Does the current school food fight benefit hungry kids and hard-working nutrition professionals?

To all my friends and colleagues in the school nutrition world: AASA, AFHK, AHG, AND, CSPI, CIA, SNA, USDA, agriculture, industry and food advocates of all flavors … 

Those who know me professionally know that I have devoted my life to excellence in child nutrition programs. You know how strongly I believe that every child in American deserves to be well nourished and ready to succeed.

Those who know me personally will understand that my family situation (caring for my father in hospice at his home in California) prevents me from jumping into the current whirlwind of school lunch politics. I do not have the time or energy to sort through the conflicting claims and feeding frenzy of media messages to choose a particular side in this food fight. From what I have read, there are valid points on all sides. School meals are a complicated, nuanced issue, one that does not benefit from polarizing tweets and political rhetoric.

I am taking the “side” that I know best – one that often gets lost as the food fight heats up. I am supporting those who eat and cook school meals that rock. Millions of American children depend on school meals for the nourishment they need to succeed in academics, arts and athletics. Very often the quality of school breakfast, lunch, supper and snack far exceeds what they are fed at home or choose for themselves out in the world.

School Lunch, Bethel School District, Eugene, OR

School Lunch, Bethel School District, Eugene, Oregon

Thousands of dedicated, hardworking school nutrition professionals do their best every day to serve the healthiest meals possible –with reams of regulations, serious financial constraints, and complaints from every corner. I am not naïve; I know that nutrition nirvana in not found in every school. I also know that school nutrition programs do not serve “unlimited pizza and french fries every day,” kill kids with junk food, or want to roll back ten years of delicious improvements in school meals. Most are trying to develop farm to school contracts, plant school gardens and write grants for new kitchen equipment, while also helping kids to make healthier choices at school and home.

Farmer Delivers Vegetables to Moharimet School, Oyster River District, Durham, New Hampshire

Farmer Delivers Vegetables to Moharimet School, Oyster River District, Durham, New Hampshire

If I could wave a magic wand, I would ask everyone who cares about kids’ nutrition to take a deep breath, step back and think about how we can truly support school meals that rock. How can we find the middle ground without getting involved in a raucous election year debate that is more about being right than feeding hungry kids? How can we learn from districts that make smart nutrition work – recognizing vast differences among states and communities – to help those that are struggling? One nutrition solution does not fit all, but solutions in one district can help to inspire excellence in others.

We need many hands – from field to fork – to continue the positive changes in school nutrition programs. Legislators, farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, dietitians, chefs, superintendents, school nutrition professionals, parents and students need to talk with each other more –and yell about each other less. If everyone agrees that some flexibility in the meal standards probably makes sense, then let’s sit down and figure how to make that happen.

I doubt anyone inside the beltway is going to listen to my advice. Positions are now entrenched and politics are driving decisions more than science. For everyone else, if you want to get involved in school nutrition, here are my suggestions.

  • Go eat a meal in your local school to experience the daily reality of feeding hundreds of hungry kids in minutes rather than hours.
  • Spend some time in a school kitchen listening to what works under current guidelines and where flexibility would be helpful.
  • Join your local school wellness committee, anti-hunger coalition or local food group to create strategies that work.

What am I going to do? Continue my virtual tour inviting Katie Couric – and anyone else who cares – to do school lunch in cafeterias around the country. Every day I discover a new school serving amazing choices, a new program planting actual seeds of healthy food or a new hero teaching children to cook delicious nutrition.

There’s No Need To Ban Flavored Milk From Schools

As a Registered Dietitian (RD) who has dedicated 30+ years of work and volunteer life to child nutrition, I believe flavored milk has a place in school meals. Disclosure: I am proud to work with the National Dairy Council and regional dairy councils, including Western Dairy Association. However, all the opinions here are my own. This blog was first published as Guest Blog: No Need to Remove Flavored Milk.

First, the facts about today’s flavored milk in schools: This is not the chocolate milk served ten – or even five – years ago. Dairy processors have responded to nutrition concerns and continually renovate their products.

Gonzales Unified, Monterrey (CA) Home-style Chile Verde, Beans, Rice and fresh local tortillas

Monterrey (CA) Home-style Chile Verde, beans, rice and fresh local tortillas

Secondly. the real nutrition issues: While some US children are getting too many calories for their activity levels, many are under-nourished. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans listed four nutrients of concern for both children and adults: calcium, vitamin D, potassium and dietary fiber. Our low consumption of these nutrients can affect our health today and in the future.

Just like white milk, flavored milk provides three of the four nutrients of concern – all of them except dietary fiber. All types of milk are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D, and good sources of potassium. All are nutrient-rich beverages, packed with many other nutrients kids need for strong bodies – protein and phosphorus, along with vitamins A, B12, riboflavin and niacin.

Banning flavored milk could potentially lead to a small reduction in calories consumed by kids at school. However, it also can have serious unintended consequences as documented in the recent study of 11 Oregon school districts. When flavored milk was removed, total daily milk sales declined by nearly 10 percent. Although white milk sales increased by 161 cartons per day, almost 30 percent was thrown away. Eliminating chocolate milk was also associated with about 7 percent fewer students eating school lunches.

I am not surprised by these results. They confirm previously published studies and the experience in many cafeterias. Flavored milk bans do all the wrong things in child nutrition programs. We need more nutrient-rich food for hungry students, more students who are well-nourished and ready to learn – and fewer expensive-to-replace nutrients dumped into trashcans.

Lake Stevens (WA), Customized 'Power Bowls' with fresh, local produce

Lake Stevens (WA), Customized ‘Power Bowls’ with fresh, local produce

Finally, working together to improve nutrition in schools: There has been a revolution in school nutrition programs across the USA, but we have still have plenty of work to do, especially in low-income, at-risk communities.

  • Want kids to consume less sugar at school? Let’s provide nutrition education for families (lots of sugar is brought to cafeterias from home). Let’s implement USDA’s Smart Snacks in School rules and shift the focus toward smarter choices everywhere on school campuses. Flavored milk is not the most significant source of added sugar in children’s beverages by a long shot. Soft drinks, sport drinks and juice drinks have more sugar and fewer nutrients.
  • Want students to drink more white milk? Forget bans. Let’s institute positive nutrition and culinary education into the curriculum, Let’s use smart marketing techniques to make white milk the more convenient choice at the front of milk coolers. Let’s not put nutrient-rich milk in the garbage and throw important nutrients out with misplaced concerns about small amounts of sugar.
  • Want healthier kids, schools and communities? Let’s put our passion for child nutrition toward effective partnerships on positive ways to improve access to delicious nutrient-rich at school and at home. Let’s look for ways to get kids active before, during and after school with programs like safe routes to school and active recess. Fuel Up To Play 60 is great way to bring nutrition and physical activity to schools – along with grants to purchase equipment and training to implement sustainable changes.

Let’s stop wasting our time, resources and food on negative nutrition campaigns. Let’s work together to make the learning connection for all children – because we know that healthier students are better students.

Dear Katie Couric: Let’s Do School Lunch

Dear Katie Couric,

My friends and I would like to invite you to lunch in some very trendy, very healthy – but clearly undiscovered – dining rooms around the country. We heard your recent Good Morning America comments that “50% of school districts serve junk food for lunch, fast food for lunch. Kids are getting terrible choices.” We are delighted to tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth.

The real news about school lunch is that 30+ million students enjoy amazing choices every day. Thanks to the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, dedicated school nutrition professionals and thousands of health, nutrition and community partners, kids now have access to a truly amazing variety of:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables, sometimes organic, often local or even ‘hyper-local’ – straight from school garden
  • Whole grains, including quinoa, brown rice and other gluten-free options, as well as freshly baked whole wheat rolls and whole grain pizza crusts
  • Lean proteins like hummus, black bean salad and grilled tofu, boat-to-school salmon in Alaska and Montana beef for Montana schools
  • Delicious dairy products, such as Greek yogurt parfaits, berry smoothies and artisan cheeses, in addition to low-fat/fat-free milk at every meal

But, please don’t take our word for it. Come see the amazing variety and taste the deliciousness that is school lunch in America today. We’re so sorry that the Fed Up researchers did not dig deeper into the revolution in schools meals (breakfast, lunch, snacks and suppers) growing in thousands of districts.

School Nutrition Professionals make daily salads. El Monte City Schools, California (May 2014)

El Monte City Schools, California: School nutrition professionals make daily salads (May 2014)

Here are a few tasty tidbits showing how well fed our children are in schools today:

  • USDA Farm to School Census: In USDA’s most recent survey (SY 2011-12) schools invested $354,599,266 in local economies by purchasing local foods.
  • National Farm to School Network: More than 1,000 local food champions recently met in Austin to celebrate and ‘power up’ for expanding programs.
  • USDA HealthierUS School Challenge: 6,730 schools in 49 states and DC have met rigorous nutrition and physical activity criteria for these awards.
  • Food Corps: This nationwide team of 140 passionate service members and fellows in 108 sites connects kids to real food to help them grow up healthy.
  • Chefs Move to Schools: Hundreds of chefs now work in school programs, as directors, leaders and regular volunteers to train staff and energize kids.
  • Salad Bars Move to Schools: 1.7+ million students are eating up produce packed into 3,400+ new salad bars donated to schools from coast to coast.
  • CIA Healthy Kids: The nation’s top chefs offer culinary resources to schools so they can continue serving tasty, appealing, nutritious food to children.
  • Vermont FEED: This is one example of regional efforts with a nationwide reach to provide nutrition education and culinary training to schools.
Portland Public Schools (OR): Local grilled Asparagus on Whole Wheat Pizza Crust (May 2014)

Portland Public Schools (OR): Local grilled Asparagus on Whole Wheat Pizza Crust (May 2014)

Many of us have admired your work for years – and now we would like to share ours with you! Lunch is on us – we just want you to see, and more importantly taste, the amazing changes being served up in America’s school kitchens and dining areas.

You name the date and location – and we will be there to show you how hard School Nutrition Association members work to ensure that children are well nourished and ready to learn!

Sincerely,

Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

President
Nutrition for the Future, Inc.
Billings, MT 59102

MOBILE:    406-698-8868  
EMAIL: EatWellatSchool@gmail.com
FACEBOOK: School Meals That Rock                                                                TWITTER: @SchoolMealsRock                                                                                  

 

 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (6 of 6)

This is our sixth post about the key elements of taking school food photos that ROCK. We’ve covered Background, Quality, People, Lighting and Contrast. Our goal has been - one step at a time – to get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take some great PHOTOS of your employees, your customers and your food.

STEP #6. FOCUS. The final element is, in fact, the most important. You can have a beautiful background, high quality food, adorable children, proper lighting and gorgeous contrasting colors – but if your photo is not in focus, viewers will not get your message. The most important question is: Do you know how to FOCUS your Smartphone (or camera)? If you don’t, learn right now. To find instructions, search the model of your phone or camera and “how to focus” online. If you have an iPhone, the answer is simple: Tap the screen on the area that you want to be in focus. The phone will focus and adjust to the lighting at the same time.

THE GREAT: This photo from Sitka, Alaska, has it all. The blue tray allows the lunch to shine, even though it is not truly colorful. The meal is simple, but obviously good quality, especially when you learn the tacos are made with local fish. The student customer is adorable and clearly enjoying her lunch. There’s good contrast on the tray, nice lighting and the focus is excellent. Thanks to Sitka Conservation Society for sharing the tasty photo and their new Guide to Serving Local Fish in Schools.

Boat-to-school - AKA local fish - is popular in Sitka, Alaska

Boat-to-school – AKA local fish – is popular in Sitka, Alaska

THE MARGINAL: This photo is clearly not in focus. It does however show the rapid movement of lots of middle schoolers through a hallway and their use of a Grab-n-Go Breakfast Cart. If you decide to use a photo like this, it would be good to include another photo with better focus on the cart.

Lots of students moving past a Grab-n-Go Breakfast Cart

Lots of students moving past a Grab-n-Go Breakfast Cart

THE REAL NO-NOS: This is obviously a great lunch line with some great food options and a very proud employee. It just makes us wish that it was in focus.

A lovely line and happy employee are completely lost in the lack of focus

A lovely line and happy employee are completely lost in the lack of focus

HOT TIP: There are lots of other ways, including apps, to improve the performance of your photos on your phone. This article has 10 Tips For Taking Better Photos With Your Smartphone – and there are many more like it online. The best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice – and always focus your phone or camera! 

 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (5 of 6)

Have you ever thought about what really makes a food appealing in person or in a photo? It often has a lot to do with contrast. The contrasting colors of food on a tray (or plate) – and the contrast with a background color – can make a break or make the eye appeal of any meal. Setting up school food photos for maximum contrast – on color, shape and size – can make your customers eager to try your food or turn them off to your program before they even walk through the line. Today’s focus is on checking the CONTRAST of your photo before you click. We’re working hard to get you ready for great photos for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #5: CONTRAST. This is actually very easy once you get in the habit. Every time you set up a school food photo, look for contrast. Put complementary colors next to each other and look for different shapes and sizes of food on a tray or plate.

THE GREAT: This gorgeous line of trays from Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools Schools, Georgia, almost looks like a quilt of deliciousness. Notice the bright colors of green and orange  produce, along with the rich gold and brown tones of the roll, chicken and pasta. Notice that the alternating placement of the trays provides even more visual contrast. This Chefs Move to Schools lunch featured a local chef and local Georgia-grown vegetables – and probably tasted as good as it looks.

Chefs Move to School Lunch, Savannah-Chatham County Schools, Georgia

Chefs Move to School Lunch, Savannah-Chatham County Schools, Georgia

THE MARGINAL: This is actually an incredible meal – with house-made noodles for the casserole and some local produce. However, the photo does not do justice to the meal – because there is not enough contrast among the foods and with the tray (it could POP on a blue or read tray). It also suffers from florescent lighting – and from being slightly out of focus.

Wonderful meal, not enough contrast

Wonderful meal, not enough contrast

THE REAL NO-NOS: This is also a wonderful local meal – everything on the tray came from within the state where it was served. It was also incredibly popular with students in a Southern elementary school. Unfortunately, many people don’t recognize grits in the white bowl and the collards do not provide enough contrast. Viewers also cannot tell what is the container next to the sweet potato – and there is too much white and beige overall.

Poor contrast, poor lighting, too many lids and problems with focus

Poor contrast, poor lighting, too many bowls and too much white-beige

HOT TIP: Steer away from white on white – and add color whenever you can. Look for ways to contrast color, shape and size. (And, of course, flavors and textures for the lucky customers who actually get to eat the food!) The best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice. 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (4 of 6)

In today’s electronic world, great school food photos are not an option – they are essential. We are increasingly a visual society and your customers want to see your meals, not just read a few words on a monthly menu. Lucky for you, great photos are just a click away on your SmartPhone – IF you focus on SIX ELEMENTS every time you take a school food photo. We’re covering one element each day to get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #4: LIGHTING. One of the essential elements of a great food photo is good lighting, which can be difficult under the conditions in many school cafeterias and kitchens. Florescent lighting is harsh and tends to ‘wash out’ the natural colors of food. Professional food photographers agree – natural lightening is best for food, so the answer is simple: Take food to a window or skylight to get the lighting it deserves. Here are examples of GREAT, MARGINAL and REAL NO-NOS of lighting for trays shots.

THE GREAT: Even with a less than ideal tray color, this Starksboro, Vermont, lunch shows its true colors when taken under a cafeteria skylight. The house-made broccoli cheddar soup, Tuscan kale salad and hummus were outstanding – and the carrots were still locally-sourced from a farmer in March! Many thanks to Kathy Alexander, Laura Collaro, Mollie Silver and Doreen Bortz from ANESU Food Service Cooperative for a delicious dining experience in the their cafetorium.

Lovely, home-style lunch in Starksboro, Vermont.

Lovely, home-style lunch in Starksboro, Vermont.

THE MARGINAL: This is not a terrible photo and you certainly get the idea that this is nice salad bar with a variety of offerings. But with no adjustment for the florescent lighting, the colors are not very appetizing. The problems are compounded because the photo is also slightly out of focus. (Remember, salad bars are often on wheels so you can roll them over to a window for photographing.)

Washed out salad bar

Washed out colors in a beautiful salad bar

THE REAL NO-NOS: There are multiple problems with this photo but the lack of proper lighting makes everything worse. Notice too that the plastic wrap and other packaging reflects what light there is.

Not enough light, no natural light and plastic wrap make these items unappealing.

Not enough light, no natural light and plastic wrap make these items unappealing.

HOT TIP: If the lighting is not good where you want to take a school food photo, move the food toward natural light whenever possible. The best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice. 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (3 of 6)

Let’s be honest, great food photos of your school nutrition program are not an option – they are a necessity. With all the negative publicity about school meals, great photos are worth at least 1,000 words – and maybe 10,000+ views. Fortunately, fabulous photos are just a click away on your SmartPhone – IF you focus on SIX ELEMENTS every time you take a school food photo. We’re covering an element-a-day to get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #3: PEOPLE. Happy kids + appealing school food + smiling school nutrition professionals = WIN, WIN, WIN. Including people in your school food photos is a wonderful addition IF you always observes these ABCs: (A) You have permission to share the photo of the individual; (B) All food safety practices are observed; and (C) The meal and service are in compliance with USDA regulations.

THE GREAT: Candid shots of students do not have to be perfectly composed to be perfectly wonderful. This is terrific photo from Bethel School Nutrition Program in Eugene, Oregon - even though it is a little out of focus. There’s a gorgeous variety of food on the tray and the smile shows how difficult it can be for children to chew through all that food in a short school lunch period.

Back-to-School in Bethel, Oregon.

Back-to-School in Bethel, Oregon.

THE MARGINAL: We love this photo too – and the students are wearing gloves while they help to peel carrots from a nearby farm for processing in the school kitchen. We would not use it, because their hair is not pulled back in all cases and, more importantly, they are working outside. Perceived problems with food safety trump local food and happy students every day.

Outdoor location makes this marginal as a school nutrition photo.

Outdoor location makes this marginal as a school nutrition photo.

THE REAL NO-NOS: We really wanted to this photo to work because it showed local firefighters having breakfast with students during National School Breakfast Week – but we could not use it. Never, never post photos that are too dark and out of focus (stay tuned because we cover these topics next!)

Dark, out of focus photos just don't work.

Out of focus with poor lighting photos just don’t work.

HOT TIP: There is no need to show children’s faces in a photo. If you are worried about permission, just show their hands or the backs of their heads. And, ALWAYS remember, the best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice.