The School Lunch Front: Activists and Angry Moms

May 13, 2010 by · Comments Off 

By Samantha Weinstein

In the busy cafeteria of a North Dallas high school, the associate principal stands in line behind her students and chats with the lunch ladies. As she moves her tray down the line, she picks up fried chicken, a roll and onion rings, all offered on the day’s menu.

Back in her office, while discussing school lunches and the obesity epidemic among students, she points to the irony in her own meal.

“You saw what I ate today,” she said. “Everything was beige!”

While there were other options, including an orange and a cucumber salad, many of the students chose the same unhealthy items as their principal.

Dissatisfaction with school lunch programs has been an issue for years, yet now the situation may be more serious than ever.

This generation’s children may be the first in two centuries to live shorter lives than their parents, according to a report by The New England Journal of Medicine in 2005. The report points to childhood obesity as the leading cause of a shortened lifespan.

Children are beginning to develop chronic diseases like type two diabetes, a disease that used to only affect adults.

More than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, and many children consume more than half of their daily calories at school.

“Sometimes this is all students will get to eat all day,” says the associate principal.

The names of the associate principal, the lunchroom manager, and the school were kept confidential because certain superintendents send their kids to the high school.

The National School Lunch Program is a government run organization that reimburses public schools that meet USDA-approved criteria. Students are required to choose one entrée item and at least two side dishes. They can choose up to five items total.

Nutritional guidelines for school food programs contain no limits on sugar in subsidized meals.

An 8-ounce serving of reduced-fat chocolate milk contains nearly the same amount of sugar and calories as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola. A child consumes five extra pounds of sugar per year by choosing chocolate milk instead of white milk.

Flavored milk is offered in 97 percent of school districts, according to a 2006 report by The School Nutrition Association.

The National Dairy Council website published an article in 2007 titled, “Flavored Milk in Perspective.” The article states, “Flavored milks are as nutritious as unflavored milks,” and goes on to list the beneficial nutrients found in both white and flavored milks. The article makes no mention of the amount of sugar in flavored milks.

The National Dairy Council and the School Nutrition Association sponsored a study that found that adding flavored milk, along with appealing packaging increased milk sales in secondary schools by 15 to 22 percent.

The North Dallas high school offers plain, strawberry and chocolate milk, as well as juice drink options on their school lunch line.

The cafeteria does not offer water.

Activism among concerned parents and students is on the rise. The Internet is a tool being used to get the word out about how unhealthy school lunches are.

“It is a huge problem, and it is our children who suffer,” says a teacher who calls herself “Mrs. Q.”

Mrs. Q saw what her students were being served and decided to eat the lunch at her school every day for a year and blog about it to raise awareness. She keeps her identity and the school she works at a secret so she won’t compromise her career.

“This is my worst meal of the day, and this could be their shot at a good meal. It’s frustrating,” says Mrs. Q.

Another activist raising awareness is Tara Shedor, a senior student at Dundee Crown High School in Carpenter, Ill.

Shedor had an assignment to present an issue to her school board in November 2009. She chose to take on the school cafeteria food. Shedor requested ingredient information from Aramark, her school’s food distributor that is currently working with over 500 schools nationwide.

The Aramark website claims transparency and states, “Upon request, we share with customers all ingredients that go into our final product.

Yet, Aramark refused to disclose its ingredients to her.

“I’m a consumer,” says Shedor. “I should be able to know what I’m eating. A lot of people are not aware that food companies are not legally obligated to provide ingredient information,” says Shedor.

The assistant superintendent decided to join Shedor’s efforts, however a conflict of interest arose when the state was found to owe the district over $11 million due to poor budgeting.

Aramark offers the high school the best food contract every year.

“My school district has become dependent on Aramark,” says Shedor

Soon after, calls from the assistant superintendent ceased.

“It was not because he didn’t support me. My district is in such a financial crunch right now due to the state not providing the funds they budgeted us. This is causing us to become dependent on the cheapest available food provider because we simply can’t afford to lose them,” she says.

Shedor is not giving up any time soon.

“I can’t drop this project. I’m going to try to finish what I started,” she says.

Shedor is blogging, getting petitions from her schoolmates, and rallying for ingredient transparency so consumers can make educated decisions about what they choose to put in their bodies.

Angry parents are getting involved in lunch reform efforts as well.

Amy Kalafa, an award-winning film producer and mom saw the junk food her two daughters were consuming at school and got angry. She decided to make a documentary called “Two Angry Moms.” Kalafa teamed up with fellow angry mom, Dr. Susan Rubin, D.M.D., H.H.C. who has been “active on the school lunch front for over 10 years,” according to her biography.

The goal of the website and documentary is to provide tools and connections with the right people for those who want to work with their districts to improve school food.

Kalafa gets over a hundred e-mails a day from people across the country asking how to get started.

“The website exists to hook people up with what they need,” she says. “There is so much power in numbers.”

Kalafa and Rubin distribute their documentary for screenings across the country. Their hope is that the movie will initiate conversations and shed light on the prevalence of heavily processed, frozen meals in school cafeterias.

Keivon Gamble, a freshman CCPA major who graduated from Lincoln High School in 2009 recalls leaving for lunch every day to go to McDonald’s with his friends. “Lunch was gross,” he says. “I might have eaten it if they actually cooked the food instead of preheating it.”

The cafeteria manager of the North Dallas high school says that the frozen, prepackaged foods are easier to prepare.

She has been in the school lunch business for over 25 years and says that in the past, lunch ladies had to make the dough for rolls, clean and bread chicken by hand, and peel real potatoes.

Almost every item on the lunch menu today only has to be unboxed and preheated in large convection ovens to be ready to be served.

The manager was also proud to highlight the changes DISD has made to lower the calorie and fat content of their meals.

“We’ve taken out all of the deep fryers,” she said. “Everything is baked now, even the breaded chicken.”

A meal calculator on Nutri-Café is an interactive tool that breaks down the nutrition facts for school meal offerings in over 16 states, including DISD. The link to the calculator can be found on the “Menus/Nutrition” section of the DISD website.

According to the calculator, the crispy chicken and roll meal contains 953 calories, 53 grams of fat and 1,896 mg of sodium. A serving of onion rings contains 159 calories, 1 gram of fat and 692 mg of sodium. Chocolate milk contains 170 calories, 2 grams of fat and 260 mg of sodium.

In total, this school lunch meal comes in at 1,282 calories, 56 grams of fat and 2,848 mg of sodium.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans says to keep total fat intake between 20 to 35 percent of calories and to consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day for good health. This one school meal contains 44 percent calories from fat and over the days recommended allowance of sodium. Not to mention that this is an improvement on the deep-fried chicken and onion rings served in the past.

Activists who are taking the situation into their own hands are doing their best to change things and in some ways they are joining forces.

When Kalafa heard about Mrs. Q’s blog, she asked for her e-mail address to get in contact with her. Shedor has been a guest blogger on Mrs. Q’s site to speak about her own blog and mission.

“My goal in the beginning was to raise awareness,” says Mrs. Q. “I didn’t even know there was this vibrant movement going on.”

You May Know More About Nutrition Than Your Doctor

April 28, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Dr. Campbell believes that a whole food, plant-based diet is the best defense against major diseases and has the power to cure diseases more effectively than drugs. (PHOTO BY SAMANTHA WEINSTEIN / SMU DAILY CAMPUS)

Dr. Campbell believes that a whole food, plant-based diet is the best defense against major diseases and has the power to cure diseases more effectively than drugs. (PHOTO BY SAMANTHA WEINSTEIN / SMU DAILY MUSTANG)

Samantha Weinstein

Perhaps you’ve noticed it on our playgrounds or in our classrooms. Take a look around our shopping malls or our restaurants. It’s hard to ignore. America has a serious weight problem.

Over one-third of Americans today are considered obese. Cancer, heart disease and diabetes are on the rise. Research points to a whole food, plant-based diet as the most effective way to control weight, prevent and even reverse disease, yet the majority of medical schools fail to offer adequate nutrition courses within their curriculum.

“Nutrition has a greater ability to maintain and restore health than any other surgery or drug in medicine. Nutrition covers many different ailments and produces results surprisingly quickly. It should be part of the curriculum, no question,” says Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D and author of “The China Study,” which synthesizes more than 27 years of research detailing the connection between nutrition and chronic diseases.

Medical school students receive on average about 21 credit hours of nutrition, according to a National Research Council report in 1985. By comparison, an undergraduate nutrition major at Cornell University will receive 25 to 40 credit hours or about 250 to 500 contact hours and registered dietitians will have more than 500 contact hours.

The bulk of these nutrition hours are taught in the first year of medical school and are incorporated into other basic science courses.

A data analysis by The Clinical Administrative Data Service of the Association of American Medical Colleges indicates that from 1997-1998, only 33 medical schools had a required nutrition course.

Not much has changed since the report.

Natalie Pon, a first year student at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, interviewed at 15 medical schools and recalls that none had a required nutrition class. There are no required nutrition courses at UT Southwestern.

In 1997, The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute developed the Nutrition Academic Award Program. The program distributes five-year grant awards to medical schools to strengthen nutrition education, with an emphasis on preventing cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. From 1998 to 2005, 21 schools were awarded grants, including UT Southwestern.

“The funds aren’t there anymore but you can still see the influence in those 21 schools,” says Dr. Joanne Carson, Ph.D, R.D. and Professor of Clinical Nutrition at UT Southwestern.

The Clinical Nutrition course at UT Southwestern is a first year elective offered for zero credits. It is a 12-hour course and students receive an acknowledgement on their transcript for taking it.

“I don’t think you would see graduate students say ‘I got a strong nutrition education at Southwestern,’ but it is more than at other schools,” Dr. Carson said.

Karen de Olivares, Ph.D, assistant to the Dean, and Pre-Med and Pre-Health Advisor at Southern Methodist University, says that medical classes such as biology and physiology teach the underlying foundation of what effects food have on the body.

In his first book, “The China Study”, Dr. Campbell writes extensively on the subject of nutrition education in medical schools, as well as drug companies’ role in the problem. In it he exposes the affair between pharmaceutical companies and medical schools that has been going on for decades.

According to Campbell, pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts of money to educate doctors about their drugs. He estimates the cost to be over $100,000 per doctor. In his book, Campbell cites multiple ways drug companies are involved in medical education, providing meals, entertainment and travel, educational events, which are a little more than drug advertisements and conferences, which include speakers who are little more than drug spokespeople.

“It is a huge problem!” Dr. Campbell said. “Medical education and drug companies are in bed together and have been for quite some time.”

Dr. Carson says pharmaceutical companies might fund research and get involved when students are in residency and fourth-year clinic duty, but they are not directly involved in education.

“At UT they don’t get to touch medical students,” said Dr. Carson.

Americans spend 200 billion dollars a year on prescription drugs and that figure is growing at a rate of 12 percent every year, according to data collected by IMS Health Inc., an international healthcare data and consulting company.

“Using drugs to make people healthy is one strategy versus nutrition,” Dr. Campbell said. “Nutrition is the antithesis of drug use.”.

Every year, 100,000 Americans die from correctly taking their prescribed medication, which makes it one of the leading causes of death in America, according to a data analysis by Jason Lazarou, MSC; Bruce H. Pomeranz, MD, PhD; and Paul N. Corey, PhD.

Following the results of his research, Dr. Campbell believes that a whole food, plant-based diet is the best defense against major diseases and has the power to cure diseases more effectively than drugs and is without the side-effects.

“He’s an extremist and he’s not very acclaimed in the medical community,” Dr. Carson said.

Dr. Campbell is currently Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. He has more than 70 grant years of peer-reviewed research funding and is the author of more than 300 research papers.

Carson, Campbell and Olivares all agree that medical schools’ course curriculums are so loaded that there is no interest in adding more to them.

“I definitely see where they are coming from,” Pon said. “There is too much to learn and not enough time.”

Dr. Carson believes that putting more emphasis on nutrition in medical schools could help the obesity situation in the U.S.

“More people are becoming obese and are getting heart disease,” said Dr. Carson. “Primary care physicians need to feel comfortable advising on basic nutrition and also when to refer a patient to a registered dietitian.”

According to Dr. Campbell, whatever educational materials there are on nutrition are supplied by animal food and drug industry representatives.

He says it’s almost worse to get poor education than no education at all because doctors think they know what good nutrition is, but they don’t and they are giving false information to patients.

“Bad food is the root of so many people’s problems,” Pon said. “I guess that is what dietitians are for.”