Sunday, May 29, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The USDA's proposal to cut back on potatoes in school lunches is kicking up a storm of protest.

Proposed school meal guidelines would permit just one cup of potatoes and other starchy vegetables per week. That includes corn, peas and lima beans as well. That got the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which found lots of potato growers and school officials who think limiting spuds on kids' cafeteria trays is unfair.

The New York Times picked up the story, rehashing the 60-day all-spud diet of one Chris Voigt, head of the Washington State Potato Commission, who was moved to protest the federal government's exclusion of potatoes from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Some members of Congress are none too pleased. Forty of them penned a bi-partisan letter to USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack protesting the move against potatoes.

“It’s a great vegetable and I don’t know why we are picking on the potato,” said Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, who signed the letter. “I think this is very much an overreach.”

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) took to the congressional blog to complain.

"To remove or limit vegetables from schools that our children and grandchildren actually like and will eat is simply misguided," Schmidt wrote. "But to make it more difficult for our schools to provide the best nutrition to those most in need of it is more than misguided, it is irresponsible."

Poor Margo Wootan. The stalwart school food lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest is left trying to explain that potatoes must go because kids need "more balance" in their diet. They should be eating more green vegetables, she says.

Wootan and the CSPI are so invested in the tired notion that fat is behind all of the nation's health problems she can't bring herself to mention the huge body of science implicating starchy, glycemic foods such as potatoes in obesity and other chronic dietary afflictions such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

Yes, Margo, there is a good reason to limit potatoes. You just need to start telling people what it is.


Perhaps not surprisingly, food manufacturers are protesting efforts by the Obama administration to limit the way they advertise to children.

Ordered by Congress and written by a team at the Food and Drug Administration, the guidelines say foods that are advertised to children cannot exceed limited amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, sodium or trans fat. And they must include healthy ingredients, such as fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy products or whole grains.

The sugar limits would pose a problem for many foods currently marketed to children. Under the guidelines, one serving of a food aimed at children could not exceed 8 grams of sugar. A single serving of Count Chocula cereal currently contains 12 grams of sugar; a serving of Frosted Flakes contains 11 grams.

“I can’t imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to reduce obesity,” said Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers and retailers.

The guidelines are voluntary, but manufacturers still protest. They says they're doing just fine with their own "voluntary guidelines."

“This is a classic case of backdoor regulation,” said Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers.

When it comes to our kids' health, we can trust America's corporate food industry. Can't we?


On the subject of food marketers: Could Ronald McDonald be forced to retire?

A campaign started by the nonprofit watchdog group Corporate Accountability International has asked McDonald's to give Ronald his walking papers as a way of dialing back the marketing of junk food to kids.

A letter signed by more than 550 health professionals and organizations--among them the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, and well-known nutritionists and doctors such as Andrew Weil--was scheduled to run in ads in the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Metro, Boston Metro, San Francisco Examiner, Minneapolis City Pages and Baltimore City Paper.

The letter asserts that "the contributors to today's (health) epidemic are manifold and a broad societal response is required. But marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem."

But McDonald's corporate headquarters was having none of it.

"We are committed to responsible advertising and take our communications to children very seriously," McDonald's said in a statement. "We understand the importance of children's health and nutrition, and are committed to being part of the dialogue and solution. We serve high quality food, and our Happy Meals offer choice and variety in portions just for kids. Parents tell us they appreciate our Happy Meal choices."

Except, of course, in San Francisco, where Happy Meals are banned.


What to do when good ol' American enterprise invades the school yard?

School officials in Novato, Calif., are wondering whether there should be some kind of law to deal with the food trucks selling ice cream, chips and soda right outside the schoolhouse door, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Novato schools banned junk food in 2007. Now as many as five food trucks park in front of Novato High School at lunch time and the kids swarm around.

The school's principal, Rey Mayoral, said fights have broken out between drivers over choice parking locations, forcing him to call the police on more than one occasion. And the scores of students flocking to the trucks sometimes snarl traffic, he said.

"These trucks are contradicting everything we are trying to teach the kids" about nutrition, said Mr. Mayoral. "And what makes matters worse is it's getting dangerous."

City officials have been hesitant to enact limits on the trucks, saying they would be costly to enforce at a time of deep financial strain. At a city council meeting earlier this month, after an hour-long presentation from school leaders, the council decided against passing an ordinance.

Mike Frank, Novato city manager, says the city will explore ways to rid the trucks from around the schools, but cautioned that he is reluctant to dedicate police officers to the issue.

"We'll find a creative solution to deal with the problem, but we cannot afford to have police officers sitting around schools," says Frank.


Is there such a thing as cruel and unusual punishment for kids in the cafeteria?

Students in one school in Harrisburg, Pa., reportedly are served cold sandwiches instead of a hot meal "as punishment for acting up and being unappreciative of the hot meals being offered in the school’s cafeteria."

The Patriot-News reports a school administrator as explaining the move this way: “We created the opportunity where we could show them what the bare minimum would be,” adding that the bare minimum remained a balanced meal including fruit and vegetables.

The administrator, who did not want his name used, said that some parents and students did not understand the measures taken to correct behavior issues, such as students not cleaning up their eating area.

Since the corrective action was taken, the administrator said, student behavior has improved.

Meanwhile, eyebrows were being raised in Minnesota over the way schools were handling students unable to pay for their meals.

In some districts, students receive a bread and butter sandwich for a few days. Others receive no meal at all. In an effort to get parents to pay, many districts stamp children's hands, sometimes with a dollar sign or the words "lunch money."

Legal Aid surveyed 182 school districts, about half the districts in the state, to find out what schools do when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. The group found that 30 districts stop feeding children whose parents don't pay. Most districts do not provide the regular school lunch to children without money and instead offer an alternative lunch, often a sandwich and milk. Only 22 districts provide unlimited hot meals to all children.

Minnesota Public Radio in its own interviews found some school districts that said hand stamping was necessary, while others called the practice unacceptable. Most food nutrition directors said they have little choice but to deny the full lunch to students without money.

"There's a lot of people out there who think we should feed every kid, but that's not realistic," said Jason Forshee, the food nutrition services director for Waseca Public Schools. "My goal is not to lose $20,000 every year. My goal is to break even."


Here's some better news coming out of Minnesota: Schools in Minneapolis beginning this summer will stop serving flavored milk.

"Consuming chocolate milk every day can train a child's palate toward sweetened foods," said Rosemary Dederichs, the district's director of nutrition services.

"While we recognize that some children may no longer choose to drink milk at school, we believe that the decision was made in the best interest of our students," said Dederichs. She noted that even skim chocolate milk has 8 grams more sugar per serving than 1 percent or skim cartons. The district's chocolate milk also contains high-fructose corn syrup.

In March, Minneapolis schools also removed sugary cereals from the menu as part of an effort to wean kids off sugar.


Finally, some more brightness on the school food landscape: a long and detailed interview with advocate Debra Eschmeyer.

Vegetable farmer, former communications director for the National Farm to School Network, and recently a Food and Society Fellow, Eschmeyer has helped start a novel organization that puts youthful volunteers to work helping schools build food gardens and engage kids in the act of eating more healthfully in the cafeteria.

Food Corps, as the organization is called, has caught on like wildfire. It's already established in 10 states in its first year, having picked 50 members from 1,230 applicants. "The idea is to start with a strong cadre of 50 at the 10 host sites and then grow, so that in a decade we can have 1,000 members in all 50 states," Eschmeyer says.

Eschmeyer says, "I’ve never felt more confident about the future of our country when it comes to reversing childhood obesity."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Kids Make Croque Monsieur

Unbearable deliciousness of croque monsieur

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow cook

The French sure no how to gussy up a ham and cheese sandwich. It's called "Croque Monsieur," and if you were looking for the perfect late-night cafe food in Paris, this would be it.

Between these two slices of bread is a slice of ham and a heap of Gruyere cheese. But that's hardly what makes this sandwich special. The French, being in love with sauces, smother it with a Bechamel sauce also fortified with Gruyere and some Parmesan for good measure. The sandwich is then baked in the oven till the cheese melts, then broiled until the Bechamel is bubbling and beginning to brown.

The kids in my food appreciation classes were wild for it.

Perhaps the most important decision in making Croque Monsieur is which bread to use. I spent a good bit of time in the bread aisle considering my choices, and finally settled on a white bread from a local company that slices it more on the thick side. The bread itself is firm, not squishy.

To make four sandwiches, toast the bread by laying eight slices on a sheet pan and placing them in a 400 degree oven. When the tops begin to brown, flip the bread and continue toasting for another minute or two.

Spread Dijon mustard on four pieces of bread and on the other four lay a slice of ham--not too thin, not too thick. Sprinkle a generous amount of grated Gruyere cheese over the ham (you'll need a total of 2 cups for this recipe). Place the bread smeared with mustard over the ham and cheese.

Slathering Bechamel on top of the sandwich

Now for the sauce. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over moderate heat and whisk in 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour. When the flour begins to bubble, whisk frequently and cook a minute or two. Slowly add 1 1/2 cups warm milk, whisking continuously. As the sauce heats, it will thicken. The sauce should be rather thick, but not pasty. Add more milk if necessary.

Off the heat, stir into the sauce 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, pinch nutmeg, 1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan. Slather the sauce over the tops of the sandwiches, then place in a 400-degree oven for six minutes. Turn on the broiler and monitor closely. Remove the sandwiches when the sauce is bubbling vigorously and just beginning to brown.

You'll probably want to allow the sandwiches to cool a bit before serving. They can be sliced in half, or even into quarters.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What's for Lunch: Cheese Quesadilla

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Kids like Mexican food at school. Even my daughter, who normally turns up her nose at the food served at school, will eagerly get in line for a cheese quesadilla. You could probably serve a version of quesadilla every day and get no complaints from the kids.

The side dishes, however, are another matter. This is what most of the trays looked like at the end of the lunch period. The "Santa Fe brown rice with black beans," as Chartwells called it on its menu website, went entirely untouched. Ditto for the salad of romaine lettuce.

That pool of red stuff you see there is what Chartwells calls a "salsa cup." Some of the kids did dip into that with their quesadilla, but not so much. In other words, except for the quessadilla, most of the food on this menu was wasted.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

D.C. Farm to School Day: Strawberries & Salad Greens

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Yesterday was the annual big event for our D.C. Farm to School Network: Strawberries and Salad Greens. Network coordinator Andrea Northup outdid herself this year: schools in all eight wards of the city had volunteers signed up to engage kids in learning where their food comes from, specifically the strawberries and salad from local farms that were served for lunch.

All of the kids in the cafeteria got a sticker and they proudly showed them off.

At my daughter's school, there was a display of salad greens from the newly installed gardens. The strawberries, supplied by local farmers, were incredibly ripe and delicious.

This year I acted as "contact" for the event at daughter's elementary school, meaning I dropped by an "orientation" last week hosted by Whole Foods, where volunteers were supplied with all sorts of signage, photos of local farmers in action, and stickers to hand out to the children featuring original logo art.

Here you can see my wife doling out salad greens. She was impressed by how many of the kids requested salad--hesitatingly at first, but once one of two agreed to try it, soon they were all clamoring for it. Just shows why school cafeterias need more adult presence to coach kids in better eating habits.

The original concept was to have a table posted near the cafeteria where the kids could see the signage and photos and get their sticker. In our case, there wasn't really anywhere to put such a table, so I went around the room with a display of lettuce and strawberry plants that the farm to school network had conveniently dropped off at my home on Tuesday.

"Hey, kids! Did you know that lettuce and strawberries grow out of the ground?"

Some kids actually said, no, they didn't know that. Many of them wanted to touch the strawberry leaves, others asked if they could eat the lettuce. I think they were joking.

In the background, you can see the bulletin board where we taped the various signage and photos supplied by the farm to school network. No sooner had we posted it in the morning than a group of kids gathered to inspect a seasonality chart.

"Oh, I've had asparagus before," said one boy.

"Me, too," said a second. "I really like it."

Once we had the kids going, they were hard to stop. Soon they were following me around the cafeteria, telling me about the vegetables they grow at home.

"I have two strawberry plants," said one little boy. "The strawberries are about this big," he said, using his hand to indicate berries that weren't ready to eat yet.

"My grandmother grows rhubarb," said another.

Who likes strawberries? I asked them. They all raised their hands.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's for Lunch: Gooey BBQ Chicken

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

My daughter says she doesn't like the chicken at school because it's "never cooked right." She says it's either overcooked, or it's covered in sticky barbecue sauce.

Well, in the case of the barbecue chicken, I'd say she's way off the mark. There's no lack of sauce. But I thought the meat was done about as well as you might expect. It was downright edible, in fact. The only question is, How exactly are you supposed to eat it?

As you can see in the photo, my fingers were quickly covered in the gooey sauce--the kind that comes out of a big plastic jar. Tasty, but pretty sugary.

A stroll around the lunch room revealed that most of the kids also had their hands covered in sauce.

The reason, of course, is that a plastic spork is virtually useless against a bone-in chicken breast, although some kids tried. Mostly they picked at the chicken, and by that I mean chiseled, using the spork to break off pieces of meat.

Before lunch was over, kids were swarming into the nearby bathrooms across the hall to wash their hands. I swear, this is one school lunch that should be served with moist towelettes.

Then there were a couple of girls at my daughter's table who just went for the skin, peeling it off and slurping up all that sugary sauce. When I asked one of them why she was doing that, she replied: "I really don't like chicken."

She just likes the skin slathered in sauce.

As you might guess, the kids didn't do much with the green beans or the rice you see on these trays. That mostly got tossed in the trash. But some of them did poke around the baked beans. Those also were tarted up with sugar.

Lesson: kids love food spiked with sugar.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Heart Association Says Too Much Chocolate Milk a Health Risk

This may be dangerous for kids' health

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The U.S. dairy industry spends millions trying to convince parents that medical professionals are firmly behind feeding kids milk spiked with sugar as a healthful way to deliver calcium and Vitamin D. Dairy interests pay for "research" that conveniently delivers the message that chocolate milk is a better choice than Coke. Proxies such as the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association then make sweeping statements implying that physicians approve kids drinking unlimited amounts of milk that tastes like candy.

It's all part of a well-oiled public relations campaign that deftly obscures the truth about how various medical groups approach sugar in food. The dairy industry has a lot riding on keeping things murky: For decades, milk sales have been plummeting, but sales of flavored milk have tripled. It would be very helpful indeed if the nation's medical doctors all stood behind the dairy industry's campaign to put a carton of chocolate milk on every kid's cafeteria tray.

In this first report on the actual policies of various medical groups the dairy industry calls allies, I look at how the American Heart Association, once pre-occupied with the fat Americans eat, is now focused on the risks of heart disease and other dangers posed by the excessive amounts of sugar we and our children consume--including flavored milk.

Read closely and you may find that your child already is drinking more chocolate milk at school than the heart association thinks wise.

In 2009, the heart association issued guidelines on sugar urging that men consume no more than 150 calories worth of "added sugar" daily, and women no more than 100. To put that into perspective, 150 calories of sugar represents the amount in 10 teaspoons, or a bit less than the sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.

The heart association reasons that Americans already eat too much and exercise too little. We therefore have little room for "discretionary" calories in the form of sugar, which has no nutritional value. If you are an average sort of guy, consider that can of Coke your entire allotment of sugar for the day.

In January of this year, the association in its journal Circulation published an article identifying cardio-vascular risks for adolescents who eat too much sugar. A third of all U.S. children are overweight or obese. On average they get more than 21 percent of their calories from "added" sugars, meaning sugars that don't occur naturally in food--such as the sugar in an apple--but are put there by the food industry to sell product. (Manufacturers aren't required to identify how much sugar they've added to prepared foods, but consumers can get a fair idea by reading ingredient and nutrition labels carefully.)

A detailed survey of 2157 adolescents aged 12 to 18, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in the years 1999 to 2004, revealed that sugar consumption was positively correlated with several key risks of cardio-vascular disease, including increased triglyceride levels, suppressed HDL ("good" cholesterol) and elevated LDL ("bad" cholesterol). Researchers pointed to an emerging body of science linking sugar and refined carbohydrates with these and other health risks, such as insulin resistance--a precursor to diabetes--and increased fat production by the liver. They said the federal government's position on sugar was out of date.

“In 1986, the Sugars Task Force of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a review of the research then available and concluded that there was no conclusive evidence of an association between sugar consumption and (cardio-vascular disease) or its risk factors," the researchers said. "Since then, the results of several new epidemiological studies and short- and long-term experimentsal studies have provided more evidence linking the intake of carbohydrates and sugars (particularly fructose) and increased risk of (cardio-vascular disease). And importantly, consumption of added sugars has risen substantially since the research reviewed in the Sugar Task force report was done."

According to the heart association, no more than half of discretionary calories--those beyond what are needed to provide proper nutrition--should be consumed as sugar. For children, figuring out what that means can be tricky, since kids come in all shapes and sizes and have different energy and nutritional needs depending on how old and how active they are. Along with its "food pyramid," the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published a chart indicating the discretionary calorie allowances for children of different age and activitiy levels.

For instance, an 11-year-old girl who gets less than 30 minutes worth of "moderate exercise" most days would be allowed 130 discretionary calories. According to the heart association, only half of those--65--should come from sugar. By comparison, a typical eight-ounce serving of chocolate milk contains 14 grams of added sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which translates as 3.5 teaspoons or 52.5 calories.

This girl might well have a container of chocolate milk for breakfast. But a second container at lunch would put her 40 calories over her sugar limit--and that represents all the sugar the heart association thinks she should be eating the entire day. In other words, no cupcake at her classmate's birthday party, no soda on the way home, no ice cream for dessert after dinner, no sucking on a lollipop while watching television.

By contrast, a 16-year-old boy who is very active--meaning he gets at least 60 minutes worth of moderate physical activity most days--would be entitled to 650 discretionary calories, half of those--325--from sugar. That represents a much bigger flavored milk allowance--more than six eight-ounce cartons of chocolate milk.

The point is that millions of children already are drinking too much flavored milk at school. Some are taking it at breakfast, lunch and in supper programs--three times a day--then stopping at a convenience store for a 24-ounce Coke containing 290 calories worth of high-fructose corn syrup to drink on the way home. Is it any wonder kids are obese?

The heart association recommends that Americans limit their consumption of sugary beverages--including sodas, sports drinks and ice teas--to no more than 36 ounces per week.

In April of this year, the association urged the USDA to impose a limit on the amount of sugar in school food, something the agency in all the rules and regulations governing the school meals program has never attempted before. The heart association suggests that new school meal guidelines, now pending, should restrict a single serving of milk to 130 calories or less to hold down the sugar content, and cereal to no more than 7 grams of total sugar. (A 1.25-ounce serving of Kellogg's Raisin Bran contains 11 grams of sugar.)

The association says it is disappointed the USDA would allow schools to serve half of all fruitportions as juice. Too much sugar. It would rather schools serve exclusively whole fruit.

"It just makes sense if you’re asking the American public to reduce sugars you wouldn’t add more sugar than needed to flavored milk," said heart association science advisor Dorothea Vafiadis. "There has to be a limit."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Teaching Kids to Cook at the Farm Museum

Carroll County Farm Museum and fair grounds

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

On Saturday, daughter and I drove 50 miles up Georgia Avenue to Westminster, Md., and the "Go Local Fair" to give a demonstration on how kids will eagerly engage with fresh, healthful food if you give them a chance to participate in the preparation.

We arrived with three big traveling bags of food and equipment. I had agonized over what, exactly, to make for this event and finally decided on three dishes that cover some of the basics of seasonality, simplicity and essential cooking techniques that I try to teach in my food appreciation classes. We would begin with a simple "summer squash carpaccio,"--sliced raw zucchini seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice, garnished with fresh goat cheese and a chiffonade of basil--then a salad of asparagus and butter lettuce dressed with a freshly made mustard vinaigrette, and finally crepes stuffed with local strawberries and whipped cream.

I was prepared to do this without and cooking facilities or even running water on site. Good thing, because all we had under our tent were two folding tables on which spread our ingredients and prep the food. Our tent--one of several on the museum grounds--was just around the corner from grass-fed burgers sizzling on the grill. We shared the space with a local home-brewing club. Next door was a woman selling tomato plants. Other vendors were hawking rain barrels and solar attic fans.

Billed as one of the "featured presenters--along with an edible landscaping specialist, an electrical engineer on the subject of electric bicycle commuting, and a dairyman who uses robotic milking machines to produce 62 million pounds of milk--I was sandwiched between an extremely well-attended talk on bee keeping, and another on raising chickens. Fortunately, the handful of parents who attending my portion of the program had brought plenty of kids. Two young boys joined daughter in helping to prepare our three dishes.

It all went by too fast--pretty hectic, I'd say. It was all I could do to keep track of the ingredients and keep the kids busy. But they did a great job slicing the zucchini and trimming the asparagus and spinning the lettuce and finally cutting the strawberries and making the crepe batter. I had already cooked some asparagus and crepes, so we weren't exactly waiting for things to finish on my little portable butane burner. But I did give a demonstration on how to cook a crepe--except I was distracted by the whipped cream portion and the crepe got a little burned.

One of the boys, who said he made plenty of Italian food at home, reprimanded me for suggesting we slice our fresh basil. "The Italians don't cut basil," he said. "They tear it." Good for him. But that would make our chiffonade pretty difficult, I replied. Nevertheless, the kids tore and did not cut the basil.

Our plate or zucchini carpaccio, assembled by one of the boys, looked gorgeous and the vinaigrette came out perfectly. The crepes--stuffed with strawberries and whipped cream, the folded--also looked gorgeous. All of this food we were able to pass around on plastic plates, so everyone in the audience got to sample. All this in--including the setup--in 50 minutes. I had barely had time to break everything down and move it off the tables so the chicken lady could begin her talk.

What I tried to emphasize to the parents were some of the lessons I've learned teaching my food appreciation classes the last five years--mainly, it doesn't really matter much what you cook, as long as you get kids involved. They love to work in the kitchen if you give them a chance and will happily spend hours with a vegetable peeler or a salad spinner. Sometimes they will actually eat healthier foods when they are given a chance to help in the preparation.

Daughter and I washed our bowls and knifes and whisks in the bathroom, then headed for the Green Akeys Family Farm tent to sample one of their grassfed cheeseburgers. We passed on the hand-cut French fries from AW Boys Fries, but we did stop on the side of the road for a soft-serve ice cream cone. Daughter declared it the best soft-serve ever. All in all, it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday in May.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kids Make Strawberry Crepes

What's in your crepes?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Last week in our food appreciation classes we made savory buckwheat crepes stuffed with ham and cheese. I knew the kids would be thrilled if we continued our exploration of French food by sampling the sweeter side of crepes cuisine. Dessert crepes are just as easy to make, and strawberries are in high season. The result: crepes wrapped around strawberries and whipped cream. Naturally, the kids loved it.

After last week's crepes adventure my wife, who knows a thing or two about making crepes from her years as a catering chef, said mine were too thick and flabby. Obviously, she said, I wasn't getting my pan hot enough, and my batter was too thick. She pulled a real crepe pan from under the stove (who knew we had several?) and demonstrated a proper technique--after adding some more milk to my batter.

So this week I followed her instructions and voila! Crepes that are light and nicely browned, as you see in the photo. I may not be an expert, but my crepes are starting to look more like what I remember eating in my travels through Brittany years ago.

Crepes are basically the French version of pancakes, but the batter contains no rising agent and is much thinner. Start by whisking together 2 large eggs, 1 cup milk, 1/3 cup water and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, mix 1 cup flour and 2 tablespoons sugar. Pour the egg mix into the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth, then add 2 tablespoons melted butter.

To make the crepes, use a well-seasoned skillet. An authentic crepe pan of heavy steel works best as it will heat up to the correct temperature and is less rounded--more angular--where the bottom meats the sides. When the pan is hot, grease the bottom with a little butter, tilt the pan at an angle and pour in just enough batter to coat the bottom. Move the batter around by tilting the pan one way, then another.

When all signs of wetness have disappeared from the top of the crepe and the underside is browned, use an offset spatula to flip it over. You won't need to cook the other side more than about 15 seconds, or until it is lightly browned as well. You should get a dozen or more crepes from this recipe. Just add a little more milk if it seems to thick.

We didn't do anything special to the strawberries. Simply remove the stems, slice each into four pieces and toss with a little sugar to draw out the juices. Scoop some into the center of each crepe, the top with whipped cream. (Hint: add a little vanilla to the cream). Fold each side of the crepe toward the middle and flip it over. Serve with a dusting of confectioner's sugar.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What's for Breakast:: Picking Through a Breakfast Bar

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's something I'd never seen before: This fifth grade girl for some reason was picking the insides out of her breakfast bar and making a mound of it on her tray. When I asked her why, she replied: "I just like the crust."

Kids' eating habits never cease to amaze.

Here's what the breakfast bar looks like on the tray before it's been picked over. (Sorry, Blogger won't let me display this photo horizontally.) This particular breakfast bar--called BeneFIT, made by a company called J&J Snack Foods in Pennsauken, N.J.--first appeared in D.C. schools this year.

For some reason, our lunch ladies have taken to removing the breakfast bars from the original packaging before serving it. Is that so parents can't see the nutrition label?
This is what the package looks like.

Here are the listed ingredients:

"Whole wheat flour, sugar, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), dried apples, vegetable shortening (canola oil, palm fruit oil), oats, eggs, invert syrup, molasses, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, corn starch), whey, natural flavors, inulin, xanthan gum, cinnamon, salt."

And here's the nutritional information. As you can see, each bar contains a whopping 48 grams of carbohydrates and sugar is the second ingredient--nearly 23 grams of it. That's almost six teaspoons worth, or 84 calories from added sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends that an adult woman consume no more than 100 calories worth of added sugar per day.

READI-BAKE BeneFIT Breakfast Bars - Apple Cinnamon
Product Code
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 71 g
Servings Per Container: N/A
Amt Per Serving 1 bar
Calories 289.35
Calories from Fat 79.03
Per Serving % Daily Value*
Total Fat 8.78g 13.51%
Saturated Fat 2.42g 12.1%
Trans Fat 0.19g
Cholesterol 17.67mg 5.89%
Sodium 251.56mg 10.48%
Total Carbohydrate 48.13g 16.04%
Dietary Fiber 3.31g 13.24%
Sugars 22.59g
Protein 4.75g
Vitamin A 0.76% Vitamin C 0.58%
Calcium 2.55% Iron 9.22%
Storage/ Handling:
Keep Frozen (0° F or below). Shelf life up to one year when stored properly. When thawed at ambient temperature, shelf life is one week.
Preparation Instruction:
Thaw and serve.
Whole wheat flour, sugar, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), dried apples, vegetable shortening (canola oil, palm fruit oil), oats, eggs, invert syrup, molasses, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, corn starch), whey, natural flavors, inulin, xanthan gum, cinnamon, salt.
Allergen Information:
Contains: Eggs,Milk,Soy Beans,Wheat
Kosher Type:
Child Nutrition Statement:
The listed serving size contains 31.88g creditable grains of which 16.59g are whole grains. This provides 2 servings of breads/grains under the Child Nutrition Program.
Product Specifications:
073321404031 10073321404038 1 48
Case Dimensions
Case Length Case Width Case Height Case Cube Net Weight (Lbs) Gross Weight (Lbs)
12.6875 7.3125 9.125 0.49 7.5 9
Pallet Dimensions
Pallet Tier Pallet High Pallet Count
20 7 140

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's for Breakfast: French Toast Stick

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Are French toast sticks really back in D.C. schools?

This iconic school lunch item is regarded by the some as the epitome of cheap, ersatz school food. A year ago, D.C. school food service official Patricia Massey asked Chartwells dietitian Whitney Bateson in an e-mail exchange: "Can we get rid of French toast stick?"

This year, as part of the many improvements made to school food under the leadership of new food services Director Jeffrey Mills our lunch ladies were making French toast from scratch, using whole wheat bread soaked in liquid eggs. But this week the famous frozen French toast stick re-appeared on breakfast trays.
Do they look any different from the French toast sticks served last year, as seen in this photo. (Note the chocolate milk: D.C. schools no longer serve it or strawberry milk. Only plain milk these days.)

The French toast sticks of the past were typically served with a little plastic container of high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as "maple syrup." D.C. schools no longer serve high-fructose corn syrup either. This year, breakfast items like this have been accompanied by flavored yogurt instead.

Still, the French toast stick is pretty resistant to cutting with a plastic "spork," leaving only one way to eat them.

All hail the French toast stick.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Associated Press' Big Chocolate Milk Fail

The debate rages on

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

An Associate Press report last week on the controversy surrounding flavored milk in schools was widely reprinted in media outlets across the country, from the Washington Post to Huffington Post to Yahoo! In it, the AP declared that a number of professional and medical groups--including the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics--had issued a "joint statement" in favor of flavored milk, arguing that "the nutritional value of flavored low-fat or skim milk outweighs the harm of added sugar."

There's just one problem with the story: no such "joint statement" was ever issued. The AP is simply the latest victim of a well-oiled dairy industry propaganda campaign designed to fend off efforts to remove chocolate milk from school cafeterias. Not only did the medical groups AP mentioned never issue a statement supporting dairy's claims, some have come out squarely against the practice of routinely feeding kids milk tarted up with sugar.

Meanwhile, two of the organizations cited in the AP story as favoring flavored milk--the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association--are hardly impartial. They both have financial ties to the dairy industry and have been aiding industry efforts to keep chocolate milk in the lunch line. The National Dairy Council and the Milk Processors Education Program--or MilkPEP, an industry group that engineers media efforts such as the "Got Milk?" campaign--are both dues-paying "patrons" of the School Nutrition Association. Dairy has a seat on the SNA's "industry advisory board." Likewise, the National Dairy Council is a "sponsor" of the American Dietetic Association, which has similar arrangements with Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Kellogg's and school food service provider Aramark.

As I reported previously, the School Nutrition Association, representing thousands of the nation's school food service directors, last year worked closely with its dairy patrons to promote a "study" paid for by dairy interests that purports to show many kids will not drink milk if it isn't flavored. None of this was mentioned in the the Associated Press report.

When I contacted the Associated Press about getting a copy of the "joint statement" it cited, I received an e-mail from AP reporter Christina Hoag containing her correspondence with School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner. In that exchange, Heavner linked to an April 13 SNA policy statement on flavored milk echoing the dairy industry's campaign language:

"Leading health and nutrition organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association, the National Medical Association, and School Nutrition Association, have all expressed their support for low-fat and fat-free milk in schools, including flavored milk. The groups cited studies demonstrating that children who drink flavored milk meet more of their nutrient needs; do not consume more added sugar, fat or calories; and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers."

When I asked Heavner if she knew of a "joint statement" issued by the groups cited by AP, she referred me to a nearly two-year-old press release issued by the American Dietetic Association using uncannily similar verbiage:

"Leading health and nutrition organizations – including the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, National Hispanic Medical Association, National Medical Association and School Nutrition Association – recognize the valuable role that low-fat or fat-free milk, including flavored milk, can play in meeting daily nutrient needs, and helping kids get the daily servings of milk recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans...Studies have shown that children who drink flavored milk meet more of their nutrient needs; do not consume more added sugar, fat or calories; and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers."

Not surprisingly, the "studies" referred to by the School Nutrition Association and the American Dietetic Association were funded by the dairy industry. As I have reported elsewhere, dairy interests have created a kind of public relations echo chamber, using paid proxies to repeat the messages that emerge from "research" dairy pays for, all in an effort to convince parents, pediatricians and school food service directors that removing flavored milk from schools would pose dire health consequences for children.

When I asked the American Heart Association about the release issued by the American Dietetic Association, and whether the heart association had ever been involved in a "joint statement," spokeswoman Kanika Lewis said: "From what I understand, ADA used our science for the argument, but we didn't actually sign off on it."

Citing a growing body of science showing strong links between sugar and risks for heart disease, the American Heart Association has asked the USDA to impose a limit on the amount of sugar that can be served in school meals. Regarding flavored milk specifically, the assocation has told the USDA that new meal guidelines should restrict to 130 the number of calories in an eight-ounce serving of milk as a way of reducing the amount of sugar children are exposed to in the federally-subsidized meal program.

Likewise, the American Academy of Family Physicians lists flavored milk along with sodas and sports drinks as "unhealthy habits to avoid," and advises that "children should have no more than one 12-ounce serving of these types of drinks each day."

Millions of parents rely on medical authorities for advice on whether they should offer flavored milk to their children as a way of providing calcium and Vitamin D. The last thing they need is misleading information about the dietary habits medical organizations actually recommend. In my next report, I will attempt to get those various medical organizations to state exactly what their positions are.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If you wonder why schools often serve such horrible processed food to children, look no further than the huge amounts of money manufacturers pay to put certain products on kids' cafeteria trays.

As I've detailed here previously, the food industry practice of "rebating" things like Apple Jacks cereal, chicken nuggets and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins creates an inherent conflict of interest for school meal programs but generates billions of dollars in profits for giant food service companies such as Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark.

On the heels of a settlement between Sodexo and the State of New York last year, in which the company agreed to pay $20 million to resolve claims it failed to credit rebates to schools and other government clients as required, U.S. Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack says the agency will conduct an audit.

According to Vilsack, USDA auditors will look closely into the rebating practices in at least one school district to determine whether federal law government school meal programs is being adhered to. USDA rules require that food service companies operating under contracts where schools reimburse their expenses must credit the schools for any rebates or discounts they receive from manufacturers.

The USDA previously audited school districts in the Midwest and found that food service companies routinely pocketed the rebates rather than pass them on to their clients. In a recent speech before the School Nutrition Association, New York Deputy Attorney General John F. Carroll said his investigation is ongoing and that he expects future settlements with more food service companies besides Sodexo.

Carroll says the value of rebates in school food programs typically amounts to 10 to 15 percent of total purchases. My own investigation revealed that Chartwells claimed more than $1 million in rebates during its first year of operations in District of Columbia schools, but that amounted to just five percent of total purchases.


Is someone at the USDA reading this blog?

For more than a year now, we've been visiting school cafeterias here in D.C. to photograph the food and monitor what kids are eating. It's pretty clear that what kids prefer are all those processed foods that make adults cringe--the chicken nuggets, the tater tots, the French fries. They routinely throw "healthier" food such as green vegetables in the trash.

Well now the USDA says it wants to train its own eyes on cafeteria eating habits. To do so, the agency will place cameras in five elementary schools in San Antonio, Texas, and photograph what children are actually eating.

The $2 million program will mount cameras over the cash register to photograph the food kids choose. Lunch trays will be tagged with a bar code to identify them when the kids finish eating and return the trays to the kitchen. Cameras there will record what's left on the trays, giving researchers some photographic evidence of what the kids have eaten--or not.

"We're trying to be as passive as possible. The kids know they're being monitored," said Dr. Roger Echon, who works for the San Antonio-based Social & Health Research Center, and who is building the food-recognition program.

Parents will receive the data for their children, and researchers hope eating habits at home will change once moms and dads see what their kids are choosing in school. The data also will be used to study what foods children are likely to choose and how much they're eating.

The eye-in-the-sky research comes just as the USDA is considering new meal standards that would require more green and orange vegetables and more whole grains in school meals--the kind of things kids typically refuse to eat.


Finally, the USDA has issued a new rule that could result in more locally-grown foods appearing in school meal programs.

The rule, part of the child nutrition re-authorization Congress passed in December, allows schools to give preference to local providers when they bid on school food contracts.

Encouraging more local produce in schools could spur local agriculture and put fresher foods on kids' plates--or so the theory goes. Alice Waters, whose "Edible Schoolyard" has influence school garden programs around the country, says local produce won't do much if kids don't eat it (and don't we know it.) What kids need, she says, its lots more education around healthier eating habits.

"We should certainly try to improve diets by make school lunches more nutritious and by getting the vending machines out of the hallways," Waters said. "But we can't be sure that kids are even eating — let alone understanding — what nourishment is all about. Kids are wary of unfamiliar foods, besides they can always buy packaged junk before and after school."

Waters says schools need to offer credit for edible education the way they do for phys ed, science and math. They need mandatory lunch programs, like the one in Chicago that grabbed headlines a few weeks ago. The more kids know about food and the more they have a hand in growing or preparing or serving it, the more likely they are to eat it, she says.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Kids Make Ham & Cheese Crepes

Good things come in small packages

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

You could probably get kids to eat almost anything if it were wrapped in a crepe. Kids love making these, and they love eating them even more.

In fact, the kids in my food appreciation classes for years have been begging to make crepes. I think they had the sweet variety in mind. This week, since we are visiting France on our virtual world culinary tour, I showed them how delicious savory crepes can be. I have fond memories of my own travels to Brittany, where crepes sarrasin--or buckwheat crepes--are a specialty. Once you learn to make the crepes, there's no trick to stuffing them with thinly sliced ham--or turkey, if you prefer--and Swiss cheese. To make them even more delectable, they're folded into square packages, topped with a pat of butter and Parmesan cheese, then heated through in the oven.

Crepes are essentially very thin pancakes. The batter is swirled around a moderately hot pan and cooks quickly before being lifted and flipped with an off-set spatula to cook briefly on the other side. They can be made ahead and refrigerated, or even frozen for several months. It's all in the technique, so don't be afraid to practice a little. You don't need a French crepe pan. But a non-stick pan is essential. This works best if you allow the pan to come up to temperature for a few minutes before making your first crepe.

Stirring our crepe batter

To make enough crepes for a large family or a dinner party, first melt 2 tablespoons butter and set aside. In a mixing bowl, whisk together until smooth 2 large eggs, 1 cup milk and 1/3 cup water. In a separate bowl, mix together 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, 2/3 cup buckwheat flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Pour the egg mix into the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth, adding the melted butter.

Allow the batter to rest, refrigerated, at least 2 hours or even overnight. Over moderately high heat, heat a non-stick pan--the kind you would use to make omelets, or a crepe pan if you happen to have one--and grease with butter. Pour in enough batter to coat the bottom, tilting the pan this way and that until the batter covers the bottom surface. Allow the crepe to cook until the top is dry, then lift one of the edges using a spatula and your fingers and work the spatula under the crepe. Gently flip it to the other side to cook another 15 seconds or so. Remove the crepe to a sheet pan and continue making crepes until you've used your batter.

To stuff the crepes, lay them on a flat surface and place ham I (or turkey) slices in the middle along with a small handful or grated Swiss cheese. Fold the crepes into squares and flip them over onto a baking sheet. Top each crepe with a small pat of butter and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Heat in a 325 oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Tyson Chicken Sandwich

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

They're back!

D.C. Schools Food Services Director Jeffrey Mills has complained that Chartwells, the company contracted to serve meals to the system's 45,000 students, continues to dish up Tyson chicken products even after they've been asked not too.

I wonder if that includes these breakfast sandwiches, heated and served while still in their plastic packing. That's what kids were getting this morning at my daughter's elementary school. (The parents in the cafeteria did not blink an eye, as far as I could tell. They just watched their kids tear the plastic away and start eating.)

I wrote about these sandwiches a month ago. Here are the ingredients:

SAUSAGE: Boneless dark chicken meat with skin, seasoning (salt, dextrose, spices, beef extract, maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast, natural flavor, modified food starch, onion powder, tocopherols, garlic powder, gelatin), modified food starch, water, sodium phosphates, caramel color, natural flavors.

BISCUIT: White wheat 100% whole wheat flour, enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, shortening (interesterified soybean, with distilled monoglycerides added), sugar, honey, baking powder (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, cornstarch, calcium sulfate, monocalcium phosphate), buttermilk solids, salt, xanthan gum, mono and diglycerides.

Nutrition Facts

  • Serving Size: 1 PATTIE W/ BIS (94g)
  • Servings Per Container: About 100
  • Amount Per Serving
  • Calories from Fat 90 Calories 260

% Daily Value*

  • 17% Total Fat 11g
    • 20% Saturated Fat 4g
    • Trans Fat 0g
    • Polyunsaturated Fat 3g
    • Monounsaturated Fat 3g
  • 12% Cholesterol 35mg
  • 22%Sodium 520mg
  • 9%Total Carbohydrate 27g
    • 8%Dietary Fiber 2g
    • Sugars 5g
  • 28%Protein 14g
  • Vitamin C 4%Vitamin A 2%
  • Iron 10%Calcium 10%

Note the salt content: 520 milligrams. That's 22 percent of an adult daily requirement.

These little sandwiches are built to last. According to information Tyson provides via its website, this product has a shelf life of 270 days.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Sausage and Egg Sandwich

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Kids seem to like these egg and sausage sandwiches. Finally, I broke down and tried one myself.

I've noticed before, the breakfast sausage is bland and spicy at the same time. Meaning, there's not much seasoning except what seems to be red pepper flakes. I'm surprised the kids aren't put off by it.

These days the eggs are not scrambled in a factory hundreds of miles away and shipped frozen. They're scrambled in the school kitchen from liquid eggs. They could use a little more salt. But the future of school food is no salt. In fact, even the USDA is at a loss to figure how schools will cut the salt in cafeteria food by half over the next 10 years. Does that mean school food will be healthier but flavorless?

Fitting perfectly in that category is this English muffin. It has no flavor at all. None.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Cinnamon Oatmeal

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

For this usual perspective on breakfast you can thank a Kindergarten boy who, given a chance to photograph his lunch, now wants to take pictures of all his meals.

The kitchen manager held her breath, afraid the little guy would drop the camera. I had to assure her he was already well versed in the process. As you can see, he does an excellent job. I would even say he's very enthusiastic about it.

Maybe we have a new school food journalist in the making?

This was the first time I'd seen cinnamon flavored oatmeal in the lunch room and from what I tasted it was quite good. There's nothing mysterious about it: the lunch ladies simply cook instant oatmeal in a stainless hotel pan in the steamer, then stir in cinnamon and a little sugar.

I guess this qualifies as "scratch" cooking. The kids then have their choice of a fresh apple, juice, plain milk and string cheese. I was glad to see this little boy eating the string cheese.