by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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.

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!

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.

 

Oct 30 2012

Is USDA changing its sugar consumption estimates? Why?

If I weren’t so concerned about USDA’s dropping its data on calories in the food supply (see previous post), I might not have become so alarmed about the New York Times report on the sudden drop in estimates of sugar consumption.

USDA provides data on amounts reported as consumed, from 1970 to 2011.

These have declined, not necessarily because people are eating less but because USDA changed its methods.

According to the Times account:

In e-mails the center obtained through a Freedom of Information request, officials at sugar industry trade groups discussed the benefits of the lower estimate and how they might persuade the U.S.D.A. to make a change that would reduce it even more.

“We perceive it to be in our interest to see as low a per-capita sweetener consumption estimate as possible,” Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance, wrote in an e-mail on March 30, 2011.

These figures are for reported intake—always an underestimate.

Reported intake is much lower than amounts of sugars available for consumption—amounts produced, less exports, plus imports—always an overestimate (the truth lies somewhere in between).

Food availability figures also indicate declines, but suggest that Americans have access to about 65 pounds a year each of table sugar and corn syrup for more than 130 pounds per year total.

None of these figures is precise.  But if the methods for calculation are the same every year, trends should be discernible.

Adjusting for waste introduces new sources of error and makes trends impossible to determine.

The USDA used to re-correct the entire food availability series when making changes in methods.  Why aren’t its data collectors doing that now?

We neeed USDA to be keeping up with food availability data.  What to do?

Oct 29 2012

Why isn’t USDA keeping up its series on calories in the food supply?

In November 2011, I wrote about my frustration over the USDA’s discontinuation of a data set it had published continuously since 1909: Nutrients in the Food Supply.   For unfathomable (to me) reasons, USDA stopped the data set in 2006.

For decades—since 1909—USDA has converted information about food availability (the amount of food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports) to per capita nutrient availability in a continuous series (it also publishes data on calorie intakes from certain foods). 

This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006. It now only publishes calorie supply figures that have been adjusted for waste. 

When I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available, here’s what I got back (in its entirety):

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

In July this year, I wrote letters to everyone I could think of at USDA who might shed some light on this and, hopefully, restore the data set.  Although I hated to bother her, I even wrote to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Her reply: 

 As I will discuss in a later post this week about USDA’s data on sugar availability, the agency seems to be changing the way it evaluates food supply data. 

This is bizarre.  USDA must have figures on total calories available in the food supply.  Otherwise, how could it produce figures adjusted for waste? 

I’ve been concerned that I’m the only one who cares about this, but a similar issue has emerged about USDA data on sugar availability.  I’ll write about that once hurricane Sandy blows over.

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

Aug 16 2012

Surprise! Kids who don’t eat junk foods in school don’t gain as much weight

I love the new study reported in Pediatrics.    It confirms just what I have long expected.  If you don’t expose kids to junk foods and sodas, they won’t eat as much, and they won’t put on as much fat.

The study found that kids who go to schools where lots of junk foods are sold are heavier than those who go to schools in states with strict standards about the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks.

The investigators compared the body mass indices (BMIs) of kids in schools in 40 states with varying nutrition standards for what is allowed in “competitive” foods–those sold outside the lunch programs.

Kids from schools with stricter standards had lower BMIs.

The authors explain their result:

Experts argue that education will not suffice without changing the contemporary ‘obesogenic’ environment in which adolescents have countless sources of high-caloric-density, low-nutrient-density foods and beverages. Schools have become a source of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), candy, and other foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value.

Food Chemical News (August 14) reminds me that when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010, it authorized the USDA to develop nutrition standards both for meals—but also competitive foods.

USDA issued final rules for school meals in January (remember the fuss over pizza is a vegetable?).

Its rules for competitive foods were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in mid-March, but are still stuck there, most likely because the White House does not want to introduce regulations that might adversely affect food company sales during an election year, especially one in which the role of government is so prominent an issue.

This is an election year, in case you haven’t noticed, and looks like it will be an especially unattractive one, unfortunately.

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