What’s for lunch?

posted in: Food | 4

The victory of parents against HFCS in chocolate milk from Berkeley Farms in one school district in California rings sadly hollow. The change has no effect on the children’s health, but leads parents to believe that they’ve made a difference. Hopefully, this small change will lead them to fight for larger changes, but if they aren’t fighting for the changes that actually affect the health of their children, do all their efforts do any good?

“The half-pint of nonfat chocolate milk with sucrose served to students at lunch will have 150 calories and 27 grams of sugar – the same caloric and sugar content as the old formula,” according to Schools switch sugars in chocolate milk in the San Fransisco Chronicle. From the same article:

Switching from high-fructose corn syrup to sucrose in the chocolate milk is nonsense, said Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF. It’s not how the sugar is made that’s the problem, he said – it’s that Americans, and especially kids, are eating too much sugar, period.

“The difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose, molecule for molecule or ounce for ounce, isn’t worth discussing. They are both equally dangerous,” Lustig said.

If you choose not to believe Dr. Lustig, check out Rule # 4 from Michael Pollan’s recent Food Rules, or more importantly, check out the text explaining the rule (emphasis added):

Avoid products that contain high-fructose corn syrup.

Not because high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is any worse for you than sugar, but because it is, like many of the other unfamiliar ingredients in packaged foods, a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed. … don’t fall for the food industry’s latest scam: products reformulated to contain “no HFCS” or “real cane sugar.” These claims imply these foods are somehow healthier, but they’re not. Sugar is sugar.

So, if sugar is sugar, what can actually be done to make school lunches healthier? To me, it seems that the problem is systemic.

In Florida, where I grew up, schools get some amount of funds from the state, but property taxes are the primary source of funding for schools. As far as I know, California’s schools are funded in the same way. California is worse off than Florida, though, after Prop 13 in 1978 capped property taxes at low levels (I learned about this from a member of DAMN while Karl and I were in California). Ideally, schools would be funded differently, but for now we’re stuck trying to do more and more with smaller and smaller budgets. Schools simply have to work within these cost constraints.

Instead of targeting one ingredient, why don’t parents work to find creative ways for schools to feed healthy meals to their children within the budget that exists?

Since their budgets for food are so small, schools can’t afford to pay staff to cook. Instead, they pay staff to reheat. I hadn’t really thought about this before I stumbled upon Mrs. Q’s blog Fed Up: School Lunch Project. She’s a teacher, and plans to eat school lunch every day in 2010. Mrs. Q says: “I think every child no matter how much money their family has deserves to eat quality food at school”, referring to the kids who may only get one meal per day.

Based on her pictures and descriptions, I don’t think I could do it. The one lunch that she’s had so far that really got to me is the one that’s pictured here: Day 16: peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

PB&J with fruit and milk is such a perfect lunch, so it’s really sad to see it bastardized into this sugary pre-packaged mess. It seems to me that the parents of this school, and of every school, should find out exactly what their kids are being served and come up with alternatives that still make budget. Can a school buy bread, peanut butter, and jelly and make the sandwiches for the same cost as these pre-packaged PB&J on graham crackers? Can they achieve the same calorie count and nutritional requirements with healthier ingredients? I bet the schools can, but maybe they just don’t have the time to find out, or the budget to hire someone to look into it.

There has to be at least one parent in San Fransisco who took time to protest corn syrup who has skills related to accounting. There has to be at least one parent in San Fransisco who took time to protest corn syrup who has skills related to creating menus. Where are these parents, and why aren’t they putting their skills to use? If they don’t have the skills needed, why don’t they contact undergrad and graduate students at local colleges to help them out? What a great resume builder or even thesis for a college student!

The school district employees responsible for nutritional quality of school meals are obviously open to discussion, judging by this quote from the SF Chronicle:

“My job is to provide nutritious meals that the students want to eat and that their parents want them to eat,” said Ed Wilkins, district director of Student Nutrition Services. “When a group of parents advocate for a particular change and it is feasible with the resources available to us to make that change, I will try to meet their demands.”

I’d be very surprised if most professionals with positions similar to Mr. Wilkins across the country weren’t just as open to discussion, if only they were presented with smart, cost-effective solutions.

I admire these parents in San Fransisco for taking the initiative and working to change the lunches that their children eat. Now, I hope they will take the next step and work for bigger changes that will significantly effect the health of their children.

Correction:  Dana Woldow, co-chairwoman of the district’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, is a volunteer, not an employee of the school district. Thanks to Dana for the correction. In the SF Chronicle article, Dana said: “I’ve never met a parent who has said I want my child to have high-fructose corn syrup, I think it’s helping kids if your concern is high fructose is not a natural product.”

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!