by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: School-food

Sep 1 2016

Clever food industry ploy: look-alike snacks

Jennifer Harris and colleagues at the Rudd Center have a study out in Obesity on how food companies are making products to meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for snack foods—but look just like the original products that don’t.

These, the press release says, are confusing to parents and children.

A fact sheet provides the evidence.

Students believed that look-alike Smart Snacks and the less-nutritious versions of the brands sold in stores were similar in healthfulness and expected them to taste the same.

No wonder.

This, of course, is the result of “nutritionism,” the defining of the healthfulness of a food by its content of specific nutrients—vitamins, salt, sugar, saturated fat.

The “healthier” versions raise the question: Is a slightly better-for-you product a good choice?

Not necessarily, alas.

This is why food-based standards make more sense.  Snack foods have a place in kids diets, but ideally a small one.

Jul 25 2016

USDA finalizes school food rules: Applause!

Last week, the USDA sent out a press release announcing the last four Final Rules for school meals under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010:

The press release summarizes USDA’s view of what’s most beneficial in these policies:

You probably won’t want to read all the fine print.  Fortunately, others have done just that.

Bettina Siegel at The Lunch Tray

  • Wellness policies will be required to prohibit on-campus marketing of foods and drinks that fail to meet the Smart Snacks nutritional standards.
  • Whether companies can market “copycat” snacks in schools (Smart Snacks-compliant versions of junk food available in supermarkets) is left up to local districts.
  • Also left to local districts are policies about incentive programs, such as Box Tops for Education or fast food coupons passed out to kids for reading books.
  • School wellness policies will be required to set nutritional standards for foods and drinks offered to kids at classroom parties or by teachers as treats, but districts can determine the actual policies.
  • Schools will be allowed to sell hard-boiled eggs, low-sodium canned vegetables, and peanut butter and celery.

Her bottom line:

With the finalization of these four rules, the historic work of the Obama administration in improving children’s school food environment is now complete. But, of course, we’re already one year overdue for the next CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization], a process which could easily roll back or weaken these reforms – many of which have already been overtly threatened by House Republicans.

CSPI’s Take on What’s New

  • Local wellness policies must address marketing of foods and drinks that do not meet the Smart Snacks standards.
  • Local wellness policies must involve the public and school community and produce an annual progress report.
  • Local wellness policies must designate a school official for compliance and undergo administrative review every 3 years.
  • School districts must update goals for nutrition promotion, nutrition education, physical activity, and school wellness activities based on evidence-based strategies.

CSPI says the new rules mean local wellness policies can and should:

  • Shift unhealthy school fundraisers to profitable healthy food or non-food fundraisers
  • Ensure that school celebrations support healthy eating and physical activity
  • Use non-food rewards
  • Provide ample opportunities for physical activity, quality physical education, and recess

My comments

Nutritionism: Many of the complaints about USDA’s nutrition standards derive from their focus on single nutrients—fat, salt, sugar—rather than on foods. Boiled eggs weren’t allowed because of their fat and cholesterol content, but copy-cat snack foods were.  If the standards applied to minimally processed whole foods, they would make more sense. USDA now has to take comments on whether to eliminate the standard for total fat from Smart Snacks because of the egg issue and the confusing nature of current research on saturated fat (also a problem resulting from studying one nutrient at a time).

Politics:  Regardless of how trivial some of these rules may appear, USDA’s school food standards must be considered an extraordinary achievement.  Against all odds—unrelenting opposition from companies that supply junk food to schools, Congress, and, weirdly, the School Nutrition Association—the new rules will improve the nutritional quality of school meals and snacks, at least most of the time.  School districts with officials who care deeply about improving the food served to kids now have a mandate to do so.  Those who don’t will have a harder time doing a bad job.  Applause to USDA for bringing the rules to closure.  May they survive the next round of lobbying.


May 17 2016

Congressional (mis)action on child nutrition

First the good news

The USDA is applying its school-food rules  to child and adult care programs.  It has just released its final rule for these programs.  These go into effect in October 2017.

Previously, the USDA released standards for the Women, Infants and Children program and for the National School Lunch Program.

Now all three food assistance programs are more or less aligned with the Dietary Guidelines.

The child and adult feeding programs will specify more fruits and vegetables, less sugar and fat, but have reduce the standards for whole grain-rich products and sodium.  Presumably, this will make the rules more acceptable to people who don’t like them, of which there are many (see below).

And now the bad news

The House has released its child nutrition reauthorization bill, with the Orwellian title: “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.”  Like all such titles, this one means the opposite of what it says.

The House bill increases reimbursements for school breakfasts (good), but then lowers the nutrition standards for school meals and makes it harder for schools to qualify for universal free meals.  Here’s the committee’s bill summary.  And here is what the House Education and Workforce Committee says in its fact sheet.

The Hagstrom Report quotes Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest saying that the House bill will:

  • Freeze sodium reduction for at least three years.
  • Require yet another scientific review of sodium.
  • Weaken the whole grain standards.
  • Let junk food back into schools
  • Allow schools to replace fresh produce with dried (without a sugar limit), canned (without a sodium or sugar limit), and frozen fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing schools to replace fresh apples and carrots with sugary fruit snacks, potato chips, jam, or trail mix containing candy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says this bill will increase food insecurity among children.

Fortunately, not everyone in the House loves this bill.  A letter signed by 111 House members details objections.

The House will be working on this bill tomorrow.  What will the Senate do?

School food advocates: it’s time to get busy.  Here’s the list of House members.  Write to yours today!

Mar 28 2016

From research to policy: making school food healthier and more effective

Why anyone would be opposed to giving healthy food to kids in schools is beyond me, but school food is a flash point for political fights.

Sometimes research helps.  Two recent studies produce results that can be used to counter criticisms of government school meal programs.

Kids are eating more healthfully than they used to, according to a research study funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  The study concludes:

Food policy in the form of improved nutrition standards was associated with the selection of foods that are higher in nutrients that are of importance in adolescence and lower in energy density. Implementation of the new meal standards was not associated with a negative effect on student meal participation. In this district, meal standards effectively changed the quality of foods selected by children.

This is excellent news for proponents of better school food.  USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement:

This study is the latest in a long list of evidence which shows that stronger school meal standards are leading to healthier habits in schools. Children are eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming more nutrients, making them better prepared to learn and succeed in the classroom. After decades of a growing obesity epidemic that harmed the health and future of our children and cost our country billions, we are starting to see progress in preventing this disease. Now is not the time to take as step backwards in our efforts to do what is right for our children’s health. I urge Congress to reauthorize the child nutrition programs as soon as possible and to maintain the high standards set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Kids who eat breakfast in school are healthier.  Even if they have already had breakfast at home, kids who eat school breakfasts are less likely to be overweight or obese than those who don’t, finds a study from groups at U. Connecticut and Yale.

The press release explains:

The findings of the study…add to an ongoing debate over policy efforts to increase daily school breakfast consumption. Previous research has shown that, for students, eating breakfast is associated with improved academic performance, better health, and healthy body weight. But there have been concerns that a second breakfast at school following breakfast at home could increase the risk of unhealthy weight gain.

So now we know: they do not.

Research like this is unlikely to settle the matter but it ought to help school personnel who are working hard to make sure that kids get something decent to eat and to move ahead on school food initiatives.

Aug 25 2015

Update on the school meal situation

School is starting and the school food debates will no doubt be starting up again.

The USDA has a new report on what’s happening with adoption of the new nutrition standards.

  • A national study of elementary school principals and foodservice managers finds the majority (63%) to agree or strongly agree (7%) that students seem to like the new lunches.
  • The participation rate for paid school lunches declined from FY 2008 through FY 2014, with steeper declines during FY 2012-2014.  This could be do to the changes in standards but is more likely the result of higher prices charged for meals.
  • Smaller, more rural, and wealthier districts had the most difficulty adopting the new meal standards. Higher meal prices affected smaller and more rural districts.

The 2015 School Food Poll conducted by the Kellogg Foundation just reported:

  • 90% of respondents support the national school nutrition standards.
  • 86% say the school nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened.
  • 91% say kids need access to safe drinking water in schools.
  • 88% support increased government funding to expand farm to school programs.
  • 84% believe sustainable agriculture should be part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Kellogg Foundation provides

My interpretation: The nutrition standards are working well enough but it’s time to advocate even more strongly for universal school meals.  It’s absurd and unconscionable that poor kids are getting priced out of school meals.

Addition: The School Nutrition Association, the group doing everything it can to undermine the new nutrition standards, has just issued a report finding that the standards have caused severe financial harm to 70% of schools.  The reason?

There is strong consensus as to the leading reason for the decline in lunch ADP: decreased student acceptance of meals [.underlined in report].

The report does, however, provide a table of reasons for increased costs:

  • Increased per meal food costs — 70.1%
  • Decreased lunch participation — 56.8%
  • Decreased a la carte revenue — 53.0%
  • Increased labor/benefits costs — 48.5%
  • Declining student enrollment — 20.6%

Given these results, you might think the SNA would be lobbying night and day for higher reimbursement rates, but no such luck.  The SNA is lobbying for weaker standards.  Pity.

Addition, August 25:  A study from the University of Vermont finds school kids to be consuming slightly fewer servings of fruits and vegetables since the nutrition standards were implemented and to be producing 56% more plate waste.  This is not good news.

Addition, August 28:  But a CDC study finds that in 2014, schools were making significant progress:

  • Almost all schools offered whole grain foods each day for breakfast (97.2%) and lunch (94.4%)
  • Most schools offered two or more vegetables (79.4%) and two or more fruits (78.0%) each day for lunch.
  • Approximately one third (30.5%) of schools offered self-serve salad bars.
  • Among the 55.0% of schools that prepared food at the school, about half were trying hard to reduce salt.
  • Overall, 97.5% of schools used at least one of the nine school nutrition services practices examined, with 23.9% using one to three of the practices, 48.3% using four to six of the practices, and 25.3% using seven or more of the practices.

My interpretation: Schools are moving to adopt the new nutrition standards.  Some are succeeding better than others.  The outcome of studies therefore depends on whether you see the glass as half full, or empty.

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.  

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