.

The Kucinich bill would direct the Treasury Department, along with Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission, to develop regulations and standards for implimenting the new tax provisions.

About 50 countries, including Australia, Sweden and Great Britain, already have laws limiting advertising aimed at children.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why Should We Care About High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Kids' food is laced with high-fructose corn syrup and the Corn Refiners Association is spending big bucks to try and assure parents--and consumers in general--that there's nothing wrong with HFCS, that it's no different from ordinary sugar.

What we really need to understand is that high-fructose corn syrup and sugar are, on a molecular level, exactly the same and equally bad. In fact, the body treats them as if they were poison.

For everything you ever wanted to know about fructose and sugar, I suggest you carve 1 1/2 hours out of your busy schedule and watch this lecture by Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the edocrinology department at the University of California San Francisco.

Lustig demonstrates how the explosion in obesity and related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension has paralleled the advent and rise in the use of high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS was invented in Japan in 1966 and introduced in the United States in 1975.

"There is absolutely no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose. They're both equally bad. They're both poison," Lustig says. He adds that HFCS "isn't evil because it's metabolically evil, it's evil because it's cheap."

In fact, HFCS is sweeter than regular table sugar but only costs about half the price, hence the widespread use of it by the processed food industry. Fructose (and sugar), Lustig explains, is metabolized in the liver just like alcohol and has many of the same effects: it stimulates the body to store fat, increases blood pressure, suppresses good cholesterol, elevates bad cholesterol and stymies the body's normally mechanisms for suppressing appetite.

Americans, Lustig says, are consuming far more calories than they did a generation ago because fructose (sugar) is everywhere in the food chain in ever greater quantities. As a result, many countries are now experiencing an epidemic of obese toddlers, and young people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

What's the moral of this story? Whether its high-fructose corn syrup or regular sugar, don't eat it. Ditch the orange juice and eat a whole orange instead. (Another problem, according to Lustig: fiber mitigates the effects of sugar, but we've nearly eliminated it from our diets, and especially from convenience foods. So stop eating processed foods as well.)

You might also want to go back and read this post on sugar by our friend Susan Rubin.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

D.C. Schools Wait Nine Months for Rebate Accounting from Chartwells

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Schools Chief Operating Officer Anthony Tata told The Washington Post yesterday that he has been waiting some nine months for Chartwells, the school system's hired food sesrvice provider, to furnish an itemized accounting of the rebates it receives from food manufacturers in connection with its purchases for school meals.

Tata made the disclosure to Post education reporter Bill Turque after I reported here yesterday that Chartwells since beginning its contract with D.C. schools in the fall of 2008 had collected more than $1 million in rebates from major food suppliers who are seen as discounting popular brands in order to place them before impressionable children on cafeteria trays. Under federal laws governing the national school meals program, food providers such as Chartwells are required to credit the schools for any rebates they receive and furnish a detailed accounting of where the rebates come from upon request from the school district.

Tata told Turque I was "just flat wrong" when I reported yesterday that school officials had not asked Chartwells for such an accounting until after I filed a Freedom of Information Act request last month seeking the information. In fact, Tata said, he had been pressing Chartwells for the information since last October, and it had only just arrived.

Under its contract with D.C. schools, Chartwells receives a $1 million administrative fee annually, plus fees on each meal served that total more than $1 million each year. Chartwells provides food service in 122 D.C. schools. In a number of ways, Tata and other school officials have indicated they are not entirely happy with the industrially-process convenience foods Chartwells has been serving. DCPS recently sought bids on two pilot programs that would each ostensibly provide improved food to seven schools across the city "to create some competition," in Tata's words.

I filed my FOIA request for the rebate itemization June 1. On June 4, I asked schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway in an e-mail, "Has DCPS ever requested from Chartwells a breakdown of where the 'rebates' are coming from according to specific manufacturers or suppliers, or even by category of product?" Calloway replied, "Tata's team is reviewing your request, we'll get back to you Monday." But they did not get back to me.

More than a month later, on July 8, I again asked Calloway, "whether DCPS has ever asked Chartwells for a breakdown on where--meaning which manufacturers or vendors--all of the rebates come from that are reflected on Chartwell's monthly invoices." Later that day, Calloway responded: "We have requested a breakdown. You need to file a FOIA for DCPS to share it--and you've already done so. When it's complete, the General Counsel's office will contact you."

I regret if I misinterpreted what the schools spokeswoman said. Apparently, the information Tata had been trying to get hold of from Chartwells since last October arrived sometime between my last e-mail exchange with Jennifer Calloway on Thursday and Tata's conversation with The Post on Monday. It was also on Thursday that I interviewed a procurement official with Foodbuy, a sister company of Chartwells that is responsible for negotiating food purchases and rebates with manufacturers.

Tata further told Bill Turque that I was "irresponsible" for referring to the food rebates as "kickbacks." But I did not coin that term in reference to food rebates. It may be that Mr. Tata is simply unaware that "kickbacks" is a common usage in food service circles to describe the system whereby powerful companies such as Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark expect and receive generous rebates on a host of products, much the same way that grocers expect and receive payments from manufacturers in order to give their products prominent display on supermarket shelves.

In fact, Ann Cooper, one of the most prominent school food directors in the country, now in charge of food for schools in Boulder, CO, used the word "kickbacks" in a Twitter item about my story that she broadcast yesterday.

The $1 million-plus in rebates Chartwells had collected through February of this year represented five percent of the total purchases reported on invoices the company submitted to D.C. Public Schools for reimbursement. In other jurisdictions, that percentage is much higher. It will be interesting to see the details of where Chartwells says the rebates came from, and how quickly the schools make that information public.

Meanwhile, Tata told Turque that schools food services director Jeffrey Mills is reviewing menu changes in the food Chartwells serves for the upcoming school year with an eye toward improvements. "And the rebate, if there is one, will not factor at all into our decision making," Tata said.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Corporate Rebates: The Million-Dollar Elephant in the Cafeteria

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Public Schools in the last two years have taken in more than $1 million in corporate rebates--referred to by some as "kickbacks"--paid by giant food manufacturers as an inducement to place their brands on kids' cafeteria trays at school.

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Chartwells, the company hired by D.C. Schools to provide food services at 122 schools across the city, through February of this year had declared $1,076,738 in rebates it received since its contract began in the fall of 2008. That represents five percent of the $18.7 million in purchases Chartwells billed the school system during that period. Under federal law, Chartwells is required to credit D.C. schools for any rebates it receives.

Food manufacturers use the rebates as an incentive to entice purchasing agents to buy certain products over others for school meals. Rebates sometimes are referred to as "kickbacks" because powerful food service companies such as Chartwells expect to receive them, much the way grocers expect manufacturers to pay fees to have their goods displayed on supermarket shelves.

Critics charge that the rebates--also referred to as "volume discounts" or "buy backs"--act as a tool to help imprint processed and often sugary food brands in the minds of young children. Rebates help explain why kids in D.C. schools routinely are served sugary cereals such as Kellogg's Apple Jacks, and treats like Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, Pepperidge Farm Giant Goldfish Grahams, and flavored milk from Cloverland Dairy that is nearly the sugar equivalent of Coke or Mountain Dew.

It could not be immediately determined from which manufacturers the rebates paid to D.C. Schools originated or in what amounts. Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules governing the federally-subsidized school meals program, food service providers such as Chartwells are required to itemize the rebates they receive only when schools ask them to do so. Otherwise, the rebates appear simply as a lump-sum line item on the monthly invoices Chartwells submits to D.C. Public Schools for reimbursement.

Although the school system's newly hired food services director, Jeffrey Mills, was said to be disturbed by the potentially corrosive effect rebates might have on D.C. school food purchases, apparently no one in the DCPS hierarchy had ever asked Chartwells for a breakdown of where the rebates come from. On May 28, I filed a second Freedom of Information Act request for an itemization of rebates received by Chartwells. Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway last Thursday said DCPS has since asked Chartwells for a breakdown, but has not yet received one.

Much like rebates in the consumer world, rebates in the multi-billion-dollar universe of corporate food service are awarded by manufacturers after products are purchased. For instance, after a truckload of cereal is delivered, the purchasing company--Chartwells, in this case--would apply for the rebate and later receive a check.

But unlike you as an ordinary consumer sending in a coupon for a rebate on, say, a computer you purchased at Staples, Chartwells and other large food service companies that specialize in school food deal in millions of dollars worth of rebates every day. Sodexo and Aramark are the two other companies most prominent in the field.

Chartwells is just part of a huge international food services conglomerate based in the United Kingdom--Compass Group--that reports annual sales of $9.3 billion. Chartwells provides the food each day for 2.5 million kids in more than 500 school districts across the U.S., according to its website. Other affiliated companies in the group--Bon Appetit, Restaurant Associates, Thompson Hospitality, Morrison Management, Wolgang Puck Catering, to name a few--are responsible for the food served in universities, corporate campuses, museums--all sorts of public and private venues, even oil drilling platforms--nationwide.

One thing all of these Compass Group subsidiaries have in common is a procurement operation that negotiates food purchases--and rebates--for the entire group. Called Foodbuy, and based along with Compass Group's North American headquarters in Charlotte, NC, Foodbuy bills itself as "the nation's largest group purchasing organization," dealing in more than $5 billion worth of goods annually.

Between 35 and 40 Foodbuy employees are engaged full-time in negotiating contracts and rebates with manufacturers. Rebates become a major driver of purchasing decisions, said Ken Jaycox, vice-president for category development at Foodbuy. "We're focused on the net cost," Jaycox said. "Our job is to try and get the best net cost for our customers."

Jaycox suggested that the choice of foods served in school cafeterias is determined less by the rebates manufacturers offer than by negotiations between schools and Chartwells representatives over which foods are the best choices, and how they balance against the local food budget. But Rick Hughes, who spent eight years as a manager for Sodexo in Colorado, said performance evaluations were based in part on how well Sodexo employees adhered to the company's choice of products, determined in large part by manufacturer rebates.

"We were rewarded for purchasing specific products," said Hughes, who now works the other side of fence--as food services director of Colorado Springs School District 11. "Especially if the company is mandating that you buy their foods, absolutely that's what food service directors are buying," Hughes said. "There's big money tied up in big company food and agribusiness. There's not a whole lot of money tied up in fresh vegetables and fruits. So just follow the money. That's what's being given to the kids."

As prevalent and influential as they may be, rebates are treated as a kind of third rail in school food services. Food manufacturers are loathe to talk about them.

Kellogg, with $13 billion in annual sales, is prominently represented in D.C. school cafeterias by Apple Jacks, Raisin Bran, Frosted Mini-Wheats and other cereals, as well as treats such as Pop-Tarts, all highly processed and laced with sugar. I first contacted the company via its "media hotline" on May 28 and posed questions about it's rebate practices. When there was no response, I called again on June 15 and a third time on June 28, at which point I was asked to submit my questions in an e-mail.

On June 29, I received this e-mail reply from a Susanne Norwitz at Kellogg:

"With 14,000 plus school districts, there may be some exceptions--but overall, this is how the process works. The USDA sets the nutritional guidelines that schools follow to receive reimbursement from the government. The individual school boards may set additional specifications above and beyond the USDA requirements. Determinations about what cereals are offered in schools are based on these specifications--and rebates to the schools are intended to assist them in meeting their menu-cost requirements."

Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, usually wrapped in plastic and warmed in a school kitchen steamer, also appear with some regularity as a D.C. school breakfast option. When I called the company headquarters in San Leandro, CA, I was referred to a public relations firm in Missouri, DEEP Group. Stephanie Heart, the DEEP representative I spoke with, was quite chatty at first, saying she was absolutely familiar with rebate practices from her years working in the food industry. "You'd be surprised how much like consumer rebates they are," she said.

But Heart clammed up fast after she called her client, Otis Spunkmeyer, to pursue my questions. "Everything is confidential. There's not any information we can give you at this time," she said. "In don't think it's a secret, but it's just not something they [Otis Spunkmeyer] can share because of client confidentiality."

Pepperidge Farm, the maker of Giant Goldfish Grahams, a breakfast staple in D.C. food lines, referred me to a representative, Frances Sirico, in Norwalk, CT. Some weeks after talking to Sirico by telephone, I received a curt e-mail stating: "You request has been forwarded to our legal department. When I receive further information, I will contact you."

I left serveral messages for James Cella, general manager at Cloverland Dairy in Baltimore, the main milk supplier for D.C. schools. On June 28, I received an e-mail from Cella, saying, "In response to your question--Cloverland serves some of the D.C. schools thru a contract cafeteria management company. We currently do not deal directly w/ the schools, and do not invoice the schools. The best group to answer your question would be Compass Food group, and the other cafe magt. companies D.C. has contracted with."

So why all the secrecy? A March 2009 article in In These Times magazine, focused on Sodexo, suggested that the giant food service companies were taking in hundreds of millions of dollars in rebates in ways that ended up costing customers money by focusing food purchases on large, national brands that can afford to give hefty discounts, rather than smaller, local companies that sell their goods more cheaply.

"The money involved is massive," In These Times reported. "Charles C. Kirby, former USDA regional director for child nutrition in Atlanta, says he ran a Mississippi Education Department cooperative buying program from 1992 to 2001. He dealt directly with companies such as Heinz and Kellogg's and received rebates ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent. In the last year, his rebates were $15 million out of $90 million in purchasing."

A 2002 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in a sample of Midwestern school districts, food service companies routinely ignored the rule that requires them to pass on to the schools any rebates they receive. They were just pocketing the money. In 2008, the USDA beefed up it's rule on rebates, requiring that school contracts with food service companies clearly state that any rebates received by the companies will be credited to the schools.

Despite the new rules, it's widely assumed in food service circles that the big players--Chartwells, Sodexo, Aramark--are not declaring all of the rebates to which school districts are entitled, hence the shroud of secrecy.

When I put that to Foodbuy's Ken Jaycox, he replied without a trace of irony: "I'm shocked and surprised by that allegation," he said.

But Robert Pritsker, a New York City restaurateur who unsuccessfully sued Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark in federal court, claiming the food service giants had since the 1990s improperly withheld at least $1 billion in rebates from schools, said the 5 percent rebate figure Chartwells has declared in D.C. sounds too small. In his own school district of Weston, CT, Pritsker said Chartwells claims at least 15 percent in rebates.

Jaycox said there are many factors that could explain the wide difference in rebate percentages reported by Chartwells in two different school districts.

Still, there's enough intrigue and money surrounding the rebate question--and the role of corporate discounting in feeding popular but nutritionally dubious foods to millions of children in the federal meals program--that attorneys general in some state have taken notice. It may be less of an issue in D.C. schools in the coming year. Officials have decided to discontinue serving flavored milks and sugary cereals. But they have yet to answer questions about the future of Pop-Tarts, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and Giant Goldfish Grahams.

Note: The In These Times article cited above was written by freelance journalist Lucy Komisar.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has announced that it intends to sue McDonald's over its practice of selling "Happy Meals" with toy as a means of marketing to children. In a statement, the CSPI explained the basis for its law suit:

"McDonald's practices are predatory and wrong. They are also illegal, because marketing to kids because marketing to kids under eight is (1) inherently deceptive, because young kids are not developmentally advanced enough to understand the persuasive intent of marketing; and (2) unfair to parents, because marketing to children undermines parental authority and interferes with their ability to raise healthy children."

Meanwhile, the federal government appears to be drawing up strict new standards for marketing junk food to kids, but they seem to be held up and nobody is exactly sure why. The one agency that has yet to sign off on the new regs reportedly is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Speculation has it that food industry lobbyists are all over the USDA trying to influence the outcome of the government regulation efforts.

A recent study reports that kids appear to be seeing fewer ads for sweets and sodas than they used to, but are being exposed to more advertising for junk food. Researchers say the findings indicate the junk food industry is trying to brand its products in the minds of children at a younger age.


The first study to look at the long-term impact of the federal school meals program on health and educational achievement has turned up mixed results. Published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the study finds that the subsidized meal program leads to significant gains in education, but makes less of difference in health levels from childhood to adulthood.

A senior vice-president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation calls on Congress to approve quickly its re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which funds the school meals program, and especially a provisions that would give the USDA authority to remove junk foods from schools.

A House version of the bill containing the provision is scheduled for a committee vote this week.


A new study finds that Americans are still getting fatter all over the country. Thirty-eight states now have obesity rates greater than 25 percent, compared to less than 20 years ago when no state in the country registered an obesity rate greater than 20 percent.

Particularly alarming: parents don't recognize when their own children are having weight problems.

But family habits are important in the battle of the waistline. A study in Greece finds that kids who have regular meals with their families and eat more vegetables are less likely to be overweight.


The beverage industry has managed to beat back local efforts to enact special soda taxes to help curb obesity in New York and in the District of Columbia. But now the USDA says research shows that soda taxes could really work.

The USDA calculates that taxes that would raise the cost of sodas by 20 percent would have the effect of taking 3.8 pounds off the average adult and 4.5 pounds off the average child.


Finally, first lady and White House gardener-in-chief Michelle Obama recently visited a school in Silver Spring, MD, just outside the Beltway, where, it turns out, kids are prohibited from having their own food gardens.

Seems the schools superintendent in Montgomery County has an inordinate fear of rodents being attracted to garden edibles and worries that nobody will be around during peak growing season in the summer to take care of gardens.

Parents in the county have now rounded up a coalition of gardeners, naturalists and parent groups to try and overturn the ban. They released a statement quoting the University of Maryland extension service agent who runs the state's Master Gardener programs, saying "vegetables bring a multitude of benefits to school students."

Michelle Obama, it looks like kids in the suburbs need you even more than inner-city kids do.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What School Food Dollars Really Buy

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

A recent post at the Ethicurean blog reminds everyone that only a fraction of the $2.68 the federal government provides for a subsidized school lunch actually goes toward food. According to a 2008 study [PDF] released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a bit less than 40 percent--or $1.07--of that amount is spent on meal ingredients. Schools spend 44.4 percent of their budget on labor and 16.1 percent on "other expenses."

What kind of meal do you think you could make with $1?

Those figures are relevant to the pilot meal programs we've been analyzing this week. The request for proposals [RFPs] published by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) call for vastly improved food in the two projects, one to deliver "portable" meals, the other to provide meals cooked from scratch.

But there's a further distinction to be made between school districts providing meals for their students and hiring contractors to make the food. Schools are non-profit entities. Contractors are in business to make a profit. So in addition to dealing with the math outlined above, the vendors who ostensibly will be fulfilling the contract requirements of these two pilot projects also will be looking to pocket some cash.

Those profits represent funds that could be used to improve the quality of the food kids ultimately see on their trays. If you look around the country, you will see that the most progressive public school meal programs are not centered around contractors, but are run by school districts that make their own food.

After Michelle Rhee took office as schools chancellor she essentially announced that D.C. schools were incompetent to run their own food program. DCPS' food service operation had racked up $30 million in deficits over three years. Declaring that serving food was not a "core competency" of public schools, Rhee hired Chartwells, a giant corporate food service company, to take over.

Now, after hiring a new in-house food service director, D.C. schools are indicating they want something better than the industrially processed convenience foods Chartwells has been serving. Is the answer simply hiring a different contractor? Or will schools in the nation's capitol eventually figure out how to turn $1 into a decent school meal on their own?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Beware Great Expectations for School Food

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If improving school food were as easy as writing more creative contract proposals for food vendors, everybody would be doing it, right?

That would seem to be one of the lessons to draw from two pilot meal projects set to begin here in the District of Columbia when school resumes later in August. Each project--one designed around catered meals, the other meals from scratch--would replace the industrially processed convenience foods now provided by the school systems hired food service provider--Chartwells--with meals constructed around hormone- and additive free milk, less fruit juice and more whole fruit, more whole grains, local produce, no high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats.

The outlines of the contract proposals make the meals sound revolutionary. The only drawback is, the vendors are being asked to provide these souped-up meals on the same, miserly budget that's being used to pay Chartwells, and that most schools struggle with to serve decent food to kids.

These days, there is a clamor rising for more stringent standards that would raise the quality of school food. But what most of the public does not understand is that school food service directors are struggling to make ends meet. The average school loses 35 cents on every lunch it serves. Food service directors live in mortal fear of more standards calling for things like more vegetables and whole grains that don't come with additional funding.

The school meal re-authorization legislation currently making its way through Congress, for instance, would provide a six-cent increase to the federal subsidy for lunch--currently $2.68--hardly enough to make any real dent in the problem.

The District of Columbia is one of those rare local jurisdictions that has stepped forward with more funding--more, even, than what federal law makers are offering. Under the "Healthy Schools Act" passed earlier this year by the D.C. Council, the city will provide 10 cents more for school breakfasts, 10 cents more for lunch, and a five-cent bonus for meals that contain locally-produced ingredients.

That could help boost the quality of food in D.C. Schools. But let's not forget that D.C. Public Schools have been running a deficit in food services of some $5 million dollars every year, or around 20 percent of the total food budget. There's nothing in the law that says the schools cannot simply use that extra cash from the city's treasury to pay down their ongoing debt.

There's no way to tell from contract proposals what the food served to kids will really be like. A good illustration of that is to simply peruse the daily school menus that Chartwells publishes online. The meals sounds great. It's only when you visit the cafeteria and see what's actually on kids' trays that you realize they are eating cheap convenience foods mostly reheated from pre-cooked, frozen components made in food factories hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The only way to tell if there's a food revolution happening in D.C. schools is to show up in the cafeteria and see what kids are eating. And that's where parents can make a huge contribution. In Rome, for instance, parents play an integral role in the school food solution, making regular visits to school kitchens to inspect. Here, parents can insist on accompany their kids in the cafeteria. Take photos. Judge for yourself. Share what you learn.

That will be our objective when school resumes. Go here if you'd like to see a listing of the schools where the two pilot projects will be implemented.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Does "Local" Mean for School Food?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Schools are set to start two pilot meal programs that would require food vendors to supply at least 20 percent of ingredients from sources in the Mid-Atlantic region, defined as Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.

Making school meals with local produce has been promoted as a way of serving fresher, more appetizing fruits and vegetables to kids and was embraced in "Healthy Schools" legislation recently approved by the D.C. Council. "Healthy Schools" also encourages schools to use produce grown according to "sustainable" farming methods.

The "Healthy Schools" act requires all public schools in the District to identify the sources of their meal ingredients and rewards the use of local products by providing a five-cent bonus for every meal that contains locally-sourced ingredients.

Up to now, fruits and vegetables in D.C. Public Schools have been provided by the school system's contracted food services provider--Chartwells--which relies for its purchases on a national food distribution system.

The salad mix served in D.C. schools, for instance, consists of shredded iceberg lettuce, carrots and purple cabbage grown and processed in California. Apples sometimes come from as far away as New Zealand. When I spent a week as an observer in the kitchen of my daughter's elementary school--H.D. Cooke--a mix of broccoli, carrots and cauliflower came from Mexico.

One of the reasons schools don't use more local produce is because local farmers are not connected to a large-scale distribution system. Keany produce, one of the area's larger distributors, located in Landover, MD, does offer customers locally-grown selections. D.C. Central Kitchen, which provides thousands of meals to the needy every day, and provides foods for some schools through it's catering arm, Fresh Start Catering, sources much of its produce from a food auction site in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

What difference does "local" make for school meals?

Most of the vegetables served in D.C. schools are never eaten because they are cooked to death and served as dull-looking side dishes that kids reject. Simply replacing those vegetables with locally-grown produce won't make any difference at all. Broccoli, after all, is still broccoli, whether it's grown in California or Maryland. It all comes down to kitchen skills and presentation.

In Berkeley, CA, where I worked for a week as a "kitchen lady" to see how one of the country's most progressive school food operations worked, vegetables rarely were served as side dishes. Instead, they were mixed into sauces and soups, or tossed into pasta and other dishes. Even so, the kids I served in the food line often went to great lengths to avoid vegetables.

Under the proposed pilot schemes, the 20 percent figure does not refer to a quantity of local produce, but is calculated according to price. In other words, local products are to represent 20 percent of the cost of food ingredients. Thus, if the local goods are more expensive, kids might see proportionately less of them on their trays.

This is just one more wrinkle food vendors involved in these pilot programs will have to deal with in order to comply with food service contracts loaded with new standards and requirements, but paid for with the same old budget. It's a tall order.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Getting Kids to Like School Lunch with Pennies to Spend

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. Public Schools are scheduled to contract two new pilot meal programs when school resumes in August--one pre-made or "portable" meals reheated, the other meals made from scratch--each serving seven schools across the city.

Yesterday we looked at the many ways school officials expect the hired contractors to upgrade the quality of food and adhere to numerous standards that don't apply to the schools' current food service provider, Chartwells, and all for the same meager allowance--$1.74 for breakfast, $2.68 for lunch--the federal government provides under its subsidized meal program.

Today we're going to look at how school officials expect the chosen contractors to drive up the number of students who participate in the meals programs. Increasing the number of students who choose the subsidized meals offered in schools--as opposed to bringing food from home, eating out of vending machines or off-campus, or perhaps not eating at all--brings more money into the program.

One strategy for helping school food budgets, for instance, is to serve breakfast in the classroom rather than in the cafeteria. Because breakfasts can be made easily and cheaply, a high participation rate in breakfast--as when the kids are all gathered together in class--can generate lots of federal reimbursement dollars that then can be used to improve the quality of lunch.

In Berkeley, CA, where I spent a week in the central kitchen earlier this year, the percentage of students who ate the breakfast provided at school exploded when the schools switched to serving breakfast in the classroom, from less than 9 percent to 61 percent system-wide. But breakfast is not served in the classroom in high school, since high-schoolers have schedules that change from day to day. Among elementary and middle schools, the participation rate skyrocketed to 96 percent.

"Contractor shall continue to increase breakfast participation at all grade levels of the program with emphasis on Breakfast in the Classroom," reads the schools' request for proposal [RFP] for portable meals. "The program shall include expansive marketing and a strong communication plan. In addition, the Contractor shall increase the participation in the national school lunch program at all grade levels."

To promote the new meals, the RFP states: "Contractor shall perform aggressive marketing and promotion campaigns aimed at meeting participation goals (through menu changes, new products, etc.)"

For the "portable" meals program, these are the schools involved and the targeted increases in participation rates:

* Amidon-Bowen Elementary, 401 Eye St. SW: from 45 percent breakfast participation to 85 percent, and 93 percent lunch participation to 95 percent.

* Hearst Elementary School, 3950 37th St. NW: from 13 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 54 percent lunch participation to 80 percent.

* Anacostia Senior High School, 1601 16th St. SE: from 11 percent breakfast participation to 50 percent, and 43 percent lunch participation to 75 percent.

* Eastern Senior High School, 1700 East Capitol St. NE: from 8 percent breakfast participation to 50 percent, and 34 percent lunch participation to 75 percent.

* Johnson Middle School, 1400 Bruce Pl. SE: from 29 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 80 percent lunch participation to 90 percent.

* Wilson Senior High School, 3950 Chesapeake St. NW: from 7 percent breakfast participation to 65 percent, and 15 percent lunch participation to 65 percent.

* Peabody Elementary School, 425 C St. NE: from 25 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 80 percent lunch participation to 90 percent.

These are the schools scheduled to begin receiving meals made from scratch, and the targeted participation rate improvements for those:

* Kelly Miller Middle School, 301 49th St. NE: from 25 percent breakfast participation to 50 percent, and 66 percent lunch participation to 80 percent.

* Thomas Elementary School, 650 Annacostia Ave. SE: from 57 percent breakfast participation to 72 percent, and 92 percent lunch participation to 95 percent.

* Burrville Elementary School, 801 Division Ave. NE: from 41 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 89 percent lunch participation to 95 percent.

* Alton Elementary School, 533 48th Pl. NE: from 40 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 79 percent lunch participation to 90 percent.

* Kenilworth Elementary School, 1300 44th St. NE: from 64 percent breakfast participation to 75 percent, and 92 percent lunch participation to 95 percent.

* Marshall Elementary School, 3100 Ft. Lincoln Dr. NE: from 52 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 69 percent lunch participation to 85 percent.

* Propect LC, 920 F St. NE: from 60 percent breakfast participation to 70 percent, and 87 percent lunch participation to 95 percent.

Even a cursory look at the schools involved in the two pilot projects reveals trends that generally hold true for all schools: more kids in disadvantaged and largely minority areas of the city participate in the federally-subsidized meal programs than white kids in more affluent areas. And participation falls off sharply as kids get older, regardless of ethnicity and economic status.

The participation targets in these proposals don't appear to be anything more than wild guesses. It will be a challenge to convince more affluent white families who may be sending meals from home to stop doing so and instead choose the food served in the cafeteria line.

Can better food drive droves of students to reconsider joining the subsidized food line?

There doesn't seem to be any reason why D.C. schools can't achieve nearly 100 percent breakfast participation if breakfast is served in the classroom, and that could provide a bounty of cash to make lunches better, especially if those in charge of school meals focus on making breakfast simpler, rather than the current fiesta of sugary, processed choices.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New School Food: Would You Buy a Used Car from this Man?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Two new pilot meals programs in D.C. schools purport to vastly upgrade meals served in the cafeteria, but at the same price schools are paying for the industrially processed convenience foods currently being served by the system's hired food service contractor, Chartwells.

It sounds a bit like taking your beat up old Chevy to a car dealer and asking to trade it in for a Rolls Royce. Wouldn't that be a great deal if you could get it? But how many car dealers like that do you know?

The two pilot programs, scheduled to begin when school resumes next month, each would serve seven schools, one delivering "portable" meals to be reheated on site, the other making food from scratch. The requests for proposals [RFPs] circulated earlier this year by D.C. Public Schools called for the price to be "revenue neutral" and as close as possible to current federal reimbursement rates, or $2.70 for lunch. Under the "Healthy Schools Act" recently passed by the D.C. Council, schools would receive an additional 10 cents support for lunch, plus five cents for meals that contain local produce.

Besides delivering foods free of hormones and antibiotics, free of artificial colorings and preservatives, free of high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats, and loaded with local produce and whole grains, the contracts call for the vendors to comply with a series of standards, including those contained in "Healthy Schools," Institute of Medicine standards circulated in 2007, and the "gold level" standards in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "HealthierUS Challenge."

Today we're going to look at those various standards to see what D.C. is asking these vendors to do for $2.70 (or $2.85).

"Healthy Schools," for instance, sets minimum and maximum calorie levels for meals at breakfast and lunch, and according to two different age groupings. Likewise, sodium is restricted at different levels for breakfast and lunch, and according to age. Vendors are required to provide the ingredients and nutritional content of each menu item, and list where their fruits and vegetables come from and whether the growers are engaged in sustainable agriculture practices.

The 2007 Institute of Medicine standards would apply to what it refers to as "Tier 1" foods in school meals. These are "food and fruits, vegetables, whole grains and related combination products and non-fat and low-fat dairy that are limited to 200 calories or less per portion as packaged and:

* No more than 35 percent of calories from fat

* Less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fats

* Zero trans fats (less than or equal to 0.5 grams per serving)

* 35 percent or less from total sugars, except for yogurt with no more than 30 grams of total sugars, per 8-oz. portion as packaged

* Sodium content of 200 mg or less per potion as packaged."

The "gold" standard for "HealthierUS Challenge" requires the following:

* Students have at least one quarter-cup serving of vegetables to choose from every day of the week. Dark green or orange vegetables must be offered three or more times per week, and of the three at least two must be different. Cooked dry beans or peas (legumes) must be offered each week.

* A different fruit must be served every day. Under the "gold standard," the fruit must be fresh at least two days. Otherwise it can be frozen, canned or dried, or served as juice.

* Fruit juice (100 percent) can be counted as the "fruit" offering only once per week.

* At least one serving of "whole grain" food must be offered each day.

* Only low-fat and fat-free milk can be served.

After accounting for labor and overhead, most schools have less than $1 to spend on the ingredients for their meals. Do you think you could do all this on that kind of budget? Ever wonder why anyone would want to get into the business of catering school food?