by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: School-food

Feb 20 2017

NYC breakfast program: good, but oddly advertised

Charles Platkin of Hunter’s Food Policy Center sent me this photo taken on the subway a week or so ago.

A croissant to advertise the school system’s breakfasts?

Charles and a colleague greatly favor the school breakfast program, but the ad?  Not so much.  They discuss it in a post: “Unhealthy Health Advertising May Stimulate Eating and Send the Wrong Message.”

Here’s my quote:

“I’m in favor of kids getting breakfast in schools. It saves lots of problems for parents and ensures that kids start the day with some food in their stomachs. It’s wonderful that the New York City Schools are doing this. With that said, the devil is in the details. I assume that all breakfasts meet USDA nutrition standards.

But croissants? These can be delicious—all that butter–but I wouldn’t exactly call them “healthy” and I’m wondering whose bright idea it was to choose that item to display. Looking at the menus for December, they are largely grain-based—bread, granola, tortillas, bagels, cereals, and the like—along with fruit and milk.   I think they look pretty good—they certainly could look a lot worse–but the proof is in the eating. Some parents will hate these breakfasts (too much sugar, too many packages, not enough protein). Others ought to be grateful. Ideally, cooks would be making delicious hot breakfasts for kids in school but that isn’t going to happen and from my standpoint this is a reasonable compromise. Presumably, kids who ate breakfast at home won’t need or take these items. I’d like to see them in action to really get an idea of how this is working.

Feb 10 2017

Weekend reading: Jane Black on school lunches

Jane Black sent me a link to her Huffington Post article on school lunches.  As she puts it, “it’s a long read—perfect for a snowy weekend.

Indeed it is.  Riveting, and brilliantly illustrated.
This is Jane’s astonishingly well researched account of what happened to school meals in Huntington, West Virginia—after Jamie Oliver left.

Surprise: They got better!

The subtitle explains why: “How an unassuming bureaucrat outsmarted Jamie Oliver and pulled off an honest-to-god miracle in one of America’s unhealthiest cities.”

The conclusion:

What McCoy had done in Huntington was exactly the kind of thing Republicans claim to celebrate. She wasn’t a Washington bureaucrat telling people to do it her way, or no way at all; she was a well-intentioned local who had figured out what made sense for her community and acted on it.

This is a truly inspiring “yes we can” story, so worth reading—and so welcome.

Thanks Jane.

Jan 19 2017

Some progress in healthier school meals

I am late in getting to this report on school meals from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations, which came out in early December. 

Their jointly sponsored Kids Safe and Healthful Foods Project took a good hard look at how schools were faring under the Obama administration’s rules for healthier lunches, breakfasts, and snacks. 

Some of their findings:

  • 6 in 10 directors said they faced only a few or no ongoing obstacles to meeting updated breakfast requirements; 4 in 10 said the same of the lunch guidelines.
  • For breakfast and lunch, the commonly cited challenges were sodium and whole grain targets.
  • Most programs use a mix of strategies—three, on average—to encourage students to eat nutritious meals (e.g., salad bars).
  • Holding taste tests with students and redistributing uneaten, sealed foods were among the most effective ways to reduce waste (but only about 40% of schools were doing this). 
  • Programs preparing more foods from scratch and increased the use of salad bars were more likely to report that student participation rose or was unchanged from 2011-2015.
  • Two-thirds of schools reported compliance with the Smart Snacks nutrition standards.
  • Equipment and labor costs were the most frequently reported financial concerns.
  • 84 percent of program directors reported rising or stable combined revenue (meal reimbursements plus snack and beverage sales) in the past year. 

Most schools are managing; some are still having problems.  My guess is that what I’ve always observed is still true: if the school food director and the principal are committed to serving healthier meals, they find a way to do that.  If not, they don’t.  Schools that cook from scratch do better—but that also takes commitment.

Most needed are (1) enough money to do it right, and (2) education, training, and decent pay for school food service personnel.

Documents and links:

 

Dec 7 2016

Food Politics Alaska Style: School Meals

I was in Alaska last week and got to spend a few days in Utqiagvik, the town formerly known as Barrow—thanks to an invitation from diabetes educators Angela Valdez and Laura Thomas.

Utqiagvik/Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States, several hundred miles above the arctic circle.  It has a population of about 4000, of which 60% are Inupiak, historically and today subsistence whale hunters.  

I visited the Fred Ipalook elementary school and observed its USDA federally subsidized lunch program for  100% of the kids. 

The meal consisted of a frozen juice cup (made from multiple juice concentrates), and previously frozen mashed potatoes, corn, and a steak patty.  All kids got the requisite carton of milk.

The lunch period was barely 20 minutes.  The littlest kids barely had time to eat the frozen juice, which they all ate first.

These kids don’t drink milk (for reasons of culture and lactose intolerance) and the milk cartons were mostly thrown out.   This seemed especially wasteful because milk is expensive here.  All foods are flown in and heavy ones cost a lot to send.

I wondered about alternative sources of vitamin D for kids who don’t drink milk (whale blubber for those who have it?).

Sunshine is not an option.  Here, for example, is my tourist photo taken at 11:00 a.m.  The sun never makes it over the horizon this time of year.

Tomorrow: Utqiagvik/Barrow supermarket and some comparison price shopping.

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.

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