Sunday, January 23, 2011

This Week in School Food News

Here's a shocker: food that food corporations label as especially healthy for children really isn't very healthy.

The California-based Prevention Institute [PDF] looked at more than 50 of these products and found that 84 percent of them do not meet basic nutritional standards.

More than half contained too much sugar. In fact, nearly all of the products the institute looked at contained added sugar.

More than half were low in fiber and the majority did not contain any fruits or vegetables. Thirty-six percent contained too much sodium.

But should this be a surprise? Corporations, after all, are in the business of making money for shareholders, not looking after the health of the nation's children. For that, you need government regulations or an army of parents on 24-hour watch.


The other thing food corporations are good at is worming their way into school meal programs.

Dominoes Pizza has unveiled what it's calling a "Smart Slice" program aimed at replacing the frozen pizzas schools currently serve with the Dominoes brand. The company says its pizzas are more nutritious because they have whole wheat crust and are freshly baked.

"This is a new approach to delivering pizza to schools, and we are extremely excited about the potential of Domino's Smart Slice," crows J. Patrick Doyle, Domino's Pizza president and chief executive officer. "We are pleased with the launch, and the feedback from school districts has been very positive — which makes us believe the upside is tremendous. We want to lead change in this area."

Indeed, pizza is kids' favorite food in the school lunch program. But don't be fooled by that "whole wheat" crust. Government regulations permit companies to label foods "whole grain" even when they contain only 51 percent of actual whole grain.


Jamie Oliver wants to cure U.S. schools of bad food, but schools in Los Angeles have said no thanks.

Oliver has moved to L.A. to film a new series for his television reality show, "Food Revolution." He was hoping to spend at least part of his time inside L.A. schools. But so far more than 75 school districts have closed their doors to his cameras.

To illustrate his plight, Oliver recently loaded a school bus with sand to represent the sugar L.A. kids are eating every year by drinking flavored milk. He spoke to a convention of food service workers, urging them to take up his cause with their local districts.

So far, no luck. Some are now wondering whether Oliver has taken things a bit too far. But we feel his pain. Most schools would much rather hide their meal program from public view, it's so rarely anything to brag about.


Speaking of lousy school food, we note that chicken nuggets will still be on school menus despite new meal service guidelines proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The guidelines call for more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less sodium in school food. But they do nothing to prevent giant food processing companies such as Tyson and Schwann Food from participating in the USDA program that allows schools to purchase commodity goods as frozen, processed foods.

The USDA says it wants school food to be fresher and less processed. That means companies that participate in the commodities diversion program will have to get creative. Sodium in school food will have to be cut by almost half within 10 years.

The USDA notes that Americans get most of their sodium from processed foods.


The Child Nutrition Act re-authorization recently enacted by Congress gives the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in school--meaning a la carte lines, school stores and vending machines, in addition to the federally-subsidized meal line. Already, companies are pitching healthier vending machine snacks to schools.

Bloomberg News reports that Jeff Lowell, an assistant principal at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., normally dismisses the e-mails he gets from businesses trying to sell to his 1,500 students. He was intrigued, however, by the pitch he received in September from Fresh Healthy Vending, a San Diego franchise operation that offers vending machines stocked with snacks and drinks it touts as alternatives to junk food.

"Everybody [understands] what eating right does for you and how much it ends up affecting your ability to think," Lowell says. "We decided we wanted to try it.

Lowell signed a one-year contract allowing Fresh Healthy to park its machines near Interlake's gym in exchange for 15 percent of profits. In late November, Fresh Healthy installed three machines, featuring goodies such as Kashi granola bars and Stonyfield Farm fruit smoothies, next to older machines that sell Powerade and Dasani water—though no soda—through a long-standing agreement with Coca-Cola Enterprises (KO). The top seller in the new machines so far: Pirate's Booty cheese puffs.

More than two dozen small companies are plying the healthier school vending machine market and are confident of getting a boost from the new law.

"I can't even tell you the response we're getting since this latest piece of legislation passed," says Fresh Healthy founder Jolly Backer, who launched the company in May to sell and supply franchises. He charges franchisees about $11,000 per machine, which they then manage, ordering from Fresh Healthy online and restocking once or twice a week. Fresh Healthy has machines in more than 2,000 locations, about three-quarters of them schools. "Our race is to get space," says Backer, 55.

"A lot of schools would just as soon get rid of vending programs because they haven't found out about healthy options yet." He expects revenue at the 22-employee company to at least double this year, to more than $10 million.


Finally, more schools are discovering the benefits of serving breakfast in the classroom. Walmart, which made news elsewhere this week by pledging to lower prices on vegetables and make prepared foods healthier, is helping five school districts around the country start breakfast in the classroom programs through with a $3 million pledge through the Walmart Foundation.

"Simply eating a healthy breakfast can reap very substantial improvements to academic performance and health, but too many children miss out on breakfast and start the school day hungry," said Barbara A. Chester, National Association of Elementary School Principals president, speaking on behalf of the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom. "Breakfast in the Classroom puts a fresh spin on the traditional school breakfast program by offering the morning meal to everyone in the classroom after the opening bell – a change that ensures every child can start the day with a healthy, well-balanced breakfast and be ready to learn."

Indeed, in districts with high populations of low-income children, serving breakfast in the classroom earns lots of federal subsidy dollars that can stretch to help pay for better lunch as well.

When breakfast is served in the classroom instead of the cafeteria, participation typically skyrockets to near 100 percent.


  1. Very nice and healthy post! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

  2. Pirate's Booty is junk food. I'm not impressed by a bag full of processed, refined corn and rice loaded with sodium and unhealthy fats. Get that crap out of our schools and quit teaching our kids that's a healthy snack!

  3. I would have LOVED to have gotten the breakfast program in my school district. No matter how hard I try, principals and teachers will not let me serve breakfast in their classroom because of the "mess". UGH!