Sunday, April 3, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's what the food industry does when local governments try to make food safer: they go to Congress or state legislators and get them to muzzle local law makers.

Case in point: San Francisco last year passed an ordinance forbidding fast-food restaurants from giving away toys in kids meals sold in San Francisco unless they have reduced calories, salt, fat and sugar and also include fruit and vegetables.

The law was aimed at the "Happy Meals" promoted by McDonald's. Now politicians in Arizona and Florida are pushing legislation prohibiting cities and counties in their states from copying the San Francisco toy ban.

Legislation recently passed the Arizona House to bar cities or counties from banning any kind of incentive offered by restaurants. That includes not just toys, but a very long and detailed list of other goodies including contests, coupons, trading cards, coloring books, admission tickets, ride tokens and crayons.

"We wanted to be proactive in making sure it didn't take place here," explained Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, which lobbied for the bill. "To arbitrarily say a toy in a Happy Meal or crayons given to a child in a restaurant is going to predestine them to only having fatty foods is laughable."


If McDonald's can't pack toys in the "Happy Meals" in San Francisco, they'll find other ways to reach into kids' minds. Take a look at this internet-based ploy that allows children to upload photos of themselves to Ronald McDonald's website. The site's been developed so that kids can manipulate the pixels to create photos of themselves posing with Ronald.

USA Today reports that in a half-dozen ads to launch over the next several months, Ronald is shown dancing, playing soccer, shooting hoops — and nudging kids to visit his website and download photos and videos — Ronaldgrams — to share with friends.

"Kids today live in a digital world," says Dean Barrett, McDonald's global marketing officer. "You have to speak to kids in a digital language to connect."

McDonald's internet scheme may drive parents crazy. But Paul Kurnit, founder of the KidShop consulting firm, says it will be a hit. The No. 1 activity that kids do online is interact with TV properties from their offline life, he says. "Online is where the world is going."

In one commercial that kicks off April 6 on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, a chatty Ronald greets folks on the street and poses with them for photos in an empty picture frame that he's carrying. "You can picture yourself with Ronald at," says an off-screen voice. "Ask parents permission."


When they aren't trying to squelch regulation, corporate food interests are eager to cash in on all the buzz about "healthier" foods. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that a number of big brands are planning to come out soon with products that appeal to our sense that Americans have gotten too fat.

Here are a few examples: PepsiCo: Combining Tropicana, Quaker Oats and dairy; low-sodium salt. Walmart: Cutting trans fat and sodium in its Great Value products; encouraging major brands to make healthier products. Kraft: Adding fruit to Lunchables and more whole grain to Wheat Thins. Nestlé: Making small changes so consumers won’t feel deprived. Campbell’s: Trying to reduce sodium in soup, promoting liquid vegetables through its V8 brand and whole grains with Pepperidge Farm. Starbucks: Offering sweets with 200 or fewer calories.

And Pepsi, says the Wall Street Journal, is converting most of its products (except Doritos andCheetos) to "all natural" ingredients.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle isn't buying it.

"Processed food makers must be in trouble. 'Healthy' and 'natural' are the only things selling these days. But isn’t a 'healthy' processed snack food an oxymoron? They can tweak and tweak the contents, but these products will still be heavily processed."

Says, N'stle: "Too much evidence now concludes that marketing a product as 'healthy' or 'natural” makes people think it has no calories. And as I keep saying, just because a processed food is a little bit less bad than it used to be, doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice."


Meanwhile, the USDA has proposed new guidelines for school meals that would require more dark green and orange vegetables, more whole grains, fewer starchy vegetables such as potatoes and a lot less salt.

That has the processed food industry scrambling to redevelop the convenience foods they sell to school cafeterias. In case you hadn't noticed, those frozen chicken patties and pizza on kids' trays are worth billions of dollars in sales to companies like Tyson and Schwan Food.

Worried that the era of daily pizza in schools may be over, the privately-held Schwan has added whole wheat flour to its crusts, slashed sodium and fat levels and boosted the amount of fiber in each slice.

Schwan’s old pizza has 730 mg of sodium, 18 grams of fat, 470 calories per serving and 0% whole grain. Its new pizza — Tony’s Ultimate Flatbread – has 500 mg of sodium, 10 grams of fat, 370 calories and 51% whole grain.

Schwan says they expect the slimmed down pizzas to represent more than 60% percent of their school lunch business by the fall of 2012.

Tyson, meanwhile, known for its chicken nuggets, is adding whole grains to its breading and cutting back on sodium. They’re also touting some newer, un-nuggety products that already meet the new USDA rules, like its Dark Meat Strips with Spicy Orange Sauce. This “authentic Asian-inspired dish” clocks in at 490 mg of sodium, only 6 grams of fat and a reasonable 220 calories per serving.

The USDA's failure to regulate sugar has not escaped the notice of big food makers. That orange sauce in the dark meat strips has 18 grams of sugar per serving, 50 percent more sugar than a cup of Froot Loops.


Can Michelle Obama really get America's children to slim down? A number of experts weigh in at the Los Angeles Times, outlining progress on the school food front but a tougher task of convincing parents to change family eating behaviors.

The first lady's "Let's Move" campaign has raised public awareness of the implications obesity poses to the nation's health. But putting calorie information on the front of convenience foods isn't likely to deter Americans from their junk food habits.

Although the program is a good start, said James Hill, the director of the Colorado Nutrition Obesity Research Center, getting parents to change their behavior is likely to be much more challenging. "At the end of the day, it's a cultural shift, the way smoking is now unacceptable, not wearing seatbelts is now unacceptable. It's an amazing challenge and it's going to be a lot for any one program to do alone."

Congress' recent re-authorization of the national school lunch program gives the USDA authority for the first time to remove junk from a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. But some think the only way to deal with school food is to make the government-sponsored hot meal free for all children, regardless of income. Or maybe we need laws restricting the kind of messages the food industry can market to kids.

But that's not really the first lady's job, is it? Then who?


On the subject of universally free school meals, the Culinate blog has an interesting out-takefrom Janet Poppendieck's book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.

Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College, advocates "a program similar to Sweden’s, where no money changes hands at all, where school meals are part of the budget, financed by a combination of national and local funds...."

"The last time that legislation embodying a universal approach was introduced in Congress, some advocates, justifiably concerned about competing with other programs that serve impoverished Americans, characterized the proposal as one that would take scarce resources away from programs that support poor families and use them to aid those with incomes averaging above the median — a transfer of benefits from the poor to the middle class," Poppendieck writes. "And under the current rules governing the federal budgeting process, this could be the case.

"This is part of the reason that I am recommending a thorough reconsideration of school food, rather than a piecemeal or incremental effort. I believe that we need to make school food a regular part of the school day and take it out of the antipoverty category altogether. But I believe that in so doing, we must protect, and indeed make more effective, the poor child’s entitlement to food. We need to move school food to a budget category where it does not compete with adequate funding for WIC or SNAP."


Finally, parents looking for resources to help them in the battle to improve school food have plenty of websites to choose from.

There's Two Angry Moms, where readers can join discussion forums in their own school districts. Better School Food has lists of better food and snacks, detailed descriptions of unhealthy ingredients, a "Children's Bill of Rights," and tips on developing wellness policies. Ann Cooper's The Lunch Box site has links to research on developing healthier school food environments, model wellness policies and even recipes for cooking better on a large scale.

Now there's a new entry in the field. Called PEACHSF (Parents Educators & Advocates Connectino for Healthy School Food), it's largely written by San Francisco parent advocate Dana Woldow and has lots of helpful suggestions for building alliances and executing a campaign to improve school food in individual districts.

Be sure to bookmark it.

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