by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: School-food

Jul 21 2015

School nutrition standards: the ongoing fight for healthier school meals

Union of Concerned Scientists food systems analysts Karen Stillerman and Lindsay Haynes-Maslow have issued firm rebuttals to the School Nutrition Association’s excuses for opposing nutrition standards for school meals.

*These two are congressional targets (see below)

Dana Woldow explains what’s really happening with schools that drop out of the meal programs ostensibly on the grounds that the new standards cost too much.

Bettina Siegel explains how anti-standard campaigns play out in Texas:

Tucked within an Orwellian press release touting its efforts to “combat child obesity,” the Texas Department of Agriculture has made official its lifting of a decade-old ban on deep fat fryers in Texas schools, as well as rolling back other common sense school nutrition measures…despite the fact that our state ranks fifth in the nation for obesity among high school students, and despite public comments reportedly opposing the TDA’s plan by an astounding margin of 105 to 8.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack pleads with the School Nutrition Association to stop fighting the healthier school meal standards.

*But the House and Senate continue to roll back the standards for whole grains and salt in their respective versions of the Agriculture Appropriations Bills.*

If you are baffled as to why the School Nutrition Association would oppose healthier meals for the children they serve, consider the food company sponsors of that organization and how aggressively SNA courts food company sponsors.  (But there’s a ray of hope.  Maybe, Dana Woldow suggests, the new SNA President will put kids’ health first).

If you are baffled as to why healthier meals for school kids would induce Congress to try to undermine them, consider the companies that profit most from selling products that do not meet nutrition standards to America’s schools.

Maybe the President will veto?  The White House Office of Management and Budget filed an objection:

The Administration strongly objects to using the appropriations process for objectionable language provisions that are wholly unnecessary to the operation of the nutrition programs and would impede efficient administration of the programs. For example, on whole grains, USDA has provided States and school districts with the flexibility they need now and would consider continuing that flexibility, if needed. However, the Administration opposes inclusion of this provision in the bill, as it signals that the
waivers are not dependent on the availability of reasonably priced whole grain options.

Let’s hope Congress removes these micromanaging provisions before sending the bill to the President.

*Addition: Ten reasons why Congress should stay out of school lunch.

Jul 8 2015

Chartwells and DC schools

Sadie Barr, who writes about school food problems in Washington, DC, wants me and readers to know about the recent $19.4 million settlement paid to the DC school district by its food service provider, Chartwells.

For what?  Overcharging the schools for its meals.

In an e-mail to me, she writes:

The issue of school food fraud isn’t new, and isn’t unique to DC. It happened in New York in 2010 and in 2012, and is probably occurring within the quarter of school districts nationwide that outsource their food service. It was written about in the New York Times in 2011 and in an investigative report published in 2009. This fraud represents millions (if not billions) of public funds going toward a company’s profits, instead of education.

How does this work?  Food service companies buy foods from manufacturers who give them kickbacks, but do not pass the savings along to the schools.

She points out that this scam affects quality of school food, posing a special burden to the more than 50% of students nationwide (it’s more than 70% in DC) who qualify for free and reduced priced meals.

The lawyers negotiating the settlement were from Phillips & Cohen LLP, a firm that specializes in representing whistleblowers.  In this case, the whistleblower was Jeffrey Mills, director of food services for the DC public schools from 2010 to 2013.

The Phillips & Cohen press release quotes Mills as complaining that Chartwells overcharged the school district and also caused circumstances when “food was delivered late, the number of meals was insufficient or the food was of poor quality or spoiled.”

Mills said that his goal had always been to improve food programs for DC’s school children: “District funds should be used to feed students the best quality food at the lowest cost.”

This is not the first time Chartwells got caught doing something like this.

In 2012, Chartwells’ parent company, Compass Group USA, paid $18 million to settle allegations by the New York Office of the Attorney General that the company wrongfully retained rebates on purchases of food and non-food commodities made under contracts with 39 school districts in that state.

Phillips & Cohen also say:

The allegations made in the District’s complaint and Mr. Mills’ complaints are allegations only.   The allegations against Chartwells have not been adjudicated.  Chartwells denies liability for the allegations.

Maybe so, but the company agreed to the $19.4 million of the DC case.

If you are having trouble understanding the fights over the USDA’s school nutrition standards, the Chartwells’ case should help.

For food service companies and the companies that supply food products, there is lots of money to be made on school meals.

Addition, July 9: DC, it seems, is renewing its contract with Chartwells, according to the Washington City paper’s story on Jeff Mills.

Addition, July 10:  The Washington City paper explains the politics of Chartwells in DC.

Mar 9 2015

Three studies on school food: Nutrition standards work, and well

The School Nutrition Association’s bizarre opposition to the USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals has stimulated research.

Three studies show the benefits of healthier school meals.

1.  From The Rudd Center, now at U. Conn: press release announces publication of its new study in Childhood Obesity demonstrating that the rules have led to an increase in fruit consumption without increasing plate waste.

USDA, understandably pleased with this result, quotes Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release:

For Congress to meddle with doctors’ recommendations and go back to less healthy meals now would not be in the best interest of our children.

2.  From the Harvard School of Public Health: It also sends a press release to announce its study demonstrating that an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables is a direct result of the new USDA standards, and that these also do not increase plate waste.

3.  From the Union of Concerned Scientists: UCS announces a new position paper, “Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future,” also documenting why school meals are so important to kids’ health. This report comes with an explanatory Infographic.

All of these aim to head off congressional opposition to the new standards and keep them in place.

Let’s hope this science-based strategy does some good.

Postscript:  Dana Woldow argues that the school food scene would be much easier if schools actually got enough money to pay for what they serve and for decent wages to school food service workers.  

Feb 17 2015

The School Nutrition Association’s bizarre saga continues

Nancy Huehnergarth and Bettina Siegel (the Lunch Tray) forwarded the latest information about the hard-to-believe efforts of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) to roll back USDA’s nutrition standards, in particular those requiring school meals to serve fruits and vegetables.  Not everyone at SNA agrees with the leadership’s retrogressive position on encouraging kids to eat their veggies:

You may be interested in this open letter, signed by 86 members of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) that was just forwarded to SNA’s CEO and President…These 86 SNA members were courageous enough to sign the open letter even after SNA leaders sent an urgent email to all members urging them not to sign.

As you know, the SNA continues to work towards rolling back the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act nutrition standards, now through the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization, as evidenced by their recently released 2015 position paper:

As to what all this is about, see Dana Woldow’s explanation in Beyond Chron.  As she bluntly puts the matter,

It would be comforting to think that SNA members are making those decisions based on what is most nutritious and healthy for growing kids, but unfortunately they are just as likely to be influenced by the recommendations of Big Food companies peddling processed crap.

Dana also takes on the SNA’s claim that the majority of its members want the nutrition standards rolled back.  She does the math and comes to quite a different result.

I continue to find it incredible that an organization of people whose job it is to feed school kids would do everything it can to make sure those kids are deprived of fresh, healthier foods, which is what the nutrition standards require.

SNA members: it’s time to recall your leaders and install some who put kids’ interests first.

Feb 2 2015

Food Politics 101: The School Nutrition Association vs. Fruits & Vegetables

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is the organization that ostensibly represents the interests of school food service personnel.

I say ostensibly because the SNA has moved in a quite different direction.  It now fully represents the interests of its corporate food industry donors.

In the recent past, it supported federal efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals.  Now it fights all efforts to do so.

Recent events illustrate these points.

1.  Nancy Huehnergarth reports on the SNA meeting in Phoenix:

The annual conference, which this year ran from January 11 through 13, is “where school nutrition directors and industry representatives [came] together to build successful partnerships to better serve the nation’s children,” according to the SNA’s website. But a review of the conference agenda, speakers, educational sessions and sponsors paint a far different picture — one of an overwhelmingly industry-driven event heavy on the promotion of food and beverage offerings from major processed food corporations.

2.  The SNA has just issued a Position Paper on school meals.

It calls for more funding for school meals (good idea).

But then it insists on some very bad ideas:

  • Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal.
  • Don’t require so much whole grain.
  • Back off on lower sodium.
  • Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal.
  • Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.

In other words, return to the junk food school environment that flourished before the Institute of Medicine wrote two reports on improving the nutritional quality of school meals, Michelle Obama instituted Let’s Move!, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizing USDA to set nutritional standards, USDA wrote those standards, and most schools in the United States went right ahead and implemented them.

The ostensible reason for the pushback?  Prevent waste.

3.  The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) did an analysis of trends in student participation in school meals.

This  research firmly counters the idea that students are turning away from school meals in droves in order to avoid having to eat fruits and vegetables.  It cites the recession and the increased price of the lunches as the reasons for the decline in participation.

Writing in Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich points to the politics:

Student rejection of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products and declining participation has been a key part of the political debate over the push to relax some of the new standards. The move has sparked a battle that is expected to intensify this year as Congress looks to reauthorize the law governing school nutrition programs.

4.  Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association issued a response to SNA.

While we agree with many recommendations in the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2015 Position Paper, we are deeply disappointed that SNA has chosen to continue its ill-advised fight against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in schools. The requirement that kids receive one-half cup of fruits or vegetables in school meals is being successfully met by tens of thousands of schools across the country. This is a modest step for the health of our children, especially in these critical learning years. When health classes teach students to make Half Their Plate consist of fruits and vegetables, it would be unconscionable for the school cafeteria to undercut that message by not serving at least one-half cup in school meals.

With friends like the SNA, school food advocates don’t need enemies.

Chalk this one up to food industry divide-and-conquer strategies.  Food companies pay SNA’s bills.  They get what they pay for.

The SNA ought to be the strongest advocate for healthier school meals.  It’s a tragedy that this organization has become the leading defender of junk food.

Jan 26 2015

Some thoughts about the Revolving Door

Joel Leftwich has left his job as senior director for PepsiCo’s public policy and government affairs team (since March 2013) to become staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee now led by Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).

In some ways, it’s a perfectly logical appointment.  Before joining PepsiCo, Leftwich worked for Roberts as a legislative aide from 2005 to 2010 and as deputy staff director for the Ag Committee from 2011 to 2013.

But his connection to PepsiCo raises concerns.  The Ag committee will be dealing with several issues involving sodas and snack foods opposed by some members of Congress:

  • Reauthorization of WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (its requirements for healthy foods are always under pressure).
  • Preservation of the school nutrition standards authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (under attack by the food industry and its friends in Congress).
  • SNAP nutrition standards (there is a movement to make sodas ineligible for SNAP-EBT purchases).
  • Issuance of the 2015 dietary guidelines, always under pressure not to say anything direct about not drinking sodas.
  • Issuance of the new food labels.  The soda industry opposes putting in “added sugars.”   While this is FDA’s purview, not USDA’s, the Ag Appropriations Committee governs FDA’s appropriations.

And on the state level, it’s worth taking a look at what the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is up to, courtesy of Bettina Siegel’s The Lunch Tray: “cupcake amnesty.”

Clearly, agricultural policies affect public health in highly prominent ways.

That’s why we need to do a much better job of connecting food policy to health policy.

And that’s why having a leading PepsiCo lobbyist in charge of agricultural committee staff raises serious concerns about conflict of interest.

Dec 11 2014

Congress again micromanages nutrition standards

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is again using the appropriations process to micromanage nutrition standards for school meals and the WIC program, against the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other health experts.

The new appropriations bill includes several provisions relevant to issues I discuss frequently here.  By all reports, this is the best that can be expected, given the makeup of this Congress.

  • Section 751 grants exemptions to states from the whole grain requirements for school meals “Provided, That school food authorities demonstrate hardship…in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements (my translation: forget whole grains and recommendations by health experts.  They are way too much trouble).
  • Section 752 says that no federal funds may be used to pay the salaries of people doing work “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods, and snacks sold in schools…until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children (We know more about the effects of salt on health than do health professionals and expert committees).
  • Section 753 says Congress won’t pay the salaries of anybody who tries to “exclude or restrict, he eligibility of any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables (except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils) from being provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (no, you can’t keep white potatoes out of the WIC program).

Chalk these up to effective lobbying by the School Nutrition Association, makers of salty snacks, and the potato lobby.

The good news, such as it is:

  • Congress did not roll back most of the USDA’s food standards for school meals.
  • It only cut SNAP by $400 million.
  • It only cut WIC by $93 million.

These must be considered enormous victories, given the circumstances.

Addition, December 12:  The Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

On the provision to require the availability of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Vilsack said, “With all due respect to the politicians who make the law, I have more confidence in pediatricians and more confidence in medical science than in political science.” 

 

 

Oct 15 2014

School nutrition standards: the latest update

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.

school food fat cats

 

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.

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