Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's for Lunch: Chicken with a Ton of Starch

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

According to the Chartwells menu website, this meal consisted of baked barbecue chicken with a whole wheat roll, a salad of romaine lettuce and local tomatoes, "herb-roasted" potato wedges with shredded carrot, and locally grown watermelon.

Well, the roll has turned into a bun, the tomatoes are missing from the salad and replacing the watermelon appears to be a peach.

This isn't particularly surprising. Sometimes the cafeteria may not have exactly what's posted on the menu on-line and substitutes something else. But here you have a case of bread and potato together, and double-whammy of starch that's sure to get kids' insulin pumping. Insulin is the body's fat storage hormone. But USDA regulations require grain servings, and potatoes qualify as a vegetable.

Adding grated carrots to roasted potatoes (no doubt re-heated from frozen) is an interesting concept. The kids definitely like the chicken.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Meet Our Kitchen Staff

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here are the ladies who prepare the meals at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia. Last week they asked me if I would like to photograph them for the blog. But yesterday the kitchen manager--the woman on the right, affectionately known as "Mrs. G--said her supervise at Chartwells had instructed not to give their names.

That's a shame, don't you think. These are, after all, the real heroes of the cafeteria, the women who feed and nourish our children. They should be celebrated, not hidden away in anonymity. You know they try to serve the best food they can every day with the resources they have available. They put a lot of pride into their work, and parents should be grateful.

Today's entree was a spinach and cheese salad that "Mrs. G" triumphantly claimed as her own creation. "I told you I made it myself," she insisted. Also on the menu: steamed broccoli and a whole wheat roll.

This is so much better than chicken nuggets, no?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's for Lunch: Bean Taco

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chartwells calls this "vegetarian Baja bean whole wheat soft taco." Quite a mouthful. It looks like canned black beans and frozen corn with lettuce, topped with a tomato sauce or salsa. It was served open faced with a choice of "Tex-Mex corn" and a "pineapple cup." Or, in this case, pineapple without the cup.

I saw very few kids actually choose this lunch. Most of them were taking the Tuesday alternate: "turkey and cheese whole grain wrap." Meaning, there was a choice of tortilla two different ways.

One fifth-grade girl wanted nothing to do with the tortilla. She emptied out the contents--turkey, tomato, lettuce, grated cheddar cheese--and was tossing it around to make a salad.

This poses its own challenges, since the processed turkey meat, cut into deli-style rounds, does not lend itself to being cut with a plastic "spork."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lunch from Home: Pizza

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The thing kids like most to eat in the school lunch program is pizza, and schools are constantly slammed for serving too much of it. It's become a kind of joke.

So look what this fourth-grader brought from home? I couldn't tell if it was carryout pizza or homemade, but it doesn't look bad at all. And it sure beats Lunchables, don't you think?

We eat pizza at home as well occasionally, but I'm not sure my daughter would bring it to school. She doesn't like foods she thinks need to be heated to be eaten, and her public school does not have a microwave the kids can use. (Please, no comments about the microwave. They are a common kitchen device.)

What's for Breakfast: Waffles with Yogurt Dip

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's breakfast in shades of brown. At it's menu website, Chartwells was calling this "warm whole grain waffle with organic cinnamon vanilla dipping sauce." The "dipping sauce" is Stonyfield vanilla yogurt seasoned with powdered cinnamon. Well, that's got to be better than the high-fructose corn syrup they used to serve with the frozen waffles, right?

The canned apple sauce to my taste buds was unsweetened and also flavored with cinnamon. To wash it all down, orange juice. Still, for calories, this breakfast is highly reliant on sugar to go with a lot of carbs. But the kids like it--especially the waffles, the apple sauce and the juice. Kids like anything sweet and bread-like.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Screening "Two Angry Moms" Sunday

*Sunday, September 26: 3 pm - 5 pm*

*Whole Foods Market - Georgetown: 2323 Wisconsin Avenue, NW

*Film screening of "Two Angry Moms" followed by discussion about DC school
food. *

Join Parents for Better DC School Food and the Georgetown Whole Foods Market
for a screening of "Two Angry Moms," followed by a discussion about DC
school food.

Children are invited and welcome. Light food will be provided. Please RSVP
to to help our hosts prepare for food.

What Does the Berkeley School Garden Study Really Mean

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Supporters of school gardens were positively giddy with news yesterday that a three-year study of s garden and cooking initiative in Berkeley, Calif., schools had shown students more eager to eat vegetables and make healthy food choices. But a closer look at the study shows that these positive results were attributed only to fourth and fifth graders in two Berkeley elementary schools, and that students as they moved into middle school not only made little further progress, but actually regressed, even though they spent more time in gardening and cooking classes.

The message seems to be that unless your school has a highly structured program around a paid gardener, cooking instructor and nutrition curriculum, don't expect a garden to increase your child's appetite for vegetables.

In their report, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, said there was wide variation in how Berkeley schools rolled out the so-called School Lunch Initiative sponsored by Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation. They also said it was difficult to establish a control group for their study against which to measure results. So what they did was divide Berkeley schools into two groups, one described as have a "highly developed" garden, cooking and nutrition education program, the other have a "less developed" program. They selected two elementary schools from each group and began tracking the progress of fourth and fifth graders using questionnaires and photographs of what the kids chose for lunch.

The two "less developed" schools, represented by 193 fourth- and fifth-graders, were distinguished by having no paid garden staff, little to no garden programming, and students who spent little or no time in the garden. In addition, these two schools had no paid cooking staff and no cooking classroom, and teachers in the school had done little to integrate nutrition concepts into the curriculum. These schools tended to have larger proportions of higher-income students and were thus ineligible for outside funding for enhanced programs.

In contrast, the two "highly developed" elementary schools, represented by 134 fourth- and fifth-graders, had paid garden and cooking staff and the students spent 22 to 56 hours in garden and cooking classes each year. In addition, some teachers had integrated nutrition into the curriculum. These schools tended to have higher propotions of low-income students and were thus eligible for outside funding for enhanced programs.

All three of the middle schools that these students eventually attended had garden and cooking programs in place, although some programs were more advanced than others.

Following the students from these four schools over a three-year period yielded these results:

* In year one, fourth- and fifth-grade students in schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components and those in schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components all ate about the same amount of fruit and vegetable servings per day (about 4 servings, or 2 cups). In year two, the younger students (fourth graders who had moved into fifth grade) attending the schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components had increased their consumption of vegetables by nearly 1 serving (0.4 cups), and for both fruits and vegetables by about 1.5 servings (0.7 cups), while those attending schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components had decreased their consumption of both fruits and vegetables by nearly 0.4 servings.

* As they became fifth-grade students in year two, fourth-grade students from schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed upward trends in family dinner prepared from scratch, eating family dinner nearly every day, using recipes from school at home and helping prepare dinner. In contrast, fourth-grade students from schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components did not show increasing trends in these behaviors from the fourth to fifth grade, although more students from these schools said they ate family dinner nearly every day and this remained consistent from year one to year two.

* Fourth-grade students from schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed significantly greater increases in preference for green leafy vegetables in particular as they moved into fifth grade, compared to fourth grade students from schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components. By seventh grade, preference for fruits and vegetables was similar among the various exposure groups, except preference for green leafy vegetables was associated with higher exposure to School Lunch Initiative components.

* Sixth-grade students showed no significant increase in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to the previous year, but seventh-grade students in the middle school with the most highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed small increases in total fruit and vegetable consumption, putting them at a consumption level of about 4.5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Seventh grade students in the other middle school, where there was less exposure to School Lunch Initiative components, showed a mean decrease in both fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day.

* By Year Three, seventh-grade students attending the middle school with the most highly developed School Lunch Initiative program had increased their nutrition knowledge scores by 5% over the previous year, while students attending the other two middle schools, which had lesser-developed components, had decreased their knowledge scores by 6% in one school and 14%in the other.

* Students attending the middle school with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components in year three showed more positive attitudes toward eating the food served at school, liking the cafeteria, agreeing that produce tastes better in-season, and agreeing that eating choices can help or hurt the environment compared to students attending the other two middle schools, which had lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components.

* There were no consistent differences in attitudes about food, health, the environment or school between students attending schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components and students attending schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components over the three years of the evaluation. However, proportionately more students attending Middle School X, with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components, in year three tended to show positive attitudes toward eating the food served at school and liking the cafeteria at school, as well as agreeing that produce tastes better in-season and that eating choices can help or hurt the environment.

* The need for continued exposure to the School Lunch Initiative into middle school is further supported by the observation that at the one middle school where seventh-grade students showed a mean decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day, the cooking and garden programming was offered only as an elective.

* Parents with children in schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components were more likely than parents with children in schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components to agree that school had changed their child’s knowledge about making healthy food choices (60%versus 36%) and their child’s attitudes about food (42% versus 19%), and had improved their child’s eating habits (35% versus 16%).

Clearly, exposure at the elementary school level to garden and cooking programs with paid staff can improve children's eating habits. So how to account for the fact that progress comes to a virtual standstill in middle school, even where sixth- and seventh-graders spend many hours in the garden and in cooking classes and teachers have integrated nutrition into their lesson plans?

"Middle school is often a time when eating habits worsen as children move into adolescence," is as close to an explanation as the authors of this report offer. "To sustain gains in healthy eating made by program exposure in the younger grades," they conclude, "continued learning and availability of healthy food options can help overcome the pull toward poor habits."

In other words, carry on.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mixed Results from Edible Schoolyard

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Elementary school children regularly involved in gardening, cooking and nutrition education are more likely to develop a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables--even leafy greens--and will more eagerly help make fresh meals at home, but those gains come to a screeching halt as kids get older and move into middle school, where they often backslide.

Those are the mixed results from a three-year evaluation of the "School Lunch Initiative" undertaken by Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley, Calif., schools. Performed by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, and easily the most ambitious examination to date of an integrated school garden and cooking program, the report [PDF] found that fifth-graders in the second year of the program increased their vegetable consumption by one serving per day and also ate more fruit. Sixty percent of the parents of those children said involvement in the gardening and cooking initiative had made their child more aware of healthier food choices.

By seventh grade, however, student improvement even in Berkeley's most advanced middle school slowed almost to a standstill, although students were significantly more likely to enjoy the food served in the cafeteria and had better knowledge of how their food choices affected the environment. Still, their small rate of improvement was much better than in schools where the initiative was less robust. There, seventh graders actually showed declines in food knowledge: 6 percent lower in one middle school, 14 percent in another.

The findings roughly confirm my own anecdotal experiences working in the "dining commons" at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School where the students, despite being involved in Waters' flagship "Edible Schoolyard" gardening and cooking program, displayed a conspicuous indifference to vegetables in the food line. The three-year evaluation seems to indicate that while children at a certain age embrace the idea of eating more healthfully, they lapse into a sort of food funk after entering puberty.

So, do memories of gardening and cooking lessons revive in high school or after adolescence and produce more food-conscious adults? That seemed to be the hope of Berkeley's food service team, who stressed to me repeatedly while I was there that kids must be exposed to healthier foods even if they don't eat them, that the lessons will inform their eating habits later in life.

"I think in Middle School developmentally kids are all over the place. It is really a tough stage and it is also reflected in their food choices," Bonnie Christenson, executive chef for Berkeley schools, said today when asked about the evaluation's results. "In high school you see the kids starting to eat salad again. They are moving away from their parents' control but they are more mature and responsible. They eat a wider variety of foods including veggies."

But, as Christenson notes, "The study doesn't cover a long enough period to reflect this."

"I really do think it makes an impact for life–truly," said chef Ann Cooper, who was hired by Waters to reform the meal program at Berkeley and now runs food service for schools in Boulder, Co. "Middle School is tough no matter what. But in all other academic domains we continue to work with them and we need to in this area as well."

Waters, who was quoted celebrating the study's results in The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, did not respond to my query about the underwhelming middle school results.

Berkeley schools are in the fifth year of a major food service overhaul instigated by parents with help from the Chez Panisse Foundation and the non-profit Center for Ecoliteracy. The schools eliminated processed, reheated meals and adopted food made from scratch. A local bond initiative helped pay for a new central kitchen. Meanwhile, the School Lunch Initiative, designed to show children the connection between how food is grown and prepared and their own health, installed gardens in all 11 of the district's elementary schools and three middle schools. Thirteen instructional kitchens were built.

Waters' vision of children growing and cooking their own food has inspired school gardens across the country. The perceived benefits have been the subject of sometimes furious debate.

To varying degrees, students in Berkeley's "School Lunch Initiative" were engaged in gardening and cooking intermittently during the school year, but the program was stronger at some schools than others. For instance, some schools did not have paid garden staff or dedicated cooking instructors. Over the course of the three-year evaluation, researchers used questionnaires as well as photographs of what kids chose for lunch to measure the impact at schools with the most highly developed programs, compared to those where kids spent less time gardening and cooking.

In the more dynamic programs, for instance, food grown in the garden was harvested and used in a cooking class. The same food was then served in the school cafeteria. The Martin Luther King Middle School, where Waters' original "Edible Schoolyard" is staffed by several workers in the garden, and includes a lavish kitchen facility with individual work stations, a convection oven, a dishwashing area, and a dedicated instructor, was not mentioned by name in the report. But the best results seventh graders managed to muster out of the district's three middle schools--presumably at Martin Luther King--was a five percent improvement in food knowledge, despite all the resources lavished on them.

Initially, 327 students were involved in the study, but by year three the number had dropped to 238.

The Berkeley schools are racially and ethnically highly diverse. Among all the families involved, more than 90 percent of parents said it was "very important" to serve their child fresh fruits and vegetables every day, 75 percent said it was important to serve whole grains, and nearly half thought it was very important to serve locally grown foods.

Researchers said they were puzzled that overall only 30 percent of the children studied helped with meal preparation at home.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's for Breakfast: Cheerios

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Cheerios is a perfect example of how food served in D.C. Public Schools has changed just in the last few months. Last year, you'd be looking at a container of Apple Jacks containing nine grams of sugar (more than two teaspoons) per serving, or perhaps Chocolate Frosted Mini-Wheats with 12 grams of sugar (three teaspoons).

This serving of Cheerios contains less than one gram of sugar and may be the closest thing to a whole grain cereal you can find on a school menu. Of course it is processed: Those little "o's" don't grow on trees. Still, the oats and fiber in Cheerios are something to cheer about. Sugar-free cereals like this one should be the go-to choice for schools in an era of rampant obesity.

There's more than enough sugar in that cherry-flavored yogurt and the apple juice.

Here are the facts on Cheerios:

Cheerios Ingredients

Whole Grain Oats, Modified Corn Starch, Sugar, Oat Bran, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Oat Fiber, Tripotassium Phosphate, Corn Starch, Wheat Starch, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) added to preserve freshness.

Cheerios Nutrition Information

Serving Size: 1 Cup (30g)

Amount per Serving:

Calories: 110
Calories from Fat: 18
Total Fat: 2g 4%
Saturated Fat: 0g 0%
Trans Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg 0%
Sodium: 210mg 9%
Potassium: 200mg 4%
Total Carbohydrates: 22g 8%
Fiber: 3g 12%
Sugar: 1g
Other Carbohydrates: 18g
Protein: 3g 2%

Cheerios Vitamins & Minerals

Vitamin A: 10%
Vitamin B6: 25%
Vitamin B12: 25%
Vitamin C: 10%
Vitamin D: 10%
Folic Acid: 50%
Niacin: 25%
Riboflavin: 25%
Thiamin: 25%
Calcium: 10%
Copper: 2%
Iron: 45%
Magnesium: 10%
Phosphorus: 10%
Zinc: 25%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Can Change Your School's Food

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

So, how much time do you have to change the food your school serves?

I wasn't even paying attention to the food at my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia until I had an opportunity to spend a week as an observer in the kitchen. Being a former newspaper reporter, it didn't take long for me to realize that I'd stumbled into one of the most compelling stories of our times.

At the same time an epidemic of childhood obesity threatens to rob a generation of its health and bankrupt the nation with a $147 billion annual tab for weight-related illnesses, agribusiness and corporate food processors are making out like bandits. How could the federal government allow this to happen? Perhaps we're all to blame for not paying closer attention. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actually complicit in the trend toward processed junk served as food in school. How can that be?

Yet, for all its faults, the school meal program is one of the most successful federal social endeavors of all time, right up there with Medicaid and Social Security. It started in the Great Depression as a means to help farmers sell their surplus, then morphed in the 1960s into an anti-hunger crusade. Now some see school food as a teachable moment in which the first lady grows a vegetable garden at the White House and kids learn life lessons in how to eat better and stay healthy.

The problem, of course, is that school food operations nationwide have been allowed to slip into a state of perpetual poverty, making them easy prey for corporate vendors and food processors. Meanwhile, our first inclination is to heap more government standards onto the program in the mistaken belief that we can somehow legislate our way out of this mess without providing the money schools need to serve healthy food.

What I've learned over a period of months photographing school meals, blogging about them and traveling around the country investigating the school meals program is that while the movement for healthier school food has clearly identified where cafeteria meals go wrong, it has failed to articulate a clear message about what a healthy school meal should look like and how it's to be paid for. Too many Americans see this movement as "elitist" and unnecessary. They need to be convinced otherwise. In our current economic and political climate, moms need talking points they can take to their PTA meetings and win with.

For starters, the trend toward sugary, processed foods in school has been in place some 30 years now and the results are clear for anyone to see: it's killing our kids. Sugar, sodas and junk foods made of refined grains are directly responsible for an epidemic of obesity and related diseases: diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis and a surge in cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children. If this continues, the nation will go bankrupt trying to pay its ever-growing health care bills and we won't have enough healthy young people to defend the country. This can't go on.

The first order of business should be to remove unhealthy foods from schools, which makes it vitally important that Congress pass the Child Nutrition Act re-authorization currently before it. This legislation would require the USDA to adopt standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that would lower calorie requirements for school meals, meaning schools would no longer be so pressed to use sugar as a cheap calorie boost. The IOM has also recommended bigger helpings of vegetables and whole grains that will help push sugar off the menu. In addition, this legislation would give the USDA for the first time authority to remove all non-nutritious foods from schools, meaning not just in the subsidized meal line but in vending machines, snack bars, school stores and a la carte lines. Parents need to contact their Congressmen and demand passage of this legislation immediately.

On the home front, every school district is required to have a wellness committee and wellness committees can control which foods are served in school. Parents should insist on a seat on their local wellness committee and participate in the deliberations.

In addition, federal law requires that any school district that hires a professional food service management company must establish a committee of parents, students and others to advise on the menu. Parents should insist that these committees be established and that they be given a seat on them.

Where flavored milk is concerned, parents need to stand up against it and the dairy industry that is trying to scare schools into serving it. So far, the dairy industry is winning the propaganda war on chocolate and other sugary milk drinks by suggesting kids will collapse in a heap of osteoporosis and rickets if they are denied access to these products. In fact, research shows that physical exercise--not milk--is the best way to build strong bones and that exposure to sunlight is the best way to get Vitamin D. The dangers of sugar--and teaching kids to expect sugar with their food--far outweigh the benefits of drinking chocolate milk. Schools need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and should be trying harder--along with parents--to teach kids to drink milk responsibly.

The best and easiest way to teach kids how to appreciate fresh produce may be to install salad bars in every cafeteria. As any parent can tell you, kids generally aren't crazy about vegetables and are especially turned off by vegetables cooked to death--the kind they most often see in the cafeteria. Many prefer their produce closer to a raw state, and they can get downright enthusiastic about creating their own meals. But salad bars are an additional expense. Parents need to work with their local schools to see how salad bars can be adapted to individual situations. There's nothing to prevent local PTAs from raising the funds schools need to install salad bars.

Finally, local and state governments can contribute more financially to making school meal finances healthier. Here in the District of Columbia, a recently passed "Healthy Schools Act" makes our city one of the most generous in the country. The school system already supports the meal program with nearly $7 million in deficit food services spending every year, 25 percent of the budget. D.C. schools banned soft drinks in 2006, and serve free breakfast to any student who wants one. "Healthy Schools" upped the ante by picking up the tab for all students eligible for reduced-price meals. To the federal subsidies already in place, it added 10 cents for every breakfast, 10 cents for every lunch and a five-cent bonus for every lunch meal that contains a locally-grown component.

D.C. parents were involved in the drafting of the "Healthy Schools" legislation. We also were instrumental--along with a newly hired food services director who shares our views--in removing flavored milk, sugary cereals and breakfast treats like Pop-Tarts and Giant Goldfish Grahams from the menu. That's the power of our daily blog--Better D.C. School Food--and proof of what Margaret Mead said: Never underestimate what a few determined individuals can accomplish.

Still, our schools do not have an overarching plan to teach nutrition as part of the regular curriculum. We've recently formed a Healthy D.C. School Food Committee to address that and to lobby for other changes that advance the aims of the "Healthy Schools Act."

So don't just complain about the food at school. Get busy and be part of the solution. And by all means keep blogging.

For more great advice about what parents can do to change the school food landscape, visit The Lunch Tray blog.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mom Thwarted by Dairy Industry's Chocolate Milk Spin

Guest Post
By Julia Mcnally

I am a mother of two -- a 7 year-old girl and a 5-year old boy. I do a pretty good job of cooking fresh food at home. When my daughter started kindergarten a few years ago, I let her start eating lunch at school.

I will be honest, I was happy not to have to make her a lunch every day, and she was also excited about having a hot lunch. There were two things I noticed when she started eating school lunches: 1) She became pickier about the foods I served at home (before that time she would eat nearly anything I served) and 2) she began to put on weight.

I became concerned and decided to join the wellness committee in our school district. Working with nutrition services, the committee has been able to make some changes, like offering desserts only once or twice a week instead of every day. But the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, pizzas, and burgers remain.

Earlier this year, I watched Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" on television and he really spoke to me. I went and had lunch with my daughter at her school and I took a good look around. Nearly every child was drinking chocolate milk. I picked up a carton and looked at the nutrition label: 26 grams of sugar, along with high fructose corn syrup, salt, and artificial flavor.

In our household, we have chocolate milk occasionally as a treat when we go out to dinner, and we have hot chocolate to warm our Wisconsin winters. But I wondered how many children were drinking chocolate milk every day, and I wondered why they were even being offered chocolate milk in the first place -- especially at the elementary school level when habits are formed.

I brought it before the wellness committee last spring before summer break. I couldn't convince the nutrition services director to drop chocolate milk completely, but we did vote to try a month without it, right at the beginning of the school year. We hoped that incoming kindergartners wouldn't learn to expect chocolate milk, and perhaps the other returning students would have lost some of their taste for it over the summer.

Our plan was also to hand out information to parents at registration to encourage their children to drink plain white milk. We were hoping that milk consumption wouldn't drop off (or if so, very little) and we could make the change permanent.

I should have heard alarm bells when I went to register my kids and there was no mention of white milk in the Fall. But the Committee had voted on it, and frankly, the weeks before school starts are pretty busy ones, so I didn't follow up with anyone about it.

You know where this is going, right?

Two days before school started, the nutrition services director decided not to remove chocolate milk, citing a "study" from MilkPEP she had learned about at a nutritional conference over the summer.

To add insult to injury, she sent out a two-page flyer from MilkPEP to all the parents in the district, which basically encourages chocolate milk consumption. When I tried to get her to reconsider, she used the statistics promoted by MilkPEP as her "proof" that milk consumption would drop in our district if we only offered White Milk.

I argue that we don't know if milk consumption would have dropped, because we didn't go through with our trial, and now, most likely we never will. Unfortunately the dairy industry's chocolate milk marketing campaign is having its intended effect, at least in my district--so much so, that I am now the bad guy for wanting only white milk!

The bottom line is, by serving chocolate milk, schools are creating an army of children who crave sweetened beverages and won't drink anything else. What kind of legacy is that?

Here is the text of the letter sent to parents by Linda S. Binder, director of nutrition services for schools in Grafton, Wis.:

Dear Parents,

“The Chocolate Milk Story”

In response to a concern from parents that flavored milk should be removed from schools because of its high sugar content, we are taking the following steps:

Strawberry flavored milk (which has the highest sugar content of the

milk we serve) will no longer be served at Grafton School District.

We will still, however, have chocolate milk available to students during lunch.

The Early Childhood and Kindergarten Staff will only serve white milk as their snack time milk choice.

We will be providing some fun but educational ways, of showing students that white milk is a better milk choice than chocolate.

Parents can also help by talking to their children and suggest they limit the amount of days, or times during the day, they drink chocolate milk… BUT please don’t have them limit milk!

Milk provides 3 of the 5 “nutrients of concern” that children do not get enough of – calcium, potassium and magnesium - as well as other nutrients.

In the meantime, the dairy industry is working on the development of chocolate milk that will be lower in sugar; hopefully that will become available this school year.

The article sent along with this e-mail summarizes studies done at 58 schools. In short, low fat chocolate is the most popular milk choice in schools and kids drink less milk (and therefore get fewer nutrients) if it’s taken away.

Please feel free to contact me with concerns or comments.

Linda S. Binder, R.D.

Director of Nutrition Services



Julia McNally lives in Grafton, Wis.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Biking to School

This is one determined 10-year-old

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

This bicycle may be the best purchase we've ever made for our daughter. After bringing it home from Target on Saturday, she couldn't wait to get on it, so we took it out for a road test, riding 3.25 miles to her new elementary school.

Daughter's new school just happens to be located near one of the highest points in the city. Fortunately, we already live in an elevated portion of the District known as Columbia Heights. Still, as we mapped the route to school it was clear we would face a challenge: the long uphill grade of Massachusetts Avenue affectionately known in these parts as "embassy row."

In fact, it's one of the most beautiful parts of the city, with wide lawns fronting the embassies and tall oaks giving shade. We pass the grounds of the British embassy, as well as the vice president's residence at Observatory Circle before crossing over Wisconsin Avenue into the Glover Park neighborhood.

Daughter was whooping and cheering as we pulled into the elementary school lot. I took her to a nearby burger joint for lunch, then she rode her bike all the way home again. For the rest of the weekend she complained her "butt cheeks hurt." But we were astonished to hear her propose that we repeat the trip at least twice a week, starting today.

This morning she was out of bed at 6:30 am, bathed, dressed and ready to go at 7:15. We took a few extra rest breaks on the Massachusetts Avenue climb this time, but still managed to beat our previous time by 10 minutes. We showed up at the schoolhouse door at 7:55, ready for breakfast.

Breakfast after biking 3.25 miles

And here's what they were serving: "toasty turkey ham and cheddar on a whole wheat English muffin," according to Chartwells.

"Can we have something special for dinner?" daughter wanted to know.

I think that can be arranged.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Kids are back to school and news accounts are full of stories about schools improving the food they serve. It's a rare news organization that takes the time to actually poke beneath the surface of what schools say they are doing in the cafeteria. And as we've documented here, there can be a world of difference between the prose that springs from the imagination of school menu writers and what actually finds its way on to kids' cafeteria trays.

Still, there does definitely seem to be a heightened awareness about what kids are eating at school and indications from every corner of the country that many schools are trying to improve their offerings. Here is a broad sampling:

Schools in Frederick County, Md., this fall are serving more local apples, watermelons and other produce.

Portland, Ore., is cooking more food from scratch and finding that it does, indeed cost more.

Schools in Louisiana have concluded that math and reading are not enough. A good education includes healthy eating.

Outside Detroit, a school principle has decided no more cupcakes or other sugary treats at birthday celebrations.

USA Today looks at how schools across the country are serving breakfast in the classroom to make sure kids start their day with a good meal.

Schools in Orange County, Fla., this year are serving sushi, green salad with strawberries, hummus and pita.

Massachusetts has passed new standards that spell the end of school bake sales and sodas and junk food in vending machines. Schools have replaced snack bars with smoothie bars.

In Albany, Calif., they are growing their own salad bars and teaching school cooks to roll their own breakfast burritos.

A middle-school food club in Allentown, Pa., is helping to make menu choices for the rest of the school district.

Schools in Fairfield, Ohio, are getting the jump on new state standards with a total revamp of the school menu, including more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Schools around Pittsburgh, Penn., have been working to make meals healthier,
"limiting salt, sugar, processed foods and high-fructose corn syrup; eliminating fried foods, trans fat, bovine growth hormone, artificial colors and sweeteners; and increasing whole grains, fiber, whole muscle meat and vegetarian options."

Schools in Boise, Id., are part of a pilot program to serve locally grown products at lunch, including local trout.

Kids in Maine are seeing less processed food and more locally grown produce in the cafeteria.

In Eugene, Ore., the cafeteria cooks are getting an earful about cooking with local ingredients to make meals fresher.

In St. Louis, Mo., they'd already axed Pop-Tarts, fries and nachos. This year another icon bit the dust: chicken nuggets.

In Carson City, Nev., they've chosen Aramark as the new meal provider and consider it a big improvement. The kids now have fruit and vegetable carts to snack from.

In Hampton Roads, Va., they've revamped the menu with whole-grain pizza, turkey hot dogs, black bean burgers, marinated bean salads, Asian chicken salad, and sweet potato fries.


Finally, it seems some people will do almost anything to get a break on the cost of school lunch. A school cafeteria manager outside Pittsburgh was charged with listing his dog as a dependent in order to qualify his family for reduced-price meals. Authorities say the scheme cost the schools
nearly $11,000 over a three-year period.

Authorities said Gabrial Shane Paulick, an employee of Nutrition, Inc., might have gotten away with the scheme except that the head of the cafeteria system for the schools recognized the name of his dog--Karla--on Paulick's application.

Paulick has been charged with theft and criminal solicitation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Let's Put Sugar Back in School Food!

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Maybe it was bound to happen sooner or later: A Washington Post columnist has come out in favor of chocolate milk in school.

Yes, I opened the Post this morning and found former metro reporter Petula Dvorak whining about the things schools have banned this year, but most of all flavored milk. She even takes a poke at Jamie Oliver for actually praising the decision by D.C. schools to take chocolate and strawberry milk off the menu.

Won't kids collapse in a heap of osteoporosis if they can't have their chocolate milk? Dvorak moans. What harm could a few extra teaspoons of sugar possibly do?

Dvorak's attitude is not at all uncommon. She's a perfect shill for the diary industry, which has mounted a national scare campaign to keep sugary milk in school. It is, after all, one of their best sellers and perhaps the only bright spot in a pretty dismal picture where plummeting milk consumption is concerned.

By Dvorak's logic, we should just add sugar to foods we want kids to eat. If they don't like carrots, let's serve them carrot cake instead. If they won't eat their spinach, let's hide it in a brownie.

In fact, sugar is the go-to ingredient in under-funded school cafeterias. Not only does it induce kids to buy the food in the federally-subsidized meal line, it's a cheap source of the calories the government says kids must be served if schools are to qualify for those federal funds. With our inattention to the way schools are feeding our kids, we've allowed them to slip into a state of dependency on a food additive that has a special relationship with our epidemic of childhood obesity and a host of modern diseases: diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis and a surge in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

As we discovered by monitoring what D.C. schools were serving in the cafeteria, kids as young as five routinely were consuming 15 teaspoons of sugar or more before classes even started because of breakfasts loaded with chocolate and strawberry milk, Apple Jacks cereal, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. As concerned parents, we campaigned for and succeeded in getting these sugary foods removed from the D.C. school menu and replaced with healthier options.

Says school food consultant and author Kate Adamick: "There are approximately 4.2 grams of sugar in a teaspoon of sugar, and approximately 115 teaspoons of sugar in a pound of sugar. Thus, if a child drinks a carton of flavored milk with as little as 10 grams of added sugars every day during a 180-day school year, he will consume more than 3 1/2 pounds of added sugars. Needless to say, if that same child is drinking the flavored milk for both breakfast and lunch, he's consuming more than 7 pounds of added sugars in a single school year. The more grams of added sugars in each carton of flavored milk, the bigger that number becomes -- and quickly."

The message for Dvorak and others like her should be, Try a little harder. We can teach kids to drink plain milk. Loading foods with sugar is not only too easy, it's a dangerous habit.

But advocates of healthier school food need to get their act together where this campaign for sugary milk is concerned. Already a "study" bought and paid for by the dairy industry, and conducted by a food marketing firm that also works for Coke, Pepsi and Nestle, has found its way into the conversation. Heaping scorn on industry tactics isn't good enough. We need a coherent retort to the argument that kids who don't have chocolate milk at their disposal don't get enough calcium or Vitamin D.

If you support parents' efforts to remove flavored milk and other sugary foods from schools, please take a moment to log into Dvorak's article online and leave your comments.

What's for Breakfast: A Warm Muffin

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Wait. Isn't that the same blueberry muffin we recently saw served in a plastic wrapper?

Indeed, it is. But the cook at my daughter's elementary school explained that she prefers to serve the muffins warm, so she unwraps each one and heats them in the oven.

Would you rather have the plastic-wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer muffins the schools served last year?

Here's the breakfast alternate: whole wheat bagel with a small tub of cream cheese.

The menu on Chartwells' website says the fruit would be orange wedges. Instead, there's a pear. But that only proves that the published menus are rarely 100 percent accurate.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lunch from Home: Lunchables

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

They say that the lunches kids bring from home are sometimes worse than the food served in the lunch line. And they are right.

Even in the relatively affluent neighborhood where my daughter's elementary school is located it's apparently okay to send your kid to school with Oscar Meyer Lunchables.

I hadn't realized there were so many varities of Lunchables. They number in the dozens. Owned by Kraft, the brand now advertises "wholesome" selections, such as turkey and cheddar sub with a bottle of spring water. But Kraft also considers its "Deep Dish Pepperoni Pizza" Lunchables as "wholesome." That one contains 26 grams of sugar--six teaspoons--as well as 880 milligrams of sodium, or 37 percent of adult's daily requirement.

Here's the list of ingredients:


The "Chicken Dunks" come with a whopping 73 grams of carbohydrates, including 32 grams of sugar, or eight teaspoons, the same as in a one-cup serving of Mountain Dew. And it's all processed: there's just only lonely little gram of fiber in the whole meal.

And guess what? Kids love it.

What's in Your Apple Juice?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This little box of apple juice started showing up recently in the cafeteria at my daughter's elementary school. Did you know a little half-cup serving of apple juice like this contains 12 grams of sugar, or three teaspoons? And that's from 100 percent apples, no sugar added.

Whole fruit, with fiber and other nutrients, is much healthier. But the calories in a small juice box like this--60--are a fairly cheap way for schools to meet the calorie requirements established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the subsidized school meal program. As a result, you often see a piece of fruit and juice being offered with the same meal. Meal standards proposed by the Institute of Medicine would lower the calorie requirements, and also make it harder to substitute fruits (or sugary fruit juices) for vegetables.

It's a tough question for healthy school food advocates: are all foods healthy by virtue of containing only the sugar nature endowed them with? Or should we be concerned with the way sugar is loaded onto kids' cafeteria trays in the guise of juice?

Note also that this juice is fortified with calcium, which may mitigate the concerns of those who fret that kids will crumble in a heap of osteoporosis because they can't have chocolate (or strawberry) milk at school any more.

And one further observation: on the back of this little juice box, it reads, "concentrate of U.S.A., Germany and China."


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What's for Lunch: Chicken on a Bun

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This meal illustrates the limits of trying to reform school meals around a meal service provider like Chartwells. Although there have been lots of encouraging changes around the edges of the cafeteria tray--fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, even some items cooked from scratch--it's hard to lose the processed entree in the center.

Our new food services director here in D.C. says he and his crew recently tested dozens of different "chicken products." This appears to be one: a chicken patty on a whole wheat bun.

As you can see from the photo, it comes with these phony grill marks (are the kids supposed to think the kitchen ladies are grilling them out in the parking lot?). They arrive frozen in boxes, then are reheated typically in the convection oven. If I could get my hands on the shipping container, I could tell you what's in them. Under "Healthy Schools" legislation passed by the D.C. Council, the schools this year are required to post the ingredients for all meal items. They're projecting an interactive website to be up and running sometime in November.

In case you were wonder about the salad in the paper boat, that's actually the toppings that are supposed to go on the chicken. Kids at the elementary school level are typically mystified by this sort of food service. I did not see any of them putting the lettuce, tomato and "ancho sauce" on their sandwich, nor did I see anyone coaching them in how to do it. Mostly it ends up in the trash.

Chartwells' menu description for the canned beans is over the top: "campfire baked vegetarian baked beans."

But don't you love the kid-size apple?

What's for Breakfast: Bagel Egg and Cheese

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The grated cheddar cheese on this egg sandwich doesn't look particularly appealing after it's been in the oven.

But I wanted to draw your attention to the egg. In the past, the schools have used a processed, frozen egg patty from a factory for this. But this egg patty was made from scratch in the school kitchen, poured into a stainless pain, cooked and then cut into rounds.

We are seeing much more food like that this year, since the D.C. schools revamped their menu--more thought put into the food, more things cooked from scratch.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What's for Lunch: Sweet and Sour Chicken

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

You have to give the D.C. schools credit for using a little more imagination than simply slapping processed packaged foods on kids lunch trays. Last year the Chartwells drill was to dump frozen meal components on a baking sheet, reheat them and call them lunch. But a summer of carefully scrutiny and tinkering by the schools food services department has resulted in more artful meals.

Take this "sweet and sour chicken," for instance. No doubt the chicken arrived cooked a frozen in those strips you see in the photo. They may have been already seasoned at the factory (I haven't seen the packaging, so I don't know for sure.) The broccoli and carrots also may have been pre-cut and frozen, or perhaps they were merely refrigerated and arrived in large bags from the processor.

In any case, they were all assembled and sauced in the school kitchen, something requiring a little more care and craft than in the past. It actually looks like something you might see in a restaurant. It's been served over "soba noodles," according to Chartwells. I couldn't tell if they were actually Japanese soba noodles, or merely whole wheat pasta noodles. Still, this deserves an "A" for effort, wouldn't you say?

The the left is an interesting "Asian slaw" made with locally grown cabbage. The local cabbage earns this meal a five-cent bonus from the city treasury. We have definitely seen the effects of that incentive, created in the recently-approved "Healthy Schools Act" here in the District of Columbia. Local fruits and vegetables have been showing up in meals on a daily basis.

The pears in the slaw look suspiciously like those in the "pear cup." But nobody's complaining.

What's for Breakfast: Vegetable Omelette

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chartwells was calling this egg dish a "skillet." It contains fresh zucchini, tomato and red bell pepper. It was made with eggs and vegetables poured into a stainless pan greased with Pam, then baked in the oven and cut into squares. I seemed to be the only one eating it in the cafeteria. The kids all went for the alternate, which was the muffin, cottage cheese and orange wedges.

Don't wedges seem like a better idea than serving a whole orange, much of which often ends up in the trash? It would be great if all fruit servings could be geared to elementary school appetites to avoid waste.

I liked the eggs, even though they could have used a little more salt. Cottage cheese seems like a much better way to work calcium into the menu compared to flavored milk, which D.C. schools have stopped serving this year. I just wish I knew where the muffin can from. It definitely is not Otis Spunkmeyer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Time to Save School Lunch from Government Standards

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The biggest news about the Child Nutrition Act pending in Congress isn't increased funding or more vegetables and whole grains in school meals. The reason we need this bill passed now is to save children from government standards that are destroying kids' health.

Every day I visit the cafeteria in my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia and watch a quiet struggle unfold. It's the same battle schools fight all over the country: trying to provide kids the calories the U.S. Department of Agriculture says they must have on a budget that won't cover the cost of healthy food. The result: meals loaded with sugar, enemy No. 1 in our current epidemic of childhood obesity.

Sugar, and especially the high-fructose corn syrup that proliferates in cheap processed food, has emerged as the leading culprit behind a host of modern ills. It packs fat onto waistlines, raises blood pressure, creates bad cholestorol and unhealthy arteries, primes bodies for diabetes and heart failure, and now is suspected in an outbreak of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children.

Right behind smoking, sugar has become the health scourge of our time, contributing greatly to this country's estimated $147 billion annual tab for weight-related illnesses. Yet in the world of federally-subsidized school meals, sugar not only goes virtually unregulated, but has emerged as the go-to ingredient to boost calories in perpetually under-funded cafeterias.

Take breakfast, for instance. The USDA says that a school breakfast must provide 554 calories for children in elementary school. Where do those calories come from? Well, if you have less than $1 to spend, your breakfast might very well look like the ones that used to be served every day in D.C.: Sugary Apple Jacks cereal topped with strawberry-flavored milk, accompanied by a Pop-Tart, a pack of Giant Goldfish Grahams and a carton of orange juice. Altogether, children as young as five routinely were consuming the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar before classes even started.

This year, D.C. school officials have taken the extraordinary step of eliminating not just flavored milk and sugary cereals, but also those other processed "treats" that were standard fare in the breakfast line. Now we see low-sugar Kashi cereal and organic yogurt and sunflower butter and cottage cheese on the menu. But how do you make a small blueberry muffin, a scoop of cottage cheese, a carton of low-fat milk and four ounces of orange juice add up to 554 calories?

We're lucky here in the nation's capitol. As the result of a "Healthy Schools Act" passed by the D.C. Council earlier this year, we now have 10 cents extra to spend on breakfast and another 10 cents for lunch. Few local jurisdictions have been so generous. That's why you see cookies and brownies in subsidized school lunches all over the country. The sugar provides a cheap boost in calories. In the Chicago area, parents continue to complain about "brunch for lunch," meaning pancakes, phony syrup and cookies posing as the midday meal. Other healthy food advocates despair of getting sugary flavored milk off the menu: Their schools would then fall short of the USDA's calorie requirements.

The measly six additional cents the U.S. Senate recently approved for school meals as part of its version of the Child Nutrition Act re-authorization won't solve the problem. But its call for new meal standards might. Under the Senate bill, the USDA would be required to "update meal patterns and nutrition standards" within the next three years. Proposed new standards have already been developed by the Institute of Medicine at the USDA's behest.

Don't look for any regulations aimed specifically at sugar. The sugar lobby is too strong for that. Instead, the IOM attempts an end run around sugar's tyranny over school meals, lowering calorie requirements while boosting the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains schools must serve. Sugar essentially would be squeezed off the menu.

In fact, the current calorie minimums enforced by the USDA exceed the IOM's proposed maximums. The calorie requirement for an elementary school breakfast, for instance, would change from that flat 554 calories to a range of 350 minimum calories and a maximum of 500. That means 204 calories cash-strapped school wouldn't have to pay for, calories kids might not be exposed to in the form of sugar.

For lunch, the IOM recommends a range of 550 to 650 calories for kids five to 10 years of age, compared to the USDA's current fixed amount of 664. The Institute of Medicine also proposes to raise the percentage of calories that can derive from calorie-dense fat in school meals from 30 percent to 35 percent, a move that would further reduce schools' reliance on sugar and bring the meals program more in line with the federal government's dietary guidelines.

In addition, this year's version of the Child Nutrition Act for the first time would give the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in school, not just in the subsidized meal line. If the agriculture secretary is in a mood to take on the processed food industry, that could mean no more sugary drinks and snacks in vending machines, no more ice cream bars or fruit roll-ups in a la carte lines.

For healthy school food advocates, the Senate's trifling six cents is hard to swallow. But we need to get over it for now and make sure the House moves quickly on its version of the Child Nutrition Act. As we've seen here in D.C., a lot can be accomplished just by ridding school meals of unhealthy foods, especially sugar. That's reason enough to make passage of this bill now an urgent priority.