Sunday, August 8, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

In a somewhat surprising move, following months of foot-dragging and hand-wringing, the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent approved a re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act that would add about six cents to the federal subsidy for a school lunch. Critics contend that what schools need is more like a dollar raise. In fact, I was at the farmers market this morning and bought a Golden Crisp apple for breakfast. It cost exactly $1.

Meanwhile, the House version of the legislation would provide more money--closer to 10 cents per meal--but has yet to come up for a vote and supporters still cannot identify the money sources that would be used to pay for it.

Perhaps more significant than the small boost in federal subsidy for school meals is the authority these bills would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate for the first time the non-nutritious "competitive" foods that schools sell outside the lunch line. Chips, ice cream sandwiches, sport drinks: this is what many students spend their lunch money on, and healthy food advocates for years have been trying to get these junk foods out of schools.

How boldly would the agriculture secretary act where junk food is concerned, or would the food manufacturers have their way behind the scenes? That is truly an issue worth keeping an eye on.


Despite all the talk about eating more healthfully, and despite all the attention on Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, Americans just get fatter and fatter.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity rates have reached 30 percent of the population in nine states. That's up from only three states in 2007. The new figures mean that 2.4 million more people became obese from 2007 to 2009, for a nationwide total of 72.5 million people, or nearly 27 percent of the population.

“Over the past several decades, obesity has increased faster than anyone could have imagined it would,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued a report on the prevalence of obesity. Obesity rates have doubled in adults and tripled in children in recent decades, Dr. Frieden said.

If the numbers keep going up, he added, “more people will get sick and die from the complications of obesity, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.”


In Italy, meanwhile, the health minister is so concerned about rising obesity rates among children that he says vending machines and second helpings at lunch should be banned, and that pizza should only be served once a week.

New regulations would prohibit selling pre-packaged cake, and instead have schools serve fresh fruit, yogurt or fruit juice without added sugar.


Congress has launched a probe to discover why a certain chemical prompted Kellogg to recall millions of boxes of cereal in June.

In a letter sent to Kellogg CEO David MacKay on 2 August, Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Bart Stupak also cited a US media report that claimed Kellogg had “destroyed tainting packaging before announcing the recall”. The company told that this was not true, as it vowed to co-operate with Congressional body.

The committee said it would focus its probe on the chemical 2-methylnaphthalene which Kellogg eventually identified as the substance responsible for the tainting of the food that sickened around 20 people. The company has repeatedly stressed that the chemical used in the manufacture of a common wax –like coating in its packing liners is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

But the lawmakers raised their own concerns about the substance, saying: “At least one study has shown that 2-methylnaphthalene may cause lung injuries in adults. There are no studies indicating whether children are more susceptible to this chemical.”


And you thought Vitaminwater was healthy?

The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest is suing Coca-Cola, owner of the Vitaminwater line, for making unwarranted health claims about the beverage. But in a novel twist, Coca-Cola's response is that no consumer in her right mind would consider Vitaminwater healthy.

Lawyers for Coke say that "no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage." In fact, Vitaminwater contains 33 grams of sugar, plus a few vitamins.

Americans now get nearly 25 percent of their calories from liquids. In 2009, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, finding that the quickest and most reliable way to lose weight is to cut down on liquid calorie consumption. And the best way to do that is to reduce or eliminate beverages that contain added sugar.

Still, Vitaminwater must be good business. Coke is paying basketball superstars Kabe Bryant and Lebron James to advertise it as a good way to hydrate.


Finally, schools in Houston, TX, are facing many of the same food issues dogging schools here in the District of Columbia. A new breakfast-in-the-classroom effort has drawn criticism from parents for taking time away from studies. Sound familiar? The schools are also grappling with how to replace overly processed and sugary foods served by the contracted food services provider--Aramark--with healthier fare.

An editorial in the Houston Chronicle says students routinely were eating animal crackers, Uncrustables processed sandwiches and Trix yogurt laced with sugar. One option being considered is to hire Revolution Foods to serve at least a portion of school breakfasts in Houston. But Revolution Foods charges about $3 per meal, or twice the federal subsidy for a fully reimbursable school breakfast.

(Revolution Foods has been tapped to provide meals at seven D.C. schools in a pilot program when classes resume August 23, but its contract calls for its food service to be "cost neutral," or only what the federal subsidies will pay for.)

Editors at the Chronicle say "parents are right to keep the pressure on, and right to keep proposing better meal alternatives," and that the school district "merits praise for seeing the importance of breakfast for all - and working to fix its imperfections"

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