April 2014





Two new studies underscore hopes, frustrations of revamped school lunches

March 4, 2014, The Washington Post

A new government study indicates that school districts across the nation have struggled to implement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) revamped nutrition standards for school meals, while a separate, privately funded study shows students are eating more fruits and vegetables because of those same new standards.

Neither study, advocates suggest, offers a full picture yet on how the revamped nutritional standards, part of the Healthy, Hunger–Free Kids Act of 2010, are impacting school cafeterias, student participation in the National School Lunch Program and childhood obesity.

The recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report paints a fairly bleak picture of school districts trying to adapt to the revised USDA nutrition standards, which went into effect during the 2012–2013 academic year for administrators who want the extra federal reimbursement for their lunch programs. Among the changes to the National School Lunch Program, which was established in 1946 and feeds more than 31 million kids annually, is a requirement for students to select either a half cup of fruit or vegetables with their meals. School cafeterias have increased the amount of whole grains, reduced calories, and eliminated the availability of whole and 2 percent milk as well.

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning, and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements. The GAO researchers based their findings on historical data as well as on 2013 surveys and interviews with state child nutrition directors and food service providers at eight school districts across the country. They also observed lunches and spoke with students.

Some of the issues singled out in the GAO report have been resolved, noted Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For example, Wootan said, the USDA has already eliminated the maximums on meats and grains, which led some students to protest small serving sizes in school cafeterias. But more important, Wootan said, change is never easy. Challenges adopting the new standards were expected.

“Teaching science also is challenging, but that doesn’t mean schools should drop it from the curriculum,” Wootan noted in an e-mail. “And even if schools do a great job teaching science, not all students get passing marks. Schools keep working to help as many students as possible do well and pass.”

“Ultimately when you consider the long-term public health benefits, these initial bumps don’t compare to your savings and impact of improving school nutrition for 31 million kids per day,” Wootan wrote.

But the GAO report notes that nationwide participation in the program has declined by more than 1 million since its peak of 31.8 million students during the 2010–2011 academic year. Participation during the 2012–2013 school year dropped to 30.7 million students, the lowest since the 2006–2007 school year when 30.6 million students participated. The vast majority of the lunch program drop-outs have come from students who pay full price for their meals.

The report points out several factors that may account for the drop: the increased meal price, smaller portions, and a growing lack of interest in the lunch program among paying students. Participation among paying students has been dropping since the 2007–2008 school year.

At the same time, the GAO report notes that participation in the free meal program has increased significantly since the same academic year, or roughly when an economic downturn began in the United States. “[O]ur analysis of USDA’s data shows that the number of students approved for free meals nationally has been increasing at a greater rate since school year 2007–2008, and the number of students required to pay full price for their lunches has been decreasing.”

The decline does not surprise Howell Wechsler, chief executive of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and former director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One of the things is getting students used to” more healthful foods, Wechsler says. “It takes a while to get them used to new food…It takes a little bit of trial and error.”

Despite the apparent gloom and doom of the GAO report, its authors do not recommend scaling back the USDA nutritional requirements for the lunch program, unlike other groups. Food service directors and other members of the School Nutrition Association are lobbying Congress to drop a number of requirements, including the one forcing students to select a half cup of fruit or vegetables.

“Some students simply do not want to take a fruit or a vegetable with their meal,” the association notes in its position paper on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2015. “Forcing students to take a food they don’t want on their tray has led to increased program costs, plate waste, and a decline in student participation.”

There was better news for health–food reformers from researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health, who just published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study examined two days in the fall of 2011 at four low–income elementary and middle schools in the Boston area. The next fall, after the new nutritional standards kicked in, the researchers went back to the same schools to measure food selection, consumption, and waste patterns among the 1,030 students who took part in the study.

The results show that students were eating more fruits and vegetables overall, sometimes based on the fact that students were required to select one or the other. For example, the percentage of fruits consumed declined from one year to the next, but the total number of fruits increased because more students selected the food to begin with.

And contrary to what the GAO reported, the Harvard researchers indicated the new nutritional standards were not leading to more food waste. The standards, however, do not seem to be reducing waste, either.

“Although the new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste, the consistently high levels of fruit and vegetable waste are concerning,” the authors wrote. “Students discarded roughly 60 to 75 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruits on their trays. These levels of waste are similar to those previously found in other urban, low-income schools in Massachusetts, with a different ethnic population. This suggests that the high levels of fruit and vegetable waste have been a continuous problem that warrants serious attention.”


Original source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/food/wp/2014/03/04/two-new-studies-underscore-hopes-frustrations-of-revamped-school-lunches/

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Publications & Tools

New tool added to NCCOR’s Catalogue of Surveillance Systems assesses restaurant menu items

The Catalogue of Surveillance Systems recently added MenuStat, a new dataset from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. MenuStat provides nutrition information to over 35,000 foods from America’s most popular restaurant chains. The dataset can be used by researchers, practitioners, and others to access key nutritional information, track changes over time, and compare categories by restaurant (e.g., burgers, pizza).


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Rudd report shows that children need to be protected from unhealthy food marketing until at least age 14

Children need to be protected from unhealthy food marketing until at least age 14, according to a report from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The report—funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—cites evidence that children between the ages of 12 and 14 in particular have “unique vulnerability” due to greater independence and higher levels of media consumption.


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Elementary schools increasingly offering walking and biking programs

The prevalence of elementary school participation in Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs increased by 54 percent between 2006–2007 and 2012–2013, according to a research brief from Bridging the Gap. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the brief’s authors found that nearly one-third of students attending schools with SRTS programs walked or biked to school, compared to approximately 20 percent of students at schools without such programs.


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Childhood Obesity Research & News

Companies tap celebrity power for extreme vegetable makeover

March 15, 2014, NPR [The Salt Blog]

By Allison Aubrey

Marketing to kids may have gotten a bad rap in the past, especially since children have been the target of so much junk food advertising.

But it is a new day.

Increasingly, companies are seeing profits pushing ultra-healthy stuff. And they are not using finger–wagging, guilt–ridden, eat–your–veggies–because–they–are–good–for–you messaging.

Birds Eye is taking a page from the playbook of other companies that have had success leveraging the power of teen pop stars: The frozen food giant is turning to Disney.

“We sat in a room, and we said, if we want to get kids to like vegetables, we’ve got to take a different approach,” Mark Schiller, division president of Birds Eye (which is owned by Pinnacle Foods Group) said at this week’s Partnership for a Healthier America conference in Washington, D.C.

Birds Eye has already experimented with the teen idol approach to marketing. In 2012 it teamed up with Nickelodeon and Jennette McCurdy, star of the network’s popular show iCarly, to jazz up the image of vegetables.

Now, Birds Eye has inked a deal with Disney. The collaboration will begin this summer, and executives say they will turn to top-ranked kid and tween targeted shows and multimedia sites to help give veggies an image makeover. They also plan a healthy living TRYathalon Road Tour, where they are hoping to inspire kids around the country to sample, or TRY new combinations of vegetables.

Schiller says Birds Eye started marketing its frozen fruits and vegetables to kids a few years back. As a result, he says, “we’ve seen our business grow.” He says this past year, when the company stepped up its advertising to kids, sales jumped 8 percent, “which is phenomenal in an industry with very little growth.”

And Birds Eye is not alone. Bolthouse Farms has shown that if you use Mountain Dew-style tactics in your advertising, even carrots can be cool. In fact, they have had great success with their extreme baby carrot campaign.

It is not just those who are targeting kids who are having fun with food. Earlier this week we [NPR] introduced you to the Food Porn Index…, which is also the brain child of the folks at Bolthouse Farms.

The Food Porn Index tracks which foods are trending in social media and presents the data in a swirl of food images….The “play factor” is huge, [said] Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse Farms….

Increasingly, companies are finding that it is easier to sell healthy food.

“There is definitely momentum,” says Larry Soler, president of the Partnership for A Healthier America, which for several years has been nudging food companies to commit to more healthful approaches. And there was lots of evidence of this momentum on display at this week’s conference.

“Healthy habits are becoming the new norm,” Sam Kass, the executive director of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, told me as we toured the booths of vendors hawking health foods at the conference.

He pointed not only to all of the food on display, but also to companies such as Knowledge Universe, owner of Kinder Care daycare centers, which is now serving ultra–healthy family–style meals. As we have reported, this style of eating nudges kids to experiment with new foods and right-size portions.

“We’re making progress,” Kass says.


Original source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/03/14/289617079/companies-tap-celebrity-power-for-extreme-vegetable-makeover

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USDA drafting new standards for convenience stores participating in food stamps program

March 20, 2014, WBEZ

By Natalie Moore

The recently enacted federal farm bill has a new provision requiring that convenience stores sell healthier food.

It requires “depth of stock” on the shelves of convenience stores that are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps.

Depth of stock means more varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats.

“Our goal is really primarily to make sure SNAP households or low–income households or people with limited income have access to healthy foods,” said Kevin Concannon, under secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Concannon said 82 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed at supermarkets or big-box stores. The challenges are the small stores often in low–income neighborhoods. Last year USDA held hearings around the nation about policy changes at convenience stores.

Food access is a big issue in Chicago food deserts. Gas stations, liquor stores, dollar stores, and corner stores are the most common grocers. They accept food stamps, but these retailers are typically repositories for junk food. And a common complaint has been that the USDA food stamp standards are too low and those low standards are not enforced.

“It’s too minimal, frankly,” Concannon said.

The USDA has to iron out the regulations, but officials want the new rules to be in place by the end of the year. Once they are released, there will be a comment period before the changes take effect.

Concannon said USDA will not object if stores drop out of the program once the stricter regulations are in place. But food stamps are a boon for retailers. Across the country SNAP provides $80 billion in food stamp benefits. In Chicago, researcher Mari Gallagher said the Roseland community, a food desert, has 87 stores that take food stamps, earning on average $5,000 a week.

Only two of those Roseland stores are “mainstream,” which means they stock enough options to support a healthy diet on a regular basis. The rest were “fringe” stores that had limited food choices and specialized in high–fat and high–salt junk food.

Gallagher said the federal changes are necessary.

“I’m super excited about how fringe stores could improve and serve the community in the future and help their own bottom line,” Gallagher said. “Being in SNAP is not an inherent right. It’s a privilege they need to learn.”

But she wants the USDA to put in safeguards for enforcement.

“People might not be worried about tougher rules because who’s going to enforce them?” Gallagher suggests that the federal government partner with local public health authorities to ensure compliance.

Shamar Hemphill, an organizer with Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), agrees about accountability. IMAN’s approach to help eliminate food deserts is to not wait for a big-box store to come, but to improve existing corner stores where many people shop.

Muslim Run is the name of the campaign and it has expanded to four stores. Organizers have had success in getting fresh produce not only stocked but sold.

Hemphill said he looks forward to the new federal regulations but change “won’t happen unless the residents push and demand that these stores operate and carry these staple foods.”

Frank Hafeez manages Halsted Grocery on 71st Street. The liquor-convenience store in Englewood has a tray of lemons, oranges, grapes, and wilted green bell peppers. Boxes of potatoes and onions are stacked by the door.

“I would like to know more,” Hafeez said of the federal regulations. “We carry what customers request.”…


Original source: http://www.wbez.org/news/usda-crack-down-convenience-stores-accept-food-stamps-109895

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WHO guidance: Cut daily sugar intake to less than 5 percent of daily food intake

March 5, 2014, Reuters

Sugar should account for less than 5 percent of what people eat each day if they are to avoid health risks such as weight gain and tooth decay linked to excessively sugary diets, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5.

Issuing new draft sugar guidelines, the United Nations health agency said its recommendations were based on “the totality of evidence regarding the relationship between free sugars intake and body weight and dental caries.”

Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides that are added to foods by manufacturers, cooks or consumers, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates.

“WHO recommends reduced intake of free sugars throughout the life-course,” the agency said in a statement.

It said the 5 percent level should be a target for people to aim for—calling it a “conditional recommendation”—but also reiterated a “strong recommendation” that sugar should account for no more that 10 percent of total energy intake.

“There is increasing concern that consumption of free sugars—particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages—increases overall energy intake and may reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories,” the WHO statement said.

This can lead “to an unhealthy diet, weight gain, and increased risk of non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer).”

Five percent of total energy intake is equivalent to around 25 grams (around 6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for an adult of normal body mass index.


Original source: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/05/health-sugar-who-idUSL6N0M22D220140305

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