thinking capped~ texas school lunch get served up a whole new kind of stupid.


 {disclaimer~ for those of you new to this blog due to the recess bill, you should understand that I tend to get riled up and talk like a sailor when it comes to school lunch. Because lowering the sodium content is a new school lunch initiative, I too, will attempt to lower the salty talk of my posts. Luckily, though, I have 10 years to cut that amount in half…}

So, back when I talked about my initial meeting with Rep. Burkett about recess and HB3770, I didn’t divulge the whole story.  

What I didn’t mention, was that I had actually asked her to file two, yep two,  bills. She said yes to both. Many of you have been reading this blog since the beginning, and you know that reforming school lunch is another huge priority of mine. You may remember HealthyTara, the Chicago senior, who took on her school district and ARAMARK when they wouldn’t give her the  school lunch ingredients. Being mom to a child with severe food allergies, I  joined her fight for school lunch ingredient transparency.

In addition to a recess bill, I asked Cindy Burkett to file a bill mandating schools make full ingredient disclosure and nutritional content available to parens. Any parent of a child with severe food allergies will tell you, they have to know the ingredients. Further, any parent of a child concerned about their child’s health wants to know the nutritional content of the food they eat.

Long story short, Cindy and her staff drafted and filed both bills. (Thank you!!) The recess bill came back with a fiscal note stating no anticipated cost. The ingredient transparency bill came back with one stating there would be a cost. Although, I can’t imagine why…by law, schools already have this information, so letting parents see what they already have should not cost anything. Regardless, Cindy called me and was very honest and forthcoming about my options. She told me that the House had made it very clear  they did not want to pass any mandates that would cost schools additional money. She said she would still keep the ingredient bill in the game if I wanted, but that she didn’t think it would have much of a chance with the current education budget climate. I agreed. I made the decision to not go forward with it this session for a couple of reasons. One, I am fully aware of the food industry’s lobbying power. I was not prepared to take them on in such a short amount of time. And two, I really wanted my school lunch blogging friends to be a part of the process. I knew that Dr. Susan Rubin, Mrs. Q, and Bettina over at The Lunch Tray would help make sure the bill had everything right. A bill this important needed to be perfect: researched, detailed, and not rushed.

So, you can imagine my newly refreshed disdain for the USDA when I was forwarded this Associated Press article by practically everyone I know. I’m sure you are already familiar with it. It’s the one about the $2 million USDA research grant that will take pictures of school lunch in Texas using high-tech cameras and highly sophisticated software. (clearly, not the only thing “high” around here…)

Some key quotes from the article:

Researchers hope parents will change eating habits at home once they see what their kids are choosing in schools. The data also will be used to study what foods children are likely to choose and how much of if they’re eating…

Here’s how it works: students are assigned lunch trays with a unique bar code. After the children load up their plates down the line — mashed potatoes or green beans? french fries or fruit?

{big, big sigh..} OK. Ready for it? Here we go:

This (apparently) just in! Texas elementary school cafeterias are not free-for-all buffets. While the last thing I want to do is defend processed school lunch,  I will, however, defend our lunch ladies. Our kids are not loading anything onto their own plates. Why? Because they aren’t the cafeteria workers and allowing them to do so would be unsanitary. Plus, a school in Texas will not allow a child to take mashed potatoes and french fries on the same day. More importantly, you should understand that kids are choosing between what is being served at school. How can you expect them to choose something healthy if it isn’t there? Last, but not least, Texas already has restrictions on portion limits…no picture neccessary, just ask the lunch lady.

When lunch is over and the kids return their plates to the kitchen, another camera takes a snapshot of what’s left on the tray. Software then analyzes the before and after photos to calculate calories consumed and, according to Trevino, a report of nutrients in the foods.

I wonder how Dr.Trevino plans to get the “actual” nutrients without my bill? Because each school gets their food from different suppliers, the nutritional content and ingredients will vary.I also wonder how excited the cafeteria is to take the time and effort to make sure each kid gets his or her assigned tray…while keeping the lunch line moving. 

The grant from the USDA will fund the study for four years. Trevino said the coming school year will be very experimental, with programmers fine-tuning the cameras and imaging software to accurately identify what’s a pear and what’s an apple.

Obvioulsy, I’m no scientist (although I do like to play one on my blog) and my idea is hardly “sophisticated”, I would just like to throw this idea out there…

My nutritional content and ingredient bill + the school lunch menu + asking your child “what did you eat today?”  =

a hell of a lot less than $2 million dollars.

Example: “Hey junior, I’m looking at your school menu. It says they had apples today. Did you get an apple or pear? An apple? Yes, that makes sense. Did you eat it?”

Ta daaa!! Please make that $2 million check paid to the order of “just a mom in mesquite”.

Now, I understand you may be unwilling to hand that money over to me. If that’s the case,  I will suggest the following not-so-crazy ideas:

1. Take that cash, purchase an actual kitchen for those schools and cook real, healthy meals from scratch for the kids. Take a picture of the kids before the healthy food, and then four years later…after the healthy food. Record their behavior, weight, and test scores during that time. Show the improved results to the parents. Once they see that their kids do like healthy food, they may want to adopt the same healthy diet. Plus, when kids ask for food like the kind they eat at school…it will be a good thing. #winning

2.  Take that two million dollars and donate it to the local food bank.They can turn that money into 8 million meals for hungry children here in Texas. Especially since,

Five San Antonio elementary schools will take part in the program. Researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and students at risk for diabetes are higher.

Seriously USDA? You and these researchers intentionally hand-picked  poor, overweight, minority children at risk for diabetes? And you think a four year, $2 million photolog scrapbooking “How your kid became overweight and diabetic~in pictures” is a good idea? What the hell is wrong with you? You don’t think poor parents already know they can’t feed their kids better? You want to give them pictures of their financial short-comings in action?

3. However, since you seem to have already committed to this food-o masochistic plan…

Give one school a kitchen and feed those children non-processed lunches made from scratch. Help them plant a school garden and encourage hands-on parental involvement. Show families and children how to transition into a healthy lifestyle. While they do that, continue taking pics of the other four schools’ lunches. Instead of just adding up the calories (since that doesn’t really matter),  add up the amount of additives those kids are eating with their processed food. Factor in the lack recess time. When the four years are up, parade the healthier kids around in front of the un-healthy kids’ parents. Tell the un-healthy kids to hold up those pictures of all the crap you allowed them to “choose” at school…include a list of all the non-food ingredients they ingested. Have the parents analyze the results. Tell them you thought a photoshoot would be better than feeding them well.

Now, run for the hills. Once parents realize that you are using their kids as lab monkeys under the guise of “counting calories for your own benefit”, they’re going to get pissed. You are “research scientists”…you know what’s making our kids un-healthy. You also co-incidentally chose a community with a high hispanic population. I have a feeling you took into account the higher probablity of parental language barriers with a greater chance they are under-educated about food choices.

Not cool.




3 Comments to “thinking capped~ texas school lunch get served up a whole new kind of stupid.”

  1. Hi again! Just saw your follow-up; you’re right that there are definitely pros and cons to this kind of research. I think the important thing is that we all keep trying out many different approaches to improving childhood nutrition, and that we all remain open to learning from each other (as you obviously are)! Thanks again for your contributions; I’m a big fan of your recess bill! Feel free to email me anything you’d like. 🙂

  2. Hiya,

    First of all, I want to let you know that you’re doing great work, and I respect your passion to improve the health of students here in Texas. We need all the help we can get.

    It’s clear that your frustrated about this project, but as a obesity researcher myself, I wanted to give a different perspective. Part of the battle against childhood obesity is determining (as accurately as possible) what kids are actually eating. There are different methods of interviewing children to find out what they’re eating, but kids don’t always remember everything, and they can’t always give accurate information on portion size. Advocates for healthy nutrition policy are helped greatly by sound, scientific data. This new method is a promising new way to accurately document what kids are eating, and how much of it. That information can then be used to draw hard scientific facts about the need for stronger nutrition policy in our state–and there can never be too much of this. It can also be used by obesity researchers in a variety of ways to improve childhood health. It may seem like a no-brainer to you that kids are not eating as healthily as they should, and there is definitely abundant data to prove that. But this new, possibly more accurate method of documenting this fact can only help in the fight against childhood obesity–not hurt. I was kind of surprised to see a fellow advocate react so negatively against it, because it really is a good thing.

    Again, thanks for all your hard work!

    • Mike~
      First off, I agree! My reaction is definitely not along the lines of most advocates, and I have received all kinds of backlash from this post (by anonymous emails…not in public comments). I want to thank you for being so kind in your response and openly signing your name to it! I have alot of respect for people like you! 😉
      Here’s the thing. I do understand that research like this will help gather some much needed information about what kids are eating and what they are not eating. If the goal of this research was to determine the amount of waste in the lunch room, I would be more likely to buy into it. But, that isn’t the case. They are wanting to count the calories and hopefully encourage families to change their eating habits. Here is what I’m concerned about:
      1) We already know that schools cannot afford healthy lunches. The extra six pennies per kid with the new lunch program will not go very far, especially since the program has been extended to include millions more kids. Add that to the rising cost of food, and all you get is children eating the same, if not lower quality of food.
      2) We know that this school food is already being marketed as healthy to the kids and parents. Parents are told that this food is “healthy”…now they will get conflicting information stating your child is overweight because they at too much healthy food. Why would they not start with posting nutritional content and ingredients first? Caloric consumption alone, to me, is not worth spending the $2 million dollars. A true “hard evidence” would measure the ingredients and additives. That is the evidence we need. I fear that in four years the USDA will come back and say, kids need less calories.
      3) What happens after the four years is up? In four years, these children will have established an eating pattern and taste for this food. Parents are not going to change their eating lifestyle at home because their kids are “too much” healthy food at school. Getting them to “portion control” processed food does nothing in the terms of long-term healthy eating.
      4) I know this sounds a bit funny….but I’m also worried that these kids will actually try to eat more and clean their plates because they know they are taking pictures! Kids are like that 🙂
      I hate the thought that these kids are having to continue eating this food with no substanial change in sight. Four years is a long time in “kid years” to their bodies.
      I have this also posted on my posterous blog…I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to post your comment over there , too. Your response is a welcome one that offers a valid counter-point…way better than the anonymous one just telling me “I’m a disgrace to the health food world!” 😉
      Also, if you don’t mind, I want to email you the nutrional content from my school district. As an obesity researcher, maybe you will be able to see where I’m coming from with this.
      Thanks again!

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