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Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
Dec 11 2012

USDA to allow flexibility in school meal standards: food politics in action

When it comes to feeding kids, it is not possible to overestimate the self-interest of food producers—and their friends in Congress.

Forget about childhood obesity and other child health problems.  If you want to understand why school nutrition standards are so controversial, you must pay close attention to their effects on the financial health of the companies selling food to school meal programs.

Corporate health trumps kids’ health every time.

That is the lesson to be drawn from USDA’s December 7 announcement that it will allow schools some flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for meat and grains.

As long as the schools meet minimum requirements for meat and grain servings, they no longer have to restrict the maximum size of servings.

This may be a trivial change; schools will still have to serve mostly whole grains and adhere to calorie standards.

But was this decision political?  Of course it was.

Despite two Institute of Medicine reports recommending improvements in the quality of school meals, Congress has chosen to micromanage USDA’s regulations.  Recall: tomato sauce on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

In October, three members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the new school nutrition standards resulted in higher costs and more food waste.  In November, Senator John Hoeven (Rep-ND) and 10 other senators, all from meat- and grain-producing states, that they were hearing complaints from constituents about kids going hungry in school.

In response, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reassured Senator Hoeven that USDA was listening to the complaints and was taking steps to address them: “you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.”

On December 8, Senator Hoeven issued a news release:

The rule had appeared to pose problems…especially for students in low income families, students in athletics programs or students in school districts with limited operating budgets. Moreover…it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children.

“I’m grateful to Secretary Vilsack for recognizing that the rules need to allow for individual differences among children and the prerogatives of local school districts, and resources available to them,” Hoeven said. “While we welcome this news from USDA, we believe the new flexibility should be permanent, rather than for just the 2012-2013 school year, and we will continue to press that case.”

Protein?  Since when is protein an issue in American diets?  (Most Americans, even kids, get twice the protein required).

What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school lunch programs.

What’s also at stake is what comes next.

USDA has yet to issue regulations for nutrition standards for vending machines and competitive snacks and sodas sold in schools outside the lunch programs.

You can bet that Congress—which seems to have nothing better to do—will be taking a close interest in those rules as well.

If what’s happening with school meals proves nothing else it is that Congress cares a lot more about the health of the industries that support election campaigns than it does about the health of children.

Sad.

 

Nov 16 2012

Chicago emulates New York’s public health policies? Not quite.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not exactly Michael Bloomberg when it comes to public health approaches to obesity and chronic disease prevention.

In October, he announced that he’d gotten Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple to agree to post calorie information on vending machines in Chicago government buildings (something that they will have to do anyway whenever the FDA ever gets around to issuing final rules for menu labeling).

At the same time, he announced a health competition between Chicago city workers and those in San Antonio with rewards paid by the American Beverage Association through a $5 million gift.  This partnership was widely interpreted as a ploy to stave off the kind of soda tax and cap initiatives proposed by the Bloomberg administration in New York City.

And now, in yet another deal with soda companies, Mayor Emanuel has accepted a $3 million grant from Coca-Cola to pay for a park district program “to fight obesity and diabetes by offering nutrition education as well as exercise classes run by armed forces veterans.”

If the idea of soda companies funding anti-obesity campaigns strikes you as ironic—don’t sodas have something to do with obesity in the first place?— you need to understand Mayor Emanuel’s point of view.

His stated philosophy is that it’s better “to give people personal responsibility and the information necessary to make the right choices about their health than it is to legislate their behavior.”

Maybe so, but when faced with today’s “eat more” food environment, personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance.

But wait: Isn’t Chicago making an important environmental change?  Its public schools are banning energy drinks.

Well, almost.

The new policy sets nutrition standards for all vending machine food and a la carte items sold in cafeterias and excludes energy drinks—with one exception: Gatorade, a PepsiCo product, “can only be used after students have engaged in a school sports activity.”

Are public health partnerships with soda companies a good idea?  The money is nice and undoubtedly badly needed, but worth the price?  Mayor Emanuel thinks so.

I’m dubious.

Oct 7 2012

School lunch rules caught up in politics

Here’s my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  For links to appropriate resources and what to do to defend the new standards, scroll down to Friday’s post.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: Can you please explain to me why the USDA is restricting the number of calories in school lunches. It’s bad enough that school food is so awful that the kids won’t eat it. Now are they supposed to go hungry as well?

A: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at a question like this or at the uproar over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutrition standards. As Comedy Central‘s Jon Stewart pointed out in his not-to-be-missed commentary on Sept. 27, if kids aren’t eating the food because they hate it, the calorie limits hardly matter. And if kids are hungry, the remedy is simple: Eat the food.

The new lunch standards hardly call for starvation rations. Kindergarteners through fifth-graders get up to 650 calories. The maximum is 700 for kids in grades six through eight, and 850 for high schoolers. All kids can have extra servings of vegetables. This ought to be plenty to get most of today’s kids – sedentary, underactive and prone to obesity as they are – through any school day.

Let’s face it. This uproar has nothing to do with school food. It has everything to do with election-year politics.

Some Republicans view school meals as convenient generator of emotional opposition to the incumbent president.

You don’t believe me? Take a look at the “No Hungry Kids Act” introduced by Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., both members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Their act would repeal the USDA’s hard-won nutrition standards and prohibit upper limits on calories. As King explains, this is to undo “the misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Let me briefly review where these standards came from. In 2004, Congress required school districts to develop wellness policies, but left the details up to the districts. In part to resolve the resulting inconsistencies, Congress asked the USDA to develop new nutrition standards. In turn, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to study the situation and make recommendations.

The institute’s 2009 report called for aligning school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but reducing saturated fat, sodium and calories. It suggested encouraging students to try new vegetables by establishing weekly requirements for various kinds, but to limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one cup a week.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which required the USDA to set nutrition standards for all food sold and served in schools, not only at breakfast and lunch, but also at any time during the school day. The USDA used the institute’s report as a basis for its proposals.

These, you may recall, got the USDA in trouble with lobbyists for businesses that supply French fries and pizza to schools. The Senate intervened and amended the agriculture spending bill to say that none of its funds could be used to “set any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs” or “require crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume.” The results include no weekly limits on French fries; a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

With these allowances in place, the USDA released the new standards in January. Most observers viewed them as an important accomplishment of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

What about student outrage that the new meals leave them hungry? As a strong supporter of student activism, I applaud students getting involved in protests. Their actions have already persuaded Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to tell kids to eat healthy snacks if they are hungry.

Perhaps student activism around calories will be a first step toward advocacy for more substantive goals for their education and wellness: more and better paid teachers, better educational materials, more sensible testing, better quality food in schools, and instruction in how to grow, harvest and cook food.

But where, I wonder, are the adults in all of this? Childhood obesity is not trivial in its consequences for many kids, and school food ought to be a model for how healthy, delicious food is normal fare.

Schools in which adults – principals, teachers, school food personnel and parents – care about what kids eat and act accordingly are setting examples that what kids eat matters just as much as what kids learn.

It’s shameful that elected officials would attempt to undermine the health of America’s children for partisan political purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Oct 5 2012

Help protect the new school food standards, please

It seems crazy to think that USDA’s school nutrition standards–at least five years and two Institute of Medicine studies in the making—are at risk, but so they are.

My monthly San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column is on this topic.  I will post it this coming Sunday.

In the meantime, Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) writes:

As you may have heard, there has been some push back about the new calorie limits in school lunches. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) recently introduced the No Hungry Kids Act (HR 6418), which would prohibit USDA from implementing calorie limits in school lunches. There also have been a few campaigns among high school students who are displeased with the 850-calorie limit.

While we do not expect the No Hungry Kids Act to gain much traction, we also don’t want this negative attention to overshadow the wonderful work going on in so many schools across the country. We need your help to counter these efforts. Below are a few ideas for how you can help:

These resources and many others are available at www.schoolfoods.org/back2school. You can also find additional talking points and resources at http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Healthierschoolday/. For more information or if you have any questions, contact hjones@cspinet.org.

CSPI’s efforts deserve support.  Anything you can do to help, please do!

Addition: Obama Foodorama has a riveting account of how the Drudge Report drove media interest in the kids’ “We Are Hungry” video.

Update, November 2: House Republicans call for GAO investigation of USDA’s nutrition standards.

Oct 1 2012

Military officers say school junk food and sodas make kids too fat to fight

The politics of obesity in the United States has no lack of irony.

On the one hand, representatives Steve King (R-Iowa) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) have introduced legislation—the No Hungry Kids Act—to repeal USDA nutrition standards for school meals.

Why would they do this?   Because they are concerned that students, poor things, won’t get enough to eat.

On the other hand, Mission Readiness, a group of retired military officers, has released Still too Fat to Fight, a report arguing that junk foods and sodas in schools are the reasons why so many young American men cannot qualify for military service.

The report says:

  • About 1 in 4 young American adults is now too overweight to join the military.
  • Being overweight or obese is the number one medical reason why young adults cannot enlist.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense alone spends an estimated $1 billion per year for medical care associated with weight-related health problems.

 Why is this happening?

Students in the United States consume almost 400 billion  calories from junk food sold at schools each year. If the calories were converted to candy bars this would equal nearly 2 billion bars and weigh more than the aircraft carrier Midway.

The military, says Mission Readiness, is doing what it can but “it cannot win this fight alone.  The civilian sector needs to do its part.”

Mission Readiness: start talking to Congress!

Food politics does make strange bedfellows.

Sep 2 2012

Regulations do change eating behavior

My monthly, first Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I still don’t get it. Why would a city government think that a food regulation would promote health when any one of them is so easy to evade?

A: Quick answer: because they work.

As I explained in my July discussion of Richmond’s proposed soda tax, regulations make it easier for people to eat healthfully without having to think about it. They make the default choice the healthy choice. Most people choose the default, no matter what it is.

Telling people cigarettes cause cancer hardly ever got anyone to stop. But regulations did. Taxing cigarettes, banning advertising, setting age limits for purchases, and restricting smoking in airplanes, workplaces, bars and restaurants made it easier for smokers to stop.

Economists say, obesity and its consequences cost our society $190 billion annually in health care and lost productivity, so health officials increasingly want to find equally effective strategies to discourage people from over-consuming sugary drinks and fast food.

Research backs up regulatory approaches. We know what makes us overeat: billions of dollars in advertising messages, food sold everywhere – in gas stations, vending machines, libraries and stores that sell clothing, books, office supplies, cosmetics and drugs – and huge portions of food at bargain prices.

Research also shows what sells food to kids: cartoons, celebrities, commercials on their favorite television programs, and toys in Happy Meals. This kind of marketing induces kids to want the products, pester their parents for them, and throw tantrums if parents say no. Marketing makes kids think they are supposed to eat advertised foods, and so undermines parental authority.

Public health officials look for ways to intervene, given their particular legislated mandates and authority. But much as they might like to, they can’t do much about marketing to children. Food and beverage companies invoke the First Amendment to protect their “right” to market junk foods to kids. They lobby Congress on this issue so effectively that they even managed to block the Federal Trade Commission‘s proposed nonbinding, voluntary nutrition standards for marketing food to kids.

Short of marketing restrictions, city officials are trying other options. They pass laws to require menu labeling for fast food, ban trans fats, prohibit toys in fast-food kids’ meals and restrict junk foods sold in schools. They propose taxes on sodas and caps on soda sizes.

Research demonstrating the value of regulatory approaches is now pouring in.

Studies of the effects of menu labeling show that not everyone pays attention, but those who do are more likely to reduce their calorie purchases. Menu labels certainly change my behavior. Do I really want a 600-calorie breakfast muffin? Not today, thanks.

New York City’s 2008 ban on use of hydrogenated oils containing trans fats means that New Yorkers get less trans fat with their fast food, even in low-income neighborhoods. Whether this reduction accounts for the recent decline in the city’s rates of heart disease remains to be demonstrated, but getting rid of trans fats certainly hasn’t hurt.

Canadian researchers report that kids are three times more likely to choose healthier meals if those meals come with a toy and the regular ones do not. When it comes to kids’ food choices, the meal with the toy is invariably the default.

A recent study in Pediatrics compared obesity rates in kids living in states with and without restrictions on the kinds of foods sold in schools. Guess what – the kids living in states where schools don’t sell junk food are not as overweight.

Circulation has just published an American Heart Association review of “evidence-based population approaches” to improving diets. It concludes that evidence supports the value of intense media campaigns, on-site educational programs in stores, subsidies for fruits and vegetables, taxes, school gardens, worksite wellness programs and restrictions on marketing to children.

The benefits of the approaches shown in these studies may appear small, but together they offer hope that current trends can be reversed.

Researchers also suggest other approaches, not yet tried. The Yale Rudd Center has just shown that color-coded food labels (“traffic lights”) encourage healthier food choices.

And Rand Corp. researchers propose initiatives like those that worked for alcoholic beverages: Limit the density of fast-food outlets, ban sales in places that are not food stores, insist that supermarkets put junk foods and sodas where they are hard to see, ban drive-through sales, restrict portion sizes and use warning labels.

These regulatory approaches are worth trying. If research continues to demonstrate their value, cities will have even more reason to use them. If the research becomes compelling enough, the federal government might need to act.

In the meantime, cities are leading the way, Richmond among them. Their initiatives are well worth trying, testing and supporting.

**Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

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