Sunday, May 1, 2011

This Week in School Food News

Is it possible the federal government will actually do something about the way the food industry markets junk to kids?

Citing an epidemic of childhood obesity, the Federal Trade Commission proposed sweeping guidelines that for the first time would curb industry's shameless use of various media to peddle food-like substances loaded with sugar, salt and fat.

A prime target would be favorite food characters like Toucan Sam, the brightly colored Froot Loops pitchman, who appears in television commercials and online games as well as on cereal boxes.

Federal regulators are telling corporate food interests they have a choice: make products healthier, or stop selling them to kids.

“Toucan Sam can sell healthy food or junk food,” said Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona who studies the marketing of children’s food. “This forces Toucan Sam to be associated with healthier products.”

Marketing junk to kids has become an industry unto itself, reaching into children's minds using a vast network of communication tools, encompassing not just product packaging and the usual ads on television, but web sites, online games that act as camouflaged advertisements, social media, product placements in movies, the use of movie characters in cross-promotions and fast-food children’s meals.

"The inclusion of digital media, such as product-based games, represents one of the government’s strongest efforts so far to address the extension of children’s advertising into the online world, which children’s health advocates say is a growing problem," reports the New York Times.

The guidelines suggest a darker side to cuddly figures like Cap’n Crunch, the Keebler elves. Could they go the same way as Joe Camel, the cartoon figure used to promote Camel cigarettes that was phased out amid allegations that it was meant to entice children to smoke?

“Our proposal really covers all forms of marketing to kids, and the product packaging and the images and themes on the cereal boxes have tremendous appeal to kids,” said Michelle K. Rusk, a lawyer with the trade commission. “The goal is to encourage children to eat more healthy foods because obesity is a huge health crisis.”

The food industry, which hates any kind of government regulation, says it's working on the problem voluntarily. Watch this space to see them crank their lobbying apparatus into high gear. This is serious.


So here's a school in Detroit that seemed to be doing all the right things, teaching pregnant girls to stay engaged through gardening. But apparently it couldn't last. Detroit being broke, officials decided to close the Catharine Ferguson Academy and when the girls protested, police were sent in to arrest them.

Sounds like a bad movie. But that apparently is where we are today in America: tax breaks for the rich, crack down on kids who garden.

The school describes itself as schooling young mothers-to-be in a core curriculum of English, math, science, and social studies in a family-like, accepting environment. Along with the academics, there is 'real life' learning about raising a child and how to function as a knowledgeable, independent, and productive adult. "The responsibility of providing food, shelter, and other basic needs in life should not be stressful. They have the right to look forward to a rewarding life and we help them achieve it."

On April 15, protesters gathered outside the Catherine Ferguson Academy, chanting, picketing and holding signs -- a show of solidarity against the proposed closing. While they were outside, about a dozen others were inside holed up in the library. When they wouldn't come out, Detroit police went in after them.

At least a dozen people were arrested, including two moms who had their small kids with them.

Shades of the Haymarket riots. The story made national news Rachel Maddow took it up and posted about it on her blog, including video of the incident.

Detroit likes to bill itself as the wave of the future where sustainability and urban agriculture are concerned. Is this really what city fathers have in mind?


Kids don't eat better because they grow up in a toxic food environment. That means they are constantly exposed to messages urging them to eat junk (see above), and when they walk into a store, what they typically see on the shelves is more junk.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention recently ranked all of the states according to the availability of healthful food in stores. The CDC system gives a score of zero where there are no food retailers selling healthy food, and 100 where there are only food retailers that sell healthy food.

On that basis, the national average score was 10. (Remember, that's out of a possible 100.) The highest-scoring states were Montana and Maine, with scores of 16 and 15, respectively. Rhode Island and the District of Columbia ranked at the bottom of the index with scores of 5 and 4, respectively.

Hear that, Michelle Obama? The city right outside your door is one of the unhealthiest in the whole country.

“To feed their children healthy food at home, parents must have ready access to stores that sell affordable, healthy food,” says William Dietz, MD, PhD, director of CDC's division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity, in a news release.

You can see how all the states ranked here.


Meanwhile, New York City thinks school gardens are part of the answer (maybe not like Detroit.)

The city just awarded grants to 29 public schools to establish or expand school gardens, adding to the 300-ish gardens currently in operation. The goal, according to director of garden-boosting nonprofit GrowNYC, is "to have a garden or access to a garden in every public school in the city." They've got a ways to go -- there are 1,600 schools -- but NYC mayor Bloomberg says he's committed to the initiative.


Following Congress' recent re-authorization of the nation's child nutrition law, the USDA announced a new rule encouraging schools to source more of their produce from local farms.

That could help local farm economies and get more fresh foods on kids plates. Now, schools just need to learn how to cook that fresh produce so that kids will actually eat it. Or maybe we need to work more with kids, who normally aren't so wild about vegetables.


Unfortunately, many schools facing budget cuts are moving in the opposite direction. Instead of learning how to cook food from scratch, they're outsourcing their cafeteria operations to big food service companies that specialize in feeding kids processed convenience foods.

A bill has been introduced in the Michigan state legislature that would require all public schools there to privatize basic services like school meals, custodial work and bus fleets.

A case study in how this happens is playing out in the Dallastown School District near York, Pa., where the school board recently voted 5-2 in favor of contracting with food-service provider Chartwells. Officials say the deal will save the schools nearly $1 million over the next five years.

"It's really a no-brainer," said Supt. Stewart Weinberg. "We as a school district need to look at reducing costs."

With states across the nation slashing funding for education, could this be the future of school food? But we thought it was supposed to be getting better....

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