Currently browsing posts about: School-food

Mar 17 2014

The battles over school food: cupcakes again.

In devising science-based nutrition standards for school meals, USDA’s goal was to promote healthier diets.

You might think everyone would rally around proposals to help America’s kids grow up healthier, but no.  Special interests are at stake.

Jerry Hagstrom writes that “First Lady has food industry in a frenzy.”

Over the decades the food industry, school food service directors, farmers, and the rest of agribusiness have won many battles with nutritionists and the medical profession over government policies on what Americans should eat.

Interesting lineup of allies, no?

Last week, Congress held a hearing on all the complaints it’s getting about school meals.

Politico Morning Agriculture reports that the issue is cupcakes—again.

THE CUPCAKES ARE SAFE: The Department of Agriculture does not intend its proposed rules on the marketing or sale of junk foods in schools to prohibit class treats, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a hearing held by the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee Friday.

“We are not going to stop mom or dad from bringing in cupcakes,” Vilsack said.

The arguments over school food are not about kids’ health.

They are about who makes the most money from taxpayer subsidies of school meals.

School food service directors are on the wrong side of this one, alas.

Mar 7 2014

Universal school meals? Not quite, alas.

Last week during the rollout of all the accomplishments of Let’s Move!, I wrote enthusiastically about one of them: universal school meals.

I pointed out that schools in which 40% or more of children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals will now be permitted to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.  Oops.

And I said: This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.  Oops again.

Ain’t necessarily so, not so simple, it’s complicated—objected four readers who know a lot more about the arcane rules for school meal reimbursement.

  • My first error: the 40% refers only to kids eligible for free meals, not reduced-price.
  • Second error: because of the reimbursement formula used by USDA, cost-neutrality does not kick in until 60-65% of the kids are eligible for free meals.

Let’s hope I get it right this time.

Readers explained that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized a Community Eligibility Provision.  This allowed schools serving mostly low-income children to serve all meals to all children at no cost.

USDA reimburses the schools using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals as certified by some other means-tested program such as SNAP or being homeless.

USDA rolled the program out gradually in pilot projects.  Seven states participated in 2013.

The idea was that if the pilot projects were successful–which they were–the program would be available to all states by 2014-15.

My take: school districts with lots of low-income kids ought to be doing this, but making the programs pay for themselves requires high levels of outreach and involvement.

Advocates:

  • Get your school districts to apply.
  • Work with the schools to make the food so good that all kids will want to eat it.
  • Tell USDA you want to get rid of the complications: authorize universal meals for all school children

A challenge?  Yes, but worth it.

As I pointed out, universal school meals put an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

These new rules are a step in that direction and deserve advocacy support.

Feb 25 2014

Let’s Move! announces universal school meals !

Let’s Move! is making several sensational announcements today.

Announcement #1: Universal school meals

This one is extraordinary: Schools with 40% or more of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals will be able to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.

This means an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

Guess what:  This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.

How is this possible?

  • No more tedious, labor-intensive, expensive paperwork and monitoring.
  • More student participation means more reimbursement.

This is just what school food advocates have been saying for years (see, for example, Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All: Fixing School Food in America).

For this alone, Let’s Move! deserves enthusiastic congratulations.

Announcement #2: limits on marketing junk foods and sodas in schools

As discussed in ObamaFoodorama today, USDA’s new rules will:

  • Ban the marketing of unhealthy foods to children on school grounds.
  • Phase out on-campus advertising for sodas and junk foods at schools during the school day.
  • Apply the ban to places such as scoreboards on football fields and in gymnasiums, on vending machines, and on menu posters, cups and plates in cafeterias.

This is good news and a terrific step in the right direction, even though there are plenty of loopholes:

  • Scoreboards with Coke logos, for example, can be phased out over time.
  • After-school fundraisers and concessions at sports events are exempt.
  • Schools can opt out.

These announcements are a tribute to the persistent work of school food advocates over a great many years.

But there is still plenty of room for more advocacy:

  • Universal meals for all public schools.
  • Closing the loopholes on junk food marketing to kids.
  • Ensuring compliance with school meal standards.

The relevant documents

Sep 10 2013

School food: the cruel consequences of bad school-lunch policy

A reader writes:

Willingboro, NJ School Board has taken action effective for the 2013-2014 school year to discard a school meal rather than feed a student, if their parents cannot, or haven’t arranged to, refill their student’s lunch account.

Take a look at this letter from the school board administrator announcing discontinuation of humanitarian meals:

If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded.

I was appalled by the letter.  Hungry kids need to be fed.  They can’t learn if they are hungry.

But before going on a rant, I consulted my go-to, school-food guru, Kate Adamick of Cook for America.  She explains the fiscal realities of current school-food policies:

The truth is that there are many, many school districts that do not feed kids whose parent will not pay for them.  Some, as seems to be the prior practice of the Willingboro district, offer a “humanitarian” meal (typically, a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk), though that is by no means required of them and by no means universal.

Of course, students who qualify for free meals under the USDA regulations cannot be refused free school meals (provided that the proper paperwork has been filled out on their behalf or that they qualify under other regulatory or statutory provisions).

The refusal to feed everyone, regardless of whether they pay, has become a more pressing issue in recent years, both because the number of families who don’t qualify for free meals but can’t afford to pay for them has increased at the same time the school food budgets have become tighter…Many school districts are truly struggling to keep their financial heads above water….

The REAL answer is for the federal government to provide free meals for all kids.  I doubt, however, that will come to pass in our lifetime.

Here’s how this system works:

  • Unlike other aspects of school education, the government requires school-meals programs to be self-supporting.  They must at least break even or do better, which is not so easy given current reimbursement rates.
  • The government reimburses schools for federally supported school meals based on the number of participants.
  • Parents often cannot or do not want to fill out the paperwork.
  • This leaves schools with a dilemma.  If they provide free meals, they lose money.

Some school districts, like the one in New York City, do everything they can to make the system work so that hungry kids get fed.   Willingboro’s school board has chosen to follow the rules to the letter, regardless of the effects of this decision on kids in its schools.

Universal school meals would solve many of the problems caused by current school food policies (for evidence, see Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America).

Ready to join the universal school meals movement, anyone?

Aug 27 2013

Texas takes on new USDA school food standards. Sigh.

Thanks to Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray for alerting me to Texas’s latest declaration of independence from Washington, DC.

The governor signed a bill this summer that was supposed to allow Texas high school students to buy “competitive” (because they compete with federally funded school meals) fast foods.  But a mistake in the wording allows them to buy “foods of minimal nutritional value”—candy, sodas, and the like in conflict with long-standing USDA regulations.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

Way to go, Texas!

Based on the bill analysis, the Texas legislators behind HB1781 seemed to care only about bucking state nutrition policy, but they have also put the state in direct conflict with the new federal competitive food rules.  When those rules go into effect in the 2014-15 school year, sales of FMNV will certainly be barred, as will almost all of the competitive food currently sold in high school “food courts.”  And while the new federal rules do make an exception for occasional junk food fundraisers, such as a bake sale, HB1781 has no such limitation, allowing high school junk food fundraisers every day of the school year.

USDA’s school food standards are a great improvement over what they’ve been in the past and they deserve much support.

They do not need Congress (“pizza is a vegetable”) or state micromanagement.  Let’s hope this clearly unhealthy Texas law gets stopped in its tracks, and the sooner the better.

Jul 1 2013

USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!

At long last the USDA released Interim Final Rules for competitive foods—the snacks and sodas sold from vending machines and carts outside of federally supported school lunches.

They were worth the wait.

The new  standards are tough and will change the food landscape in schools much for the better.  They are summarized in a handy flier.   The new rules require:

  • Snacks to be rich in whole grains, have real food as a first ingredient, and provide nutritional value.
  • Drinking water to be available to all students at no cost.
  • Other drinks to contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fl oz, or 60 calories per 12 fl oz.  This excludes all regular sodas, even Gatorade. 

USDA summarizes the changes in its Smart Snacks in School Infographic:

Competitive foods have long been a bone of contention.  They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals.  Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such rules.  I’ve seen for myself  how many schools allow vending machines to be open during lunch periods.

The USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals early in 2012, but it’s taken this long to issue the ones for competitive foods, no doubt because of the expected uproar from food and drink producers whose products will now be excluded.

To back up the rules, the USDA has produced a vast array of materials and documents.

One web page is devoted to a toolkit of materials for “the healthier school day.”

A separate web page links to all of the legislative and other documents, videos, issue briefs, Q and A’s, statement from First Lady Michele Obama, and other items of technical assistance to the new “smart snacks in schools” program and rules.

Also see:

But note: the rule is “interim” because the 120-day comment period is now open.  USDA can still make plenty of changes.  Schools will have a year to implement the final standards.

Watch the lobbying begin.

You think there won’t be opposition?  Think again.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report recommending that USDA ease off on restricting the amount of meat and grains allowed in the school meal standards that went into effect this year.   Apparently, USDA agrees.  GAO reports are usually requested by members of Congress and this one is no exception.  Guess which party these particular requesters belong to, and who funds their election campaigns.

USDA deserves much applause and support for its courage in issuing rules for competitive foods that might actually help kids stay healthier.

Apr 23 2013

Marketing foods and drinks to kids in school goes on and on

I’ve just been sent a new report on the current status of marketing foods and beverages to children at school: Promoting Consumption at School: Health Threats Associated with Schoolhouse Commercialism.

This reportfrom the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado, Boulder,  makes sobering reading.

As the press release explains,

In their quest for additional funding, many schools and school districts have allowed corporations to promote the consumption of sweetened beverages and foods of little or no nutritional value in school and in conjunction with school projects…corporations can seem philanthropic when they provide sponsored educational materials…to schools and teachers. These materials can be colorful and engaging, and may align with state and now Common Core standards, but they also present a worldview consistent with that of the sponsor.

If you think that the food companies are making good on their pledges to reduce marketing to kids, this report will make you think again.

Here are a few snippets:

  • Available data suggest that the total amount of money spent on advertising food and beverages to children, both in and out of schools, has decreased over the past few years.  However, any reduction in spending reflects at least in part a shift to less expensive, but more effective, alternative media advertising.
  • Food and beverage companies advertise in schools in multiple ways: (1) appropriation of space on school property, (2) exclusive agreements, (3) sponsorship of school programs, (4) sponsorship of supplementary educational materials, (5) digital marketing, (6) sponsorship of incentive programs, and (7) fundraising.
  • Teaching materials may not mention the sponsor but reflect the sponsor’s views, such as that all beverages count toward hydration.
  • Digital marketing to school kids is a deliberate strategy, as explained by a Coca-Cola executive:  “We’re especially targeting a teen or young adult audience. They’re always on their mobile phones and they spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet.”
  • Health and wellness initiatives designed to promote physical activity and movement may appear to meet federal guidelines but “are problematic in that they shift the onus for obesity from the corporation’s responsibility to market healthy food to the consumer’s responsibility for making healthy choices.”

The report is a terrific summary of what’s happening with food marketing in schools, loaded with facts, figures, and references.  

In light of the evidence it provides, the report’s recommendation seems grossly understated:

Policymakers should prohibit advertising in schools unless the school provides compelling evidence that their intended advertising program causes no harm to children.

What’s missing from this report is a blueprint for action.

For that, you must go elsewhere, for example, to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Berkeley Media Studies Group, or the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Do you know of other good sources for taking action on marketing in schools?  Do tell.

Feb 5 2013

USDA proposes rules for “competitive” snack foods

At long last, the USDA announced that it has released its proposed rules governing the nutritional content of snacks, sodas, and meals sold in competition with federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches.

As soon as the rules get published in the Federal Register, which is supposed to happen this week, people will have 60 days to file comments.  Although USDA has not said when it will issue final rules, it did say that it will give schools another year to implement them.

The rules apply to foods sold outside the school meals in vending machines and a la carte lines.  They will not apply to fundraisers.  They set minimum standards.  States and localities that want stricter standards may do so.  A recent CDC analysis says states are already doing this (see Competitive Foods and Beverages in U.S. Schools: A State Policy Analysis).

Under the proposed rules, schools must provide:

  • Potable water at no charge [this alone is cause for celebration].
  • Real foods that are either something recognizable as a food or something that naturally contains 10% of the Daily Value in calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.
  • Snacks with less than 200 mg sodium per serving.
  • Desserts with less than 35% of calories from sugars or less than 35% of weight as sugars.
  • Beverages with no more than 40 or 50 calories per 8-ounce serving.

There are plenty of exceptions.   I can only guess that the exemption for sweetened yogurt—30 grams of sugars in 8 ounces—has something to do with dairy lobbying.

My immediate reaction: these rules are a big improvement and deserve much support.

Applause to USDA for this one!

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