Sunday, January 9, 2011

Potpourri: School Food News Roundup

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

How do you make school food healthier without spending more money?

A great place to is just taking sugary, starchy foods off the menu. That's exactly what schools in St. Paul, Minn., have in mind. They plan to become "sweet-free zones" by the end of the current school year.

That means "sweet, sticky, fat-laden [and] salty treats" aren't allowed during the school day, said Jean Ronnei, the district's director of nutrition services.

The new policy comes four years after the idea was conceived in a new St. Paul schools wellness policy, passed at the recommendation of a panel of parents, teachers, school nurses and administrators.

Superintendent Valeria Silva, who was hired a year ago, decided to take action after a study determined 40 percent of St. Paul's fourth-graders, most of whom are poor and minority, are obese. That's 11 percent higher than the national rate.

In prior years, though the policy existed, it was rarely enforced because of other academic and leadership changes the schools were going through, said Ann Hoxie, the district's assistant director for student health and wellness.

The policy is seen as a blow to booster clubs and parent organizations, too, which won't be able to sell hot chocolate, doughnuts, candy bars and cookies at school events, often used as fundraisers.

Teachers also will have to find new ways to reward students, and children will have to come up with new ways to celebrate classroom birthdays and, well, almost every occasion.

And of course food manufacturers who specialize in sugar, such as the beverage industry, don't see much good coming of it.

"I think it's counter-productive," said Joan Archer, president of the Minnesota's Beverage Association, which negotiated with the district when schools eliminated soda from vending machines. "Kids aren't much different than adults. When they're mandated to do something, it can backfire."

Meanwhile, a study from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, find that banning junk food from a la carte lines during school lunch hours would result in an 18 percent reduction in overweight or obese students.

Researchers examined survey responses from seventh- and 12th-graders and their parents at eight Midwestern schools, then combined them with those of school administrators and considered a range of other factors to precisely gauge the effect of school food policies on students’ weight.

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


The things children eat these days are far different than what their parents ate and much less healthy. And despite what they may think, parents don't have very much influence over what their kids eat, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Researchers looked at 30 years worth of studies on eating habits and found that outside forces-- friends, schools, area stores and advertisers-- have more sway than parents, particularly over older kids who eat out more.

"The parents' influence was weak," said May A. Beydoun, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Bloomberg School and a co-author of the study. "Parents can have an influence, but there needs to be a concerted effort outside the home."


The mainstream media spends little time getting inside school kitchens to see how they really work. So this long report from the San Diego Reader is unusual and informative. Listen to how the food service workers talk about the waste in school cafeterias:

"Baker, who worked with Food Services for 18 years, has the opportunity to visit all 200 kitchens as part of his job. Food Services buys 23,000 pounds of chopped Romaine lettuce, 1200 cases of oranges, 34,900 cases of frozen food products, and 1,182,500½ pints of milk every month. Too much of it, he says, gets thrown away at the end of each day.

" 'I’d say we could feed all the homeless downtown probably with all the food we waste in these kitchens per day,' he says. 'Management doesn’t listen to the workers, and we’re the ones feeding these children and we know what’s going on. But the people in the ivory tower are throwing these projections out, and it’s just a big waste.' "

"He estimates that they waste 'hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, easily' and says that if the members of what he calls the 'good old girls’ club' would take the advice of the front-line workers, they might be able to work together to save that money."

On a brighter side, salad bars in San Diego school appear to be a huge hit.


In Denver, some 81 schools have started serving free lunch to all students regardless of income because some low-income children apparently weren't eating because they didn't want friends to know they were poor.

Making meals universally free helps remove the stigma from eating in the federally-subsidized meal line. By making lunch free for every student, district leaders hope more students will go through the lunch line, especially students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. If they do, the district will actually make money by giving away lunch for free, officials said.

That would be because of the payments the federal government gives schools for each meal served--$2.72 for every fully-subsidized meal that goes to a low-income child. Of course, that would be offset by any money the kids who don't qualify would otherwise pay for the food.

Schools in districts with high populations of low-income students have already shown that they can generate money to pay for better lunch food by serving free breakfast in the classroom.

Said one parent: "Regardless of what's being served, if it's free for everybody, the kids are going to want to eat."


Junk food has spread everywhere and food that's really bad for you is cheap. What's more, food manufacturers encourage people to overeat, then tell them they are responsible for eating too much.

It seems the current environment is designed to make people fat--and corporate food interests rich. That's the take of Kelly Bromwell, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University and director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Bromwell's laser-sharp views on what's ailing our food system are contained in an interview titled, "How the Food Industry Drives Us to Eat," published in the November 2010 edition of San Francisco Medicine, the journal of the San Francisco Medical Society.

The newsletter is in PDF format. Scroll to page 17 for the interview.


Every child is entitled to lunch at school, right? Well, maybe not in some charter schools in California, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Mealtime is more complicated at the more than 900 publicly financed charter schools in California. Unlike traditional campuses that must follow state nutrition regulations for schools, charters can make independent decisions about what's for lunch. Some charter school officials decide not to serve it at all, even if that might mean that the nutrition needs of some of the state's poorest children are not being met.

"Charter schools are about family choice," said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of nutrition services for the state Department of Education. "On the other hand, there is a lot of hunger in California, and we know children who are hungry don't learn as well."

Many public schools are expanding meal programs in the belief that children who are well fed learn better. But advocates for low-income families worry that those struggling to put food on the table can be left to decide between a traditional public school that offers their children adequate nutrition and a charter that may have smaller classes or more enrichment programs.

Lunchtime on some charter campuses "indulges the students' worst impulses and obligates the parents to pay for meals that USDA is willing to fund," said Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.


In international news, warfare has erupted over a free school lunch proposal in Korea.

Legislators in Seoul have voted to provide free lunches to school children there, but the mayor says the proposal is illegal and that he'll refuse to spend money on it.

Money was approved for for free lunches for students in two grades at primary schools in Seoul. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education and each ward office cover the money needed to feed students in four other grades.

Legislators have promoted the free meal program, which will start next year, and will include middle schools from 2012. But Mayor Oh Se-hoon made it clear that the city government will not execute the budget.

"I have no other choice but to fight with stern determination, as the passage was a clear violation of the law,” Oh told reporters. “We will take a firm stand against illegality. We will not spend the illegally-increased budget,” he added.

Oh has vehemently opposed the plan, claiming the program is based on a populist campaign and the money should be spent on other projects with a higher priority.

In India, meanwhile, a judge put schools on notice that junk food could be on its way out, following a petition from a children's welfare group that wants the courts to direct the local government to develop better nutrition policies.

"At what cost is it okay for junk food to be available to them at school," asked advocate Rakesh Prabhakar, representing the Uday Foundation. "On the one hand, children are taught about good nutrition and the value of a healthy lifestyle inside classrooms; yet on the other hand we continue to make junk food available to them."

The court directed he government to file a written reply by February 9. It also asked the NGO to define " junk food" in its petition before the next hearing.

"When you have a sumptuous junk meal rich in oil, you feel drowsy and fail to concentrate," according to the foundation's petition. "Over sustained periods of junk food eating, blood circulation drops because of fat accumulation. Lack of vital oxygen, nutrients and proteins particularly can stale your grey ( brain) cells temporarily."


Outside Philadelphia is the poorest community in Pennsylvania and the second-hungriest in the U.S. Kids grow up in a food dessert where grocery stores have disappeared. A non-profit group hopes to help fill the gap by starting a food pantry that charges only modest amounts for the food.

They would give the food away, except there aren't enough donations. Read about it here.


Finally, in the wake of hurricane Katrina, a group of middle-school students calling them the Rethinkers formed to re-imagine schools in New Orleans. The group has now turned its attention to school food and is working on ways to bring local produce--even local shrimp--to school cafeterias.

To the students, the issues were clear and visible: the food tasted terrible and the cafeteria conditions were pathetic. Long lines and short lunch periods made it nearly impossible for students to wash their hands, eat, and digest the food. And the list went on, all symptoms of a broken school food operation.

The group brought in Johanna Gilligan of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, a local alternative food policy and advocacy group, as a resource person to work with them.

For more about the Rethinkers and a long takeout on food justice issues, read this piece in Dissent Magazine.

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