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Told you so… lunch guidelines lead to less "from scratch" foods

Posted by on Aug 20, 2012 in Blog Posts, Uncategorized | 8 comments

I was not surprised to read this headline, “City Ends School Lunch Program That Used Professional Chefs” about a program in NYC that pairs 30 schools with chefs cooking from scratch:

“A well-regarded program that recruited professional chefs to help the New York City Department of Education provide fresher, healthier food in public schools is being discontinued because it does not meet new federal nutrition standards”

I hate to be right on this one, but this NYT story plays out my fears with the stricter school lunch nutrition guidelines. Here is my post from March that foretold the future about the new school rules. (I kid a little, but it is all too predictable in a tragic way.) Here’s a little of what I said.

I’m all for a variety of great-tasting, wholesome foods going to our kids. Hey, if we can use local produce, even better. An area (of the then-proposed school nutrition document) I found disheartening is that the stricter guidelines, with tighter calorie and fat and sodium content will push schools to rely on more and more processed foods. In our effort to micromanage micronutrients, I fear we will be serving processed foods that taste horrible.

Hey, if some industrial food giant can make a pre-packaged, pre-processed food product that has the exact number of grams of X, Y and Z, it will make menu planning, and compliance paperwork that much easier! And, if they can make the product cheap, they can even make a nice little profit to boot. The report made several references to “more processed” foods (though they also seemed to think schools might do more “from scratch” and didn’t explain the inconsistencies, or provide funding for more kitchen equipment etc.)

Ironically, the very efforts to make school lunches more “healthy,” which is most often translated to less fat, salt and corn syrup, in our current reductionist food culture, is backfiring and I fear will make school lunches less palatable, more processed and less filling. “Jean Moreland, a parent at P.S. 84 in Manhattan and co-president of the PTA, said: “It baffles me, that in a city where our mayor is so concerned with the size of our sodas, he is O.K. with feeding our children fatty and processed foods rather than the much healthier WITS options.” The thing is, the WITS options probably are yummy, and “healthy” but may have a little more fat than the whole wheat pizza shingle with low sodium and low fat cheese and a shmear of tomato sauce so that it doesn’t exceed a calorie or fat or sodium maximum. I’m not sure you can have it both ways. Real cooking and joyful balanced food needs real ingredients, and gasp, that might include some olive oil and/or butter, and maybe even some gorgeous much-maligned full fat cheese.

The forest is lost in the trees, and common sense is out the window. A school lunch director at a recent workshop bemoaned the new rules. She feared the food would not fill up her kids, many of whom could only count on this meal per day. She also fretted that the extreme fat, protein and soon sodium restrictions would make her task almost impossible and she predicted that most schools would head for the processed options to comply with the rules. Maybe we should just give them all whole grain low-fat Lunchables wrapped in a lettuce leaf for the fresh veggie serving and call it a day…

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  1. Bree

    The schools in America have completely forgotten about children who aren’t getting enough to eat because they’re too focused on keeping kids slim with their focus on low-calorie and low-fat foods, which not only might not keep them satisfied, these foods have tons of other substances in them which aren’t probably the healthiest of ingredients. There are times when you have to “pick your poison” and I think making sure kids don’t go hungry trumps eliminating fat kids should be picked every single time.

    Instead of turning to First Ladies and millionaire chefs such as Jamie Olivier, schools should go in-house and actually talk to the people who work the lunch lines and cook in the kitchens. But that’s what happens in these statewide moral panics—you don’t talk to those who are actually on the front lines who would provide more experience and insight. Nope, they go to a celebrity chef—one whose food options actually ended up having MORE fat and calorie content than what was already being offered!

    • katja

      Absolutely!!! A great example after I did a workshop, the same one where the school lunch personnel spoke, and early childhood teacher said she was cutting up Jicama and the kids all came over and started asking her questions, and she described what she was doing and what Jicama was, and by the end they all were clamoring to try it. She said, had she presented them with a cut up plate of Jicama and told them they had to take a bite, she knows the kids would have been turned off. Small things like that can be huge. Another school meal director said when the “whole-wheat turkey corn dog” is labeled as such, they sell about half as much as if they just call it a corn dog. The psychology of all this “nutritionism” on our kids cannot be underestimated.

    • Jennifer Hansen

      I’ve heard it said–or read it here, maybe?–that the conventional wisdom these days is to regard hunger as a glitch or a personal failure. You eat your grams and percentages and servings and if you’re still hungry after that, either the universe doesn’t like you or something is wrong with you. Of course, hunger is really a signal that you need some honest solid F-O-O-D food, but that kind of thing has fat in it. And calories! Aaaieeeee!

      Back in the Dark Ages, when I ate lunch in a grade school cafeteria that served food that had been made in large pots and pans on the premises (and not a chef in sight–imagine!), the child’s own hunger was considered to be an acceptable measure. You could ask for a big scoop or a little scoop of most things. Lunchroom monitors paced up and down the aisles between the tables and would talk to you if they saw you leave a lot of food on your tray all the time, but what they would generally say was, “Try a little scoop instead,” or, “Sorry, but spinach is the vegetable today.” Sometimes, if you were very hungry and there was extra in the pans, you could show the lunch ladies your cleaned-off tray and get seconds. The trash barrels were within clear view of the lunch line, so you couldn’t scrape the spinach into the trash without being seen. You had to hold your nose and eat it in order to get seconds on the lasagna. I wonder whether they served spinach so often because only the really horribly hungry kids would force it down, so they could be sure that seconds would go to kids who wouldn’t pick at their trays.

      I think we should let schools serve lunch the old-fashioned way. Well, except for the spinach.

  2. Twistie

    A couple months ago, I saw an episode of Chopped on the Food Network where the contestants were all school lunch ladies. In the entree round, one of them made a large serving of a pasta dish. While the judges were praising her technique and skill (and clearly enjoying the heck out of that pasta!), one of them started scolding her for making such a large portion. Clearly it was unhealthy and in the middle of an obesity crisis blah di dah dah….

    That lunchlady came back swinging. She kept her tone and language entirely respectful, but she pointed out that her school is in a very poor district where a lot of kids don’t have regular access to food – any food, let alone nutritionally adequate – at home. Because of that, she’s instituted a program where she fills kids backpacks with snacks that don’t need cooking or refrigeration on friday afternoons so she’s sure even the poorest ones will have something to eat over the weekend. And because of that, she had also started doing Pasta Mondays. Lunch that day is the biggest, heartiest pasta dish she can make because too many students at her school get nothing but the peanut butter crackers and such she can put in their backpacks all weekend long.

    Oh yeah, and she was from New York State.

    By the way, her little explanation shut the judges up about childhood obesity and she freaking won the episode.

    I wish more people would pay attention to the fact that roughly one in four children in this great and wealthy nation go to bed hungry every single night than the fact that some kids happen to weigh more than others. Food insecurity is going to kill a lot more children than being fat.

    • katja

      I LOVE this story. I wonder if that is on Youtube??? Should be, and I’d link to it…Am at a cabin with slow reception, but will have to remember to look for it…

  3. Fat Grad

    I am sorry to say that I am also not surprised. I hope that First Lady Obama is reading articles about this so that she can see how her misguided attempts at fighting “obesity” are having unsurprisingly negative consequences. My son is starting kindergarten this fall and I was disgusted by the information I read about food to be eaten on the premises. Can you believe that they even ask parents to bring “healthy” snacks for birthdays instead of cupcakes and things? I mean, come on! How can children become competent eaters if they regard certain foods as unhealthy and scary? I am not at all surprised that this has happened, but I am very much saddened by it.

    • katja

      It is sad. I totally agree. Check out this other post I wrote on the “healthy” snacks for birthdays. I do also get the other side where kids get dozens of cupcakes etc a week not being balanced either. I feel like I had some suggestions that were very middle of the road. Would like to know if you agree…

      • Fat Grad

        I remember reading that post when you first posted it and thinking “Thank God my son goes to a sane school.” Of course, that was his preschool. Now that he’s in Kindergarten, the crazies are all over the food policy. I do think that your suggestions overall were very nicely thought out. I think that the most important thing is teaching that ALL foods have a place in a healthy diet, to quote someone really awesome that I know! 😉 The idea that sweets and such things are going to kill you is one of the silliest things I know. (Sidenote – I have a friend who actually teaches his child that HFCS is poison. She is TERRIFIED of eating anything with it in there. Seriously.) I do agree that we wouldn’t want the kids eating twenty cupcakes a week, but even that is something that administrators could work around in a more rational way if they thought about it. For example, my son’s class has less than 20 kids in it. If for some reason there is a week when 10 kids have birthdays, teachers can send a letter home at that time requesting other snack options. This would easily limit the amount of sweets the kids ate in a much more reasonable way. And even if they did end up eating ten different kids’ cupcakes in one week, it’s only one week! Out of 52! In any case, my guess is that very few of those children would actually eat all of the cupcakes, and they would be cupcaked out long before they got to the final one.