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Archive for the ‘school lunch’ Category

Beyond Pink Slime

As you have probably heard by now, the food scandal “du jour” has to do with “pink slime”, also known as mechanically-separated meat (or, when made by Beef Products Inc., “Boneless Beef Lean Trimmings”).

This ammonia-treated scrap meat — the same one some fast food giants recently phased out  — has been widely used since the early 1990s, is reportedly present in 70 percent of all ground beef products, and is a staple in school cafeterias (seven million pounds (!) are expected to be served in school lunches across the country over the next few months).

The story essentially writes itself. When fast food companies, infamous for cutting corners at any cost, turn their noses up at a questionably safe ingredient that ends up on the lunch trays of schoolchildren, headlines are to be expected — and rightfully so.

The meat industry has responded via a new website: the awkwardly-titled Pink Slime Is A Myth (I have yet to comprehend how something real and tangible can be labeled a myth).

While I do not dismiss the recent grassroots efforts that have gained significant strength via a petition to get pink slime out of school cafeterias, I worry that the focus on it detracts from bigger and more important food system issues, and provides the meat industry with a convenient distraction and an easily fixable problem that can effortlessly be spun into a public-relations success.

Continue Reading »

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Speaking/Catching Up With…: Mrs Q (The Transcript)

FINAL2Last Wednesday, I spoke on the phone with Mrs. Q of the Fed Up With School Lunch blog, almost to the day in which she hit the halfway point of her “year of school lunches” project.

If you are unfamiliar with her, please read my e-mail interview with her from this past January.

The transcript of our chat follows:

Hi, Mrs. Q.  Welcome!  So, are you relieved to have a summer free of school lunches?

Oh, gosh.  I think ‘relieved’ doesn’t even really encompass how I feel right now.  I’m so thrilled.  I’m so ready for the Summer.

What was your lunch today?

I thought you’d ask that!  We [my husband and I] had soup… and some sardines, and chickpeas.  It was very random.

But it didn’t come wrapped in plastic, so that’s a nice change.

Right, exactly. (Laughs)

I was thinking about all the school food that you’ve eaten so far this year and two meals stick out to me most.  One is the 62 ingredient pizza.  Then, there’s the infamous peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had the Pop-Tart-ish graham crackers standing in place of the sandwich bread.  In your years as a teacher, were you familiar with those offerings or did you first see them when you started doing the project?

Oh, I had just seen them when I started doing the project.  I had never gone down to the cafeteria when they had peanut butter and jelly on the menu.  I just assumed, like anybody else, that it was actual bread and peanut butter and jelly.  I didn’t think that it was this mallomar cracker thingy… the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen, or eaten.

I know that was one of the meals that made you feel pretty sick.

Yeah, actually, when I had it in January, it did make me sick.  I think.  I mean, I could have just felt sick that day by chance, but that was part of what made me feel ill.  Then it was served again in June, and that day, I knew it was coming, so I had packed a little salad.  I just took a nibble of the sandwich.  I couldn’t face another night of feeling sick.  I didn’t want to take that risk.

Do you know if any of your students got sick from eating that sandwich?

Not that I could tell.

One thing I’m interested in — that you’ve touched upon in your blog — is the environment in which these lunches are eaten, as far as the students go.  Can you give me a visual of the cafeteria in terms of what you see when you walk in, what color the walls are?  Can you tell me a little bit about the smells, the sounds…?

Oh, yeah.  When you walk in the cafeteria, it’s very drab.  It’s sort of a pinky peach color on the walls.  There are no murals or anything.  There are a scattering of posters, but nothing memorable.  It’s VERY loud.  Incredibly loud.  The kids are screaming, and they are very excited to be at lunch.  It’s very hard to have a conversation with another adult.  You can’t hear yourself.

The kids don’t get any recess, so it’s really hard to see them there in the cafeteria, using their only escape time to try and wind down the best that they can.  I think they really need to be exercised.  It’s sad.

Does it have that traditional cafeteria… “unidentified aroma”?

Yes, yes!  Well, actually, what’s so interesting is that I can sometimes… now that I’ve eaten so many lunches, I can sometimes tell what’s being served when I’m just walking by, even 500 feet away.  I can be, like, “alright, it’s tater tots today.”

Wow.

Yeah, or I can smell the meatloaf.  There is that aroma that’s hard to place.  It varies.

Over the past few months, you’ve been awarding titanium sporks on your blog to leaders in the fight for healthy school lunches.  Jamie Oliver got one in April, Lisa Suriano of Veggiecation was the May recipient, and it seems, based on the comments I’ve read on your blog, that for this month it could be Chef Ann Cooper, who I love.  I know the June spork is the last one, but if you could personally award a fourth one in July, who would you award it to?

I’ve already thought that if I had an extra one, I would love to give it to Ed Bruske, The Slow Cook.  He’s done some amazing reporting out of Washinton DC about the school food environment there.  His daughter goes to school, and that was his motivation for his series on school food.  He also, sort of like me, walked into this in January.  He went into his daughter’s cafeteria, because he had heard they made changes.  [Turns out] they went from exactly the same foods that I was eating [at my school] to the food they call “fresh cooked”, which is the same food, except that it comes in big boxes and they heat it up instead of serving it in the containers I eat out of.

[Ed] spent a week in the [school's] kitchen, reported on it, and it was very eye-opening.  He’s a really excellent writer, I really like his perspective.  He’s angry about this.  He’s mad.  I really like seeing that kind of engagement with this issue.

Speaking of anger and voices being heard, are you still fearful of people knowing your identity?

Oh, yeah.  I’m not as fearful as I was in January or February when I was really, really scared.  I hadn’t gotten any attention at all [up until that point], and I was just doing this for fun.  I didn’t think this was something that anyone would ever notice.  So, when people started noticing, I started getting nervous.

Now that I’ve done it for half a year, I feel a lot less worried.  I’m still certainly taking precautions, but I feel like at this point, I have the support of so many readers and I’d really be interested to see what kind of grounds [my school's administrators] would have to let me go.

On the other hand, I am thinking about how this project affects me and how I move forward with my own life.  I have a platform here that I never, ever expected to create.  I’m only going to have this brief window in which I get all this attention, it’s my 15 minutes of fame, and I’m thinking how can I use that to potentially help more kids and  see if it provides a career change.  In some ways, I might have more fallback now that I’ve gathered up more steam in the project.

It’s funny you say that, because I have a hard time imagining that suddenly, in January of 2011, you go back to your pre-blog life.

I know!  I keep thinking that too.  I don’t know where I’m headed.  Part of me thinks that when an employee does something like this [blog], it’s not exactly the most happy employee ever, you know what I’m saying?

I have seen postings for jobs in other schools and other districts I thought I’d be better suited for, potentially, and that I would get fulfillment from, so I’m thinking, “should I change jobs?”, “how can I leverage this potentially?”.  The other thing is,  I have a young family.  I love working with children, so I wouldn’t want to do any kind of drastic change.

It’s very likely that within the next six months there could be some really wonderful opportunities coming your way.  I was also wondering how this project has shaped or altered your career goals.  Maybe you still want to be teaching [in the future] but be more involved in the advocacy [side of things]?

Yeah, I’ve come up with some interesting ideas that I’m exploring, but I keep wondering “how can I take this to another level?”.  If I wanted to be a nutritionist, I’ve got a great application essay here!

And you’ve got some really good hookups and some really good references! Back to the identity thing, here’s one thing I don’t understand.  Prior to eating these lunches… which you eat in your classroom, correct?

Uh-huh.

Prior to this, weren’t you eating lunch with the other teachers in the teacher lounge?

Yes.

So… don’t they wonder where you’ve been for the past six months during lunchtime?

(Laughs).  I’m very busy.  We all are.  There’s certain teachers you know never eat in the lounge, and then there are teachers who always eat in the teacher’s lounge.  For the most part, I was pretty variable.  Now, I just make excuses…. that “I have a lot to do”, which is true.

These lunches are made to be eaten very quickly, so I am able to really down them.  I can eat that lunch so fast now and still have enough time to do a couple little things with paper around my desk, or a little organizing before I have to go back.

So you mastered the art of downing school lunch.

I know, isn’t that sad?  I can really, really pound it.

Is the plan still that at the end of the calendar year you’re going to have a post on your blog revealing your name?  Have you given any thought how you are going to end this project?

I haven’t thought about it at all.  I keep thinking to myself, “maybe I should wait a month and THEN reveal myself”, because then it won’t be such a big deal.

Well, I think you should just go on Oprah and reveal yourself that way.

Well, that would give me some kind of immunity.  It really would.

Yeah, if you have Oprah’s support, you’re pretty much golden.

I don’t think that I could get in that much trouble if I had that kind of support behind me.

Particularly if you’re one of her favorite things…. or people.  (Laughs).  I know that originally you had planned  to work in a cafeteria as a “lunch lady” this summer, but you’ve since changed that and are now going to be volunteering.  Can you tell me — to whatever extent you can — about your summer plans?

It’s going to be pretty low-key, I’m going to be in a cafeteria setting where I’ll be working with kids and food.  Working together, from what I understand.

I understand you can’t go into detail.

Yeah.

Do you also still have that plan of uploading some photos on your blog of examples of food marketing geared towards children?

Yeah, I’m doing it a little bit already, with some pictures I’ve taken.  I haven’t posted any of them yet, but, yeah, different pictures I’ve taken around the environment.  I took a photo of a McDonald’s ad that I’m going to write a whole post on.  I’ve been mulling it over.  I also took a photo of food advertising form Walmart that I saw on a billboard.  I’m very anti-Walmart, so that will be a really fun post to write (laughs).

Yeah, some therapy!  The McDonald’s ad, with the recent Happy Meal controversy, is very timely.

Yeah.  I really dislike McDonald’s a lot.  We’ve never taken our child there.  That’s an experience we haven’t had as parents, but we were in a very big cafeteria food court over the weekend, and there was a McDonald’s there.  I got a burrito from one stand and my husband got a chicken schwarma from another stand, so totally not your normal McDonald’s fare.

Everyone around us was eating McDonald’s.  Our kid was downing the tomatoes  from my burrito, and some of the chicken, and the lettuce.  The kid next to him was eating fries and nuggets and playing with his Shrek watch [that came in his Happy Meal].  We were having a completely different meal.  My kid had a very sensory based meal, where he was diving in with his fingers and getting really messy with the burrito and… that’s how food is supposed to be experienced.

Food should be fun — in the way that you’re saying, sensory-based… not because it’s blue and glows in the dark.

Yeah, I saw our little guy looking at the kid with the watch, and I could see the gears turning there, but luckily I was able to distract him back to the table (laughs).  Anything that sparkles attracts kids and they are vulnerable to that, and it bothers me.

Before we say goodbye, I want to play a word association game with you.

Oh boy.

You know the drill.  I say a word or phrase, you tell me the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s good times all around.

Okay.

Spork.

Food.

Chicken nuggets.

Yuck.

USDA.

(Defeated) Oh, God!

That says it all!  That says it all!  Students.

Fun.

Fruit icee.

Terrible.

Tater tots.

Tough.

Mrs. Q.

Cute! (laughs)

I would say “activist”, “awesome”.  You know I’ve been a fan since day one, and I really want to thank you not only for this interview but also for your passion, for your commitment to the cause, and for doing it in such a way that has really captured millions of people.  What you’ve done, to me, is astounding and I have a feeling that the rest of 2010 is going to be very interesting and full of positive developments for you.

Thank you so much.  I have to also thank you because you were one of the first people to notice what I was doing, and you started that snowball at the top of that hill.

I remember, it was January and someone on Twitter posted a link to your blog.  I saw it, and I immediately e-mailed you and asked “can I interview you!?!” because I had this… intuition that this was going to become something really, really big… and I’m glad it did.

It’s been fun sharing the ride the past 6 motnhs.  That’s been a great part of the project, interacting with people like yourself and readers through the comments and emails, it’s been really fun.

It has.  Thank you again, Mrs. Q.  Bye!

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Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Episodes 1 & 2

fromartz_3-26_campaign-imageOver the next few weeks, I will share my opinions on each episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC, Fridays, 8 p.m.).  I encourage you to leave your comments and thoughts as well.

These posts are not meant to be recaps; they assume you have seen each episode.  If you are Tivo-less or did not have a chance to watch an episode during its original run, you can always head over to the Food Revolution page on ABC.com.

This week had a back-to-back twp-episode special.  I will comment on both episodes in this post.

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Jamie himself! In a television land littered with over-the-top gurus (i.e.: The Biggest Loser’s obnoxiously tough-loving Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper, Celebrity Fit Club‘s “I’m a tough former marine, hear me roar” Sergeant Harvey Walden, the overly-polished Dr. Oz), Jamie Oliver just… is.  Whereas two continuous hours of any of the previously mentioned “personalities” would be as pleasant as hammering my toes hard for me to sit through, I thoroughly enjoyed Jamie.  The lack of Chiclet-like beaming veneers, bulging muscles, designer clothing, and Stepford-ish manufactured quips is a breath of fresh air on network television.
  • Realistic resistance.  While we can’t forget this is reality television (we are shown a very small percentage of what was filmed, and it is presented to us in a very carefully edited fashion), I appreciated the realism depicted.  The Edwards family did not magically give up pizza and soda overnight, nor were the elementary school students begging for more of Jamie’s salad the first day they tried it.  This is precisely why we are talking about a food revolution; this is massive change that happens gradually.
  • Kitchen confidential: I was so glad that this show depicted what takes place — and, most importantly, doesn’t take place! — in school cafeterias across the country.  Unused appliances, bundles of frozen processed food ready to be reheated, and who can forget those artificially colored hygrogenated oil-laden potato pearls?
  • The bigger issue.  I initially feared that this show would be too “micro”, and depict Huntington school officials as the ones who had complete authority over what students ate.  While the school officials’ lack of questioning (and sheep-like following) of USDA school lunch standards was disturbing, I was glad that the show briefly touched on the bureaucracy that surrounds school lunch (the best example being that every lunch must contain two grain servings).
  • Dollars and cents.  The scene in which Jamie first met with the elementary school’s director of food services, ended on a powerful last note.  The camera zoomed in on the words “all about the $” on a whiteboard.  That served as an important reminder that schools in the United States are under very tight budgets when it comes to school lunch.
  • The first five minutes.  Pizza and sugary cereal floating in fluorescent sugar-spiked milk for breakfast.  You couldn’t have asked for more powerful — and horrifying — images.

WHAT BOTHERED ME:

  • What happened to the 3 Rs?: The complete absence of recycling absolutely bothered me.  I don’t expect Jamie Oliver to tackle that as well, but my blood pressure rose significantly every time I saw a plastic milk bottle get thrown into a regular trash can.
  • Food waste.  I understand that showing the gallons of chocolate milk consumed on a weekly basis makes a strong point, but I never like to see food wasted for the sake of making a point.  A part of me hopes that the “chocolate milk” poured into that parachute was dyed water?  Maybe?  Perhaps?  Anyone?
  • Meat, meat, and more meat.  I wish Jamie would have prepared at least one meatless meal at the school cafeteria.  A bean-based chili, pasta primavera, or rice and beans would have easily made the point that a filling meal can be done without the presence of meat on a plate.  This is not about converting anyone to vegetarianism, but to help people think outside the prevalent “one meat and two veg” box.
  • Adults matter, too.  When Jamie discussed the cafeteria’s overly processed offerings to the cooks, he was met with “so what?” attitudes and responses along the lines of “I eat that all the time.”  In one instance, Jamie responded by saying “it doesn’t bother me that adults eat it.”  While I understand the angle this show is going for is the “think of the children!” one (which always strikes a chord with viewers), healthy eating is just as important for adults.

I’m looking forward to next week’s high school episode.  It should present a larger challenge, since dressing up as a vegetable and doling out “I tried something new!” stickers are not going to prove effective.

I am glad the show is tackling an entire school system, rather than only focusing on the much-easier-to-mold-and-entertain pre-school and elementary school students.

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Visualizing An Alternative School Lunch

school-lunch21School lunch is THE hot topic these days.  From Mrs. Q’s latest cafeteria atrocity to Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution, millions of Americans have come to the realization that children across the country are being fed the equivalent of nutritionally void scraps.

While many clearly understand that a lunch tray piled with microwaved pizza, fruit in heavy syrup, chocolate milk, and pretzels is a far cry from a nutritious meal, they have a hard time imagining a suitable — and realistic — alternative.

These charts demonstrate that healthier school lunches that fit within United States Department of Agriculture guidelines — a “must” for any school that participates in the National School Lunch Program — are by no means a pipedream.

You can even create a tasty school lunch without — are you ready for it? — added sugar!  Imagine that…

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Speaking With…: “Mrs. Q”

0112001153-759571“Mrs. Q” appeared in the blogosphere at the beginning of 2010 and has quickly become the talk of nutrition and foodie cyberspace.

In case the name does not ring a bell, she is the author of the Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project blog (a must-read!), where she chronicles her experiences as a school teacher who, starting this month, has vowed eat school lunch every Monday through Friday for one year.

FYI: The picture that accompanies this post depicts a typical lunch for Mrs. Q these days.

The project is absolutely fascinating, as it perfectly captures the problems of school lunch — poor nutrition, odd flavors and textures, environmental unfriendliness (plastic, plastic, and more plastic!), and the effects of cheap crop subsidies on individual health.

Unlike every other critic of school lunch, though, Mrs. Q lines up every day to get a taste.  Consider it a more realistic “Super Size Me” (while many individuals consciously choose to eat McDonald’s thirty days in a row, these school children — many of whom are on cost-reduced or free-lunch programs, have little to no say when it comes to their lunch options).

This past weekend I had the opportunity to interview Mrs. Q via e-mail.

Read below to learn more about her project and her thoughts on school lunch.

When did the state of school lunches first come up as an area of concern for you?  I know you have been a teacher for four years, but is this an issue that became important to you recently (after the birth of your child), or did you have a partial interest in this before you began your teaching career?

I really never gave much thought to school lunches before I became a teacher. I moved around a lot as a kid and I had various different quality lunches, but I don’t remember much. When I started teaching I noticed how bad they were, but I didn’t think there was much I could do. It was only after becoming a parent that I started worrying about the kids. Interestingly my son is at a daycare that gets semi-institutional food, but their meals are higher quality with more variety. For example, their menu includes items like rice, noodles, tuna, ravioli, yogurt, soynut butter on graham crackers, eggs, etc.

Has school lunch ever come up as a concern in meetings with administrators, other teachers, and/or parents?  If so, what was the context in which it was discussed?

At my school I have never been to a meeting where this was discussed. It’s only been over lunch with other teachers where we have brought this up casually.

How do you manage to maintain anonymity in your school?  I assume you wait in line for your lunch alongside students.  Is it common for teachers to purchase school lunch every day?  Also, where are you taking those photographs (which are styled very well, by the way!)?


Not a single soul in the school knows about what I’m up to. I am friendly with the lunch room manager and I just told them that I’m going to be eating a lot of school lunches because I’m lazy and I don’t want to prepare food at home.  It is true that not having to pack my lunch in the morning does save me time, but of course my excuse is a half-truth.

As a teacher I can cut in front of the students. I usually try my best to get lunch either before most students line up or after they have been served. I don’t like cutting in front of them when I know that this could be their only/best meal of the day.

It is not common for teachers to buy lunch every day. Most teachers do not buy lunch. There is one teacher who is considered to buy lunch “frequently” and that is once a week. I have to say that last year I looked at her and thought that was different.

I used to eat lunch with other teachers in the teachers’ lounge but I have been so very busy that I started eating by myself in my room. That way it is a “working” lunch. Now I’m eating lunch by myself, it’s very easy to take pictures of the food. The other bonus of the food is that it can be eaten fast and I really need that with my workload. The lunches I used to pack for myself were bigger and required heating up, which took minutes off a short lunch (20 minutes to eat & use the facilities).

The pictures are taken with my cell phone camera, which is an old model! My mother also commented that she liked the photos, which I thought was pretty funny. My mother is an artist so she thinks she gave me an “artist’s eye” and she is taking the credit for that.

You have now been eating school lunch for 10 days.  What can you tell me about any physical and/or emotional changes you have experienced?

There have been no issues yet. Ten days is not very long. One day after lunch I felt nauseous, but thankfully it passed. But the big thing was that I realized I am lactose-intolerant because I never before consumed milk at lunchtime and I had some “aftereffects” towards the end of the day. I had reduced my milk consumption to almost nothing because I had to go totally non-dairy for my son while I was breastfeeding. Also during the winter I wanted to have a hot breakfast to combat the cold outside and so I switched from cereal to oatmeal.

With the re-introduction of milk, my body is sort-of getting a lactose jolt. I’ve stopped drinking the milk for now. I may purchase some lactose-enzyme so that I can drink the milk at school and stay true to the goals of my project.

What effect does knowing, from the moment you walk into your school, that you are eating school lunch do to your psyche?  For example, do you now view food more through a “sustenance” lens than a “pleasurable” one?  Does it make you “dread” lunch?

It’s only been 10 days so I don’t think about it at all. I’m sure there will be “moments of dread” in the future. The first few days I started doing this I was so nervous buying lunch. My heart was pounding. But now I’ve gotten in a rhythm. I just breeze in and out and no one cares. At this point I keep wondering if there will be new meals that I haven’t tried still coming. Since I’ve only had one repeat meal, I’m not bored yet.

I’m so busy at work that I don’t think about the project at all. It might be hard to believe but that’s how it is. Teaching is a “performance” job: you have to be “on” all the time. If I have a bad night with my son and don’t get much sleep, I can’t just tell myself, “oh, I’ll just have an easy day in my cubicle and surf the net.” I still have to go into a classroom, teach, and manage behavior. I can’t ever “phone it in.” How about leaving early? Teachers can never leave early. What principal would hire a sub for just the last hour of the day? It’s a very demanding job and I have a lot of things on my mind, mostly how to meet the students’ needs. I don’t think about the project at all until it’s lunchtime and I think, “Oh yeah, I’d better get my three bucks and head to the cafeteria.”

Have you spoken to your students (now or previously) about the lunch offered by your school?  If so, do your students consider this to be “normal” food, both in terms of taste and appearance?  Your photos clearly illustrate why many children think vegetables are “gross” — the ones they are exposed to at school are simply steamed.  No care is taken to make them taste appealing!

I don’t want to reveal too much about my students, but some have special needs. That means that it’s hard for them to express themselves and answer questions. I have asked kids at the end of the day, “What did you have for lunch today?” They don’t remember! As for the idea of “normal” food, the kids don’t know anything else so they probably couldn’t even conceptualize what “normal” means. What is “normal” to Americans anyway? The vegetables must be steamed like you suggest, but I thought there was something funny going on with the broccoli: it was almost sugary. So who knows what is put on some of the stuff.

It seems to me, based on your posts, that students are not given any choice whatsoever when it comes to their lunch.  Is that correct?  Meaning — do students have a choice between unflavored and chocolate milk?  Or, say, a choice between a side of rice or a side of steamed vegetables?

There is no choice. The little packages are stacked and the kids grab one stack, put it on their tray, and move to the end of the line where they hand in their lunch ticket. Sometimes I see a small “a la carte” cart with pretzels and cookies for the kids to buy. I don’t see it all the time and probably less than 20 students in the whole school would ever buy extra food. There isn’t much time to eat.

How familiar are you with the state of school lunches in your school district (and surrounding ones)?

I’m not familiar with the rest of the district. I think most of them are like my school from what I know. I know one school had a salad bar, but that was a few years ago and I don’t know what happened to it. That school made headlines at the time.

What is the age range of the students eating these lunches?

Age 4 to age 11.

Is there anything I did not cover that you would like to say?

The school also serves breakfast to any students that come early and who want it. It’s very caring of the school. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that too many students take advantage of the free breakfast benefit (maybe 20% of the school?). As far as I can tell, breakfast is not available to the teachers. If I can get more information about breakfast, I’ll post it on my blog.

Many thanks to “Mrs. Q” for her participation.  Be sure to check out her fascinating blog or follow her on Twitter.

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Numbers Game: Answer

ButtermilkWhiteBreadHelperNinety-five percent of bread products available at public school cafeterias across the country are of the refined “white flour” variety, offering negligible amounts of fiber and fewer nutrients than whole grain types.

(Source: 2004 – 2005 United States Department of Agriculture School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study)

This pitiful statistic goes back to issues surrounding federal national lunch guidelines and agricultural subsidies.

According to figures from the School Nutrition Association, school cafeterias receive $2.65 dollars, per student, from the government, for a complete lunch.  Mind you, this amount includes expenses like cafeteria workers’ salaries.

Whole grain options (the few that are available from vendors) cost five or ten additional cents per student, so you can understand why schools are not exactly itching to get more of these healthy foods into their lunch rooms.

I firmly believe the government needs to provide incentives for schools to serve as many grains as possible in their whole, more nutritious form.

A few school districts currently require a certain amount of whole grains on the menu, but that is a completely voluntary move.

Of course, this requirement should be met in the simplest of terms (ie: whole grain tortillas and sliced bread to make wraps and sandwiches, whole grain dinner rolls to accompany entrees, lightly-salted air-popped popcorn as a snack, etc.) as opposed to a sodium-loaded slice of pizza with processed cheese on a semi whole-wheat crust.

Allow me to clarify — the occasional refined grain product is no cause for concern.  A diet does not need to be 100% whole grain to be healthy.

However, in a country where children, on average, get only half of their daily fiber recommendations, it is necessary to examine how improvements can be made.

The guarantee of a 100% whole grain lunch at school is a significant start.

PS: The New York Coalition for Healthy School Lunch has made tremendous strides in several of that city’s public schools.  Check out their website for more information, particularly the “creating change in your school” page.

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Numbers Game: When ‘Refined’ Isn’t a Compliment

White-Bread____ percent of bread products available at public school cafeterias across the country are of the refined “white flour” variety, offering negligible amounts of fiber and fewer nutrients than whole grain types.

(Source: United States Department of Agriculture School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study)

a) 58
b) 95
c) 79
d) 82

Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Monday for the answer.

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Survey Results: In The Zone

55855281-fastfoods71 percent of readers who cast their vote in the latest Small Bites survey support zoning laws that regulate fast food chains’ proximity to schools.

As do I!

Studies are beginning to highlight the negative health consequences that stem from a lack of zoning laws.  One recent study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, found that students who attend schools located within a one tenth mile radius of a fast food establishment are 5.2 percent more likely to be obese than students who attend schools located further away from these restaurants.

A 2004 study published in the Annual Review of Nutrition concluded that adolescents who consume fast food on a daily basis eat an average of 187 more calories a day than those who eat fast food less frequently.  These additional 187 calories can amount to weight gain nearing 19 pounds in just one year.

Additionally, the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study concluded that consumers who eat fast food two or more times a week had a one-hundred percent increase in their insulin resistance compared to consumers who ate at fast food establishments less than once a week.

In large US cities, the proximity of fast food establishments to schools is undeniable.  Eighty percent of Chicago’s elementary and high schools have at least one fast food restaurant within a half mile, and 18 schools in New York’s East Harlem are located within 500 feet of a fast food restaurant.

I do not consider these zoning laws a “solution to a problem” as much as a necessary step to solve the REAL issue — improving the moribund National School Lunch Program.

How can we expect healthier school lunch policies — and, no, that does not mean steamed peas and paltry salad bars with wilted lettuce — to be effective if students, particularly those allowed off-campus during lunch hours, have fast food available to them a few blocks away?

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In The News: Nacho Ideal Lunch

school lunchMore news on the deplorable state of national school lunch, this time courtesy of The Chicago Tribune.

At one North Side school cafeteria, “one line leads to fish nuggets, iceberg lettuce and canned peaches, Another [to] burgers and breaded chicken patty sandwiches, [and] the longest line to lunch workers [serving nachos].”

This is no anomaly.

Nachos are an almost daily entree at most Chicago public high schools and middle schools.  This means that “about 100,000 Chicago public high school students, 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, can choose nachos as an entree every day.”

The school district is quick to point out they “recently switched to whole-grain fried chips for its nachos and added chicken to the ground meat.”

Big whoop.  A deep fried chip is a deep fried chip, whether it’s made with whole grains or not.  The addition of chicken to ground meat is also rather meaningless, considering the atrocious amount of sodium added to it.

Wait, they have an even better defense — at least the school lunch isn’t “as bad” as what they can get at a fast food chain.

What’s next?  “Yeah, we know your child’s math teacher is pretty horrible, but at least he doesn’t beat them with a ruler if they get the answer wrong”?

The article also touches upon the laundry list of problems with the National School Lunch Program:

  • It is heavily dependent on United States Department of Agriculture commodity foods (the main ones being meat, soy, corn and wheat)
  • Vendor reimbursements are tightly linked to food sales
  • School districts are given minimal funds to cover not only food costs, but also equipment and labor

The most frustrating aspect of this “debate” is the argument that “kids just don’t live vegetables.”

By this, officials mean that children don’t like steamed, unsalted carrots and peas.

Who does?

In the “glass is kinda sorta almost half full if you look at it from this angle” department, Congress will soon reevaluate the Child Nutrition Act, setting up the possibility of changes to the National School Lunch Program.

Oh, who am I kidding?  That glass is almost as empty as Heidi Montag’s skull.

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Where Do I Begin?

The folks at ConAgra appear to be quite proud of their Kid Cuisine products.

Aimed at elementary school students, these ready-to-eat lunches are — believe it or not — advertised as healthy items.

Let’s analyze one variety. How about the Dip & Dunk Toasted Ravioli?

The initial descriptive sentence says it all: “This meal features breaded real-cheese ravioli…”

Beside the slightly disturbing fact that we have to be assured this product contains “real” cheese (as opposed to… cheez?), I find the breading of ravioli rather odd — and unnecessary.

The nutrition label displays 9 grams of fiber (good!) and one tenth of the daily potassium requirement (not bad!), but also a third of a day’s worth of sodium (yikes!) and 18 grams — 4 and a half teaspoons’ worth — of sugar.

Oddly enough, Conagra advertises this product as containing 20 percent of MyPyramid’s suggested daily servings of grains. How this is a selling point beats me; no one in this country has any problem getting their recommended servings of that food group!

The ingredient list, not surprisingly, is very long (the cheese ravioli, for instance, contain a garlic puree made with high fructose corn syrup) and includes one of my pet peeves: unnecessary sweetening.

It turns out the side of corn isn’t simply corn kernels. Nope, it’s corn with water and sugar.

Sugar? Added to corn?

Then there’s the “fruit shaped and fruit flavored” snacks. In other words, it looks like a fruit and tastes like a fruit, but it’s just sugar.

This product could easily be tweaked to provide similar flavors with a superior nutrition profile. My suggestions:

* Replace the breaded ravioli with baked, 100% whole grain cheese-and-broccoli bites.

* Offer corn kernels in their naturally sweet state.

* Replace the fruit snacks with unpeeled apple slices.

Those three changes could slash the sugar content approximately by half and lower the sodium by roughly 150 milligrams.

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Oh, Dear…

It is findings such as these that can lead to substantial discouragement when thinking of school nutrition.

Take a look at this week’s lunch menus for a handful of Pennsylvania schools.

Although some are better than others (offering carrot sticks and slices of real fruit), the vast majority of these meals are nutritionally pitiful.

Shouldn’t parents send their children off to school with the guarantee that they are being fed relatively well?

Part of the issue here is how the National School Lunch Program defines a “balanced” meal.

The basic criteria is to offer a balanced meal by including all food groups.

However, a meal consisting of chicken nuggets, french fries, peaches in canned syrup, and chocolate milk is considered “balanced” — the breading in the chicken nuggets counts as a serving of grains, the french fries meet the vegetable requirement, and the sugary peaches are accepted as fruit.

UPDATE: Thank you to Small Bites reader Jasmine for forwarding this February 20 New York Times op-ed piece by Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters that touches on this very topic!

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In The News: Milk Madness

The Chicago Tribune is profiling the battle over milk that has ignited in several of the Windy City’s school districts.

On the one hand, you have administrators and parents supporting the inclusion of milk in school cafeterias, “amid concerns that dairy consumption is waning among older children who have more beverage choices, from flavored water to energy drinks. Nine of every 10 preteen girls fall short of the federally recommended three calcium servings a day… for boys, the estimate is 7 of 10.”

Then there are those concerned with flavored non-skim milks contributing to childhood obesity. Huh??

“A half-pint of low-fat chocolate milk has 3 teaspoons of added sugar… [and] those extra 75 calories raise a concern, given that surveys compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that 17 percent of school-age children are obese.”

Whoever is concerned about those additional 75 calories seriously needs to reevaluate their priorities.

Childhood obesity is not caused by opting for low-fat chocolate milk over non-flavored skim milk at lunchtime.

All you need to do is look at the numbers. As childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed, milk consumption has decreased.

What has increased? Soda consumption — overwhelmingly so!

It is those beverages, plus chips, breakfast toaster pastries, and supersize fast food portions — staples of so many American teenagers’ diets — that should truly be “of concern.”

It’s also rather laughable to think that some schools are concerned with milk but apparently don’t take issue with their almost daily offerings of meatloaf, chicken nuggets, and fruit canned in heavy syrup.

A glass of low-fat chocolate milk with a healthy lunch is harmless. This apparent phobia of 1% (reduced-fat) milk is beyond my comprehension.

We are talking about 2.5 grams of total fat, of which 1.5 gram are saturated, per cup. Perfectly reasonable numbers, as far as I’m concerned.

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Out With The Old, In With The New

Many moms and dads all over the United States know what the start of the school year means — packing a lunch for their children!

So how do you pack an interesting and tasty lunch (which, for this posting’s sake, I will assume can not be heated in school)? Here are a few ideas.

INSTEAD OF: Cutting a sandwich into two triangular pieces
TRY: Shaped sandwiches

Next time you make a sandwich, get your cookie cutter out. Forget the traditional diagonal slice and instead turn that square slice of bread into a star, a cat, or even a gingerbread man.

PS: If your kids don’t dig whole wheat “brown” sandwiches, try a “halfie.”

A sandwich made with one slice of 100% whole wheat bread and another of white bread still packs in 3 to 4 grams of fiber.

INSTEAD OF: Packaged chips
TRY: Making your own pita chips

Here’s a kid-friendly way to boost a bagged lunch’s fiber content.

Buy 100% whole wheat pitas and cut each one into eight small triangles. Brush a thin coating of extra virgin olive oil on them, sprinkle a little salt (and, for an extra kick, either some paprika, rosemary, or oregano), and toss them in the oven (350 Fahrenheit) for approximately 20 minutes.

For a sweet twist, sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon of sugar (a mere 16 calories) over them.

Make a big batch on Sunday afternoon for the rest of the week.

INSTEAD OF: Sugary puddings
TRY: A Super Smoothie

In a blender, mix two of your child’s favorite fruits with 2% milk. Add a tablespoon of flaxseed, another of oat bran, mix, and pour into a thermos!

These two ingredients add nutrition and texture to the smoothie but don’t affect the taste one bit.

INSTEAD OF: Chocolate brownies or cookies
TRY: A homemade choco-mix

Mix a low-sugar, whole grain cereal (like Cheerios), a handful of mixed nuts, and a few chocolate chips or M&M candies into a small zip bag. This way, little bursts of chocolate are surrounded by fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals (as opposed to white flour, sugar, and unhealthy fats.)

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You Ask, I Answer: Cow Or Soy Milk?

When it comes to milk, is soy milk better for kids than regular cow’s milk?

– Anonymous
Via the blog

I don’t consider either “better” than other. This ultimately depends on personal preference and a few other factors.

I don’t have a problem with children drinking skim or low-fat milk, provided that they aren’t lactose intolerant, of course.

What disappoints me is that so many schools offer chocolate milk to children (and label it a “healthy” alternative simply because it contains calcium).

A single cup contains a tablespoon of added sugar. It’s fine as a treat, but I don’t find it to be the optimal beverage to accompany a meal on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, the majority of milk in the United States — chocolate or not — in the United States is produced by cows that chow on corn all day long and are injected with antibiotics and growth hormones.

Milk in and of itself is a nutritious beverage, though, providing high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, and potassium.

I would highly recommend opting for organic, grass-fed varieties.

Soy milk is a perfectly fine alternative.

Most varieties are fortified with vitamin D and provide a good amount of calcium, protein, and potassium.

I would be more concerned with what they’re eating along with that cold glass of (dairy or soy) milk.

*UPDATE* Thank you to reader “gd” for pointing out that vanilla and chocolate flavored soy milks also contain quite a bit of added sugar.

I erroneously assumed everyone reads minds and would telepathically infer I was only referring to regular soy milk in this post.

So, if you are opting for soy milk, I suggest going for plain or unsweetened varieties.

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Making the Nutrition Grade

A group known as The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have published a 2007 school lunch report card, grading 22 elementary schools from the 100 largest educational districts in the United States.

Final scores were tallied by evaluating offerings via the following categories — obesity & chronic disease prevention, health prmotion, and nutrition initiatives.

You can see the results here.

You may remember that back in mid August I reviewed several schools’ lunch menus on this blog — and was absolutely horrified.

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