I apologize in advance for being wordy lately. You are forewarned. Truth is, I am passionate about nutrition, so much so that I am often screaming on the inside with frustration at the world. Today is no different, but I want to share my frustration and the sunshine of hope for change. Some people are on the right track, we just need to enlist more!
Today I attended a luncheon to highlight author and sociology professor Jan Poppendieck and her new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. To be honest, I haven't read her book yet, but let me report on my experiences today. If you are a parent or just a concerned citizen like me, please read this and help!
The Big Picture
First off, I totally agree that school lunch is a problem, a serious problem and it needs fixing. There is a problem when tater tots and pizza are still on the menu even at "progressive" school districts like those in Santa Cruz. Looking at the menu for elementary school lunches shows only 3 days out of 18 without cheese. Pasta and bread are present every day. Further digging into the website shows fat-phobia (low-fat everything is promoted) and misinformed juice and smoothie recommendations. We won't even go into the "healthy" whole grains. For instance, as a snack idea, Katie Jeffrey-Lunn, MS, RD, CDN, LDN recommends combining at least two of the five food groups into a healthy snack. Try to imagine the effects of cereal and fruit, both high glycemic, without any satiating fat or protein to balance that sugar intake. Talk about sugar high, binge eating, and inevitable crash. Bet that is satisfying.
Okay, no argument that there is a problem with school lunches. Jan Poppendieck recommends attacking the problem at a systemic level. She wants universal school lunches available to every student--no more selling food to kids. Among the benefits, she listed a relaxing, enjoyable, shared lunchtime experience similar to that she remembers from summer camp. No one has to stress over food or money or the social stigma attached to kids who can and can't pay for their lunch. I can relate to this as one of the "weird" kids who brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every. single. day. I never had the money to supplement my lunch with snack foods until high school and then the cookie and snack cake options were a daily regularity for me. The fact that ubiquitous junk food in schools has not improved and has only gotten worse is disturbing to say the least. Is that how we want to be fueling the minds of our youth?
Next, Jan went over her ABCs of the school food crisis. "A" is for a la carte food items that undermine the nutritional integrity of the lunch program. She asked how schools can offer a healthy menu while still offering junk food on the side. School lunch should be an extension of the nutritional education, not in direct contradiction with it. "B" is for business and bottom-line. Kids are unable to make informed, responsible decisions because they have been bombarded with multi-billion dollar ad campaigns targeting them as junk food consumers. She advocated for school leaders to say NO to the junk food vendors; that money from junk food is not worth the health (I would add "or moral") price. "C" is for the chilling culture of compliance. The current three-tier system of free, reduced-price, and full price is an administrative nightmare. A universal school lunch program would be more efficient and save money in the long run, although its start-up would be very costly. She asked for school leaders to see the educational potential in making school lunch part of the curriculum, practicing what we preach. To fund this bold plan, she introduced the plan to tax soda and use the revenue to fund school lunch programs.
So here are the issues I want to tackle. Doubtless there are hundreds more, but let's just start somewhere.
Sugar Here, Sugar There, Sugar Everywhere
Problem #1: The public (this includes educators and those making policy) does not see the sugar in grains or grasp the full extent of sugar infiltration into our food products.
Grains are a hidden sugar. Heck the the American Diabetes Association doesn't see the sugar in grains. They list whole grains among their Superfoods and of course fat-free milk and yogurt, without a distinction of source, so you can get a nice, healthy dose of grains from those grain-fed cows. ALL carbohydrate breaks down into sugar, and sugar spikes blood sugar. Fiber and fat mitigate the situation, but processing grains makes them high glycemic and no amount of fiber is going to fix that. And don't tell me about all the vitamins and minerals we are missing out on by not consuming bread, pasta, and rice. It's called vegetables, people. Go to the source.
We all know that sugar is bad for us, so we don't eat candy. Problem solved, right? Wrong. What the public doesn't understand is that sugar is in nearly everything. And I'm not talking about the hidden sugar of grains (which I might add are in everything too!); it's real sugar and its guises as high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave, maltodextrin, splenda, xylitol, glucose, fructose, etc. Sugar is in your condiments and tomato sauce, your dried fruit and frozen meals, and especially in your ranch dressing on top of your healthy salad. It's in your chips and dips, sauces and spices, and baby foods. It's in your sandwich bread and processed meats. It's in your bottled beverages, even sports drinks and vitamin-enriched water. Need I go on?
When Oprah Talks, The World Listens
Oprah recently had a show devoted to diabetes. Through showing actual diabetics and voicing their stories as well as the science behind the disease, the message is clear: Diabetes is preventable. You just have to want to change and make the effort. Fortunately, the show also highlighted hidden sugar in common foods like ketchup and ranch dressing. Hopefully the public will get a bit more label-savvy and think more about their food choices. There is a startling figure circulated at the show:
Women who drink one can of soda a day, increase their risk of type 2 diabetes by 83%.
Now this really gets scary when you couple that with a statistic from a 2009 study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy:
41% of children (ages 2-11 years) and 62% of adolescents (ages 12-17 years) in California drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day
OMG! Isn't that a wake up call? How can we allow schools to sell such poison in the cafeteria or vending machines or to allow kids to bring it from home? What are we doing to our kids?
Problem #2: A revolution in school lunches requires funding, lots of funding.
One way proposed by Jan was a soda tax. The revenue from taxing soda could fund an overhaul to the school lunch program. But my god, we couldn't even agree on a soda tax! Most people were for it, but the naysayers were scared of overregulation and losing funding if soda consumption actually decreased. Isn't it worth the risk? What makes soda any different from tobacco? Does it have any redeeming qualities?
Do As I Say AND As I Do
Problem #3: If educators and educational planners cannot serve themselves healthy food, how can they expect to serve students healthy food?
Our menu at the luncheon consisted of mixed green salad with a choice of soybean-red wine vinegar herb dressing or miso dressing, beets with red onions, cooked herbed carrots, cooked broccoli, whole grain rolls, corn crumb-breaded chicken, and some sort of cheesy pasta. Okay, you know by now what I would say about the whole grain rolls, miso dressing (it's soybean based and likely sweetened), pasta, and corn-crusted likely factory farmed battery cage chicken. But soybean oil--are you serious?!? Vegetable oils including soybean oil and canola oil are highly processed, often partially hydrogenated (yummy trans fat!), and too high in omega-6 fatty acids (remember, we want to decrease the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, since omega-6 are associated with health problems and omega-3s are much more beneficial). I had the veggies sans dressing and felt like an alien.
In addition to the lunch buffet table was a table (a whole table!!!) devoted to cookies. Here we are trying to fix school lunches and we can't even go a meal without a freakin' cookie! Are you serious?!? How can we expect to feed kids the right way when we can't even feed ourselves healthy foods?
The biggest problem: NO ONE (except my paleo friend and I) took issue with this meal. It was praised by all. Can you hear my inner voice screaming with frustration?
What Is Healthy Anyway?
Problem #4: If educators don't have the information on what is healthy, how can they teach nutrition to students?
There is no consensus about what is actually healthy food. I have my take and I believe it is backed by solid scientific studies, but I know that Nestle and Kraft and General Mills are all funding research to back their products, to find data to support their "high fructose corn syrup is okay in moderation" ideology. Want to be sick? Check out the Corn Refiners Association's Sweet Surprise website showing how "natural" high fructose corn syrup is because it comes from corn, a natural grain. We'll leave out the discussion of GMOs and how corn production is anything but natural, requiring fifty gallons of oil for pesticides and fertilizers to produce an acre of corn on land totally unsuited to large-scale agriculture (read The Vegetarian Myth for more brain-food).
But really, what is healthy? Will my knowledge be turned on its head a few years down the line? My suggestion is that we stick to what makes the most sense and is the simplest solution, Occam's Razor. It makes sense to eat what we have eaten for millions of years: meat and veggies, nuts and seeds, some fruit, and little starch. Our digestive tract is built for this and our bodies thrive on this. We can force dairy, grains, sugar, beans, and processed foods into our lives, but are we better off when we do? The archeological record shows healthier people before agriculture, not after. Our medical prowess is keeping us alive longer and saving more infants and children from a premature death, but civilization also brought the modern Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. While perhaps not the simplest solution for the changes it requires, it is the simplest nutrition and makes the most sense. At least to me. N=1
Problem #5: Why me? Why should I care? Who am I to do anything about this?
Why can't we just keep feeding our kids the same old crap and have some other generation clean up the mess? Why should it be us? Why doesn't the government care about us and eliminate the poisons in our food? Why do we actually have to be adults and do something about it? Why, why, why--who does this sound like?
Here's why: The benefits of a universal school lunch program overwhelmingly defeat the costs. Jan lists the camaraderie of the children who get a stress-free, healthy lunch. Kids wouldn't have to spend money on food or drink, stigmatize themselves for their ability or lack of ability to purchase items, or rely upon their skewed sense of what is healthy from years of advertisement bombardment and relatively little nutritional teaching. School food can illustrate health lessons by introducing kids to unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, improve their eating habits, and help them integrate their learning with practical applications. Changes taken now might be costly, but they'll pay for themselves in reduced healthcare costs down the line. It'll be cheaper in the long run to eliminate the administrative burden of the three-tier system. It'll reduce the cost and waste of preparing meals that go uneaten now since student participation is voluntary. It'll create healthy bodies and fuel young minds.
In Santa Cruz, we are in a unique location to support our schools through our rich agricultural and meat production resources. There are local organic farms, grass fed cattle, and free range poultry all at our doorstep. Why don't we take this opportunity to support local business and supply local, healthy foods to our schools? Remove the junk!
Am I just spouting insanity or do you want to help make this happen? As Willy Elliott-McCrea from Second Harvest Food Bank said today, "It isn't a matter of can we do this, but will we."
For more information about Jan Poppendieck, here is an interview with Jan at salon.com. Her book is purchasable through Amazon.
For more information on Fixing School Lunches check out the Go For Health! initiative at the United Way, UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust, Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and Santa Cruz Education Foundation.
Representative Sam Farr is sponsoring the Children's Fruit and Vegetable Act to provide more funding for school food.