Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 7 2010

Eating Liberally: The Child Nutrition Act

I keep getting asked what I think about the Child Nutrition Act wending its way through Congress.  Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally posed this as a Q and A:

Let’s Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Monday’s New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department “new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.”

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of “insufficient vegetables,” despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA’s school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver’s trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA’s school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck’s book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver’s programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he’s not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck’s book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick’s review of Oliver’s Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of “wars”–first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for “competitive foods”–the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It’s not that the “lunch ladies” (you have to love Jamie Oliver’s term) don’t know how to make decent meals. It’s that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is “no more than five”).  See Note below.

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal–not nearly enough to solve school districts’ financial problems.

But–and this is a huge step forward–the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

  • An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.
  • An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.
  • Increased training for local food service personnel.
  • Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by Daniel of Ithaca, who works in an upstate New York school district:

BREAD; ENRICHED UNBLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), WATER, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, YEAST, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR SOYBEAN OIL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: WHEAT GLUTEN, SALT, DOUGH CONDITIONERS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: DIACETYL TARTARIC ACID ESTERS OF MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES [DATEM], MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, ETHOXYLATED MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SODIUM STEAROYL LACTYLATE, CALCIUM PEROXIDE, ASCORBIC ACID, AZODICARBONAMIDE, L-CYSTEINE), YEAST NUTRIENTS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM SULFATE, AMMONIUM SULFATE), CALCIUM PROPIONATE (MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), CORNSTARCH, ENZYMES (WITH WHEAT). PASTEURIZED PROCESS CHEESE SPREAD: CULTURED MILK AND SKIM MILK, WATER, WHEY (FROM MILK), SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, CREAM (FROM MILK), CORN SYRUP, LACTIC ACID, SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVE), GUAR GUM, ARTIFICIAL COLOR, ENZYMES. BUTTER FLAVORED OIL: PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICAL FLAVORS (WITH MILK), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, BETA CAROTENE ADDED FOR COLOR.

Apr 6 2010

Recent news about BPA

You almost have to be sorry for soft drink companies these day.  The latest blow?.  BPA has been found in soft drink cans in Canada (and, presumably, here?).

And the Danes have banned BPA from food packages targeted to children, no doubt, as  the Swiss have shown, bottle-fed infants get the greatest exposure.

In the meantime, everyone keeps saying that current exposures are below safety limits.  Maybe, but the FDA has just released five background documents that it is using as a basis for its current view (“some concern”) and future decision.

Apr 4 2010

Mrs. Obama’s anti-obesity campaign

Today is Easter Sunday and my monthly San Francisco Chronicle column appears today.  It deals with Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.  Enjoy!

Kudos for first lady’s anti-obesity campaign

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

Q: What do you think of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity? It doesn’t say much about junk food or food marketing. Isn’t this a cop-out?

A: Skeptic that I usually am, I have nothing but applause for Michelle Obama’s decision to adopt childhood obesity as the first lady’s official cause. Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy is the flowers that bloom throughout the nation’s capital. Obama must want hers to be the flowering of better health for our nation’s children.

Yes, Obama is sensitive to political realities. She calls her campaign “Let’s Move” rather than “Let’s Eat Less Junk Food.” But its goals are crystal clear. Her campaign aims to improve food in schools and eliminate “food desert” areas without access to healthier foods.

The White House organic garden is an integral part of this effort. It is no accident that Will Allen, the charismatic head of Growing Power, the group that runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, spoke at the campaign news conference. Good food, he said, is about social justice. Every child should have access to good food.

This campaign reveals real leadership on a desperately important issue. Obama brings diverse groups to this table. She presses government agencies to take action. She exacts promises from Congress to make it easier for kids to eat low-cost meals in schools. She got her husband to create a task force to tackle ways to prevent childhood obesity.

In addition, she is asking professional and business groups to do more to help kids eat better. I’m particularly impressed by her speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the makers of processed foods and beverages.

With masterful tact, Obama nonetheless insisted that the association “entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.” We parents, she said, want assurance that food companies will stop “teaching kids that it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day.”

Yes, she avoids saying anything about soda taxes or other measures that might make it easier for kids and parents to make better food choices, but she is bringing childhood obesity to public attention in a fresh, new way.

Consider what her campaign is up against. Preventing obesity means eating less, often a lot less, of processed fast-food, snacks and sodas. This puts the makers of such foods in an impossible bind. Eating less is not good for business.

Short of going out of business, what can such companies do to help? They can reformulate their products to make them a little healthier. They can stop marketing their products directly to children. But this, too, is bad for business – unless it can be used for public relations.

Indeed, food and beverage companies are falling all over themselves – with much fanfare – to reformulate and to promise to restrict marketing that targets kids.

PepsiCo, the maker of soft drinks and Frito-Lay snacks, says it will stop pushing sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012. The new policy is voluntary, encourages rather than mandates, and assures school districts in the United States and abroad that the company will not tell them what to supply.

It keeps vending machines in schools and allows for continued sales of branded sugary drinks such as Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk.

Kraft Foods says it will reduce the sodium in its foods by 10 percent, also by 2012. This sounds good, but has a long way to go. Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (the SpongeBob package) contains 580 mg sodium per serving and two servings per package. A 10 percent reduction takes 1,160 mg sodium down to 1,050 mg. Salt is 40 percent sodium, so this brings salt down to 2.6 grams – about half a day’s upper limit for adults.

Still, these are steps in the right direction. Are they meaningful? You decide.

In the meantime, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group focused on the effect of money on public policy, says soda companies have increased by ten-fold the amount of money they spend on lobbying – no doubt to counter the threat of soda taxes.

What are we to make of these responses? They raise my favorite philosophical question: “Is a slightly better-for-you processed food necessarily a good choice?”

What would be better for preventing childhood obesity would be to make eating real foods the default. These, as defined by Oakland’s Prevention Institute, are relatively unprocessed foods that contain nothing artificial. And they are produced in ways that are good for farmworkers, farm animals and the environment, and are available and affordable to all.

Getting to that point requires policy as well as voluntary actions. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Obama’s campaign, but that’s how I interpret it. I’m supporting it. How about you?

Apr 3 2010

Price influences purchases of sodas and pizza

If you are wondering why the idea of soda taxes causes so much controversy, try this: research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine estimates that a $1.00 price increase on soda and pizza would reduce daily calorie consumption by nearly 200 per day and would help people lose weight.

Or, as USA Today puts it, an 18% increase in the price of soda would be associated with a weight loss of 5 pounds per year.

Apr 2 2010

The latest on organic production

For all the complaints about organics, production and sales are booming.  USDA economists in the Economic Research Service (ERS) keep track of such things and have just produced tables that display the growth in organic production from 1992 to 2008.  Organic crop and pasture lands still comprise less than 1% of the total in the U.S., but this will surely increase.

USDA/ERS compiles all of its information on organics in a briefing room that links to recommended readings and handy maps and images.

I think it’s interesting that the ERS sites do not link to the National Organic Program (NOP) itself.  This is, no doubt, because the NOP  is housed in a different part of USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service.  Whether any of that makes sense is something one hopes will be considered in the next Farm Bill.

And here’s a link to the European Union’s organic site.  The EU ran a competition to create a new organic logo, and this one is the winner.

Apr 1 2010

Retire Ronald (McDonald)!

Corporate Accountability International, the modern incarnation of Infact and the Nestlé (no relation) boycott,  has just launched the Retire Ronald campaign as part of its Value [the] Meal initiative.

The campaign is based on a new report, Clowning With Kids’ Health.   The report makes it clear that Ronald is ubiquitous anyplace where children might be – on the Internet, and in schools, kids’ libraries, and kids’ hospitals.

If you, like others, think it’s time to see Ronald retired and out of the marketing-to-kids business, join the campaign and sign Ronald’s retirement card.

Read the press release.  Visit the website, www.RetireRonald.org.

Here is how Corporate Accountability International explains its mission:

For more than 30 years Corporate Accountability International (formerly Infact) has run hard-hitting and highly effective campaigns to save lives, protect public health, and preserve the environment.  Value [the] Meal is a campaign led by Corporate Accountability International dedicated to reversing the global epidemic of diet-related disease by challenging McDonald’s and the fast food industry to curb the range of its practices that are contributing to the epidemic.of its practices that are contributing to the epidemic.

Mar 31 2010

Joel Salatin in New York this weekend

I’m a big fan of the movie, FRESH, so much so that I took it with me to Rome last fall, showed it at the Food and Agriculture Organization on the occasion of World Food Day, and left my copy with the American Embassy.  Its director, Ana Joanes, announces two lectures by one of its featured stars, farmer-citizen Joel Salatin:

1.  “Can you feed the world? –Answering elitism, production, and choice.”

Sunday, April 4, 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM

Teachers College / Columbia University (Broadway between 120th and 121st Streets)

By far and away the two most common questions asked of Joel Salatin are: How can we afford local artisanal heritage-based food? And: Is it realistic to think we can really feed the world with a non-industrial food system? Using his own Polyface Farm principles as a foundation, Joel builds this vision one piece at a time by blending theory and practice.

Tickets: $35.  This comes with a movie voucher to see FRESH at the Quad Cinema from April 9-15. Get tickets here.

2.   “The sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic farmer.”

Sunday, April 4, 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM

Teachers College / Columbia University (Broadway between 120th and 121st Streets)

In this mischievous lecture, Joel Salatin compares the industrial global food paradigm with the heritage local food paradigm. Using hilarious stories from his family’s Polyface Farm experience, Salatin examines the contrast on many different levels: fertility, carbon cycling, energy use, relationships, marketing, and spirit.

Tickets: $35 At this event you will receive a movie voucher to see FRESH at the Quad Cinema from April 9-15. Get tickets here.

He’s worth a listen.  Enjoy!

Mar 30 2010

Spoil alert: Jamie Oliver evaluated

TV is one thing but Jamie Oliver’s school intervention is over in real life and has already been evaluated in a study by researchers at West Virginia University.

They asked seven questions of 109 4th- and 5th-grade students, 35 teachers, 6 cooks, and the country food service director (Results):

1. Are the new menu items acceptable to the students?  Not much.  77% said they hated the food (but 66% said they tried new foods).

2. Do the new menus impact lunch participation? Yes, badly.  Participation decreased by 9%.

3. Does removal of flavored milk impact milk consumption?  Yes, milk consumption decreased by 25%.

4. How do teachers perceive the new menus?  Not too differently than they perceived the old ones, but they thought the new ones were more nutritious.

5. Do the new menus impact the workload for food service staff?  Yes, they didn’t like it that they had to work harder and longer, and they preferred their own food.

6. Do the new menus impact meal costs?  Yes, labor and ingredient costs were higher.

7. Do the new menus meet the federal and state nutrition guidelines?  Yes and no.  Fat and saturated fat were higher than USDA targets, sodium and fiber met guidelines, and vitamins and minerals exceeded targets.

So what to make of this?  Remember, this is reality TV, not a real school intervention.  Real ones start at the beginning of a semester, not in the middle, and are about food, not entertainment.   They also do not leave it up to the kids to decide what to eat.

I think it’s telling that the first question asked is whether kids like the food.  This assumes that liking food is independent of external influences like peer pressure and food marketing.

Since when do kids get to decide what’s best for them to eat?  Isn’t that an adult responsibility?

I’m more interested in knowing what happens in schools in that town after the TV crews are long gone.  If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of participants and viewers.  Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Addendum: Here’s the Associated Press story on the evaluation, which quotes me.

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