I am indebted to Michele Simon for sending a photo of this flier for the latest innovation in home-delivered food–Oreo Dessert Pizza. I’m sorry I can’t figure out how to make the photo bigger so you can see it better, but the way this works is that with any online pizza order you get a dessert pizza worth $3.99 tossed in. And, if you order two 20-ounce sodas, you get slap-on cooler wrappers, whatever those might be. The flier doesn’t disclose Nutrition Facts, so you have to guess the calories. Hint: Lots. Somebody try this and report back please.
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Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine food issue dealt with such matters as what kids around the world eat for breakfast, and what happens when second graders are treated to a seven-course, $220 tasting meal.
But it also carried a major investigative piece by political reporter Nicholas Confessore about how the once-bipartisan school lunch program has become a political battleground.
when Michelle Obama started Let’s Move!, her campaign against child obesity, in 2010, the members of the School Nutrition Association were her natural allies…the Obama administration got behind the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an ambitious bill that would impose strict new nutrition standards on all food sold in public schools. A generation raised on Lunchables and Pizza Hut, the bill’s authors believed, could learn to love whole-wheat pasta and roasted cauliflower…But to pass the bill, the White House needed to enlist not only Democrats and Republicans in Congress but also a host of overlapping and competing interest groups: the manufacturers who supplied food to schools, the nutrition experts who wanted it to be more healthful and the lunch ladies who would have to get children to eat it.
They succeeded with the nutrition experts, but failed to account for the cozy financial relations between the food product makers and the School Nutrition Association (SNA).
As I’ve discussed previously, the SNA, backed by product manufacturers, is now fighting the White House, the USDA, and research evidence that kids will indeed eat healthful food and will be better off for it.
Center for Science in the Public Interest has this to say about what’s happening with school meals.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a new infographic on how “Healthier School Meals Matter.”
Bettina Siegel, the Houston school lunch blogger at The Lunch Tray, and food consultant Nancy Huehnergarth, in consultation with SNA members, posted an open letter to urge SNA members to oppose the organization’s stance on school nutrition standards.
As Bettina Siegel describes, the SNA promptly sent an e-mailed “urgent message” from its board of directors to all 55,000 members, saying the association was “troubled” to learn about the open letter.
SNA welcomes the diversity of opinions in our association, and we consider all member input when developing or approving SNA positions…Members should be aware that this letter will try to discredit the association and limit SNA’s efforts to advocate on your behalf for any kind of flexibility under the new standards.
This inspired Nancy Huehnergarth to write an op-ed for the Hill.
School food service directors, if you dare publicly disagree with the policy direction of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Your voice will likely be quashed…While SNA members have now been reprimanded and criticized for expressing divergent opinions through a sign-on letter, views held by SNA’s corporate sponsors seem to be welcome with open arms…Something is terribly amiss with the SNA leadership when a reasonable, respectful, member-driven request is quashed without even a discussion, while corporate sponsors are allowed to propose the association’s legislative positions. I strongly urge supportive SNA members to sign on to the open letter and ignore the intimidation tactics. The health of America’s schoolchildren, and the reputation of your organization, depends on it.
And so it does.
Remember menu labels? We’ve had them in New York City since 2008.
In 2010, President signed national menu labeling into law as part of the Affordable Care Act. The FDA proposed rules for labels in 2011, collected comments on the proposed rules, missed the July 3, 2014 deadline for issuing them, and by all reports sent them to the White House Office of Management and Budget last April.
- Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments; Proposed Rule
- Food Labeling; Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines; Proposed Rule
What is the holdup? Lobbying of course.
- The delay on releasing the final rules is widely reported to be due to lobbying efforts by industry groups. Known to have visited the White House and FDA officials are, among others, the Food Marketing Institute, Publix Super Market, Schnuck Markets, Kroger, Dominos Pizza, the Pizza Hut Franchise Association and Hungry Howies.
- The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the National Grocers Association (NGA) and Food Industry Association Executives (FIAE) held a lobbying “fly-in” to prevent FDA’s final menu labeling rule for calorie disclosures being extended to grocery stores.
- A bill backed by the supermarket industry is the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act (H.R. 1249/S. 1756) which would require menu labeling only for establishments where the majority of business is derived from restaurant-type food.
As for whether menu labels do any good:
- A CDC study reports that nearly all adults say they notice menu calorie labels, but only 57% say they use them.
- Research on the effectiveness of menu labeling has yielded mixed results and more research is needed, says a review published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- One recent study says menu labeling has little influence on calories ordered regardless of how overweight people are.
- Menu labeling raises ethical issues related to population health and social equity, says another study.
At the moment, studies of the effects of menu labeling are restricted to laboratory models or situations in New York and other cities that passed such laws within the last few years.
More definitive research must wait for the final FDA rules and their application.
How about releasing the rules soon? They’ve been dragging on way too long.
The FDA is taking comments on its proposals to revamp the food label through August 1, 2014 (instructions are at bottom of post).
I’ve also filed comments on the FDA’s Serving Size proposals.
These proposals are highly technical and tough to slog through, so I tried to deal with the big picture.
July 27, 2014
FROM: Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University
RE: Comments: Serving size proposals, Docket No. FDA-2004-N-0258
In addressing the question of how to change serving size designations on food labels, FDA is faced with an impossible dilemma . Serving sizes, which are supposed to be based on amounts typically consumed from packaged products, are invariably perceived as recommendations for dietary intake.
To comment on each of the bold-face, italicized points:
- Typically consumed: This information derives from dietary intake surveys which invariably underestimate actual intake, often by 30% to 40%.
- Packaged foods: Food labels only appear on packaged foods. RACC amounts on packaged foods are often much lower than amounts served in restaurants or fast-food places (pizza is an obvious example). It is unclear whether amounts reported as consumed are from packages (with Nutrition Facts labels) or are from restaurants or fast-food places where portion sizes can be much higher than those for foods in packages.
- Recommendation: Substantial anecdotal information suggests that people view labeled serving sizes as what they should be eating. They view the serving sizes as meaningless compared to the portion sizes of foods they are accustomed to eating.
What is well established is that overall calorie intake has increased since RACCs were established in 1993 and marketplace portion sizes have also increased.
Therefore, any increase in RACC runs the risk of being interpreted as a validation of current portion sizes and as a recommendation to eat more.
On the other hand, larger portions have more calories. These must appear on the label.
To address this dilemma, FDA should:
- Make dual-column labeling mandatory for all food and beverage packages likely to be consumed in one sitting.
- Require total calories in the package to be displayed on the front of the package.
- Include a footnote explaining that the serving size is not meant as a recommendation
INSTRUCTIONS FOR FILING COMMENTS
The FDA provides:
File comments here
USDA has a report out on consumers’ use of nutrition information in restaurants before the menu labeling law goes into effect.
What law? The menu-labeling provision that is part of the Affordable Care Act still—four years later—waiting for the FDA to get around to issuing final rules (I last wrote about this in April 2013).
In 2011, the FDA proposed rules for public comment, and proposed final rules in 2013:
These too were opened for public comment with the process expected to be completed in February 2014. Oops. Missed that one.
Rumors are that the FDA is under pressure from pizza chains and movie theaters to be exempt from the final rules, and that the White House is holding them up. The White House has had them for 90 days. That’s supposed to be the limit.
According to Politico Pro Agriculture
It was three months ago today that the White House first received FDA’s final rules for calorie labels on menus and vending machines, and by the Office of Management and budget’s own rules, that means time is up. Interagency review at OMB is supposed to take no more than 90 days before the final release of a measure, though that timeframe is often extended with little explanation on more controversial initiatives. While OMB is always mum on its schedule for rule reviews and releases, the end of the standard review period is sometimes a hint that something will be coming, if not today — the day before a long weekend — then soon. In the meantime, brush up on the issue here: http://politico.pro/1mKNcFr and here: http://politico.pro/1lzZLDe
In the meantime, the USDA has done some research and come up with some interesting findings:
Among people who eat out, the ones most likely to use nutrition information on menu boards are those who:
- Eat out less frequently
- Have other healthy behaviors (such as having dark green vegetables at home).
- Rate their diets as good.
- Are women.
- Participate in SNAP.
SNAP participants? Really? If true, SNAP participants are more eager for calorie information than the general population, and good for them!
These results explain much about the confusing findings from studies of New York City’s menu labeling law. These generally find no overall effect although calorie labels have a big effect on people who are conscious of health to begin with (me, for example).
FDA: how about getting out the final rules? Then we can sit back and watch USDA economists compare what’s happening to these baseline results.
I always am interested in Michele Simon’s provocative reports. Her latest, Whitewashed, is no exception. It’s about how the government promotes dairy foods, no matter what kind or where they appear.
Read her blog post here.
Download the full report here.
Read the executive summary here.
Here’s are some of the surprising (to me) findings detailed in the report:
- About half of all milk is consumed either as flavored milk, with cereal, or in a drink;
- Nearly half of the milk supply goes to make about 9 billion pounds of cheese and 1.5 billion gallons of frozen desserts–two-thirds of which is ice cream;
- 11 percent of all sugar goes into the production of dairy products.
Where the government enters the picture is through the “checkoff programs” for promoting milk and dairy. These are USDA-Sponsored programs, paid for by dairy farmers through checkoff fees, but run by the USDA.
U.S. Department of Agriculture employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities, and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech”, finding: “the message … is controlled by the Federal Government.”
The report has some interesting findings about the checkoff. Although checkoff funds are supposed to be used for generic marketing, the dairy checkoff helped:
- McDonald’s make sure that dairy foods play an important role in product development.
- Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds.
- Pizza Hut develop its 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and “Summer of Cheese” ad campaign.
- Dominos add more cheese to its pizzas as a result of a $35 million partnership.
- Domino’s “Smart Slice” program introduce its pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011.
- Promote “Chocolate Milk Has Muscle” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk.”
I like dairy foods, but should the government be doing this?
Understanding why school nutritionists want to scrap the USDA’s nutrition standards takes some effort.
The question: Why is the School Nutrition Association (SNA)—the organization that represents the interests of “lunch ladies”—supporting Republican attempts to derail the nutrition standards?
The SNA has a long and honorable history of fighting for better nutrition for children, and it supported the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act—the one that gave USDA the authority to mandate healthier meals.
Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the daily Hagstrom Report, took a stab at explaining why SNA shifted position:
When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA.
Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico adds to the explanation:
The story behind the school lunch flip-flop is a complicated web of lobbying change-ups, industry influence and partisan posturing inside the Beltway…Interviews with more than a dozen former and current SNA officials reveal a dramatic shift in SNA’s policy platform, and even more so, its approach: choosing to wage war on Capitol Hill — pitting the association against [Michelle] Obama and her team — instead of trying to win more concessions directly from the Department of Agriculture…[This] has sparked a civil war within the nutrition community and the association itself. Nineteen former SNA presidents wrote to appropriators last week urging them to reject calls for a waiver — a break in ranks that was painful but necessary, signers said.
She adds this critical piece of information:
Several former presidents of the organization said they are worried that food companies have influenced the group’s agenda over concerns that the nutrition standards for the $11 billion program will take a big bite out of sales of popular items like pizza and salty snacks…About half of the group’s $10 million operating budget comes from food industry members.
Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told Jerry Hagstrom that the SNA’s current leadership is making a “serious mistake” is supporting members of Congress who want to block USDA’s standards. If the SNA lobbies for permanent blockage of the standards, he thinks they will be “playing with fire.” SNA, he said, is isolated on the issue. “The stakes are really high for the future of the country,” he said. “It is a battle worth waging.”
Is SNA isolated? Indeed it is. Here’s the list of organizations that support the new standards, compiled by the American Public Health Association.
Today, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss the annual spending bill for the Agriculture Department, meaning that it will consider proposals to weaken nutrition standards for school meals.
In what has to be a groundbreaking move, First Lady Michelle Obama has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times.
Yet some members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school. They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches.
…Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense. Yet we’re seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.
Our children deserve so much better than this.
Yes, they do, and how terrific that she is saying this.
Also a must read is ObamaFoodorama’s account of the President’s position on all this. From White House press secretary Jay Carney:
It is “inappropriate to let politics and pressure from the food industry” change federal law.
“The President and First Lady both feel very strongly about the need to continue moving forward when it comes to school nutrition and not allowing politics to pull us backward,” Carney said.
Carney made his comments during a gaggle aboard Air Force One when asked about the President’s “reaction” to the First Lady’s event on Tuesday with school nutrition pros.
For a nutritionist like me, this is history in the making. Cheers to both and let’s hope their efforts work.
Addition, June 2: If you cannot understand why the School Nutrition Association is pushing for the waiver and elimination of the rules, see Jerry Hagstrom’s lucid explanation: they don’t cook.
When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA. Under the new rules, those companies have to come up with tasty products with less salt, sugar, and fat and use whole grains. At the same time, the fruit and vegetable requirements—which bring more business to the United Fresh Produce Association—threaten to take up more of the school-lunch budget.