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.

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.

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.

Can a soda tax create a healthier America?


By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

As the obesity rate in Mexico rises, lawmakers have taken action in the form of a tax on sweet drinks and some unhealthy packaged foods.  This action in Mexico might ultimately lead to similar laws in the United States and other parts of the world.  Similar measures are being passed in many South American counties such as Chile, Ecuador, and Peru all of which are promoting healthier eating through law making.  Ecuador even banned industrial food makers from using images of celebrities, cartoons, or animal characters on foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt and Chile banned toys in fast food meals.

The 8% tax on packaged foods and one peso (about 8 cents) per liter tax on sweet drinks was not passed without criticism.  Food companies argued that snack food is a staple for the poor and that their companies played a large role as contributors to economic growth.  Taxing unhealthy foods raises their cost to competitive monetary levels with their healthier counterparts, causing difficult economic effects on the poorest citizens who may not be able to afford either.  Soda and junk food taxes also earn these foods a “forbidden fruit” reputation which could have negative outcomes, especially in children.

California State Senator Bill Monning proposed a one cent per ounce “soda tax” that a University of California, San Francisco study found would save between $320 million and $620 million in medical costs associated with diabetes.  San Francisco may also move ahead with its own city wide soda tax of two cents per ounce.  It isn’t just California that’s pushing for these taxes either.   Telluride, Colorado and New York City are among the many cities that have proposed their own soda tax.

As junk food taxes are becoming an increasingly popular idea we need to keep in mind the best means of implementation.  Raising taxes alone addresses one area of the obesity issue.  A multifaceted approach that targets junk foods and seeks to make healthy foods more desirable would produce lasting effects. If vegetables and potato chips are similarly priced, we need to make the vegetables are marketed in a way that is more attractive.  Focusing on reducing advertising of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt and targeted toward children while simultaneously initiating campaigns promoting healthy eating would a great starting place.

Some sweet tips for a new diet in 2014


By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

The new year almost inevitably brings dieting difficulties for many of us, but many people realize that a diet isn’t always the best approach to losing weight and keeping it off. Changing your eating and exercise habits can have lifelong effects on your health, but doing so is more easily said than done. It can be a struggle, especially at the end of the day when you feel like you have eaten so healthfully and you just need a little something sweet. It’s important to remember at these times that small indulgences are necessary for a balanced diet—so you don’t find yourself binging after too much deprivation.

Try getting your sweet fix in with some of these healthier options:

Banana and peanut butter: A great option because of the decadent texture. Make sure to not go overboard with this because it still has a lot of sugar in it but it also has a lot of redeeming nutrients like protein and potassium.

Greek yogurt and frozen berries: A fast and easy dessert, frozen berries are easier to keep on hand for when you need something sweet, and the Greek yogurt is a super food with plenty of lean protein.

Pomegranate seeds and dark chocolate: The pomegranate seeds are a challenge to separate from the rest of the fruit but it can be fun and satisfying to take your time eating them. A little bit of dark chocolate balances the pomegranate seeds out and provides antioxidants.

Apples and honey: Another traditional sweet snack, honey has antibacterial properties and you know what they say about having an apple a day.

Popcorn: Popcorn can be a slippery slope with outrageous amounts of sodium and fat when things go awry. However, I maintain that this can be a healthy, whole grain snack when it’s done right. Buying the kernels loose instead of pre-bagged allows you to make it yourself on the stove, giving you total control about the amount of butter, salt and flavors you add (no more fake butter!). If you want savory, go ahead and add Old Bay or other spices or seasoning (just watch the salt); if you’re looking for sweet, add sugar to the pot you’ll be popping it in for some homemade kettle corn.

Chocolate milk: Typically chocolate milk evokes memories of childhood, but it can actually be a satisfying dessert. It’s especially good as a post-workout snack, with the necessary sugars and protein that your body needs for recovery.

Wine: A great standby, wine can be the perfect dessert to wind down before bed as long as you don’t go overboard (no more than one glass). It might even lower your blood pressure and provide you with excellent antioxidants. Be careful though, alcohol can be known to stimulate appetites. If this describes you, it might be prudent to opt for a different dessert.

Tea or hot cocoa: Tea can be an excellent antioxidant filled option with virtually no calories (unless of course you take sugar and cream in your tea). If you are looking for something sweet, hot cocoa might fit the bill. It doesn’t have many nutritionally redeeming qualities, especially if you are making it with water not milk, but calorie-wise you aren’t doing much damage, and sometimes you just need something sweet.

So with these new tools to curb your nightly sweets craving, go forth and embrace the new year, knowing that a more healthful lifestyle isn’t out of reach.