Friday, September 30, 2011

Kids Go Wild for Oats

Giving oatmeal a loving stir

Who knew kids could love oatmeal so much?

Our food appreciation classes have landed in Scotland. This is the land of oats, and I looked for a way to make the traditional haggis. You know, that delectable pudding of sheep hearts, lung, liver and oats all cooked together with fat and onion in a sheep's stomach. But I couldn't think where to get a sheep's stomach locally. In fact, it's my understanding that until recently, it was illegal to sell sheep's stomach. So I settled for oats.

This turned into a marathon cooking lesson--quite grueling, actually--as the kids made not only oat scones, but oatmeal three different ways.

To start the class, I showed the kids three different varieties of oatmeal: standard rolled oats, which are made by passing the grains under intense pressure through steel rollers. "Quick oats" are rolled oats that have been cooked, then dried, so they can be rehydrated in boiling water almost instantly. Steel cut oats are whole grains or "groats" that have been chopped into bits with steel blades, hence the name. These are my personal favorite as they retain a pleasant toothsomeness after they're cooked. They're available in bulk at Whole Foods, or sold in cans or boxes under the famous McCann's label.

I had my doubts about an oat scone. Would it really be edible, or hard as a rock? They turned out to be quite good.

Start by stirring together in a large mixing bowl 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 cups rolled oats, 1/4 cup sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup dried currants or raisins. In a separate bowl, beat 1 egg until frothy, then add 1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter and 1/3 cup milk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir just until everything is incorporated.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. It will be slightly sticky. Knead it two or three times until it holds together, then flatten it out with the palms of your hands or a rolling pin to a thickness of 1/2-3/4 inch. (For small scones, divide the dough into two wheels.) Cut the dough into wedges and place these on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes, or until the scones are beginning to brown. Serve with a glass of cold buttermilk.

Steel cut oats take much longer to cook than rolled or quick oats. Plan on 35 minutes, approximately. First, toast 1 cup steel cut oats for two or three minutes in 1 tablespoon melted butter in the bottom of a moderately hot saucepan. Add 3 cups boiling water, reduce heat and cook gently, covered, for 25 minutes without stirring. When 25 minutes have elapsed stir in 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup buttermilk. Cover and cook an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 heaping tablespoon brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon.

Rolled oats can be ready to eat in 10 minutes. Originally I had planned to have the kids chop fresh apples to add to the oatmeal, but we were so pressed for time I completely forgot. First bring 1 3/4 cups water and a dash of salt to a boil. Stir in 1 cup rolled oats and cook over moderately low heat for five minutes. You definitely do not want your oatmeal to boil over. When five minutes had elapsed, stir into the oatmeal 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 cup dried cranberries and 1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional). Cover and let sit off the heat for five more minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon molasses or maple syrup and a generous splash of milk. Serve hot.

Quick oats are ready literally in a minute. Just follow the manufacturers instructions, which typically involve pouring 1 cup oats into 1 3/4 cup boiling water with a dash of salt. Add whatever you like to the finished oats--chopped apples, perhaps, a bit of maple syrup, cinnamon, milk. It's all good. And good for you.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What's for School Lunch in Sweden? There's an App for That

App developer Andreas Egerup

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Andreas Egerup says he was standing in the grocery store trying to think what to make for dinner when it occurred to him to find out what his daughter had eaten for lunch at school. He didn't want to repeat something she'd already had, so he went to his iPhone and started to look for the school menu.

Minutes passed. Egerup busily worked the phone, clicking from one web page to the next. It seemed to take an awfully long time and a lot of effort to find that school menu. And then the proverbial light bulb clicked on: there should be an app for that.

One year and 500,000 Kroner ($ 80,000) later, filmmaker and entrepreneur Egerup is the proud owner of Sweden's first and so far only app for school lunch menus. Already he's placed it in 103 of the country's 290 municipal school system. There have been 150,000 downloads so far this year. And in April it was the number two i-Phone download in Swedish.

Apparently, where school lunch and technology are concerned, the sky's the limit.

"The school food thing was very important to me to be a good dad," said Egerup, who lives and works out of the remote town of Lulea, nearly 600 miles north of Stockholm. "Now you can see what's for lunch on your mobile phone."

According to Egerup, parents as well as students are downloading the app--called Dinskolmat, or Your School Meal--to four different types of "intelligent" phones currently available in Sweden. Along with expanding use of Facebook and other social media, the trend is injecting some glitz into the once staid school lunch scene, connecting families with school cooks, chefs with chefs, and increasing momentum for better school meals across the country.

Here's how it works: Egerup sells access to the app to individual municipalities, who pay 250 Kroner (about $40) for a one-semester subscription for each school in the district, up to five schools. If there are more than five schools, all of the other schools are covered at no extra charge.

So far he's signed up 103 districts, giving him plenty of room to grow. At this point, he doesn't have to leave his office much. Sales are spreading by word of mouth. To push things along, he started a Facebook page where students and parents can sound off. "People complain that their school isn't covered. I tell them to tell the kitchen manager." As of yesterday, the site had 1,053 "likes."

Egerup said it only takes a few calls from parents before a school administration will call him, requesting to subscribe.

In some districts, one app will cover all the schools because they all share the same menu. But other municipalities had multiple satellite kitchens with different menus. Individual districts or schools enter their menus into Egerup's data base. When you call them up with the app, they appear in the same format under the Skolmat logo.

For instance, here's what the current menu looks like for the Langbro Valley School in Stockholm. Here's another for Osteraker municipality outside Stockholm. Here's a third for the John Bauer High School in the city of Vaxjo. (Use your browser's translation feature to view these menus in English.)

To promote the idea, Egerup created posters the schools can hang in their dining halls. Egerup says the technology is drawing communities much closer to their school chefs.

"They get so much positive feedback from students and parents," he said.

Chefs are getting hip to the social media craze. Some have started their own Facebook pages where they can talk directly with their customers. Frederik Kampenberg, the head chef of a school in Orebro, 125 miles north of Stockholm, has a Facebook presemce here and here.

"Originally I was going to create a website, but the I thought, Where are the kids? On Facebook, of course," Kampenberg said. "I wanted to show in pictures that we really put our heart into the food--and lots of time and effort, too. It was a way to communicate more directly with students. They can comment on anything and nothing is censored."

Meanwhile, Swedish School Meal Friends, the principal advocacy organization for school lunch quality, has started an online chat room where school chefs from all over the country can talk to each other about issues affecting the program, share strategies, recipes and tips.

Software for planning school meals

As part of a press tour organized by the Swedish Institute, I and several other journalists from Germany and Russia visited a software firm in Stockholm that produces Mashie, an online menu planning program aimed at schools that allows chefs to view nutritional information for meal components and integrate their menus with food procurement.

The Swedish government this mandated that in addition to being free, school lunch must also be "nutritious." Specific guidelines have yet to be developed. But when they are, program like Mashie are certain to be more in demand. So far, the company has sold subscriptions to more than 100 of the country's 290 municipalities.

One feature of the program is color coding of meal ingredients according to healthfulness--green for good, yellow for less good and red for really bad. Call up a hamburger, for instance, and you get a pie chart full of red.

Apparently, Mashie doesn't like saturated fat.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Please Pass the Pancakes and Lingonberry Jam: What Swedish Kids Eat at School

My lunch plate at Lilla Academy

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

On a press junket paid for by the Swedish government, it's hardly surprising I was steered toward some of the best school food the country has to offer. I didn't get to see schools where the food is awful or even below par. But what I did see at two different schools in Stockholm gives a rough idea of the kinds of lunches being served to the country's 1.4 million primary school children every day.

At the Lilla Academy, a school devoted to music instruction on the campus of what was a 19th-century hospital, the lunch buffet consisted of numerous dishes simply displayed in large bowls and steamer trays in a somewhat cramped, semi-subterranean dining hall. Unlike the restaurant-style food at Annersta School I described in the first part of this series, where the kitchen is run by a chef with years of restaurant experience, the meal at Lilla was simple but incredibly varied.

There was a bowl of sliced carrots, a bowl of Brussels sprouts, marinated olives, two different kinds of cole slaw--one with vinegar, the other creamy--cottage cheese, sliced beets, black beans with red pepper and feta cheese, an entree of meat loaf stuffed with shredded vegetables, a vegetarian alternative of falafel. At the end of the buffet was an intriguing display of bowls containing roasted eggplant (like baba ganouj without the tahini), a chutney of coconut, mint and lime and an apple chutney with balsamic vinegar.

Naturally, I had to try all of it and I can attest that while some of the items were extremely rudimentary, it was a most stimulating meal.

A self-serve buffet with numerous salad-type offerings is typical of Swedish school lunches, although the quality can vary widely and students voice many complaints, as I described in yesterday's post. This buffet with its many moving parts was the work of two remarkable women--Karin Berglund and Karina Gummeson--who've been working so long together they finish each other's sentences.

Karin Berglund and Karina Gummeson

According to the group Swedish School Meal Supporters, two out of three schools in Sweden employ at least some staff with professional chef training. Berglund and Gummeson studied nutrition and meal planning. Before coming to the Lilla Academy, they spent 10 years together managing 25 school kitchens. And when they aren't cooking at school, they spend their off hours running a food consulting business.

In a small kitchen they call "the submarine," Berglund, Gummeson and another helper make an average 420 meals each day--375 for kids, the rest for staff.

Half of all Swedish schools prepare meals in their own kitchens, while the other half have meals catered from a kitchen they share with other schools. In some municipalities, the cost of transporting meals from a central kitchen to individual schools represents a significant expense. Some schools opt for professional catering companies to provide meals.

When Lilla Academy was established 13 years ago, it was proposed that the school share a kitchen with several other nearby schools. But principal Bo Lindgren was determined that his students would have freshly cooked food from their own kitchen.

"It was not so popular to start a kitchen," said Lindren, who apparently had no easy time convincing his bosses they actually needed to invest in one. The cost was around 3.5 million Kroner ($555,000). Lindren approached equipment manufacturer Electrolux, which agreed to install the kitchen on loan.

"The food is absolutely necessary for the results we achieve in the school," Lindren said.

Meals are cooked from scratch, mostly using raw ingredients, although Berglund and Gummeson do use frozen components as well. They also bake their own bread. Typically, they prepare eight to 10 different "salads" each day and their entree menus follow a pattern: one day for pasta, one day for fish, one day for a typical Swedish dish such as meatballs, one day for something international and one day for soup.

Student participation in the lunch is nearly 100 percent. Food from home is not permitted in the dining hall.

Because Sweden lies so far north, it's growing season is short and fresh vegetables are precious. I did not see any leafy greens or what we in the U.S. would consider typical salad ingredients on the two school buffets I visited. The focus instead is on storage vegetables such as cabbage and root vegetables. Often there are three different kinds of cole slaw on the buffet at Lilla, and Swedish cuisine would hardly be Swedish without potatoes, whether mashed, baked or boiled. Carrots, beets, turnips and rutabaga all play a role. Berglund and Gummeson were proud to show us chips they had made by roasting thinly sliced parsnips. They said most of the produce they use is organic.

Dispenser for fresh, cold milk

Both schools we visited offered milk and water in the cafeterias. Children serve themselves milk from electric coolers, the water from plastic pitchers. The Swedes are big milk drinkers and dairy is an important part of the diet everywhere. In keeping with current health trends, the milk is low-fat--actually .5 percent--something I found somewhat ironic considering that just a few feet away was a display of traditional Swedish crispy flat bread--knackebrod--along with a tub of butter or margarine.

A school meal would hardly be complete without knackebrod, so you typically see clusters of children gathered around the bread display, grabbing the butter knife and slathering their bread. If they were offered jam--Sweden is big on berry preserves--they'd no doubt smear that on as well.

Swedish kids are wild for knackebrod
Note: Swedish schools do not serve chocolate milk or other flavored milk products, nor do they have a la carte lines offering all sorts of junk food for sale.

Children eat from re-usable plastic plates using metal knives and forks. That keeps a dedicated dishwasher busy most of the day. Because of the small size of the dining room at Lilla, students eat in several shifts according to age, the youngest at 10:45 a.m., although Swedish nutrition guidelines recommend that lunch not be served before 11. Lunch is served through 1:30. The small children come back at 2:30 in the afternoon for a snack, typically some form of dairy such as milk or plain yogurt, homemade bread, butter, perhaps a meat pate and fruit.

For an idea of what other schools are serving, here are recent menu listings for Kramfors, a municipality of about 20,000 inhabitants 300 miles north of Stockholm on Sweden's eastern coast. The menu, translated by Google, shows meat/vegetarian entrees:

August 22: hot dogs and mashed potatoes/soy burger; Aug. 23: soup, bread, cheese/carrots and parsnips; Aug. 24: fish gratin and potatoes/potato and root vegetable casserole; Aug. 25: taco mince pie and rice/taco mince with quorn; Aug 26: chicken stir fry/vegetable stir fry; Aug. 29: pasta with spaghetti sauce/pasta with tomato sauce; Aug. 30: sausage and mashed potatoes/squash casserole with lentils; Aug. 31: fried salmon and potato with sauce/vegetable pate; Sept. 1: steak, roasted root vegetables, potatoes, gravy/shredded root vegetables with bean sprouts; Sept. 2: black pudding/potato buns.

"Our school meals were excellent," said Annika Brancato, who grew up in Kramfors but now lives outside Toronto with her husband and three children. "Unlimited milk, bread and specialty food for kids with allergies, etc. I wish I could have lunches like they do. I did not know it at the time," Brancato continued, "but our community allocates more money per student for their lunches than many other communites in Sweden. Kramfors is among the top five Swedish communities as to how much they spend."

Ten years ago, said Gummeson, afternoon snacks consisted of sweets. But not so much any more. Even the traditional Swedish fika--or mid-afternoon coffee break observed in work places across Sweden--seems to be trending away from cinnamon buns and other pastries toward lighter options like fresh fruit. Annika Unt Widell of School Food Supporters said that while tacos and pancakes are among the most popular foods among children, tacos are served only occasionally, and pancakes typically appear only as an accompaniment to pea soup or as a dessert.

One chef said he serves classic pancakes with lingonberry jam only as a special after-school treat. But at the Langbro Valley School in Stockholm, pancakes with blueberry jam and vanilla quark, or sour cream, were listed as the featured lunch entree yesterday.

One problem that continues to plague U.S. schools is the feasting around pizza, cupcakes and other junk food in frequent classroom celebrations. At Lilla School, Berglund and Gummeson throw a party for the students once a year to celebrate everyone's birthday.

What disturbs these school cooks most is all the food the children don't eat and throw in the trash. That's something I see every day in my daughter's school here in the U.S. Kids gladly eat the foods they like most--pizza, potatoes, chicken--and toss the things adults think they should be eating, like vegetables and whole grain products. Kids in Sweden also avoid certain foods in these categories, like the barley pilaf chef Michael Backman serves at the Annersta School.

"We're calling it 'Swedish rice.' It's more expensive, but the kids don't eat as much of it so it balances out," Backman said. "Kids aren't used to it. But I'm trying to get them to like it."

Backman said the worst waste occurs on days when he serves things kids especially like. They always take more than they can eat.

"One day we gathered up all the food the kids threw away the day before and placed it on a table where they could see it when they came in to eat," said Gummeson. "But what was their reaction? They just looked at it and shrugged their shoulders. So what?"

"What I would really like to do," said Berglund, "is just sit next to the trash can during lunch, maybe read a book, so they could see me. I think it would remind them to eat their food and not throw it away."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Swedish Schools Struggle Toward Healthier Eating

Do Swedish kids eat too many sweets?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

School lunch may be free in Sweden, but apparently that doesn't make advocating for better food any easier.

"We've been lobbying for years and we still see schools cutting costs, serving porridge or breakfast instead of lunch," laments Annika Unt Widell of the advocacy group Swedish School Meal Supporters (Skomatens Vanner).

Unt Widell has expressed outrage that spending on school lunch only increased 2 percent in the last year, while the Swedish government imposed a new mandate that school food must be "nutritious."

Some look to the Swedish lunch program, which serves free lunch to all primary school children, as a potential model for the rest of the world. But not all Swedes see the food served in school in such glowing terms.

Students, for instance, have voiced deep dissatisfaction. Ratings given by some 4,000 students in 2009 produced these results, according to the Swedish School Food Friends website (as translated by Google):

Nearly half--47 percent--say there isn't enough to eat.

More than half--57 percent--say there aren't enough tables and chairs for students to eat at the same time.

More than half--58 percent--say they must rush to finish their meals.

Forty percent say they cannot hear one another at the lunch table without shouting.

Only 21 percent say they eat lunch at the same time each day.

Barely a third--36 percent--say the dining room is fresh and tidy.

And free lunches are not required in the nation's high schools, many of which give out meal vouchers instead. High-schoolers can often be found eating at McDonald's.

According to Unt Widell, Sweden spends some three billion kroner ($476 million) on school meals annually, or around 30 kroner ($4.76) per lunch, 40 percent of which is typically devoted to food purchases, the rest to staff and transportation. Unlike in the United States, where payments for meals pass directly from the USDA to schools, the money for lunch in Sweden is taken out of general school funds and can vary greatly from one jurisdiction to the next.

"Very little is known about where the money goes or how it is spent," said Liselotte Schafer Elinder of the Karolinska Institute, which is launching a major study of the school meal program. According to School Meal Supporters, schools at the upper end of the spectrum spend three times as much on meals as schools on the low end.

The nutritional value of Swedish school meals also has been questioned. The country's 290 municipalities each are supposed to have a "dietary plan," but a survey of food service directors found that fewer than a third of them know what's in the plan or follow it. The meaning of the new law requiring that school food be "nutritious" has yet to be clearly defined.

"What is the effect of school meals? We don't know," said Schafer Elinder. "We have so many welfare policies that have just been introduced and there's no research on them."

Obesity expert Claude Marcus

Sweden has it's problems with overweight children, although the trend appears to have leveled off, said Claude Marcus, professor pediatrics and obesity specialist at the Karolinska Institute. According to Marcus, 20 percent of Swedish children are considered overweight or obese, down from 23 percent a few years ago. That compares to around 33 percent in the U.S.

Marcus said the problem with Swedish waistlines began to escalate around 1990. Between that year and 2005, he said, the incidence of overweight and obesity increased by three or four times the previous rate. He attributes that to the ready availability of fast foods and sweets in the Swedish diet. "There's been an explosion of fast food restaurants," Marcus said. "They're everywhere, and they're available 24 hours a day." Portion sizes increased, while the cost of sweetened drinks dropped and the price of fresh produce only went up.

Bulk candy display at 7-Eleven

Indeed, McDonald's is ubiquitous in Sweden. One outlet was located just a block from my hotel in downtown Stockholm. Across the street was another burger joint called Max's. Both did a brisk business all day long and well into the night. Just a bit farther up the street was a T.G.I. Friday's. Yet another U.S. import--7-Eleven--is never far away. The one near my hotel had a huge bulk candy display just inside the door, and the refrigerator cases groaned with Coke and Pepsi products, as well as sports drinks and "energy" drinks such as Red Bull.

Swedish law prohibits marketing to children. But fast food has a high profile: it's everywhere you look. Vending machines are rare in Swedish schools. Still, Sweden likes its mid-afternoon fika, or coffee break, traditionally with a cinnamon bun or other pastry. Schools were used to serving flavored yogurt, berry desserts, ice cream and cakes in after school and these do contribute to the problem, Marcus said. "Ice cream used to be a treat. Now it's part of everyday life."

In one study, researchers noted that rates of overweight and obesity were significantly reduced when all sweets were removed from school. In a group of five schools where children were denied access to sugary foods, the rate of overweight and obese students dropped from 22 percent to 16 percent, while in five uncontrolled schools the figure rose from 18 percent to 21 percent.

The study also yielded a pleasant surprise. Researchers expected that the parents of children who were denied sugary foods at school would compensate by giving them more at home. But just the opposite occurred. "When we were very strict at school, they were also better at home," Marcus said. "We think many parents want to give kids healthy food. But it's very difficult for parents to be more strict than the professionals at school."

Lunch buffet at Annersta School

The implications of school food choices for children's health has failed to rouse Sweden's pediatric community, however. In the U.S., pediatricians have been actively involved in removing sodas from school and in lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture for improvements in the school lunch program. Not so in Sweden. "The Swedish pediatric organization has been surprisingly passive on this issue," Marcus said.

He also laments that the law requiring school meals to be "nutritious" will not apply to high-schoolers. "I think we have a system that works reasonably well for the younger children," he said. "We should have the same regulations for high schools that we have for the other schools."

In Swedish schools, teachers are required to accompany their students to lunch where they can coach them on better eating habits. At the Annersta School in Stockholm, principal Bjorn Grunstein goes a step further, giving out free meal coupons to parents at the beginning of each school year, encouraging them to eat in the cafeteria as well.

"We want the parents to know what their children are eating here, because hopefully the kids like the food so much, they'll encourage their parents to make it at home as well," said Grunstein. "It could have a positive effect for the whole family."

Next: What Swedish kids eat at school.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sweden's School Lunch Paradox: Free, But Not Always Good

Students serve themselves lunch

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

After years working as a restaurant chef in Stockholm, Michael Backman was ready for something different. He'd had it with complaining customers. He wanted to feel inspired by his work again. So the advertisement he stumbled across in a free weekly newspaper six years ago grabbed his attention: "Wanted: Head Chef for School Restaurant."

"I had four teenage children who kept talking about how bad the food was at school," said Backman. "I didn't believe it could be that bad. But when I finally saw it, I realized it was."

Meanwhile, the man behind the ad, a burly, no-nonsense school principal and karate instructor named Bjorn Grunstein, had been fighting his bosses in the schools administration to place the ad. According to their personnel book, there was no such thing as a "head chef" for his school. Grunstein was supposed to be looking for a "kitchen matron," they said.

Grunstein doesn't play by the book. He ran his ad anyway, adding "kitchen matron" in minuscule type. He figured the chef he wanted would get the message.

"Many years ago we took in a company to provide our meals. It was one of the largest catering companies in Sweden and they serve shit," Grunstein growled. "They didn't like me very much, because I'd walk around the cafeteria holding a plate of mashed potatoes upside-down. There was more glue than potatoes."

As it turned out, Backman the discontented chef and Grunstein the iconclastic school principal were a perfect match. Working together, this pair of mavericks dumped the regular fare of gluey mashed potatoes and processed chicken nuggets and replaced them with gorgeous, scratch-cooked buffets.

The day I visited the Annersta School last week was 'vegetarian Wednesday.' The entree on display was something I'd never seen before on a school menu: leeks and potatoes in a curried cream sauce. Next to it was a baked pasta dish with a tantalizingly herbaceous tomato sauce, along with an array of salads: cole slaw, red cabbage, cottage cheese with pimento, creamy sliced apples, a pilaf of pearled barley and carrots. There was also an Iranian-style tomato and egg soup.

In Sweden, kids serve themselves. And at Annersta School, located in a a low-income community dense with immigrant families and refugees, they were really digging into the curried leeks.

"I told him [Grunstein] that if he did what I said, he'd have the best school food in Sweden within three years," said Backman.

By many accounts, he does.

Lunch at Annersta School, Stockholm

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about lunch at Annersta School is that what most Swedish students eat pales in comparison. Sweden has had a school lunch program since the 1940s. In 1997 the national government declared that all children--around 1.4 million--are entitled to a free lunch through primary school, or age 16. This year, the government mandated that those meals must be "nutritious," although exactly what that means is still unclear.

But "free" lunch doesn't necessarily mean good food, even in a country as progressive as Sweden. According to prominent Swedish school food advocate Annika Unt Widell of Swedish School Meal Supporters (Skolmatens Vanner), a group funded by the Swedish Federation of Farmers, some children get porridge or other cheap breakfast foods for lunch. In most schools, Swedish-style pancakes and tacos are the most popular items and the kind of leafy greens and other uncooked garden vegetables we in the U.S. usually associate with fresh salad rarely make an appearance.

Stockholmers were recently stunned by reports that at least 50 high schools in the city were not serving lunch at all, but instead give students vouchers to eat at local fast food outlets. Many high-schoolers routinely take their midday repast at McDonald's.

Kids, meanwhile, complain they don't have enough choice at lunch, that the food is overcooked or undercooked, or that it just doesn't taste very good.

Still, many Swedes have fond memories of their school lunches and have good reason to beleive they are better overall than what children are fed in the U.S. "I tend to think of the Swedes as spoiled sometimes," said Amy Leval, an American who lives in the Stockholm suburb of Solna with her Swedish husband and two daughters, five and seven. "They lose sight of just how amazing they have it and how lucky they are. There is a large sense of entitlement here which stretches into the school lunch program."

Unlike here in the United States, where a tightly regulated school meals program is administered and paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rules in Sweden are rather lax to non-existent, although most municipalities have a "dietary plan," according to Unt Widell.

In the U. S., schools that participate in the meals program must offer children specified amounts from different food groups both at breakfast and at lunch. The USDA only reimburses schools for meals that are actually served, and only low-income children are entitled to free food.

In Sweden, schools are only required to offer a vegetarian option. Money for meals comes from the total education funding the national government metes out per pupil, around $6,000 per year, depending on age. How that money is used is determined first by 290 municipal authorities, who may well spend it on things other than education, and then by school officials, who may not be especially engaged in the school dining experience.

Grunstein demanded better food

What's driving concern over school food in Sweden now are the same issues bedeviling parents in the United States. Even though commercial food marketing to children is forbidden in Sweden, kids there have grown much too fond of fast food, sodas, french fries and non-nutritious junk.

"The problem I have isn't money, it's getting the kids to eat the food," said Grunstein. "In some families, dinner is McDonald's. So they are not used to eating the kind of food we are now serving here. In their world, fast food is very important."

Grunstein sees a healthy, attractive lunch as essential to raising successful citizens--part of his mission to address all the needs his students bring to school. "It's an important part of everybody's life," he said. "If I want my pension to grow, they have to to out into the world and get good jobs. It's part of every school to educate, not just teach. We teach for life, not just for school."

I was invited to Stockholm to join a small group of journalists from Germany and Russia on a two-day tour of Swedish school food sponsored by the Swedish Institute, a government agency that promotes Swedish culture. The Swedish government has included public feeding programs such as school lunch as part of an initiative called "Culinary Nation," conceived by the government's rural affairs minister, Eskil Erlandsson, as a way to celebrate Swedish cuisine and create 20,000 rural jobs by developing food exports, agri-tourism and artisanal farm products.

The government paid for my travel expenses to and from Sweden, as well as my lodgings in downtown Stockholm.

Two days is hardly enough time to fully explore what is happening in Sweden's school cafeterias. But in 10 meetings in as many different locations--including lunch at two different schools and a visit to an organic dairy farm--we did cover a lot of territory. What I learned is that Swedish children are subject to many of the same pressures as their counterparts in the U.S., and many of them are benefiting from a growing intervention by professional chefs who see the school cafeteria as a place where they can find greater personal rewards by improving the food served to children.

School chef makes money stretch

In fact, injecting professional chef experience into school kitchens may be even more important than the extra money so many advocates assume is the answer to rehabilitating school food's shabby reputation.

"It doesn't matter that much how much money you have," said Backman. "It's what you do with the ingredients."

Backman and the food service directors at a second school we visited said they spend around eight Swedish Kroner ($1.27) or a bit more on ingredients per meal. Annika Unt Widell said the figure is closer to 12 Kroner ($1.90) nationwide. But dollars don't go as far in Sweden as they do in the U.S., where the average outlay on food per school lunch is reckoned to be around $1.

Professional chefs, as opposed to minimally trained "kitchen matrons," or even the housewives who used to run Swedish school cafeterias to earn "fur money," bring a depth of experience making food dollars stretch. Preparing food from scratch, they can economize with ingredients and make appealing dishes for less than the cost of processed factory foods. Leftover salad dishes are mixed into new salads the next day, for instance. Uneaten entrees are frozen, to live another day as part of some other dish. Say, curried leeks with pasta.

"This is my favorite place in the kitchen," says Backman, opening the door to the walk-in freezer. Plastic buckets of frozen leftovers, all carefully preserved by Backman, line the stainless shelves.

Freshly baked bread for school lunch

"In the restaurant business, you are working for someone who wants to make money. There's no room for waste," said Backman. "For the same amount as the school was paying that caterer, we are making two main dishes instead of one, plus a soup. We are baking our own bread. And we've raised the percentage of organic ingredients we are using from zero to 25.9 percent."

Backman accomplishes all this--feeding 700 children and 100 staff every day--with help from four other kitchen workers. The local personnel office says he should have six.

I spoke to Backman in the cafeteria or what Swedes like to call the "school restaurant," a huge room well-lit by a bank of windows and globe lights suspended from the ceiling. Students serve themselves at four long food bars, then sit in stylish molded plastic chairs at gleaming white tables. Swedes take pride in their reputation for sleek design (think Ikea). But many of the country's school cafeterias are cramped and congested, forcing children to eat in a hurry and on odd schedules.

As we talked, a young girl suddenly made her way toward Backman. She beamed up at him and said something in Swedish I couldn't understand, then scampered away.

Backman smiled. "The kids here want to tell the chef what great food he makes," said Backman. "I can tell you, you don't get very many hugs from customers working in a regular restaurant."

Next: Swedish schools struggle towards healthier eating.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hello, Stockholm!

In Sweden, school meals are free for all students

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

As this goes to press, I should be landing in Stockholm. At the invitation of the Swedish government, I am attending a two-conference on how the Swedes feed their kids in school.

What I've gleaned so far is that Sweden is virtually alone among developed countries in providing free meals to all students. The kids serve themselves, so there are no "reimbursable meal" requirements, apparently, like the ones set forth here in the States by the USDA. Also, no book-size regulations describing precise nutrition requirements. In Sweden, school meals must merely be "nutritious"--at least that's my understanding so far.

The reason for this particular post is to request intel from anyone who may have children in Swedish schools--or had children in school there at one time, or was a student recently in a Swedish school. Please let me know what your experiences were with the food. Or perhaps you know someone who fits this description and can pass along my message.

You can e-mail me at euclidarms(at)yahoo(dot)com.

I hope to have a complete report sometime after I return.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kids Make Cottage Pie

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The biggest issue teaching cooking classes with kids is keeping them busy.

Children in groups will soon start a riot if they lose focus. So one of my primary aims when designing our "food appreciation" sessions is making sure they have plenty to do. Here's a recipe for "cottage pie" that keeps them busy peeling and chopping vegetables, stirring, and finally mashing potatoes. And they love the end result.

Most of you are probably more familiar with "shepherd's pie," but in traditional British Isles cookery that's made with lamb. (Make's sense, no?) This version with beef has a long history as "cottage pie," with the same ending: you smear the beef and vegetable layer all over with mashed potatoes.

Start by peeling 3 large Russet potatoes (about 2 pounds) and cutting them into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Place these in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook until potatoes are soft. Drain.

While potatoes are cooking peel two medium onions and cut into small dice. Peel three medium carrots and cut into small dice. Place onions and carrots in a saucepan greased with 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter (or extra-virgin olive oil) over moderately high heat. Season with salt. Cook vegetables till soft, then add 1 1/2 pounds ground beef. Brown the beef, stirring occasionally.

Season beef and vegetable mix with 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1/3 cup beef broth, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the kernels from one ear of fresh corn (about 1/2 cup), and 1/2 cup frozen peas. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated, then pour the mix into a baking dish.

While the potatoes are still hot, mash them with 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter. Add about 1/3 cup warm milk and continue mashing until potatoes are smooth. Season with salt, then spread potatoes evenly over the beef and vegetables.

Place in a 400-degree oven four 30 or 40 minutes---until the "pie" is bubbling hot and potatoes have begun to brown around the edges. Switch oven to broil and remove when potatoes are lightly browned.

Your "pie" can easily be made ahead, refrigerated and reheated. I suppose it could be made with ground turkey instead of beef if your family objects to red meat. You could even substitute kidney beans for the meat for a vegetarian version.

Serve this with a green salad and you have a simple dinner kids will love. And they'll hardly notice the vegetables.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kids Make Berry Trifle

Sifting flour into pound cake batter

Welcome to season four of our 'round-the-world culinary tour.

My food appreciation classes have now landed in Great Britain after a gustatory sojourn in France. England, bless her heart, isn't exactly known for her great cuisine and I wanted to start the new school year with something fresh. I turned to the trifle--and I don't mean a small thing, but one of our favorite catering dishes. Traditionally, this is a cakey, pudding-like desert layered in a straight-sided glass bowl. Ours called for lots of fresh berries, pound cake and a filling of whipped cream and lemon curd.

Just remember this is a dessert, not a snack. It's full of sugar.

In a perfect world, I'd start this trifle two days ahead. Make the pound cake first, then after layering all the ingredients in your bowl, place it in the fridge overnight to set. Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time in our cooking classes, so our trifle turned out a bit runny. And while you could use a store-bought pound cake for this, we opted for making our own, which meant a very busy class. Kids love trimming and cutting the strawberries. And they love all the steps involved in making cake batter.

What's a pound cake, anyway? Apparently, the original recipe called for a pound each of flour, butter, eggs and sugar. Or so the story goes. Our cake is not nearly so heavy. Start by greasing a 9x5-inch loaf pan, then lining it with parchment paper. Spray the parchment with Baker's Joy (flour and oil) and set aside.

In a large bowl (or using an electric mixer) beat 2 sticks (16 tablespoons) soft but still cool butter until smooth and shiny. We used the back of a wooden spoon for this. Gradually beat in 1 1/2 cups sugar and continue beating until the mixture is fluffy and almost white.

Meanwhile, in a measuring cup mix together 3 eggs plus 3 egg yolks, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons water. Gradually stir this into the butter mixture until fully incorporated. Then beat in 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Sift 1/2 cup cake flour into the butter and egg mix and fold gently until completely incorporated. Do this twice more, for a total of 1 1/2 cups flour. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and place on the middle rack of a 325-degree oven. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the crack that forms in the top of the cake comes out clean, or about 70 or 80 minutes. Invert the cake onto a wire rack, then invert again onto a second rack to cool.

For the fruit, toss 1 quart strawberries, trimmed and quartered, in a bowl with 1 pint blueberries, 1 pint raspberries and the juice from 1/2 lemon. Stir in 1/4 cup sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch, then pour the fruit into a saucepan and cook over moderate heat just until the fruit is soft. Allow the pan to cool, then place in the fridge to chill.

Meanwhile, spoon 1/2 11-ounce jar lemon curd into a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whip 1 pint heavy cream with 1/2 tablespoon sugar until soft peaks form. Fold some of the whipped cream into the lemon curd until smooth, then add the rest of the whipped cream and fold until fully incorporated.

Spread some of the whipped cream mix to cover the bottom of a small trifle bowl (or something similar). Cover with pound cake cut into 1/2-inch slices. Break slices into pieces if necessary. Spoon some berries with their liquid over the pound cake and cover with whipped cream. Repeat this process until all of the ingredients are used up, forming three or four layers. Place in the fridge overnight to set.

To serve the trifle, insert a large spoon all the way to the bottom, snagging pieces of cake, some berries and lemony whipped cream, now infused with berry juices. We turned this out in cups for the kids. But if you really want to impress your guests, you might place a slice of pound cake on a fancy plate, cover it with a big spoonful of trifle, then top with more whipped cream and some reserved berry juice. In either case, it's a pretty decadent taste of a British classic.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Get Ready for Farm to School Week

Kids learn where their food comes from

Guest Post

By Andrea Northup

What’s a child’s first reaction to a bright orange roasted sweet potato on her cafeteria tray? “Weird!” or “What’s that?!” But take that child to a nearby farm and show her how sweet potatoes are grown; or bring a local chef into her classroom to make a delicious sweet potato dish. Then what? That sweet potato in her school meal is gone before you know it.

The D.C. Farm to School Network is pleased to announce that the third annual D.C. Farm to School Week will take place October 3-7, 2011 in schools across Washington, DC! The week will get students excited about local food and where it comes from. Schools will feature seasonal, local foods in their school meals, and engage students in hands-on food education.

Get your school involved! Learn how at, where you’ll find tools, resources and instructions for registering your school. The D.C. Farm to School Network will help every step of the way.

Sponsor the event! We're looking for organizations and individuals interested to help make D.C. Farm to School Week a success. Read our Sponsor Packet to learn more.

The event will kick-off the first ever National Farm to School Month in October, celebrated by schools all over the country. Last year, over 150 schools served up seasonal specialties such as honey-braised local apple and collard green salad, and Asian slaw with local cabbage during D.C. Farm to School Week. And dozens of schools coordinated farm field trips and chef demonstrations to engage students in the farm-to-table process. Let’s make this year’s event even better.

For more information, visit or email Andrea Northup, D.C. Farm to School Network Manager at the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, at andrea[at]dcfarmtoschool[dot]org. This event is brought to you by the D.C. Farm to School Network and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education Department of Wellness & Nutrition Services, in conjunction with schools and other community partners. And remember, D.C. School Garden Week will take place Sept. 26 - Oct. 1.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pediatricians on Flavored Milk: Epilogue

Who can you trust on flavored milk?

In yesterday's post about the American Academy of Pediatrics' stance on flavored milk I attempted to stay as close as possible to the results of my interviews and other reporting rather than my interpretation of what that reporting revealed. Some explanation is in order, since the way in which the information was gathered was somewhat out of the ordinary.

While attempting to illuminate the American Academy of Pediatrics' flavored milk policy, I quickly learned that the academy has no single "spokesman." Rather, I dealt with a "contact" named Gina Steiner, who insisted she not be quoted. Instead, she put me in touch with members of the academy who were deemed best positioned to answer my questions. All of my interviews were conducted by e-mail, and sometimes the pace was agonizingly slow. Thus, I exchanged a total of some 45 e-mails between Steiner and academy sources over a period of two months, between May and July. I waited to write this report until after summer vacation had ended and families again were focused on sending their children to school.

Readers may be surprised to learn, as I was, that the AAP really has no formal policy focused on the feeding of flavored milk to children, other than brief mentions in its policy addressing sugar-sweetened beverages in schools, where flavored milk--along with plain milk, fruit and vegetable juices and water--is cited as a "healthful alternative" to sodas, and in the academy's statement on increasing children's bone density and calcium intake. Rather, AAP messaging on chocolate milk seems to depend more on its "partnership" arrangements with dairy organizations such as the National Dairy Council and MilkPEP, groups that are desperate to keep flavored milk a beverage of choice in the school meals program.

Is it really coincidental that the Dairy Council and MilkPEP are also financial contributors to the pediatrics academy? The academy insists that these contributions in no way influence its policies or messaging. But the dairy groups make liberal use of the academy's name in its chocolate milk promotions, as well as the names of pediatricians who are "appointed" as "unpaid advisors" to the dairy industry when they rise to positions of influence.

Some may be disappointed that the academy is not more transparent on questions of exactly how much money it receives from dairy interests, or exactly what its "partnership" arrangements entail. But more important is the question of trust and how that is compromised by the academy's acceptance of funding from the dairy industry.

Also, the academy gives parents no specific guidance on how much--or how little--sugar-sweetened milk products they should feed their children. Rather, the pediatric group leaves parents to ponder the question on their own. Here's how Jatinder Bhatia, chair of the AAP's committee on nutrition, put it to me:

"Parents should look at the child's total intake of sugar for the day. If they are getting it in flavored milk, then look at their cereals, snacks, etc. to be sure it's limited there. Also, many parents allow their kids to have flavored milk at school, but they serve plain milk at breakfast or dinner."

The AAP's silence on this question sets it apart from the American Heart Association, which recently released guidelines recommending that children consume no more than half their "discretionary calories" in the form of sugar. It should be noted, however, that calculating exactly what those discretionay calories are [PDF] for any given child can pose a challenge.

Dr. Robert Murray, until recently chair of the AAP's council on school health, says my questions suffer from a "common missperception" about what the AAP's statement on sugar-sweetened beverages means to say. But the statement is written in plain English and speaks for itself. And keep in mind, when you ask the AAP for its position on flavored milk in schools, this is what you get. The problem is not with missperceiving AAP policy, but with the fact that the personal opinions of individual pediatricians--opinions that so neatly align with those of the dairy industry--are bandied about where no formal AAP policy exists.

Indeed, some readers may find it curious that a professional organization with the reach and influence of the American Academy of Pediatrics should give so little formal policy guidance on the subject of flavored milk at the same time it is accepting money from the dairy industry and participating so closely in the industry's promotion of that same product. Its inaction on this point seems all the more confounding in light of the controversy flavored milk continues to stir in the school meals program--a program that feeds an estimated 32 million of the nation's children daily--and at a time when so many parents and school administrators are desperate for guidance from the medical community.

The academy says it is in the process of revising it policy on sweetened beverages in schools. This would be the perfect time to set matters right.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Have Pediatricians Sold Out to Big Dairy?

Does your doc recommend chocolate milk?

The Dairy Industry widely touts the nation’s pediatricians as supporting sugary chocolate milk for children. But when I went looking for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy on flavored milk in school, what I found was hardly a sweeping endorsement.

Instead, the group representing some 60,000 of the nation's pediatricians cites flavored milk along with plain milk, water, fruit and vegetable juices as “healthful alternatives” to the problem of sodas in school. But sodas aren’t served in most elementary schools, and are on the way out in many middle and high schools as well.

A 2010 report by the Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois, Chicago, found that only 17 percent of public elementary schools offer sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas or sports drinks. The percentage of middle schools that offered sodas with meals shrank from 35 percent to 26 percent between 2007 and 2008. In high schools the decrease was from 46 percent to 36 percent.

When I pressed the head of the AAP’s nutrition committee to explain how pediatricians might continue to support chocolate milk if there were no sodas offered in schools, he abruptly ended our interview.

“I think we are belaboring the issues and I do not have any answers to address your concerns,” said Jatinder Bhatia, chief of neonatology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

So what explains the cozy relationship between the American Academy of Pediatrics and Big Dairy.

Bhatia acknowledged that he serves as an “unpaid advisor” to the National Dairy Council. And as I would later learn, the American Academy of Pediatrics receives funding from dairy interests, although it refuses to say how much.

The AAP issued a statement saying: “The American Academy of Pediatrics receives grants and contributions from the federal government and foundations as well as from a number of corporations. These contributions help support the AAP's mission to promote the health and wellbeing of all children. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, just 7 percent of the AAP’s income came from corporate support. This includes contributions from the National Dairy Council and MilkPEP. “

(MilkPEP--or Milk Processors Education Program--is an industry group funded through a congressional mandate that promotes dairy with media campaigns such as “Got Milk?” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!”)

The AAP statement goes on to say: “Safeguards and disclosure procedures are in place to protect against conflict of interest by either the AAP or its physician members who develop policy for review and approval by the AAP. The AAP conforms with all industry standards for disclosure of financial relationships…Outside funding has no effect on the AAP's policies, guidelines or messaging on any aspect of child health.”

If dairy money has no influence on AAP policy, it may help grease the wheels for what the pediatric group describes as “partnerships” with dairy interests to promote its products—including flavored milk.

For instance, the AAP last year joined a MilkPEP Halloween blitz that advised parents, “If you’re hosting a Halloween Party, serve low-fat chocolate milk as a nutritious treat in disguise.”

The AAP has also signed on to the National Dairy Council’s “3 Every Day of Dairy,” campaign, urging everyone to consume at least three servings of dairy on a daily basis. The AAP participates along with prominent sports figures in the dairy council’s “Fuel Up to Play 60,” promoting dairy and an hour of exercise in schools.

What’s more, the AAP appoints prominent members such as Jatinder Bhatia to “advise” the dairy industry.

When I asked to see a copy of the AAP’s partnership agreement with the National Dairy Council and MilkPEP, I was told, “We do not have agreements available for public inspection.”

This is the second in an occasional series of reports responding to an Associated Press article published in May that falsely asserted that several professional groups—including the American Academy of Pediatrics—had issued a “joint statement” supporting chocolate milk in schools.

My reporting reveals that most of the groups cited receive money from dairy interests as part of a carefully crafted public relations campaign designed to boost sales of flavored milk in the face of plummeting sales of plain milk. Schools account for only 7 percent of all milk sales, but more than half of all flavored milk. The American Dietetic Association and the School Nutrition Association also receive dairy industry money and enthusiastically support the chocolate milk campaign.

Dairy interests also pay for “research” to bolster their claim that children will lack the calcium they need for healthy bones if they are not offered flavored milk with added sugar.

Dairy groups trumpet the participation of individual physicians such as Jatinder Bhatia, publishing long lists of "advisors" that help create an aura of medical approval around the industry’s chocolate milk promotions.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a formal policy explicitly focused on flavored milk. The AAP's 2006 statement on optimizing children's bone health and calcium intake states that flavored milk, cheese and yogurt containing "modest amounts of added sweeteners" are "generally recommended." In the absence of more specific guidance, the dairy industry has created the illusion that it exists: Drink chocolate milk!

Pediatricians are hardly unanimous on the question. Robert Lustig, a prominent specialist in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, has called the sugar (meaning fructose) in chocolate milk “poison” because of its metabolic links with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardio-vascular disease and fatty liver disorder in children.

Lustig was prominently featured in a recent New York Times Magazine article on the perceived dangers of fructose. But he declined to comment on the findings in this article, saying the American Academy of Pediatrics has, in fact, “embraced the issue of sugar in obesity.” He cited a recorded panel discussion the AAP recently sent its members in which Lustig and other specialists discuss the hazards posed by sugar in children’s diets.

“The issue of flavored milk is a complex one,” said Lustig in an e-mail, “and my opinion and comments are not for distribution.”

(When I interviewed Lustig in January and asked, "Do you think it's wrong for schools to be serving milk with added sugar?" he replied: "Short answer, of course. But it won't get fixed any time soon. The Dairy Industry is very tight with the USDA.")

The chocolate milk AAP policy suggests as an alternative to the sodas and sports drinks offered in schools typically contaings 3.5 teaspoons of added sugar in an 8-ounce serving. But Jatinder Bhatia was vague on the question of how much of it children should drink, saying, "AAP does not have policy on the number of servings of flavored milk per day."

Bhatia recommended “two glasses a day in younger children and three a day in older children,” adding that “moderation is key.”

“Although I personally am a proponent that we need to reduce sugar in the American diet in general and in children in particular, I also believe that it is not the flavored milk rather than the number of times the flavored milk is consumed.”

Bhatia continued: “We need to start in infancy when we start weaning infants from breast feeding or formula feeding and not offer them high sweet drinks and foods so as to not let them acquire a ‘sweet tooth.’ That way, we would not have to resort to flavored or other milks since children would have not acquired a sweeter taste.”

In its online publications, meanwhile, the dairy industry prominently quotes Bhatia as saying that “flavored milk could be a nice alternative [to plain milk] since the contribution of added sugars to the overall diet of young children is minimal.”

When Bhatia balked at the question of whether schools should serve flavored milk in the absence of sodas, I was told that this particular AAP policy, first approved in 2004 and “affirmed” without change in 2009, is likely to be revised soon.

I was then referred to Dr. Robert Murray, a professor and child nutrition specialist at Ohio State University, and until recently chairman of the AAP’s council on school health. “The policies of the AAP,” Murray said, “have been unwilling to sacrifice the nutrients in milk just to avoid a couple teaspoons of sugar.”

“Your question reflects a common misperception: that our directive to the public to limit sugar-sweetened beverages is based on the fact that sugars are ‘bad’. This is not the case,” Murray said. “Sugars, even simple sugars, can be a part of a total diet, just like any other component.”

According to Murray, “We did not write the soft drinks policy because of a concern about sugar itself, as much as a concern about energy-dense and nutrient-poor drinks being promoted by schools through industry contracts. The implications of that on increasing added sugars and lowering diet quality was the focus.”

School food advocates such as Ann Cooper contend that routinely serving flavored milk as part of the federally-funded meals program teaches kids to expect sugar in their food. But Murray says chocolate milk has become “a whipping boy” in the school food debate.

“Removing flavored milk is detrimental to overall pediatric nutrition and unlikely to affect overall added sugar consumption in any meaningful way,” he said.

Murray, who also served a term as a National Dairy Council advisor, said “neither the AAP Committee on Nutrition nor any other national nutrition organization has proposed a specified limit on flavored milk.”

But an advisory published by the American Academy of Family Physicians at its website lists drinking flavored milk as a “key unhealthy eating habit.” It says children should drink no more than 12 ounces of flavored milk per day.

The American Heart Association, meanwhile, recently set guidelines that would have children consume no more than half of their “discretionary calories” in the form of sugar. Millions of children may already be exceeding that standard because of the chocolate milk they drink at school with their federally-sponsored breakfast and lunch. Many are drinking even more in snack and supper programs.