by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: School-food

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.

Oct 8 2014

Some thoughts on military might: obesity, candy, and the USDA’s arms race

Mission: Readiness versus obesity

As I noted in an earlier post, Mission: Readiness, an organization of former high-ranking military officials concerned about obesity and other health problems in military recruits and personnel, has issued a hard-hitting defense of USDA’s school nutrition standards.

New Picture (1)

But the military loves giving candy to kids

Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, who is engaged in international programs to reduce sugar-induced tooth decay among children, sends the results of her Google search for “US Military give children candy.”

Halloween candy buy back: To prevent tooth decay in US children, this program is having us send our candy to servicemen. Do they eat it themselves, or do they give it to local children where they serve?

A historical perspective on generations of military candy practices

US troops endanger Afghan children by giving them with candy

Images for US soldiers giving children candy

Dr. Sokal-Gutierrez notes that it’s not just the military that give children in developing countries candy—it’s also tourists and aid workers in developing countries and refugee camps.

She understands why it feels good to do this, but points out that the children might not have toothbrushes or dental treatment.  Candy, she emphasizes, contributes to severe tooth decay, mouth pain, malnutrition, problems in school, etc.

Why is the USDA Buying Submachine Guns?

Another reader, Kris Gilbertson, asks this question based on an article in Modern Farmer.

According to a USDA press rep, the guns are necessary for self-protection.

“OIG [USDA’s Office of the Inspector General] Special Agents regularly conduct undercover operations and surveillance. The types of investigations conducted by OIG Special Agents include criminal activities such as fraud in farm programs; significant thefts of Government property or funds; bribery and extortion; smuggling; and assaults and threats of violence against USDA employees engaged in their official duties,” wrote a USDA spokesperson.

One can only resort to cliche: food for thought.

Sep 18 2014

School food fight: Mission Readiness vs. the School Nutrition Association

Mission: Readiness, the organization of former high-ranking military officials concerned about obesity and other health problems in military recruits and personnel, has just released “Retreat Is Not An Option: Healthier School Meals Protect our Children and our Country.

  • Currently, 12 percent of active duty service members are obese based on height and weight—an increase of 61 percent since 2002—which is resulting in serious problems with injuries and dismissals.
  • The obese service members in the brigade in Afghanistan were 40 percent more likely to experience an injury than those with a healthy weight, and slower runners were 49 percent more likely to be injured.
  • The military spends more than $1.5 billion annually treating obesity-related health conditions and replacing those discharged because they are unfit.
  • 70% of young Americans are ineligible for military service because of overweight, lack of education, or criminal records.  The ineligibility percentages range from a low of 62% in Hawaii to 78% in Mississippi.

The report concludes:

We understand that some schools need additional support to help meet the updated standards, such as better equipment and more staff training, and that support should be provided. At the same time, moving forward with implementation of the standards for all schools is paramount. Students depend on schools to reinforce efforts by parents and communities to put them on track for healthy and productive lives. Healthy school meals and snacks are a vital part of that effort. When it comes to children’s health and our national security, retreat is not an option.

This is a direct criticism of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which has called for such a retreat.  In response, SNA said:

Recent reports by Mission: Readiness and other organizations have mischaracterized both the impact of the new standards on school meal programs and the scope of the regulatory relief requested by School Nutrition Association and other groups. SNA’s Myth vs Fact sheet on the new standards addresses how the new rules have contributed to a decline in student lunch participation, increases in food waste and financial instability in many school meal programs.

USDA’s data, however, argue otherwise.

The SNA, which receives nearly half its income from companies that sell food products to schools, now finds itself in opposition to the military as well as to USDA and consumer school food advocates.

If anything needs to retreat, it’s SNA.

As for why the military is concerned, take a look at this photo taken at the Las Vegas airport, sent to me yesterday by Andy Bellatti.

New Picture

Jul 23 2014

The White House says “Drink Up,” meaning water

Living in New York as I do, I miss the fun in Washington, DC, of which there was much yesterday related to the First Lady’s “Drink Up” campaign with the Partnership for a Healthier America.   Here’s one of ObamaFoodorama’s tweets on the event.

Screenshot 2014-07-23 07.58.20

Listen to what the First Lady is saying in these selected quotes, some of which deal with the current furor over school meals:

  • When the Drink Up campaign was launched last year, it had one simple goal – to get kids and families excited about drinking water.
  • As Drink Up encourages more people to drink more water, we also want to help make choosing water an easier choice…water for more people wherever they are, whenever they want it, however they want it – be it tap, filtered or bottled.
  • In a number of school districts, participation in the lunch program has actually risen. And there’s a simple reason for that: It’s because those districts actually put some effort into marketing the new meals to the kids. They didn’t just sit back and say, well, the kids like junk food so let’s just give them junk food.
  • Instead, they embraced higher standards and more nutritious options, and they worked hard to get the kids excited about them. They did taste tests. They came up with new recipes. They did everything they could to make healthy eating fun.
  • Today, we’re seeing the results, especially among younger kids…They’re getting used to healthier food, and they’re developing healthy habits early on that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. And that’s our job as adults… And no matter what, we don’t give up on our kids. And we don’t give up on their health and their futures.
  • We need to keep pushing to market healthy products to children and families. We need to keep working together within industries and across industries to help our kids lead healthier lives.

Even better, The California Endowment announced that it will increase community access to water in South Kern County and the Eastern Coachella Valley by installing hundreds of taps and dispensers to fill reusable water bottles in schools and public places.

Let’s have more tap-water initiatives, please.

The more people drink tap water, the greater will be public support for maintaining the quality of municipal water supplies.

Addition, July 24:  The School Nutrition Association wrote the First Lady to complain that it found her remarks offensive.

 

 

Jul 18 2014

School Nutrition Association: junk foods galore (but they meet USDA’s nutrition standards)

Politico ProAg’s Helena Bottemiller Evich has been reporting on the School Nutrition Association (SNA) meeting in Boston this week (and see the video conversation with her editor, Jason Huffman, about the meeting).

One of her points: from the kinds of junk-food products exhibited, you would never know that the SNA was at war with the White House over USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals (see my previous posts).

As she explains, food companies have had no problem coming up with look-alike products that meet USDA standards:

More than 400 exhibitors showed off their innovations designed to meet the Department of Agriculture’s new regulations…PepsiCo, which owns Tropicana, Quaker and Lays, has a long list of products that meet the new rules, including Reduced Fat Doritos and Cheetos, Stacy’s Pita Chips and Munchies. Windsor Foods, which specializes in food service, has come up with whole grain-rich egg rolls that the company says kids love.

General Mills displayed a modified version of Chex Mix, a whole grain Betty Crocker cookie and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal bar: “Snacks so good, kids won’t know they’re nutritious,” according to the marketing flyers.

…while the changes to lunch standards may be giving many school nutrition professionals fits, the food manufacturing industry is drooling over the opportunity to gain more sales inside what has been described as the nation’s largest restaurant: The school lunch program serves 30 million kids each day and represents a $30 billion per year market for the food industry, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

…SNA benefits from the food industry’s enthusiasm in school lunches. The largest chunk of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012. The association charges $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative and $20,000 to put company logos on hotel key cards.

Evich quotes Michele Simon, who also attended the meeting.

Walking through that hall, it’s very hard to see where the changes are,” she said. “It’s still pretty appalling to see the types of junk food that can pass as acceptable food for school meals. It seems like there’s a disconnect between the uproar over the improved guidelines and all these vendors who seem to have no problem meeting them.”

Michele sent me a photo of one such product.

Gatorade

 

For photos of other such items, see Michele Simon’s other images on Time Magazine’s site, and Nancy Huehnergarth’s collection of what she calls “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly Food Exhibits.”

To understand what this is about, take a look at the Public Health Advocacy Institute’s report on Copycat Snacks in Schools.  The “better for you” versions are sold in schools, but you can hardly tell the difference between those and the “not so good for you” commercial versions from the nearly identical packages.

How can food and beverage companies get away with this?  This is the result of USDA’s setting nutrient-based, rather than food-based standards for school meals.  Setting nutrient standards allows food companies to tweak the formulas to give the USDA what it requires.

Is a slightly “better for you” option necessarily a good choice?  Surely, schools can do better.

Jun 10 2014

Dueling infographics on the school lunch wars

Thanks to Tracy Fox for sending the latest salvos in the absurd political fight over nutrition standards for school meals.

The first comes from the School Nutrition Association (scroll down to find the image).  This is the organization increasingly discredited for its close ties to food companies that supply products for school meals, as well as its lobbying of Congress on behalf of those companies .

Screenshot 2014-06-10 13.38.07

 

The second comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major funder of anti-obesity initiatives.

infographic

This particular political fight isn’t over yet.  The School Nutrition Association is on the wrong side of this issue, as shown by the divisions in its ranks—the 19 former presidents who wrote Congress to oppose weakening the standards, for example.

Who loses in this one?  Kids’ health, alas.

Jun 6 2014

Why would school nutritionists oppose healthier meals?

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.

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