by Marion Nestle

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Apr 13 2011

Let’s Ask Marion: Does Factory Farming Have a Future?

This is one of a series of occasional Q and A’s from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.

Submitted by KAT on Wed, 04/13/2011 – 9:12am.

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

KAT: We talk a lot about the factory farms that provide most of our meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, but most Americans have no idea what really goes on inside a CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

You, however, saw a number of these fetid facilities firsthand when you served on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production a couple of years ago. And industrial livestock production’s role in degrading our environment, undermining our health, abusing animals and exploiting workers in the name of efficiency has been well-documented, most recently in Dan Imhoff’s massive, and massively disturbing, coffee table book CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.

Given all the problems inherent in industrial livestock production, do you see a future for factory farming?

Dr. Nestle: I do not think factory farming is going away. Most people like meat and want to eat it, and do so the minute they get enough money to buy it.

I think a more realistic question is this: Can factory farming be done better? The interesting thing about the Pew Commission’s investigations was that we were taken to factory farms where people were trying to do things right, or at least better. Even so, it was mind-boggling to see an egg facility that gave whole new meaning to the term “free range.” And these eggs were organic, yet. The hens were not caged, but there were thousands of them all over each other. This place did a fabulous job of composting waste and the place did not smell bad. But it did not in any way resemble anyone’s fantasy of chickens scratching around in the dirt.

Factory farming raises issues about its effects on the animals, the environment, the local communities, and food safety. As someone invested in public health and food safety, I care about all of those. The effects on the animals are obvious, and those will never go away no matter how well everything else is done.

But the everything else could be done much, much better. The first big issue is animal waste. It stinks. It’s potentially dangerous. Most communities have laws that forbid this level of waste accumulation, but the laws are not enforced, often because the communities are poor and disenfranchised.

The second is antibiotics, particularly the use of antibiotic drugs as growth promoters. This selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and is, to say the least, not a good idea.

The factory farming system could be greatly improved by forcing the farms to manage waste and restricting use of antibiotics. This will not solve the fundamental problems, but it will help.

I’m hoping that more environmentally friendly meat production will expand, and factory farming will contract. That would be better for public health in the short and long run.

NOTE: If you’re in the NYC area, please join Eating Liberally and Kitchen Table Talks this Thursday, April 14th at NYU’s Fales Library, 6:30 p.m. to hear Dr. Nestle, Dan Imhoff, and Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss address the question “What’s the Matter with Mass-Produced Meat?” The discussion will be moderated by Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats. Event details here.

Jan 21 2011

Eating Liberally: What about those smarmy Monsanto ads?

Every now and then, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, writes an “Ask Marion,” this one titled, “Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?”

2011-01-21-Farmer.jpg

KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry’s public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry’s view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its “we’re for farmers” stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives.
That’s sustainable agriculture.
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.

That’s sustainable agriculture? I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website–really, you can’t make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years – combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

Dec 10 2010

Food is political? Indeed it is.

Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.  Here’s one for today.

Let’s Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The “agri-culture war” that’s long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

Nov 7 2010

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Could The USDA Get Any Cheesier?

Eating Liberally’s kat (a.k.a. Kerry Trueman) asks one of her inimitable “Ask Marion” questions, this one about Michael Moss’s blockbuster story in today’s New York Times about dairy lobbying.

*

KT: Sunday’s New York Times has a disturbing exposĂ© by Michael Moss about the USDA’s efforts to aid the dairy industry by encouraging excessive cheese consumption. Can the USDA ever reconcile its two mandates? On the one hand, the USDA has the task of tackling the obesity epidemic by encouraging healthier eating habits. Yet it must also promote the interests of U.S. agriculture. As Moss documents so well, these two missions are in total conflict.

Dr. Nestle: And so they are, have been, and will be until public outrage causes some changes in Washington. In two of my books, Food Politics and What to Eat, I wrote about how dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the
USDA, convinced nutritionists that dairy foods were equivalent to essential nutrients and the only reliable source of dietary calcium, when they are really just another food group and one high in saturated fat, at that.

The USDA is still at it. As Michael Moss notes:

The department acknowledged that cheese is high in saturated fat, but said that lower milk consumption had made cheese an important source of calcium. ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet,’ the department said.

So let’s talk about “moderation,” a word that I find hard to use without irony. The pizza illustrated in Michael Moss’s article is described as a “thin-crust medium pie.” The diameter is not given, but one-fourth of the pie contains 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat (20 is the daily recommended upper limit), and 990 mg sodium (the upper limit is 2,300).

Who eats one-quarter of a pizza? Not anyone I know. So double all this if you share it with a friend. If you eat the whole thing–and why do I think that plenty of Domino Pizza customers do?–you are consuming more than 1700 calories, nearly 4,000 mg sodium (that’s 10 grams of salt, by the way), and 48 grams of saturated fat. This is enough to make any nutritionist run screaming from the room.

So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.

Much of Food Politics is devoted to describing the USDA’s severe conflict of interest in developing dietary advice to “eat less” of basic agricultural commodities. As Times reporter Marian Burros put it in one of her articles about the fights over the 1992 Pyramid, which visually suggested eating less meat and dairy, “the foxes are
guarding the henhouse.”

This is what Mrs. Obama is up against in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and bring healthier foods into America’s inner cities.

How to change this system? One possibility might be to move dietary guidance into a more independent federal agency, NIH or CDC for example. Another might be to recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.

A pipe dream? Maybe, but I never thought I’d live to see the editors of the New York Times consider an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.

Oct 27 2010

Eating Liberally asks Marion: Is stealth the way to healthy eating for kids?

Every now and then, Kerry Trueman tosses a “Let’s Ask Marion” question at me, and these are invariably a challenge.  Today’s: “Is stealth the way to healthy eating for kids?”

(With a click of her mouse, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

KT: NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story today about “stealth” strategies that some schools and researchers are employing to get kids to eat healthier foods–for example, by sneaking pureed vegetables into a line of cafeteria foods being marketed under the name “Hidden Healthies.”

But doesn’t this approach reinforce the perception kids have that vegetables taste lousy? David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, pointed out that “Taste is a suggestion more than anything else. If you think something is going to taste really good — if you’ve been told by others that it tastes good — you build that into your head when you eat it.”

A researcher who’s experimenting with enhanced cafeteria lighting to make healthy foods appear more appealing to kids told NPR, “We got to figure out some things so that the last thing in the world they know is that we’re trying to get them to eat well.”

We know that kids (and plenty of grown-ups!) turn up their noses at foods that are presented to them as healthy. Kids have also come to expect that their preferences should be catered to, which is why carrot and apple growers have begun packaging their products to resemble snack foods like potato chips.

In short, veggies have a serious pr problem. Do these strategies strike you as a good solution?

Dr. Nestle: Oh no! Not stealth again. I thought we were done with that in 2007 when we had to live through the plagiarism fight between Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, and Missy Lapine’s Sneaky Chef, both of them pushing stealth strategies.

I remember being given hamburgers as a kid and how betrayed and condescended to I felt when they turned out to contain ground spinach—a vegetable I detested at the time but now think is terrific, especially when young and tender. Kids’ tastes do change, and should be encouraged in an honest way.

That is why I am so intrigued by the approach shown in the New York Times “Lunch Line Redesign” op-ed last week. Check out the way that Brian Wansink and his colleagues suggest redesigning lunch lines. These do nothing draconian or deceitful. Instead, they gently nudge kids to made healthier choices on their own.

How? By doing such things as putting salads near the cash register, using bowls instead of trays, and describing the foods more attractively. My favorite of these strategies is simply to ask the kids whether they would like a salad. All of these increase kids’ selection of healthier food choices.

But will the kids eat the foods? Of course they will. From my observations of school meals, the single most important indicator of whether the kids are eating healthfully is if the school food service people know their names and talk to them about what they are choosing. It helps a lot if the food tastes good, but kids respond to adults who care about what they eat.

When I hear parents say that the kids won’t eat anything healthy, I suspect that I’m talking to someone who isn’t willing to take adult responsibility for what kids eat and finds it easier to be stealthy than direct. Kids need to trust the adults in their lives and food should be used to instill trust, not destroy it.

This exchange appeared on the Huffington Post website on October 25 and elicited a response from Missy Chase Lapine, the original Sneaky Chef herself (reproduced with permission):

Dear Dr. Nestle,

I understand you had a bad experience with sneaky spinach as a child, but I respectfully disagree with your position that sneaking healthy food in kids’ meals is a bad idea. As the author of the Sneaky Chef cookbooks, I receive thousands of testimonials from parents to the contrary. They are thrilled that their kids are finally eating veggies–and most of the kids are in on the secret and love it.

The reason sneaking is needed is highlighted in the recent CDC report showing that all of the efforts and billions of dollars spent on nutrition education has failed. Everyone now knows that they SHOULD eat their veggies. The problem is HOW to get them to do it. Teaching alone is conclusively insufficient–we need to sneak and teach. They work hand in hand.

Sneaking veggies gives people an easy way to experience the benefits of eating veggies, yet lets them enjoy their favorite foods, like spaghetti and meatballs–-only now they’re loaded with spinach, broccoli, peas, wheat germ and cauliflower. This direct experience opens the door to learning.

Parents from around the world write me letters like this:

“Every time I use one of your healthy (and sneaky) tips or wonderful recipes, I just want to scream with joy because they eat it.” –Mindi B., TX

The bottom line is: combining “sneaking and teaching” works for everyone.

Respectfully,
Missy Chase Lapine, The Sneaky Chef

Not exactly everyone, if I may respectfully submit.  But I’m glad she wrote.  OK, readers: opinions, please!

Oct 15 2010

Eating Liberally: What’s up with Walmart?

Every now and then I answer questions from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman (kat).  Today’s is about Walmart’s sustainability initiatives.

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Strategy For Real?

Submitted by KAT on Fri, 10/15/2010 – 12:20pm.

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

KT: Why do you think Wal-Mart has decided to throw its colossal weight behind sustainable agriculture, both domestically and globally, in such a seemingly significant way? Is it a strategic pr move, a better-for-the-bottom-line calculus, or a bit of both? Is it too good to be true?

Dr. Nestle: I, of course, am a skeptic. Of course Wal-Mart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.

With these new initiatives, Wal-Mart suppliers will have to figure out ways to produce foods sustainably–without increasing the cost to Wal-Mart. So this move costs Wal-Mart nothing. It gains plenty. This move should recruit supporters of sustainable and locally grown food and induce them to overlook the company’s retrogressive labor practices.

Will these initiatives help farmers? Maybe, but only if Wal-Mart pays them decently for what they produce. As for Wal-Mart employees? Ditto. But I want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.

This is also posted on Huffington Post.

And the New York Times has a story on it.

Apr 12 2010

Eating Liberally: A vote for Jamie Oliver

In part in response to the outpouring of hate mail about Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution,” Kerry Trueman has tossed in another question from Eating Liberally:

KT: The last two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution have yet to air, but folks are already assessing whether Oliver’s attempt to launch a culinary coup in the community of Huntington, West Virginia was a success or a failure. Jamie’s ‘people’ consulted you at the start of this project. Did they heed your advice? If it had been your show, how would you have gone in and done it?

Dr. Nestle: I don’t watch much TV (technophobe that I am, I have yet to figure out how to turn it on without resorting to instructions), but I would not miss the Jamie Oliver show. I first heard about it from students in my NYU Food Ethics class. They made it clear that the show was well worth watching by anyone who cares about how America eats.

I was dubious. When I met with Jamie Oliver’s staff in London last summer—an information session, not a consult—I thought the project sounded kind of arrogant but knowing nothing about reality television, I was curious to see how it would go.

Splendidly, I would say. What I hadn’t realized is how much fun this guy is, and how gutsy. OK, he has annoying Briticisms. OK, a lot of this is about him.

But he wants everyone to learn to cook healthy food and have fun doing it. He wants school lunches to be better. He wants people to be healthier. Along the way, he is exposing deep flaws in the federal school meal programs and in the kinds of foods that many people eat without giving what they eat much thought. Sounds good to me.

I’m kind of stunned by the hostility the programs have evoked among people I would have expected to support these goals. My teaching assistant, Maya Joseph, a doctoral student at the New School, categorized the criticisms for me:

• the wounded ego messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not mention MY work!!)

• the ugly foreigner message (how dare Jamie tell AMERICANS what to eat!)

• the outraged sensitivity messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not take account of X,Y, and Z when he so rudely ballooned into this town).

Maya adds: “I would have thought that it would be obvious…that this is (a) a TV show! and (b) great publicity for our food system tragedies.”

Me too. Or, as food consultant Kate Adamick points out in the first of  her ongoing reviews on the Atlantic Food Channel, “the revolution will be televised.”

This is reality TV aimed at an important public health problem. Is it theater, or is something bigger going on?

From the number of people I know who are watching it and talking about it, I’m voting for bigger. I think it’s useful for people to know that kids at school think it’s normal to eat pizza for breakfast, French fries for lunch, and nothing with a knife and fork. And they have no idea what a tomato or a potato looks like. People need to know that schools and USDA regulations allow these things to happen. They need to know that better food costs more.

From my observations of school food over the years, getting decent food into schools requires:

•  A principal who cares about what kids eat

•  Teachers who care about what kids eat

•  Parents who care about what kids eat

•  Food service personnel who not only care what the kids eat, but also know the kids’ names.

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach all of these people, and more.

I think the programs have much to teach about the reality of school food and what it will take to fix it. The New York Times reviewer, also dubious at first, ended his review with this comment:

One thing noticeably absent from the first two episodes is a discussion of any role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department. If Mr. Oliver wants a real food revolution, it can’t happen just in Huntington.

Yes! And these programs could help.

Finally, let me comment on the West Virginia University’s evaluation. This survey found that the kids didn’t like Oliver’s meals (but did try them). The staff didn’t like the increased work. Everything cost more.

Once again, this is 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.

As I said in one of my blog posts on these programs, I want to know what happens in schools and in the community after the TV crews are gone. If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of at least some participants and viewers. Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Watch them. And get your kids to watch with you.

Addition April 21: Jane Black of the Washington Post has done a thorough evaluation of the TV series accompanied by notes on her  personal interview with Jamie Oliver.   She thinks he did some good.  Me too.

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.