Political battles have no place in our schools’ cafeterias

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

When you think of controversial policies, school lunch isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  As a nation fighting an obesity epidemic greatly impacting youth, school lunches play an important role in getting the nation back on track.  Schools provide one, sometimes two, of the three meals kids eat each day.  These meals pack the biggest punch for kids who live in food insecure households and depend on school provided meals for nourishment.  How can we justify serving anything but wholesome, nutritious food when that is the case?

The House Appropriations Committee begs to differ.  Tomorrow they are expected to approve a 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department granting a waiver from nutrition standards required by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  The requirements set limits on sodium and substitute whole grain foods for those that are not.  The Senate Appropriation Committee’s bill does not include the waiver setting this up to be a drawn out fight.

Tuesday, Michelle Obama came out strongly opposing the House Republican led attempts to scale back healthier school lunch standards saying we can’t afford to play politics with nutrition standards. Prior to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, there were no standards for what could be served in schools. Hiring criteria for food service personnel and annual nutrition education training as well as grants for upgrading kitchen equipment and providing farm to school education to students are a few of the major proponents of the original bill.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry backed trade association representing cafeteria administrators, argues the new requirements are unduly expensive and lead to food being wasted by students.  Since issuing their statement in opposition of the regulations, nineteen former presidents of the School Nutrition Association have publicly opposed the group’s platform and urged Congress to keep the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act regulations intact. As Michelle Obama said, “ the last think we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health.”



When it comes to GMOs how much do we really know?

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

Just last week Vermont took the initiative and passed a state bill requiring GMO labeling.  While Connecticut and Maine have both passed GMO labeling acts, that legislation will only go into effect when a certain number of other states have passed similar GMO labeling requirements. Vermont’s law won’t go into effect for two years, that is if a lawsuit doesn’t knock it down first.  State legislators expect push back from major genetically engineered seed producers, like Monsanto. An extra $1.5 million legal fund was added into the legislation to help cover any costs a lawsuit may incur in court.

gmoThe recent GMO labeling buzz has got me thinking. What do we, as a nation, really know about GMOs? Turns out we know surprisingly little. Only 26 percent of consumers believe that they have eaten genetically modified foods and 60 percent believe they haven’t. For anyone who has taken the time to research this issue, they would know that it is incredibly unlikely that someone has never eaten genetically modified foods. Ten years ago in 2004, 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified. It is very likely that these numbers have only grown since then. What I find most disturbing is that among consumers who claimed to know the most about GM foods, 43 percent still thought that they had never eaten any GMOs.

If we as a nation are so uneducated about how much of our food is genetically modified then it is a good idea that GM foods be labeled as such. The sheer volume of GM foods in this country might disturb some consumers and lead to self-education about GMOs. Some consumers might conclude that they aren’t as detrimental as some anti-GMO activists make them out to be. Many argue these modified foods have the capacity to feed the ever-growing, ever-hungry population of this planet.

What’s more, I doubt that consumer habits will greatly change based on GMO labeling.  The people who are passionately anti-GMO likely know which foods contain GMOs already and avoid them. The people who don’t care, well they might not even notice the labels, and those that are curious might read up on genetic modification and learn more about what genetically modified really means. It is important that food producers include robust labels on their products so consumers know exactly what they are eating. For this reason, labeling food that contains GMOs is the right decision for consumers.

A step in the right direction with new nutrition facts labels

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

You may have heard about the Food and Drug Administration’s recently released proposed revisions to the Nutrition Facts label.  The results were resoundingly positive with only a couple points of contention.  Nutrition Facts labels first came about thanks to the passage of a 1990 law requiring them.  They have only been significantly updated once, to include trans fat in the list of required nutrients, since their creation.  Needless to say, they were due for an update.

One of the most notable changes is the emphasis on calories.  The increased font size and bolding of the calories amount play an important role in consumer decision making and contribute to addressing the obesity epidemic in America.  FDA also proposed to add a line to the required nutrients for “added sugars”.  Added sugars are a good means of determining which food options are healthiest.  While added sugars do not affect the body any differently than those that occur naturally, they indicate that a food is likely more processed and most likely contains unnecessarily large amounts of sweetener.

The FDA would also like to see that all fiber listed on the Nutrition Facts label exclude purified processed fibers like maltodextrin and inulin.  Processed fibers are not as beneficial as those that are unprocessed and frequently found in whole foods.  A few other high points to the proposed changes are removing the “calories from fat” section and getting rid of the table that lists nutrient labels for 2,000-2,500 calorie diets and replacing the required amounts of vitamins A and C listed with potassium and vitamin D.

The largest concession was that the Daily Value of sodium was only lowered from 2,400mg to 2,300mg.  Ideally it would have been lowered to 1,500mg as is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for people that are over 50, have hypertension, or are African American.   Daily Values are typically based on the most vulnerable populations.  It would be ideal if that applied to this proposed change.

If you are as excited as I am about seeing these new Nutrition Facts labels hit the shelves, you might want to check your enthusiasm.  We shouldn’t expect to see them until 2018 as it may take a while to finalize the rule and industry has two years for implementation.

March is National Nutrition Month and it’s time to get informed. Do you know where your calories come from?

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

March kicks off National Nutrition Month – a good time for us to reflect on our diets and physical activity.  We all know the importance –and the challenges — of maintaining a healthy weight.  A third of Americans are obese and another third are overweight.  That means that two thirds of Americans are at increased risk for certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and other life threatening illnesses that accompany excessive poundage.

There are a few promising signs that the nation’s health is improving, however. Just this week, a major federal health survey reported that the obesity rate among two-year-old to five-year-old children has dropped 43 percent. Children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult. There is a strong focus nationwide on improving eating habits and being more conscious about what we put into our bodies.

In pursuit of sound eating practices, we recommend watching portion sizes, looking at nutritional labels and moderation above all else.   It is easy to overeat when we are surrounded by high calorie, high fat foods, many with surprisingly little nutritional value.  Americans’ top sources of calories, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), are cakes, cookies, and sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.  These foods are laden with fat and/or sweeteners and easy to consume in large quantities.  Surprisingly, some foods like candy contribute only 2.2% of calories to the American diet.    First Lady Michelle Obama says it well – it’s not that we can NEVER have certain foods like candy or ice cream, but that we should enjoy them in moderation.

We believe strongly in studying Nutrition Facts labels!  They are also being updated for the first time in 20 years.  Almost every packaged food item includes them: they provide calories per serving and help consumers monitor and control caloric intake for the recommended 2,000 calorie a day diet.  The updated labels will now reflect more accurate caloric information, provide larger font and a listing for added sugars, which is useful to know. Focusing on eating more foods that are nutrient dense and low in fat and calories is a critical step in the right direction if you’re looking to shed a few pounds.  As “My Plate” suggests, making half of your meal fruits and vegetables is an easy way to do this.  A few other tips to get on track are:

  1. Increase intake of whole grains, making half of all grains consumed whole grains.
  2. Reduce consumption of high fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages like soda.
  3. Monitor and minimize calorie intake from alcoholic beverages.
  4. Be aware of how large portion sizes are, especially when dining out.
  5. Prepare more meals at home where you have control over the amount of added salt, sugar and fat.

A balanced diet is just that, balanced.  Eat a variety of foods:  it keeps your food choices interesting and satisfying.  And of course, partake in the occasional indulgence. A very restrictive diet can backfire.  A candy bar, piece of chocolate, or some other reasonably small treat can be helpful in curbing cravings.

Finally, physical activity can play a critical role in maintaining a healthy weight.  The Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes, or two and a half hours of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking at a brisk clip or riding a bike, each week.  The idea of fitting this in can be daunting for many of us, but it helps to know that walking to work or taking a quick stroll on your lunch break counts.  Any amount of physical activity – however brief – yields rewards and is better than none at all.  Taking these steps to better your health may be difficult at first, but with time and practice, they become habit and will surely enhance your quality of life.

Getting in touch with your inner farmer

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

It’s unseasonably warm this week and I’ve found myself longing to populate my deck with plants despite the inevitable cold that may lie ahead.  Having grown up in a rural area with parents who spent the majority of our summer weekends landscaping and planting, I feel a deep satisfaction in caring for plants.  We never had a successful garden exactly, maybe some tomatoes or herbs in pots but there was something beautiful and amazing about creating something sustaining and useful from tiny seeds.

I worry that Americans are becoming less and less connected with their food. What we buy in the grocery store can be so vastly different than its origins.  Lately there has been some buzz about micro-gardening.  It’s perfect for people who have very little land to grow on, such as those of us who live in cities or apartments.  Micro-gardening focuses on fitting as many plants, and thus produce, into as few square feet as possible.

Companies like Earth Starter are creating aids to achieve maximum space use.  Their creations, the Nourishmat and Herbmat may soon be available for purchase but are currently only available through donation to the Kickstarter Campaign.  The mats come with “seed bombs” that are planted in designated spots. Window gardening is an even better, yet somewhat involved, solution for apartment dwellers.  If you’re able to set up one of these hydroponic window systems, kudos to you.

Encouraging the average American to cultivate his or her green thumb could, through education and assistance, help the urban poor get more fresh food to their tables.  Maybe if we all grew fruits and veggies, we’d feel a little more connected to them, more motivated to eat them.  Its reason enough for me to give it a try.  And for those of you who have absolutely no interest in gardening but still long for extremely fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables, there’s always Community Supported Agriculture which allows consumers to buy directly from farmers and in some cases affords you the opportunity to visit the farm.

Love and food: Old friends

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

Food is a cornerstone of love. Think of all the ways we use food to bond. Cooking for people we care for, eating together as a means to share conversation, giving food as gifts. I grew up in a family for whom food was a material form of love, and while this might not be every person’s experience, I think we can all understand the association. This Valentine’s Day, couples will flock to restaurants, cookies will be baked for families, and young valentines will exchange candy at school. It has me thinking about what are our most loving/loveable/love inducing foods.

Some foods that we associate with love are comforting. Peanut butter and jelly, for example, might have been what your mom made you for lunch every day growing up. Other foods, commonly called aphrodisiacs, supposedly evoke passion. As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, aphrodisiacs are “something that excites” but scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that aphrodisiacs work as we intend. Despite their somewhat ambiguous nature, many aphrodisiacs have other positive health effects.

  • Some of the most notorious aphrodisiacs are oysters. They are known to have high levels of zinc, a mineral proven to increase testosterone in men, and iron, which can increase energy in people with an iron deficiency (most commonly women).
  • Hot peppers, another common aphrodisiac, are packed with vitamins and an antioxidant called capsaicin which may fight cancer, suppress appetite, burn calories and relieve pain.
  • Honey is known for its antibacterial properties (one of the many reasons a hot toddy is so good for a cold) and it contains boron which aids in estrogen and testosterone regulation. The term honeymoon comes from an old tradition of giving mead, fermented honey, as a gift to newlyweds.
  • Strawberries, cherries and pomegranates are all juicy red fruits packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants. Both strawberries and pomegranates have plentiful vitamin c which improves blood flow and cherries are high in melatonin, an antioxidant that’s helps to regulate the heart.
  • Chocolate is a Valentine’s Day favorite and has been proven to release phenylethylamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals that produce a euphoric feeling like that of falling in love.  Keep in mind it doesn’t take very much chocolate to reap its antioxidant and mood enhancing benefits so try to keep consumption to a minimum.

So friends if you’re looking for food to get in the mood this Valentine’s Day, I can’t make any promises but these might help. Even if they don’t, each has positive health benefits — and you really can’t argue with that.

Chipotle beefs up sustainable agriculture efforts


By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

As if it wasn’t enough that the restaurant chain Chipotle revolutionized the extremely affordable, locally sourced and 100% delicious fast food meal, now they’re speaking out against the unsustainable and inhumane nature of industrial agriculture.  And they’re doing so in the most entertaining way.  The satirical series, “Farmed and Dangerous,” calling out big agriculture is set to debut February 17, on Hulu.

When I first heard about this series, I was skeptical.  But then it dawned on me that Chipotle does some great things when sourcing their meat and dairy products, holding their producers to higher standards than pretty much every other fast food chain.

The 30 minute, four episode, series seeks to raise consumers’ awareness about industrial farming issues by taking a very serious, grim subject and satirically highlighting its biggest problems.  This “values integration” raises awareness about issues the company combats and in return consumers view Chipotle in a positive light and will eat there in an opportunity to support their efforts.

It’s not Chipotle’s first stab at this blended marketing approach they’re calling ‘strategic entertainment.’  The Scare Crow (2013), Back to the Start (2011) and Meat Without Drugs (2012) are all short films about the disturbing tactics used by large industrial farms.  As a matter of fact, this approach isn’t new at all.  Proctor & Gamble created “soap operas” as a means of cross promotion; as did Ovaltine with shows like Captain Midnight back in the 1950s.  The return to such marketing tactics is most likely driven by consumers ability to skip commercials altogether, with technology like DVR and Netflix.  Even Whole Foods is slated to be releasing a new reality series called “Dark Rye.”

The series mentions Chipotle only once, as a means of debunking the current rumor that McDonald’s owns a controlling stake in the company.  The share was indeed held by McDonald’s for eight years but they divested in 2006.

Full disclosure, the episodes will air on a Chipotle branded Hulu account but maybe they deserve to claim these efforts.  So often we see commercials with entertaining but meaningless messages.  Chipotle could have just as easily spent their money on a thirty second super bowl ad, but instead they chose to spread a message they believe in while getting the most possible bang for their buck.  I know I’ll be watching.