Sunday, October 25, 2009

Too Much Sugar

I had quite an eventful week.  We had a visit from "the Russians" - as my supervisors kept calling them - who were merely a group of volunteers from a school district somewhere in Russia, observing how we do things in the great state of Texas.  The main event, however, was Family Night, to celebrate our thriving after school program.  From an organizational standpoint, it was a bit of disaster; but from a food perspective, it was a great success!

Alongside the usual dinner fare - which on that night was some kind of casserole with mushy, grey green beans and canned peaches - my boss' Puerto Rican mother-in-law was kind enough to prepare chicken enchiladas and an almond cake for our guests.  The day before I had eaten in the cafeteria - more out of convenience than curiosity - and my very orange meal had consisted of chicken enchiladas, corn bread, refried beans, an orange and a carton of plain milk.  The home made enchiladas were significantly more tasty and less salty, and no doubt healthier, than the ones served that week in the cafeteria, 

In addition to the home cooking that we provided to our middle schoolers and their families, Food Food Food! had quite a presence at the event.  During Food Food Food! class that day, just hours before the celebration, our students learned how to make hummus, as well as a pesto-parmesan dip, with the help of staff from the Sustainable Food Center.  After tasting it themselves, and excitedly changing into their "uniforms" - black t-shirts and jeans - a handful of sixth and seventh graders who consistently attend the Food Food Food! class served the dips that they had made, with fresh vegetables and big grins, to their parents and fellow students.  The baby carrots were more popular than the dips, but it added elegance to the evening, and exposed dozens of parents and children alike to fresh and healthy appetizers.  Needless to say there were no Hot Cheetos at Family Night. 

Food Food Food! students also observed and then presented a "sugar in soda" demonstration during Family Night.  It went something like this:

"The USDA recommends that we should consume between 6 and 18 teaspoons of added sugar each day.   Added sugars are sweeteners that don't occur naturally in foods, like white and brown sugars, corn syrup, honey and molasses.  These are different than sugars that exist naturally in foods like fruits and milk. 

"Here is a 12 oz can of soda [hold up empty Pepsi].  How many teaspoons of sugar do you think are in a can of Pepsi?"

"5!" "8!" "20!"

"There are 11 teaspoons of sugar in each can of Pepsi, or Coke, or any other non-diet soda"


"How many teaspoons of sugar do you think are in a 20 oz bottle of Pepsi?" [hold up empty bottle]

"15!" "24!" "17?"

"You are exactly right.  There are 17 teaspoons of sugar in every 20 oz bottle of Pepsi.  So if you drink one bottle of soda, how much sugar - according to the USDA - should you consume for the rest of the day?"

"No more than 1 teaspoon!"

"Hmm, okay, that doesn't sound like much.  What other foods contain added sugars?"

"Cookies," "candy," "chocolate."

"You are exactly right.  But what about foods that aren't just snacks? Did you know that pasta sauce, fruit drinks, cereal, chocolate milk and bread all have added sugar in them?  Do you think it's possible to eat less than 18 teaspoons of added sugar if you drink a 20 oz bottle of soda that day?"

"Uhh, I don't know," "I don't think so," "No way!"

"What do you think can happen if you eat more than 18 teaspoons of added sugar every day?"

"You get fat!"

"Yes, you can definitely gain weight.  You are also probably not getting enough of the important nutrients that your body really needs to function healthily, like protein and calcium and the vitamins that are in fruits and vegetables."

"I heard that if you eat too much sugar you get diabetes."

"If you consume too much sugar then you often gain weight, particularly around your stomach, and become obese.  There is strong link between obesity and Diabetes Mellitus, also known as Type II Diabetes.

"Instead of drinking soda, we have switched to a fruit juice sparkler.  All you have to do is buy a bottle of sparkling or seltzer water and a carton of 100 percent fruit juice.  Pour half a glass of sparkling water and then fill the rest of the glass with juice." [Students demonstrate with juice and sparkling water, and offer plastic cups of fruit juice sparkler to audience members.]

"Mmmm, that's good," "I thought we were going to get to drink soda! Hrumph ..." "Yummy."

"If you switch to the juice sparkler, instead of soda, then you aren't consuming any added sugars, just a small amount of sugars that occur naturally in fruits.  You also benefit from different vitamins that are in fruit juice."

There were certainly mixed reactions to the demonstration, and I was surprised by the number of people who were disappointed that we weren't serving soda, since we had invited them to watch a "soda demo".  Were they listening at all?! But overwhelmingly students and their parents enjoyed the taste of our juice sparkler and appeared to walk away with some food for thought.  It was most rewarding to see how excited my students, who presented the demo, were about the juice sparkler and the information that they had just learned and shared about added sugars and soda.  I know that they will continue to drink soda, but hopefully this little demonstration planted a seed for future healthy decisions. 

I rarely see students drinking soda, because thankfully there are no soda machines in the school (except in the teacher's lounge) and students are not allowed to bring their own during the school day.  Although many afterschool staff would allow them to drink soda, most students haven't caught on to the disparities between school day and afterschool rules, and most don't bother to test the junk food limits after 3:30pm.  Soda consumption is not a visible problem at my middle school, yet I am sure that students and their parents guzzle it at home. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most teenagers consume soda at least once a week, and on average female and male teens who drink soda consume 23 and 32 oz of soda per day, respectively.  Although it has been documented that Hispanic children and teenagers consume less soda and junk food that their white and black counterparts, I'm sure that my mostly Hispanic students drink soda and I plan to check in with them in a few weeks to see if our demonstration had any impact on their beverage choices.  I will also make a concerted effort to serve and drink the fruit juice sparkler during after school programming, to model and reinforce the importance of forgoing soda for healthier drinks. 

I can't say that Family Night was not a stressful event for me, but I am happy to report that my students and I took full advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate what we have learned in Food Food Food! this semester: we provided samples of new recipes and wisdom about the often unhealthy contents of our favorite foods and beverages.  As my metaphorical apple tree continues to grow, I hope that the rivers of soda and sugar are slightly tempered by the sharing of knowledge, student engagement and personal investment in creating healthier schools and communities.

Friday, October 16, 2009

I couldn't do it!

Alright, I must confess, I only ate school lunch twice this week.  Partly due to circumstances beyond my control, and partly because I just did not want to.

Many people think that because I pay so much attention to food and advocate for healthy, locally-sourced diets, that I am some kind of nutritional purist.  They assume that I am a fun-hating vegan who runs 10 miles a day, obsessively counts calories and judges the food choices of everyone around me.  Anyone who knows me, knows that this could not be farther from the truth. 

I have a weakness for salt and vinegar chips, Cheezits, sour patch kids, ice cream of any kind, french fries, boneless buffalo wings, pizza and good beer ... and I rarely hesitate to treat myself to these sweet, fatty and salty treats.  But the thing is, on your average day, I manage to get my 3-5 servings of fruits and veggies, I eat oatmeal and whole grains, I drink lots of water, and I stop eating before I get too full.  This means that just about whenever I get the urge to go to eat an ice cream cone, or visit my favorite chain restaurant, Chilis - please don't judge me - I go, and I eat whatever I want when I'm there. (I should note that there are a number of negative implications of eating at chain restaurants - unrelated to diet - that include poor treatment of workers, reduced patronage for independent, local businesses and farms, and lack of cultural and dietary diversity). 

So what does this have to do with school lunches? Well, I didn't want to eat a soggy chicken patty sandwich and undercooked french fries on Wednesday because then I'd have wasted my junk food allotment for the day.  And I didn't want the students to see me eating fried food, lest they get the wrong idea (they don't know that I had oatmeal for breakfast and will have a grilled chicken salad when I get home).  Instead, if I had eaten a hummus and cheese sandwich on a whole wheat pita, with lots of veggies, some yogurt and a piece or two of fruit - like I do when I'm not forcing myself to eat cafeteria food - then I could have stopped for pizza on the way home, without worrying about my nutritional intake for the day.  And I wouldn't have been sending a message to students, who view me as a role model, that it's okay to eat chicken patties and french fries for lunch.  Besides, dinnertime is when I crave greasy, comfort food the most, not during breakfast or lunch when I still have energy and work to do, and don't want to be weighed down by a heavy meal. 

I don't think that children (or adults for that matter) should stop eating Doritos, Snickers bars and pizza.  I simply believe that the basis of their diet should be well-balanced and fresh, so that when they inevitably eat that bag of Doritos on their way home from school, or there's a pizza party in their classroom, we are not adding insult to injury. 

It is the job of educators, mentors and parents to model and encourage healthy habits, and educate students about the benefits of positive decision making.  Most people accept this role, particularly where drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex are concerned.  The philosophy also pertains to modeling effective study habits, good manners and appropriate dress.  However, I am certain that the majority of teachers and service providers go home and have a drink after work, swear when they get upset, some smoke cigarettes, others procrastinate and leave chores, studying and paying the bills to the last minute.  Whatever we do in our private lives, we refrain as much as possible from making unhealthy choices when children are present, because we are dedicated to helping them develop a solid foundation in healthy decision making.

Why doesn't the same philosophy apply to food? We all eat junk food, some more than others.  But does that mean that it is okay to eat Doritos in front of children, or worse, provide children with fried lunches or sugary soda?  I, obviously, would argue that it is not okay.  Personally, I don't want to be responsible for increased junk food consumption because a child who looks up to me saw me eating a Snickers bar and a Coke for lunch (this is more common in schools than you might think).  From what I can tell, cafeterias provide both healthy and unhealthy options for lunch.  By offering fried chicken and french fries as an option, aren't we sending a clear message that it is acceptable to routinely eat unhealthy, unbalanced meals for what is often  students' main meal of the day?  Especially when teachers opt for the unhealthy meal, in plain sight of their students, which is inevitable when the green beans are soggy and the pinto beans are non-existent. 

Teachers in my school are required to dress business-casual and jeans are frowned upon.  Similarly, our students must wear khaki pants and solid color shirts without text (no tank tops).  Now, obviously teachers don't dress this way in their homes, nor do students. We don't expect them to.  But we are modeling and encouraging a dress code that demonstrates respect and professionalism, and instills values that will ensure future success in the workplace and in how students view and present themselves.  And we certainly don't hand out tiny tank tops with the school logo, or short shorts with the school name across the behind.  So why do we serve french fries and drink Coke in front of our students? Unhealthy food habits not only reduce attentiveness, energy and self-esteem, but they are directly linked to an inexhaustible list of illnesses and disease. 

Unhealthy food should be a treat, an exception to the rule.  It is the responsibility of teachers and caregivers to help students develop healthy habits that will endure for a lifetime.  At school, we don't offer our students coffee or beer or cigarettes, and we don't wear shirts that reveal cleavage or hidden tattoos, so why do we serve and consume fried foods and Hot Cheetos and chocolate milk during the school day?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I didn't make it to school in time for lunch yesterday.  So, to make up for it I ate lunch AND dinner with my kiddies today. 

Lunch was a little overwhelming.  Even though I know the lunch ladies quite well,  communication was lacking and I never really understood what my options were.

Here's what the website listed for today's fare:

Cheese Sandwich
Pinto Beans
Steamed Spinach
Tossed Salad
Cinnamon Apples
Fresh Fruit Variety
Milk, Chocolate Skim
Milk, 1%
Milk, Skim
Ranch Dressing

What were my options in the cafeteria?

Well, there were definitely tamales, so I chose those (my very first tamale experience).  Next I chose mashed potatoes (with gravy) instead of white rice.  The sign on the lunch counter directed me to chose one meat, one bread and two vegetables, but I was offered a second bread - corn bread - and gladly accepted.  Next, there were a few small styrofoam bowls of plasticky looking salad, covered in plastic wrap, but I couldn't bring myself to opt for the salad since I knew I had a refrigerator drawer full of farmers market veggies waiting for me at home.  Instead I took a banana - the other fruit choices were green and red apples in plastic containers - and a carton of mixed berry juice that only contained 10 percent vitamin C.  Luckily it was 100 percent juice and no high fructose corn syrup.  The milks were covered up when I passed by, but I can only assume that that was because I had arrived a little early for the 8th grade lunch.  I was charged an even $3 and given a spork and napkin in a little plastic package with which to enjoy my lunch. 

And the result? The tamales were mushy and much too salty.  I only ate half of one.  The mashed potatoes were your standard instant mash: rather bland with a synthetically smooth texture.  I'm pretty sure that the gravy was vegetable-based, and it tasted just like the gravy that you buy in a packet at the supermarket.  The banana, was, well, a banana.  And the juice was unremarkable.  Who knew you could even buy juice these days that is not fortified with 100 percent DV of vitamin C?

I never saw steamed spinach or pinto beans, as advertised on the website, but I did notice a rack full of Doritos at the cash register.  It was unclear if they cost extra, or if they were included in the meal.  Hopefully tomorrow I will be a little bolder and ask what my healthier options are.  I felt confused and too embarrassed to ask for clarification about my choices, so it's easy to see what some of the obstacles are to making healthy choices for students who are surrounded by critical peers and in a rush to get back to their tables and socialize. 

For dinner, we served hot dogs with green beans, fruit cocktail and white hot dog buns.  For the first time, the meal was accompanied by condiments - two large boxes of ketchup and mustard packets.  As previously mentioned, the middle-schoolers must take all or nothing, so each of their plates contained a serving of each food.  I am not subject to this rule, however, so when I cut into line to grab myself a hot dog, I declined the almost brown, overcooked and over-salted canned green beans and the incredibly sweet fruit cocktail.  I used two packets of ketchup to enhance the taste of my rubbery dog and stale bun.

I certainly felt tired today, and lunch and dinner didn't help.  After arriving home this evening, I promptly stir-fried a large wok full of fresh vegetables - summer squash, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, spinach, red peppers - and felt a little lighter afterward.

Tomorrow I can look forward to a chicken burger and oven roasted french fries for my noontime meal. Oh boy!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Broccoli and hot dogs and fruit cocktail, oh my!

Okay, I know that I've posted twice this week already, but I just had an enlightening conversation with the Food Service Manager -  I'll call her Barbara - and I wanted to share it before the day takes over and all of this fascinating information slips away into oblivion. 

Barbara - who stays for an extra half hour everyday after school, to serve snacks to our middle schoolers - came to my office in between the sixth and seventh grade lunches this afternoon. We needed the standard I9 and W4 forms from her so that we can pay her for time, and as she dropped off her paperwork, we struck up a friendly conversation.  She told me how she is putting her daughter through medical school in Houston, and her son through business school here in Austin.  It is hard to steer a proud mother away from talking about her highly successful children, but I managed to sneak in a few questions about school lunch.

According to Barbara, who would know better than anyone else, 3 percent of the students at our school pay full price for lunch, which is set at a reasonable $2.25.  12 percent receive lunch at a reduced price (it was unclear what this price was), and a whopping 85 percent benefit from free lunches, five days a week. 

I told Barbara that I was interested in coming to the cafeteria one day to experience school lunch for myself.  She became very excited and, noticing the half-eaten pita sandwich on my desk and a tupperware overflowing with baby carrots, she assured me that I could find healthy options on any given day of the week.  Sometimes I feel like I walk around with an "I'm a health freak" sign on my forehead.  At least she didn't say, "you look like a vegetarian," which I've heard several times from students and co-workers since I arrived in Texas.  And you know what? I'm not a vegetarian! (anymore).

"Lunch is $3 for teachers, and there are chicken salads and sandwich wraps and fruits and vegetables every day," she informed me.  "The lunch menu is posted on the website for two weeks so you always know what you can get."  As soon as she left I checked out the website, which sure enough provided menus two weeks in advance and there were myriad fruits and vegetables listed for each day of the week, from garden salads, steamed broccoli and carrot and celery sticks, to pears, apples and fruit cocktail.

Students must chose between three and five items for their trays, two of which must be fruits and/or vegetables.

The menu for today is listed as follows:

Chicken Enchilada
Soft Beef Taco
Crispy Tacos
Turkey Hot Dog
Turkey Hot Dog w/ chili
Beef Taco Salad
Turkey Wrap
Tortilla Soup
Pinto Beans
Steamed Spinach
Garden Salad
Taco Fixings
Carrots; Celery Sticks
Broccoli and Carrots
Fresh Fruit Variety
Fruit Cocktail
Fruited Gelatin
Milk, 1%
Milk, Chocolate Skim
Milk, Strawberry 1%
Milk, Skim
Ranch Dressing
Hot Sauce

When I visited the cafeteria earlier in the week, I only noticed three milk choices, but four are listed on the website.  I instantly began to wonder if their are other disparities between what the district lists online and what is actually offered at lunch time.

The lunch menu website also states that "different menus [are developed] for each school level. Lunch menus are designed to meet one-third of  the Recommended Dietary Allowances for calories, protein, iron, calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Additionally the menus are analyzed to assure that the week does not exceed 30 percent of calories from fat or 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. Sodium, cholesterol and fiber are monitored as well. With our new feature you may view the nutrients for each food item on the menu.
Lunch consists of an entrée, two selections of fruit, vegetables or salad, bread which may be part of the entrée or separate and a choice of milk."

And as promised, below each of the daily menus is a link to a chart that lists each of the food items served that day, and the number of calories, the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats (in g) and vitamin A and D contained in each food serving.  Unfortunately there is no Percent Daily Value listed, as on nutrition labels, so without some extra time and a calculator, it's not immediately clear how much of their RDA the students are consuming at lunch time.

So, yes, for the most part, a well-balanced (although not so fresh) meal is provided to students.  Barbara made a point of telling me that the students are unaware of how healthy some of the foods are.  For instance, the meat that was served with the tacos today looked like ground beef, but in fact it was ground turkey.  And hot dogs are made of turkey too.  "The cafeteria never serves red meat," Barbara explained with pride.  In my book, hot dogs - whatever they are made from - are not healthy.  But they do taste good once in a while. 

The real issue, Barbara lamented, is that while teachers can always find a well-balanced lunch in the cafeteria, students do not make choices that are as nutritionally wise.  Barbara told me that she encourages the children, particularly the girls, to take milk as one of their five food items.  She tells the girls how she wishes that she drank more milk as a teenager in order to avoid painful and costly health problems as an adult.  Many of the girls do take the milk, but once they are past the cash register, they dramatically throw the milk into the trash can, for Barbara to see.  Barbara seems quite distraught by this public and targeted display of rebellion, and was frustrated by her inability to get students to make healthy choices that will benefit them now and in the future.

I have to say that I was mildly impressed with the menu - pinto beans and steamed spinach! - given Barbara's limitations as far as sourcing locally and actually cooking foods from scratch.  For some great insight into the challenges that nutritionally-minded Food Service Manager's face, check out this article that appeared in the New York Times last week, School's Toughest Test: Cooking

I won't draw any grand conclusions here, but my conversation with Barbara and a little bit of detective work have left me with a whole styrofoam tray full of food for thought, and some great questions to pursue.  I have decided that in order to truly understand what is offered in the cafeteria each day and the choices that students must make, I need to stand in line and make those choices myself.

A challenge to myself: next week I will purchase school lunch each day and experience the chicken tenders, strawberry milk and fruit cocktails alongside my students (and then I'll write about it).

Before she left, Barbara told me that she eats breakfast and lunch at the school everyday.  And that by the time she gets home for dinner, she knows that she has consumed all of the fruits and vegetables and calcium that she needs, and therefore she can eat whatever she likes for dinner.  Somehow, I don't think that's the reaction that I am going to have.  I fear that I will need to stock up on extra fresh fruits and veggies so that when I get home from work I can eat a healthier dinner than usual, to compensate for the chicken tenders and hot dogs that I will inevitably sample at lunch time. 

Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not that there's anything wrong with that

I did it!  I finally found the time to wait in the lunch line and buy myself 65 cents worth of chocolate milk.  I'm not a fan of chocolate milk to begin with, nor am I a skim milk drinker, but the half pint carton wasn't too bad.

Let's start with the good news: the milk sold at my middle school, and presumably throughout the school district, is local! ish. Oak Farms is based in Dallas, with plants in Houston, San Antonio and Waco.  As far as I can tell, all of the milk that is distributed by Oak Farms comes from cows that reside on farms somewhere in the state of Texas, and usually from within the region - in our case, central Texas - where the milk is actually being consumed.

I am already well acquainted with Oak Farms.  When we run out of the organic milk that we usually keep stocked in our fridge, I often pop down to the local convenience store to buy a small bottle to tide us over to the next grocery run.  Our corner store carries Oak Farm bottles with "Our Farmers' Pledge", stating that the milk comes from cows who are not treated with rbST.  Since the store owner refuses to carry organic milk (even though I've asked several times), I choose the Oak Farms brand and even feel good about drinking it.  But don't forget, *there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.  Every time I read that disclaimer on dairy products I feel like I'm in a Seinfeld episode: no rBST, not that there's anything wrong with that. (in the Seinfeld episode, Jerry uses this line to deny that he is gay, but at the same time prove that he is not anti-gay).

A few notes of rbST.  It stands for Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin, also known as Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.  As Professor Merrigan - now Deputy Secretary Merrigan - taught us last year, if you are on the side of "Big Ag" then you call it rbST.  If you are on the sustainable food team, you say "growth hormones" or rBGH.  So, if you are trying to sound scientifically informed in front of a group of policy makers or Big Ag lobbyists, then go with rbST.

Bovine somatotropin is the naturally occurring protein hormone produced in the pituitary glands of all cattle.  RbST refers to the artificial reproduction of these protein hormones in labs using recombinant DNA technologies.  After years of research and increasing opposition to its use, RbST was approved for commercial use by the FDA in 1993.  Since then, it is estimated that about one-third of American dairy farmers use it on some portion (on average 45 percent) of their herd in order to increase milk production.

Although there is little scientific evidence to support the widespread belief that rbST has adverse health effects on humans, there are many reasons to seek out rbST-free milk.  The first is that use of rbST frequently causes mastitis - a painful infection of the cow's udder that causes inflammation and the production of abnormal milk - leading to an increased need for antibiotic use and more frequent contamination of milk with pus . Yum.  In addition, widespread use of rbST amongst factory farms further threatens the viability of small dairy farms who cannot compete with rbST-induced levels of milk production.  Lastly, rbST milk contains startlingly high levels of a natural growth factor, IGF-1, which is readily absorbed by human stomachs and has been linked to breast, colon and prostate cancers.  Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union have all banned the use of rbST in commercial milk production.  If you're interested in rbST, more detailed information can found at rbST Facts and the Organic Consumers Association.

So, the good news is that the milk served at my middle school does not come from Wisconsin or Vermont or Mexico.  The bad news? Well, for starters, the Oak Farms milk that I buy for myself does not contain artificial growth hormones (everybody with me now, "not that there's anything wrong with that"); yet the half pint cartons provided to students contain no such guarantee.  Because, you know, it's not like children are more sensitive than adults to chemical additives in their foods, or anything.

The ingredients of the chocolate milk are as follows:  skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, cocoa (processed with alkali), salt, cornstarch, carrageenan, vitamin A palmate, vitamin D3.   Good news? I know what most of those ingredients are.  According to wikipedia, carrageenans are "a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides extracted from red seaweeds" that are used as thickening or stablising agents.  Bad news? High fructose corn syrup.

Good news: the chocolate milk contains no trans fats or saturated fats, 8 grams of protein, 10 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin A, 4 percent DV of vitamin C, 30 percent DV of Calcium, 2 percent DV of Iron, and 25 percent DV of vitamin D .  Bad news: the sodium content of the milk makes up 9 percent of our DV for sodium, and there are 29 grams of carbohydrates in a half pint of chocolate milk, 28 grams of which is high fructose corn syrup.

Up for grabs is the question of fat content.  The chocolate milk that I had the pleasure of sampling happens to be fat-free.  I personally prefer one or two percent milk, mostly because it tastes better, but also because a little bit of fat, especially the good kind, can go a long way in facilitating the absorption of essential nutrients.  Fats help the body to more efficiently use carotenoids, like lycopene and beta-carotene, which are found in those veggies that the students are consuming alongside their milk.  A girl can wish, right?  Fat is also important for maximizing the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, like the A and D vitamins that are present in our carton of chocolate milk.  (Please please correct me if I'm wrong on all this, my nutrition science is a bit rusty.)

When I was purchasing my little carton of milk, I noticed that while the sugary chocolate and strawberry milks contained no fat, the "plain" milk was labeled as low-fat or "1 percent".  It seems obvious to me that if we are going to promote milk consumption in our schools, as a necessary source of protein and calcium, then we should not compromise its nutritional value by including high fructose corn syrup and removing all fats. Wouldn't it be better to simply offer "plain", low-fat milk?  I can already anticipate the opposition to this kind of policy, which certainly requires some attention: will students drink unflavored milk? Or will the absence of chocolate and strawberry flavors reduce student consumption of this dairy product that has become such a symbol of nutrition in American culture?

Based on my experience with the after-school snack program and Kids Cafe - where students must take "all or nothing", and usually end up eating what's on their plate - I would strongly advocate for the removal of fat-free, flavored milks from school lunches.  I predict that without the option of strawberry and chocolate milk, students will chose the put the "plain" milk on their trays, and once it's there, more often than not, they will drink it.

There is no doubt in my mind that we should provide students with rbST-free milk.  Just like with genetically modified foods (GMOs), the impact of rbST on humans, animals and our natural environment remains unknown; therefore, we must not gamble with our children's health and future.

What do we want for our children? Low-fat, "plain" milk from cows not treated with rbST (not that there's anything wrong with that).

When do we want it? Now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


This was one of those weeks when you are forced to eat your lunch while walking to another meeting and when you spend most of the day having to go to the bathroom, but can never quite find the time for relief.  On Tuesday I had a few extra minutes during the seventh grade lunch to steal down to the cafeteria and buy myself some milk.  I'd been wanting to do this for a few weeks, just to get the experience of waiting in line, to see what kids chose for lunch, and to develop a fresh opinion of the milk that appears on millions of styrofoam trays around the country each day. 

I grabbed two quarters from my wallet, remembering that milk cost 35 cents when I was in school and assuming that 50 cents would cover the cost of inflation.  I've never been a fan of chocolate milk, but once I reached the counter, I chose chocolate over the plain and strawberry milks because I thought I could tolerate drinking it, and wanted to know what the ingredients were.  High fructose corn syrup?

"65 cents please m'am," Maria the cafeteria worker told me.  My face burned with embarrassment as I put the milk back and mumbled something about being right back.  By the time I got back to the cafeteria, an extra quarter in hand, the black gates were already pulled across the lunch line entrance and the kids were no where in sight.  A few lunch ladies sat off to the side eating their own lunches, but I didn't want to bother them, so I trudged back to my office to eat the cheese and tomato pita sandwich and nectarine that I had brought with me for lunch that day. 

I did not find another opportunity to buy milk this week, and obviously I did not find the time to research milk.  So y'all will have to stay tuned on the milk issue.  Again.

In other news this week ...

We had a district-wide training on community building for all after-school staff.  For the closing activity, we were asked to read quotations placed around the room and chose the one that we identified with the most.  The one that instantly jumped out at me was about integrity, using a tree as a metaphor.  Something about standing strong like a tree trunk, even when your leaves are rustled ...  Obviously, I liked the reference to trees and nature, and after having struggled with so much opposition to one of my own core beliefs about healthy eating, the quote rang true.  What the facilitator didn't tell us is that we would then have to go around the room and share with dozens of participants- mostly strangers - why we chose the quote. 

Staff members began sharing very touching stories about their roles as community leaders and role models for under-served youth, referencing their own personal struggles and some even teared up.  All I could think about was my conflict with Joe the previous week and I was wholly unable to think of something meaningful that did not relate to food.  My heart beat faster and faster and I know that my cheeks were glowing pink when all of a sudden it was my turn.  Having formed nothing else to say, I blurted out something about needing to stay true to my convictions about healthy eating even when no one agreed with me, and not giving the kids Hot Cheetos even though it's the easiest choice.  I really doubted that anyone understood what I was talking about.

When I got back to the office after the training, there was an email waiting for me.  It had been sent by the director of after school programming for the entire district, to all after school staff.  The email contained the district's public school policy concerning food - which was actually quite good, basically no candy or junk food can be given to students during the school day, and the number of permitted pizza parties was restricted - with a direction to adhere to this policy as closely as possible after school.  Could this have been a coincidence? I like to think that my anxiety and blubbering at the training was not in vain ... But in any case, I now have the administration behind me! I did not hesitate to write back and thank the director, and offer my services in conducting a training for staff on this topic. 

Other events of the week were not quite so momentous, but probably more rewarding.  As part of the Sustainable Food Center class "Farm to Fork" - the sister class to Food Food Food! - we planted our school garden with the help of three very eager middle schoolers.  Onions, strawberries, oregano, turnips.  The kids were grinning the whole time and since most of what we put in the ground were transplants, the garden is already green and thriving! 

Yesterday I took five of my Food Food Food! students to the downtown farmers market.  Three of them were so excited that they arrived an hour before we were supposed to leave.  I thought I would get to school early so I could drink my coffee and collect all the materials, without having to worry about the kids.  Alas, they were already there when I pulled up in the twelve-seater van, grinning, jumping up and down and shouting "Miss Abby, is that your car?"

Two of the girls brought money with them, unbeknownst to me, and once at the farmers market they quickly located all of the locally-produced sweets they could find.  Each time I bumped into them they were stuffing their pretty little faces with brownies and cookies and lemonade.  I was exasperated at first.  But once they completed the scavenger hunt I had given them, and they had spoken with several farmers and identified vegetables they had never seen before, I felt a bit better.  One of my students worked very diligently on his scavenger hunt and wrote several answers for each question.   

Find a farmer who sells meat and ask him or her what animal the meat comes from, and which body parts s/he is selling.  Cow! he wrote, and then proceeded to list all of the cow's body parts, including stomichFind a vegetable that you have never seen before and ask the farmer what it is.  Egg plant.  Turnup greens.  Green tumates.

I told the children that they had $20 to buy lunch for the whole group, and after they figured out that that was $4 each, I suggested that they pool the money together to buy food for a picnic.  Bread, cheese, tomatoes.  Unfortunately one student spotted a pizza stand, where a local pizza restaurant was selling fresh slices for $3.75 a pop.  Three students elected to buy pizza and I had to stick to my word that they could decide on their own how to spend the money.  The other two students were enamored with the idea of a picnic - "sandwiches like my grandmother makes!" one exclaimed - and so I helped them bargain with a few vendors to get all of the goods they needed for a wholesome picnic for under $8: smoked mozzarella cheese, whole wheat baguettes and heirloom tomatoes.  Everyone was pleased with their lunch, and the makeshift picnic made up for my dissatisfaction over the brownies and cookies.  Next week I will definitely include a lesson on portions and sugar in our Food Food Food! class.

And that's my week in a locally grown, organic Texan nutshell.