Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Battle Over Chocolate Milk

I'm sure that you're aware of the great chocolate milk debate that's taking place in school districts across the country. It's also being debated at a national level, as lawmakers decide whether chocolate milk should be removed from the National School Lunch Program. We appreciated how clearly Donald F. Kettl, a columnist for GOVERNING, explains the debate in the article below. Organic Fresh Fingers is pleased to say that none of our schools or childcare facilities serve chocolate milk!

One of my fondest memories from kindergarten was the treat of a couple of graham crackers and chocolate milk served in a waxy paperboard container. In those days, primary school was mostly about helping kids learn how to spend half a day away from mom. Milk was an important bait, luring us into the world of education.

A lot’s changed since then. Kindergarten is now a serious educational venture. Kids make big steps in reading instead of having See Spot Run read to them, and they learn how to write instead of coloring elephants with giant crayons. Chocolate milk too, has changed. It’s now at the center of an enormous policy battle regarding school lunches.

Some school districts have banned flavored milk completely. In Florida, the battle has become white-hot. The State Board of Education campaigned to pull chocolate milk out of lunchrooms, as part of its ongoing effort to eliminate sugared sodas and high-calorie desserts. When the board turned to flavored milk, opposition from the dairy industry flared. Big business was at stake -- in 2010, the state’s four largest school districts spent $13 million on flavored milk, and students downed 49 million half-pints of the chocolate version.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam countered the board’s efforts by trying to pull decisions about cafeteria food into his office. But Board of Education member Roberto Martinez fired back, “We have to put the kids first, not the agriculture industry first -- period. End of story.”

So how does taking much-loved chocolate milk out of school cafeterias put kids first? Two words: fat and calories. The standard half-pint serving of low-fat milk has 102 calories, of which 21 come from fat. Chocolate milk has more than twice the calories (226) and almost four times as many calories from fat (78). With childhood obesity reaching epidemic levels, public health groups have pressed school districts to switch to lower-calorie options.

Following on the heels of the wildly popular “Got Milk?” ads, the dairy industry promoted a “Raise your hands for chocolate milk” campaign. In Boulder, Colo., chef Ann Cooper, a self-styled “renegade lunch lady,” says the campaign has more to do with selling milk than promoting nutrition.

In April, Fairfax County, Va., schools reversed their chocolate milk ban after an avalanche of protests from disappointed students -- and concerned nutritionists, who argued that chocolate milk is an important way to get vitamin D and calcium into the diets of nutritionally challenged children. Interestingly, Fairfax’s new chocolate milk is low-fat and contains sucrose instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Some critics of the old chocolate milk say the switch is healthier because sucrose is less heavily processed. Others say that sugar is sugar and it doesn’t make much difference how it comes into the diet. The Corn Refiners Association shares that opinion -- and a concern that it not lose the big chocolate milk market.

The feds have found themselves squarely in the middle of this intense battle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, reinvented the food pyramid to help Americans make healthier choices, and especially to help reduce the fat and calories in the diets of youngsters. Meanwhile, the National Milk Processor Board, which created the “Got Milk?” campaign, works under the USDA’s umbrella as part of its mission to promote dairy products. The department’s National School Lunch Program provides subsidized meals and snacks for less-affluent children. It calls for schools to serve milk, and chocolate is OK.

Is it the USDA’s policy to promote good nutrition, low-fat milk, chocolate milk or milk production in general, regardless of flavor? One way or another, the answer is yes, to all four. Then there’s first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign for child nutrition, and Rep. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the first lady is trying to roll out a “nanny state.” Bachmann castigated the nutrition campaign in telling talk radio host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham that “For them, government is the answer to every problem.”

One blogger at the San Francisco Chronicle simply told other readers, “You couldn’t get me to drink school milk as a child. If it was chocolate, I’m sure it would have been different! It’s like an adult at Starbucks ... even kids need a little vice!”

But this little vice, if that’s what it is, has become a very big battle. Fairfax’s Penny McConnell, who directs the district’s food and nutrition services, says that before the district reversed its decision she received 10 to 20 e-mails a day contending that students liked the drink and it supplied essential nutrients to help growing kids grow strong bones. “It was a lot of pressure.”

Since 1946, milk has been a cornerstone of the federal school lunch program. Little did its sponsors back in the Truman administration realize that their plan to bring better nutrition to the nation’s children would erupt into such a deep moral, scientific, economic and political battle, involving everyone from renegade lunch ladies to first ladies. It makes me long for a few sips of soothing snacks and a nap on the blanket I used to store in my kindergarten cubby.

To Read the Original Article, please visit GOVERNING.com.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Higher Prices for School Lunch?

With the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, you may have noticed quite a few news articles about the price of lunch increasing. That is because the bill mandates that the price of student lunches gradually be brought up to the National School Lunch Program's reimbursement rate for free lunches - which is currently $2.72.

Effective July 1, 2011, Section 205 of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires school food authorities participating in the National School Lunch Program to gradually increase paid meal prices to equal the USDA reimbursement for a free student meal or provide non-federal funding to cover the difference. The USDA requires a minimum increase of 5 cents for the 2011-2012 school year.

This will be a big change. Most schools are still charging $1.50 - $2.00 per lunch. Parents will have to get used to the idea of school lunch costing more. Over the next five years, schools will be continually raising lunch prices until they reach the reimbursement rate.

The idea behind raising the reimbursement rate is to allow for higher quality, healthier foods to be served in schools. The bill also mandates that school lunch programs be non-profit. Hopefully, as schools increase the revenue brought in from lunch, they will also increase the quality of lunches.

Organic Fresh Fingers is ahead of the curve. Although our lunches cost more per meal than most schools currently charge, we use that extra money to provide fresh, local, natural and organic food to children. One of our biggest barriers is convincing school officials that parents will pay more for lunch if the quality of the lunch improves. As schools around the country raise their rates, we hope that more schools will consider Organic Fresh Fingers as an option.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Oregon Farm to School Act Could Bring More Local Food to Schools

As farms continue to pump out locally produced and processed goods and school children continue to wolf down cafeteria lunches, it’s a curious conundrum that more food doesn’t pass directly from local producers into the school systems. In Lane County, the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and other local organizations have been addressing this issue for the past several years. With a mission to strengthen the local economy, benefit public health and support local food producers, WFFC has been promoting farm to school connections, becoming a leader in the region and the National Farm to School Network‘s State Lead Agency for Oregon. Now, with a current bill pending review by Oregon’s House of Representatives, the potential exists to strengthen that connection even more.

House Bill 2800, known as the Oregon Farm to School Act, is sponsored by Rep. Brian Clem (D-Sa lem) and Tina Kotek (D-Portland). Clem has been pushing Farm to School connections since 2007, and his proposals have resulted in the creation of two positions: one in the Department of Agriculture and one in the Department of Education, both devoted to working with schools to incorporate more locally grown food into their nutrition programs.

The current bill would use grant money to reimburse school districts up to 15 cents per meal for food produced or processed in Oregon. Current funding for Oregon school lunches comes from the National School Lunch Program, with Oregon being one of the few states that doesn’t help pay for meals. Reimbursements must also be spent on Oregon food, thus continuing the cycle. Grants will also be made available to assist in school garden programs, with the potential for incorporating school produce into the lunch program as well.

The original draft of HB 2800 demanded $22 million in state funding, but has since been dramatically reduced. HB 2800 is now vying for $2 million from state Economic Development Funds. In part, the reduction means that grants will be awarded on a competitive basis to qualifying schools throughout Oregon. Originally, the measure was introduced to assist all school districts in the state, but with the budget shortfall these funds will only be available to a select few. Eligibility will likely depend on several factors: schools may be required to have a certain percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and districts that receive grant money may also need to show that they will be able to integrate the local foods offered with an educational component for students.

Megan Kemple of Willamette Farm and Food Coalition believes that the three districts currently working with WFFC are well poised to take advantage of these funds. WFFC has already created an active Farm to School Program within the Bethel, Eugene 4J, and Springfield school districts, and has established connections with many growers and food producers in the region, providing the framework to make further improvements to the school lunch program. In addition, a high percentage of students in these districts qualify for free or reduced lunch. The educational component of the program should also count as big points for these districts. WFFC has created a comprehensive educational program that includes lessons about where our food comes from, farm field trips, harvest meals where students prepare freshly harvested farm foods, school garden sessions, nutrition lessons, and tasting tables offering fresh produce from recently visited farms. The school garden sessions are done in collaboration with the School Garden Project of Lane County, and “garden-based nutrition education” is implemented with the help of Oregon State University’s Nutrition Education Program.


Randy Henderson of Thistledown Farm says his farm could feed every child in Eugene if the schools had the funds to pay for it. With 500 acres in production, it’s not a matter of supply; the problem is that produce is often cheaper to buy from Mexico than it is from local farms. Another issue is the lack of local processors since AgriPac left town, which happened in part because the row crops (corns, beans, beets, carrots, etc) of the Willamette Valley have all gone to grass seed production. Much local produce is grown during the summer months when children aren’t in school. Thistledown, however, has been able to sell products such as frozen strawberries to schools during the winter and spring months. For Henderson, nutrition is still one of the biggest factors in supporting Farm to School programs. If schools were able to buy more produce, his farm would be able to keep up with demand.

For Roger Detering of Detering Orchards, supplying schools with produce is “part of doing good business, and provides a good outlet for smaller apples that the kids enjoy.” He also says that if schools were able to purchase more local foods, he would be able to supply them with more produce. Both farmers support the program, but worry that timing is unfortunate for such a bill to pass.

The Farm to School bill has received vast local support. It passed unanimously through its last phase in the legislative process, and is favored by local farmers, food producers, schools, and organizations like WFFC and the School Garden Project. It is also predicted to be an economic boon as well. Agricultural economist Bruce Sorte with Oregon State University estimates the $2 million would create 24 jobs in the first year as the demand for local food products goes up. Kemple points out that is not so much a matter of opposition to the bill as it is simply finding the funds in Oregon’s dwindling budget to support the program.

According to a progress report from the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Policy Workgroup, the bill has passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and will go to the Ways and Means Committee before it reaches the House floor. It will be assigned to a sub-committee (most likely Natural Resources) before moving into the full Ways and Means and then out onto the House floor. Because of other budget decision-making, HB 2800 will probably not be addressed for a couple more weeks. Kemple is hopeful that the bill will pass, but concerned that the state’s budget is so limited. -eugenedailynews.com

To read more, please visit Eugenedailynews.com.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Lunch Line" Documentary Trailer

Six high-school kids from one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods set out to fix the federal school lunch program and end up at the White House in “Lunch Line,” a documentary film examining the program’s past, present and possible future.

Begun in 1946, the National School Lunch Program today feeds more than 31 million children daily. It is a huge, complex and slow to change bureaucracy, with nutritional choices increasingly under attack. “Lunch Line” depicts leaders from all sides of the school-food debate, including government officials, school food service experts, activists and students, discussing the program and ways of nourishing America’s children.

DVD's are now available at http://lunchlinefilm.com/.