Monday, April 25, 2011

Lobbyists, myths and outdated thinking hold back lunch programs

We really appreciated this Op-Ed from USA Today. One challenge Organic Fresh Fingers faces when we talk to schools about healthier lunch is the myth that it is impossible to provide healthier foods without losing money. School administrators are constantly telling us that kids won't eat healthier foods and that parents won't pay more for school lunch. Both of these statements are totally untrue. Children will eat food that is good tasting and good for them. And parents will pay more if the food is worth the price.

USA Today Editorial:

A typical lunch last year in the Adams 14 school district outside Denver featured chicken nuggets or a breaded chicken sandwich on a white-bread bun, french fries or Tater Tots, and a salad of iceberg lettuce and carrot shavings that came out of a bag. Parents and students across the country will recognize the menu from their own school cafeterias.

This week, though, Adams 14 is serving "turkey American subs" on whole wheat, roasted cauliflower, herb roasted potatoes, a fresh tossed salad and fresh fruit. Chocolate milk and fried potatoes have been banished. Most remarkably, the district, in a low-income industrial suburb, is feeding its 7,630 students for about the same money it spent last year.

While Adams and scores of other districts across the nation are proving that innovative thinking and strategies can improve school menus, the powers that be in Washington are waging food fights.

Last year, Congress took a big step toward combating child obesity and improving children's health when it passed new mandates for the federal school lunch and breakfast program. (Under the $11.5 billion program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses local districts for free and reduced-price meals at 100,000 schools. Students who don't qualify for subsidized meals pay rates set locally.)

Now, USDA is writing the program's new rules, and interests on all sides are pushing their agendas, some attempting to undo what Congress intended. For example, the National Potato Council wants — surprise! — more potatoes in school meals, while the proposed rules call for far less. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food directors, argues that the districts can't meet some of the new standards without more money and more time. This ignores the fact that there is no more money, and delay is the enemy when it comes to childhood nutrition.

All the players would do better keeping Congress' mandates in place and looking to the schools that are already doing it right. ...

In Burlington, Vt., food director Doug Davis runs his program "like a business." The district charges paying high school students $2.50 for lunch, close to the federal reimbursement rate for free lunches. Many districts give discounted meals to students who can afford to pay more, undermining the program's goals. ...

It's true that school districts, especially in poor communities, face daunting challenges in providing nutritious food. But often, myths and outdated thinking hold them back more than lack of money or time.

Cynthia Veney, the food director at Adams 14, says everybody told her if she got rid of chicken nuggets, the students would revolt. It didn't happen.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New USDA School Lunch Changes

As most of you are aware, the recently passed Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 included a mandate for healthier regulations on food being served under the National School Lunch Program. The USDA just came out with their proposed changes, and will be seeking public comment once they release the official policy. Below are some of the proposed changes:

Highlighted USDA School Lunch Changes From the Federal Register

  • Fruit requirements will go from ½ cup to 1 cup at breakfast.
  • Fruit and vegetable requirements will go from 1 to 1 ½ cups together to ¾ to 1 cup fruits and ½ to 1 cup vegetables at lunch.
  • Grain requirements will double and whole grains will be emphasized.
  • New requirements will include specific vegetables like dark leafy greens, orange vegetables, and legumes as well as a limit on starchy vegetables.
  • Full fat and low fat milk will no longer be offered.
  • Whole grains will be implemented in a staged manner as to adjust to the taste buds of students.
  • Meat alternatives will also be offered as main dishes including tofu.
  • Calorie levels for lunch will be limited to 550 to 650 for grades K through 5, 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8, and 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.
The good news is that Organic Fresh Fingers' Fresh n' Local meal program already meets most if not all of these new requirements. And with the extra six cent per meal increase that was included in the bill, our meal program will be more affordable for public school districts, head starts, and other publicly funded programs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Response to Mandated Lunches at Chicago School

The article from the Chicago Tribune on schools banning lunches from home had made quite a splash on the national school lunch scene, and rightly so. Below is a response from the The Washington Times.

Little Village Academy banned sack lunches six years ago in a supposed effort to improve the nutritional quality of the food its students consume.

According to the report, Chicago Public Schools permits its principals to use their discretion to decide whether their student population needs stringent rules about food choices. Several of the schools apparently have banned sack lunches, while others permit them but confiscate certain foods that administrators deem unhealthy (think Doritos, soda, candy).

Problem: The Little Village students hate much of the school's cafeteria food. Lunches routinely are thrown away uneaten, leaving children hungry until they get home at the end of the day.

Bigger problem: It's not the role of a public school principal to decree what her students may and may not eat. In fact, even the less-stringent policies convey a growing and disturbing trend among educators and others toward meddling in parents' decisions.

I'm not arguing the merits of a healthier school lunch. As the mother of four children, I've already packed thousands of lunches for the very purpose of ensuring the nutritional value of my children's midday meals, and I have about 900 to go, give or take. (Note to self: We're out of turkey.)

But the children profiled in the Chicago Tribune story say they would rather bring a sandwich and a banana from home than eat the glop that passes for "healthy" enchiladas on their lunch trays. However, Little Village parents who want to pack lunches that are even healthier than those prepared in the school cafeteria are unable to do so. (The school makes exceptions for children with allergies or special dietary needs.)

More troubling is the underlying belief that prompts such policies — that some parents simply are incapable of making wise decisions on behalf of their children, even about what to feed them for lunch.

It's a dicey issue. I've been writing for years about the general lack of parenting skills in our nation, including inconsistent discipline, "buddy parenting" and more serious shortcomings, such as letting the culture raise their children without a moral compass or a value system to direct their behavior.

Our national parenting crisis is resulting in a generation that is generally undereducated, hypersexualized, inadequately supervised, media-saturated and poorly fed. Heck, children don't even get enough sleep at night thanks to TVs in their bedrooms.

So let's assume the folks at Little Village Academy and other schools simply are responding to the lack of solid parenting they see exhibited as junk food in sack lunches with a well-intentioned and convenient solution. (Plus, it's lucrative for the company that provides school lunches and the union cafeteria workers they employ. But I digress.)

Ah, but the road to tyranny is paved with good intentions.

The folks who advocate such mandated programs always pitch what sounds like an irrefutable argument: The school (read: government) must step in for our children's health and wellness.

Today, it's required school lunches and body-fat analyses in countless school districts. Tomorrow, who knows what parental rights will be usurped in the name of healthy children?

In a free society, the most we can do is teach and encourage parents to make healthy and wise choices on behalf of their children. Information, "peer pressure" and a healthy school community will do far more to influence parents' behavior than forced solutions from the powers that be.

Anyway, disempowering parents simply won't work. As the students at Little Village Academy know too well, when it comes to feeding our nation's children, the "Nanny Cafe" doesn't come close to homemade.

© Copyright 2011 The Washington Times, LLC.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chicago school bans some lunches brought from home

Please take a look at the article below. Organic Fresh Fingers of course supports steps toward healthier eating, but we can't imagine that disallowing food from home is the solution. Especially when the so-called "healthy" school lunch - isn't.

To encourage healthful eating, Chicago school doesn't allow kids to bring lunches or certain snacks from home — and some parents, and many students, aren't fans of the policy

By Monica Eng and Joel Hood, Chicago Tribune

Fernando Dominguez cut the figure of a young revolutionary leader during a recent lunch period at his elementary school.

"Who thinks the lunch is not good enough?" the seventh-grader shouted to his lunch mates in Spanish and English.

Dozens of hands flew in the air and fellow students shouted along: "We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch!"

Fernando waved his hand over the crowd and asked a visiting reporter: "Do you see the situation?"

At his public school, Little Village Academy on Chicago's West Side, students are not allowed to pack lunches from home. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria.

Principal Elsa Carmona said her intention is to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.

"Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," Carmona said. "It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke. But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception."

Carmona said she created the policy six years ago after watching students bring "bottles of soda and flaming hot chips" on field trips for their lunch. Although she would not name any other schools that employ such practices, she said it was fairly common.

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said she could not say how many schools prohibit packed lunches and that decision is left to the judgment of the principals.

"While there is no formal policy, principals use common sense judgment based on their individual school environments," Monique Bond wrote in an email. "In this case, this principal is encouraging the healthier choices and attempting to make an impact that extends beyond the classroom."

Any school that bans homemade lunches also puts more money in the pockets of the district's food provider, Chartwells-Thompson. The federal government pays the district for each free or reduced-price lunch taken, and the caterer receives a set fee from the district per lunch.

At Little Village, most students must take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both. During a recent visit to the school, dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten. Though CPS has improved the nutritional quality of its meals this year, it also has seen a drop-off in meal participation among students, many of whom say the food tastes bad.

"Some of the kids don't like the food they give at our school for lunch or breakfast," said Little Village parent Erica Martinez. "So it would be a good idea if they could bring their lunch so they could at least eat something."

"(My grandson) is really picky about what he eats," said Anna Torrez, who was picking up the boy from school. "I think they should be able to bring their lunch. Other schools let them. But at this school, they don't."

But parent Miguel Medina said he thinks the "no home lunch policy" is a good one. "The school food is very healthy," he said, "and when they bring the food from home, there is no control over the food."

At Claremont Academy Elementary School on the South Side, officials allow packed lunches but confiscate any snacks loaded with sugar or salt. (They often are returned after school.) Principal Rebecca Stinson said that though students may not like it, she has yet to hear a parent complain.

"The kids may have money or earn money and (buy junk food) without their parents' knowledge," Stinson said, adding that most parents expect that the school will look out for their children.

Such discussions over school lunches and healthy eating echo a larger national debate about the role government should play in individual food choices.

"This is such a fundamental infringement on parental responsibility," said J. Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom, which is partially funded by the food industry.

"Would the school balk if the parent wanted to prepare a healthier meal?" Wilson said. "This is the perfect illustration of how the government's one-size-fits-all mandate on nutrition fails time and time again. Some parents may want to pack a gluten-free meal for a child, and others may have no problem with a child enjoying soda."

For many CPS parents, the idea of forbidding home-packed lunches would be unthinkable. If their children do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals, such a policy would require them to pay $2.25 a day for food they don't necessarily like.

"We don't spend anywhere close to that on my son's daily intake of a sandwich (lovingly cut into the shape of a Star Wars ship), Goldfish crackers and milk," education policy professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote in an email. Her son attends Nettelhorst Elementary School in Lakeview. "Not only would mandatory school lunches worsen the dietary quality of most kids' lunches at Nettelhorst, but it would also cost more out of pocket to most parents! There is no chance the parents would stand for that."

Many Little Village students claim that, given the opportunity, they would make sound choices.

"They're afraid that we'll all bring in greasy food instead of healthy food and it won't be as good as what they give us at school," said student Yesenia Gutierrez. "It's really lame. If we could bring in our own lunches, everyone knows what they'd bring. For example, the vegetarians could bring in their own veggie food."

"I would bring a sandwich or a Subway and maybe a juice," said seventh-grader Ashley Valdez.

Second-grader Gerardo Ramos said, "I would bring a banana, orange and some grapes."

"I would bring a juice and like a sandwich," said fourth-grader Eric Sanchez.

"Sometimes I would bring the healthy stuff," second-grader Julian Ruiz said, "but sometimes I would bring Lunchables."

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Feds Seek Comments on Proposed School Meals Rule

WASHINGTON—The deadline for comments on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed new comprehensive rules for Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs is April 13, 2011.

The new rules would align school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) and require schools to serve healthier school meals, including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat free/low-fat milk, and less sodium and saturated fat.

One of the biggest changes for school breakfast would be to double the amount of fruit to 1 cup per day. The greatest change for school lunch would be an increase in fruits and vegetables to nearly four servings a week.

USDA also is seeking comments on ways to incorporate the 2010 Dietary Guidelines into the proposed updated nutrition standards for school meals, which were based on 2005 DGAs. The 2010 DGAs include a new red-orange vegetable subgroup, while the proposed meal patterns include an orange vegetable subgroup and group the red vegetables under the category of other vegetables (consistent with the 2005 DGAs). The proposed meal patterns do reflect the emphasis on consuming a variety of vegetables, which is a key recommendation of the 2005 and 2010 DGAs.

The 2010 DGAs also advise consuming protein from a variety of sources, and recommend weekly

amounts from three protein foods subgroups—seafood; meat, poultry and eggs; and nuts, seeds and soy products. The proposed meal patterns contain weekly and daily amounts of meats/meat alternates, but do not specify amounts for subgroups introduced by the 2010 DGAs.

Commenting on the proposed rules, United Fresh said it supports these elements of the proposed rule, but opposes one significant provision in the proposal that limits starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, corn and peas. That proposal is not aligned with the Dietary Guidelines, and inappropriately restricts a healthy vegetable.

- Press Release from

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is it Okay to Eliminate Lunch from the School Day?

We all know that school district's across the country are making budget cuts. But as they cut programs and shorten the school year, we have to ask ourselves whether some things are worth saving. Below is an excerpt from an article about a district in Ohio that is considering eliminating school lunch, among other things. What are your thoughts? Do you think school lunch is a necessary part of the school day, or is it something we can drop entirely?

LANCASTER -- One of the proposed cuts the Amanda-Clearcreek Board of Education has floated in the past couple of weeks in a spending reduction plan does not have much community support -- shortening the school day and eliminating school lunches.

Laura Julian, who has three children attending Amanda schools, said she didn't think much of the idea.

"My kids are definitely going to to get a lunch, if they have to bring it to school," Julian said. "When one of the my kids told me about the proposal, I thought she had it wrong. But let's hope the school levy passes this time and it doesn't become an issue."

The district has been working on the spending reduction plan for weeks and will have another work session Friday night before voting on the final spending reduction plan.

During the meeting Monday, Board President Patricia Williard explained that, if the district's five-year, 1.5 percent earned income tax levy failed in May and the board followed through with its proposed plan to cut staff members and shorten the school day, lunch no longer would be provided to the students.

Monday night, the decision on spending reductions was delayed primarily because of the lunch debate.

The reduction plan is designed to address state cuts introduced last week in Gov. John Kasich's budget plan. Under the state plan, the overall education budget would see an 11.5 percent decrease in the first year and a 4.9 percent decrease the second year that includes the loss of federal stimulus dollars.

During a special board meeting, the board slightly revised its spending reduction plan to reflect an 11.5 percent decrease.

Among the board's recommended spending reductions ... the school day would be shortened to five-and-a-half hours for all grades, resulting in the elimination of three custodial positions, and lunch...

However, the elimination of the school lunch seems to have parents and relatives of children uniformed in their opposition.

Carolyn Sheets, a grandmother of two attending Amanda schools, said she didn't support the elimination of lunches.

"The kids really need their lunch," Sheets said. "I volunteer at the school and the kids start talking about lunch about a half hour before they go. It's pretty important to some of them."

John Anderson, who has a great-nephew attending Amanda schools, said the idea was "ridiculous."

"We got everyone telling us how important nutrition is and getting your meals," Anderson said. "I don't think it makes any sense."

To read more, click here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

One Journalist's Experience with School Lunch - The Same Tired Excuses

Below is the second half of Julia O'Malley's story on school lunch in the Anchorage School District. This sad state of school lunch is almost identical to what is being offered in school districts across the country. As you'll read below, food-service officials offer the same tired excuses for why healthy food just doesn't work for school lunch. But we at Organic Fresh Fingers know that there is a way to make healthy, natural, local and organic lunch both affordable and attractive to students. We've shown time and time again a 20% increase in school lunch participation after making the change to our Fresh n' Local lunch program. Kids want to eat healthier - they're just not being given the choice!

The old-school lunch lady with her steaming fresh-baked trays has gone extinct. School lunch arrives at Anchorage schools wrapped in plastic. In school kitchens across the city, there isn't very much to mix, bake or boil. This is the era of reheating.

School lunch prep is centralized. It happens in a big Anchorage School District kitchen facility off Huffman Road. Many items come to the building -- Tater Tots, corn dogs, burger patties -- already processed. The facility processes them again, parceling them out into individual packages.

I visited the lunch facility recently and met Deb Stromstad, one of the district's student nutrition coordinators. She took me on a tour through the big kitchen, by the conveyor belt where workers were packing tots into containers and the huge oven where trays of rolls are baked. I peered into great big bowl of blue Jell-O.

Stromstad has been in the school nutrition business 15 years. I told her about eating lunch with high school students, and how some of them seemed to be eating French fries and pizza every day. It wasn't very healthy, I said.

"It's terrible," she said. "But that's what they go for."

The district meets government requirements and does its best to put healthy choices in front of students every day, she said.

"I can't force them to eat it," she said.

LUNCH FOR 24,000

Anchorage's school-lunch program is paid for partly by federal government reimbursement and partly by revenue from lunch sales. It serves roughly the population of a small city: 20,000 to 24,000 students daily. The district's average cost of each lunch: $4.63. Students who aren't low income pay between $3.15 and $4. The district's food operation has to "float its own boat," Stromstad explained. It runs on a tight margin and if it goes in the red, the people in charge have to ask the School District for money. Nobody wants to do that. So, it's essential to sell what students will buy.

I asked Stromstad what the most popular menu items are for high school students. Pizza, burritos, taco salads, burgers, Subway sandwiches, she said. Some items are healthier than others, but everything looks like something you can buy at a fast food restaurant. That wasn't necessarily the goal, but it is what sells.

Healthy menu items don't fly, she said. Baked potato bars. Salad bars. Soups. All fell flat. Once, years ago, the district tried kiwi fruit. It is both expensive and delicious. Lots of students threw it away. They didn't know what it was, she said. Waste is a big concern, too, she said. For that reason the district offers food, rather than serving it to every student. That's also why it sells food people know students will eat.

The issue isn't what the district serves, Stromstad, said, it's the culture we live in that pushes unhealthy food. The district's food program can't be expected to change the world. Student Nutrition is just in the business of serving breakfast and lunch.

"We're expected to try, so we try," she said.

We walked through a huge freezer filled with processed, frozen foods. The district has an allotted amount to spend with the U.S. Department of Agriculture every year on USDA lunch items. Brent Rock, who runs the student nutrition program, told me later that many of the items come from surplus food the government buys from farmers as part of government support for agriculture.

But school lunch is about to change. The federal government is considering guidelines that would add dark green and orange vegetables to the requirements. They would be served to students rather than offered. It would also move potatoes, French-fried or otherwise, out of the vegetable category. And it would finally place a limit on salt, with a goal to reduce the amount in foods by half over time. That will dictate some recipe changes for what is coming through USDA.

It will also cost more money locally, 27 to 34 percent more than the district is currently paying per meal. Where would that come from? The answer hasn't been worked out completely. The people who run Student Nutrition haven't figured out how they are going to get the students to actually eat healthier foods. Stromstad said they will try to sell students on sweet potato fries and they might puree some beans to add to breakfast bars.


Karol Fink, a dietitian with the state Department of Health, doesn't buy that students don't want healthier food. Their tastes are shaped by what is put in front of them, she said. Studies show kids can learn to eat healthy food just like they learn to like the taste of salty, sweet and fatty foods, she said. Schools are part of that learning process, especially for the nearly 40 percent of district students on the free or reduced lunch plan. For those students, schools provide both breakfast and lunch every day, often more than what's being provided at home.

It's not that students need to be eating only carrot sticks, Fink explained. The problem, she thinks, is when the schools rely so heavily on salty, higher-fat processed food that looks like fast food. Even making more meals that seem like what students might eat at home would be a start, she said.

"It would be nice if they could approximate actual food," she said.

There have been studies suggesting schools can get results just by placing less healthy foods in less visible spots, or by making dessert cash-only. Just asking, "Do you want a salad with that?" raised salad consumption 30 percent in one study. There is also the issue of education. Because of economics, of family practices or culture, some students have just not been exposed to healthy foods. Trying food from an early age is key, Fink said. She thinks the school district should have a dietician in the nutrition department.

Right now, students learn about nutrition in elementary and middle school, but often it's in the abstract. An elementary school teacher might do a unit on the food pyramid using plastic broccoli, for example, but some of the students may have never tasted it.

Schools in some places have some success with garden or farm field-trip programs where students learn where food comes from. Some districts even include "farmer trading cards" that tell students who grew their food. These have all proven to encourage healthy eating.

Students have to make the connection between what they are learning about nutrition and what they are actually eating at lunch. Sharon Vaissiere, head of the district's health curriculum, agreed the district could do a better job with that, especially with collaboration from Student Nutrition.

"There is a big disconnect between the nutrition we're teaching in the classroom and what happens when they go into the cafeteria," she said.

By high school, when students are at the height of body image consciousness and would be ripe for nutrition education, it isn't required.