Backlash against healthy school lunches going too far

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last week, the New York Times featured a front-page story about the new school lunch program, which replaces fried food, French fries, burgers, pizza, and chicken fingers with increased fruits and vegetables. The article focused on how the program was causing kids to toss food in the trash bin. Indeed, a federal law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set a standard for healthier foods in school lunches. The Times article was incendiary in my opinion. The photograph splashed on the front page showed several plates of lovely green lettuce discarded in the trash bin at the end of the cafeteria line.

The article raised several serious concerns that call out for a response. One billion kids throughout the world are deprived of food, shelter, and clean water; 200 million are chronically undernourished. They would be grateful for a nutritious, balanced school lunch that provided them 850 calories, an amount many don’t see in an entire day. Honestly, where will it end? Kids are making videos showing themselves collapsing from hunger. In the hit song “We Are Young” by Fun, one student on the video sings, “My friends are at the corner store, getting junk so they don’t waste away.”

Secondly, fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury that should be coveted, not trashed. The Times article makes much out of the fact that school lunches have become more expensive as a result of these changes – how much more expensive? They now cost a whopping $2.60 cents. 850 healthy calories for $2.60 cents; Sounds like an incredible bargain to me. And there are subsidies for those kids who can’t afford the $2.60. Additionally, the government recently approved an increase in the amount it reimburses schools for meals, provided those schools implement the new guidelines.

Third, childhood obesity is an epidemic in America. The percentage of overweight children in the United States is growing at an alarming rate, with 1 out of 3 kids now considered overweight or obese. Too many kids are used to eating calorie-laden, fast food options—including pizza and chicken nuggets in school lunch—that are high in fat, sugar and sodium. We should be celebrating, not attacking, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act because it offers an alternative to these kids. While the school lunch program was established to deal with the endemic problem of childhood hunger—a problem which has by no means been solved—the bigger issue today is the rising tide of obesity. Scientists now estimate that children of this generation will be the first in history to have a lower life expectancy that their parents. Obesity plays a major role in this frightening development.

Fourth, what this article really illustrates is the importance of teaching children good nutrition early in life. The Web site KidsHealth suggests teaching kids early to eat and enjoy fruits and vegetables. The site notes that “Kids, especially younger ones, will eat mostly what’s available at home. That’s why it’s important to control the supply lines — the foods that you serve for meals and have on hand for snacks.” Exactly. KidsHealth recommends working fruits and vegetables into the daily diet. If you don’t teach kids to enjoy these healthy options at an early age, lettuce on the lunch tray won’t look appealing. But unless parents teach kids that salads and fruits and vegetables are not only healthy but can also taste really good, kids won’t develop a taste for these foods. As a result, they land in the garbage bin.

At the end of this blog is a list of suggestions to help parents foster good eating habits for their children. They are common sense suggestions that, if followed by American families, would not result in teenagers tossing perfectly good lunch offerings into the trash because they’ve been raised to think French fries, pizza and chicken nuggets are the only desirable lunch options. I think the New York Times did a disservice to the cause of improving the health and nutrition of our nation’s teens by sensationalizing this issue.

Follow these basic guidelines:

  • Work fruits and vegetables into the daily routine, aiming for the goal of at least five servings a day. Be sure you serve fruit or vegetables at every meal.
  • Make it easy for kids to choose healthy snacks by keeping fruits and vegetables on hand and ready to eat. Other good snacks include low-fat yogurt, peanut butter and celery, or whole-grain crackers and cheese.
  • Serve lean meats and other good sources of protein, such as fish, eggs, beans, and nuts.
  • Choose whole-grain breads and cereals so kids get more fiber.
  • Limit fat intake by avoiding fried foods and choosing healthier cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling, roasting, and steaming. Choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
  • Limit fast food and low-nutrient snacks, such as chips and candy. But don’t completely ban favorite snacks from your home. Instead, make them “once-in-a-while” foods, so kids don’t feel deprived.
  • Limit sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks. Serve water and low-fat milk instead.

Where’s that scalpel?!?! New technology could reduce number of surgical items left in patients

Every year 4,000 patients end up with “retained surgical items” left in their bodies after surgery, the vast majority are sponges used to soak up blood. These “retained” items can cause lifelong distress and discomfort. New technology and sponge counting methods are available to make it easier to address the problem, but hospitals are resisting. Dr. Verna Gibbs, a professor of surgery at the University of Calfornia, San Francisco, is director of “NoThing Left Behind” a national surgical patient safety project. The New York Times recently reported that all sorts of tools are left in patients by mistake – not only sponges, which account for 2/3 of the left items, but clamps, scalpels, and even scissors!

The new technologies include radio-frequency tags, which tracks use of sponges with a tiny radio frequency tag. When the operation is complete, a detector alerts the surgery team if any sponges are inside the patient and is very effective in spotting things left behind. Another tracking system relies on bar codes for every sponge, but apparently, according to the Times, fewer than 1 percent of hospitals employ it. One doctor quoted in the article was sued before he became an advocate of electronic tracking, and now he won’t do surgery without the technology at work to make sure he and his team don’t leave any “retained’ items inside patients. Why don’t more hospitals use this technology? “In my heart, I think it comes down to hospitals not wanting to spend the extra 10 bucks,” he told the Times. That’s troubling, especially when $10 per operation cost for the added technology could save millions in malpractice costs.

Professor Gibbs says technology should be used in combination with other methods for accountability among surgery teams. Sure, the whole team must be involved in making sure items are not left inside patients, but technology can help a lot. Hospitals should be adopting it across the board because it’s the most foolproof way – in a system full of potential human errors – to protect patients. It’s that simple.

Continued fallout from ‘pink slime’ hysteria

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Several weeks ago I blogged on the fate of the makers of so-called “pink slime”(its real name is Lean Finely Textured Beef or “LFTB” ) after reading a May 12, 2012 New York Times article by editorial page writer Phillip Boffey entitled “What If It Weren’t Called Pink Slime.” Boffey took a dispassionate look at the product and concluded, as the title of his article indicates, that “The first casualties of the hamburger ingredient contemptuously dubbed ‘pink slime’ will likely not be anyone who eats it but rather the workers who make it.”

At the time of the original media hype, NCL and Consumer Federation of America issued statements in an effort to quell the negative buzz and consumer fear about LFTB, but the horse had left the barn by then and, in the ensuing weeks, the makers of LFTB were forced to drastically cut production.

Boffey bemoaned the loss of 650 jobs at the plants that produce LFTB resulting from media-generated hysteria over what is actually a good product. He said it well: “The irony and the absurdity are that consumer experts say L.F.T.B. is safe, nutritious and relatively inexpensive.”

So two months later, what is the fallout for consumers now that the supply of LFTB is greatly reduced? Well, we looked through data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and ran some calculations. The marketing division at USDA publishes figures on what people are buying and sure enough, because of vastly reduced supply, consumers are now forced to pay more for lean beef, while the fattiest ground beef is available for less. As a result, consumers are opting to buy the cheaper, fattier product. A year ago, fattier ground beef (73 percent lean) made up 37 percent of ground beef sold; it now comprises 48 percent of the ground beef sold. Conversely, there is now 23.3 percent less of the leanest ground beef (93 percent lean) available on the market. Lean ground beef is also 50 cents more expensive per pound at wholesale, meaning the price at the grocery store has jumped by close to 75 cents. This is a marked price increase and one that will hurt consumers.

None of this should have happened. Indeed, it’s a truly unfortunate result at a time when obesity is on the rise in America and every health expert is telling us to reduce, not increase, our fat intake. What I said in my first blog still applies: What a shame.

Times op-ed ‘too little, too late’

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

We read with mixed feelings Sunday’s New York Times op-ed (“What if it weren’t called pink slime?”) by Philip Boffey about the loss of jobs at Beef Products Inc. BPI is the company nearly driven out of business because of unjustified media hype about so-called “pink slime”. NCL was one of the groups Boffey mentioned that came to the defense of  BPI’s product, “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB), not only  because the company has been a leader in food safety but also because LFTB – which uses trimmings previously considered waste or used for tallow only–is both safe and nutritious, as well as lean.

While we applaud Boffey  for taking a dispassionate look at the this unfairly maligned product—as well as cooking up hamburgers made with BPI’s product and attesting to their good taste—there’s some irony that he is commenting on “pink slime” in his position as a New York Times writer.  Boffey’s Times colleague, Michael Moss, whom Boffey also mentions, wrote a piece in 2009 that helped to fuel the attack on BPI, a piece full of negative reporting on the company’s use of ammonia to kill e. coli. That along with other media hype about “pink slime”—which without justification suggested it was inedible or unsavory for America’s families – has indeed meant a loss of jobs at BPI—nearly 650 to date—and an ad hominem attack on a safe, low-fat, and tasty beef product.  So Boffey’s wistful reflections on what happened to BPI through media hype and hysteria comes too little and too late. The damage is done, and it’s unclear whether a company with a good safety record that makes a good product will survive. What a shame.

Wal-Mart: A convenient recalculating of executive compensation

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

It seems that when it suits the head of the company, methods of calculating executive compensation can be changed. Wal-Mart chief executive Michael Duke has replaced the metric for determining executive compensation from same-store sales – defined as stores that have been open at least a year – to total company sales. Why? Because not surprisingly, same-store sales have declined while overall sales have increased 3.4 percent for the fiscal year. This is all documented in Gretchen Morgenson’s recent column in the New York Times.

So Duke will receive $18.7 million in compensation this year. What’s disturbing is that Wal-Mart has issued statements over the past several years about why same-store sales was such an important measure of performance. But since those sales are down, suddenly the goal posts have changed. One observer says that Wal-Mart’s decision to throw out same-store sales figures as a measure of executive compensation is “a failure to admit failure.”

In addition (and even more disturbing), Wal-Mart has decided to end its profit-sharing programs for lower-level workers. Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart, took great pride in these programs for workers. Many who knew Sam Walton don’t believe he would have supported the anti-worker, cutthroat strategies adopted by Wal-Mart’s executives over the past two decades. But we won’t see any such leadership from the current head of Wal-Mart, not when he has shown himself able to re-jigger the formula for determining his compensation to ensure he makes close to $20 million.

Advocates to CPSC, industry: making window blinds safer an easy fix

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

It’s hard to believe that something as seemingly benign as a window blind shade could kill a child, but as a recent New York Times story illustrated, we haven’t yet solved the fatal hazard window blinds present to children. Andrew Martin’s Times story is a cautionary tale about what happens when regulators wait and wait for industry to get off the dime and design a safer product. It doesn’t happen without regulatory pressure toward a mandatory standard.

As Martin’s story illustrates, regulators have been aware of the hazards of window cord blinds since at least the early 1980s, when a federal study to determine the causes of child strangulation tied 41 deaths to drapery and blind cords. Everything from warnings to discontinuing certain styles like horizontal blinds with pull cords ending in a loop, to other fixes like a breakaway device, have been tried. In fact, one manufacturer, Comfortex, produced an ad that highlighted its own solution to the cord problem. Comfortex advertised: “In 1996, only one company offered a real solution to the problem of injuries due to cords. While the industry searched for ways to make cords safer, Comfortex found a way to make shades without cords.”

Over a period of many years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been talking about cracking down on the industry and insisting on a cord-free design. Corded window blinds continue to present dangers to kids. It seems that no matter how well the cords on these blinds are hidden, when a child’s crib or bed is near a window with such a blind, the danger that the child will reach into the window blind and become entangled in the cord is always present.

For years, CPSC has asked manufacturers to devise a way to eliminate the risks from window cords or face the possibility of mandatory regulations. But manufacturers have dragged their feet on addressing safety hazards for decades, making minor tweaks or putting the onus on parents to shorten cords or buy tie-down devices.

CPSC has a task force to look at the issue. As an NCL friend and safety expert Carol Pollack-Nelson told the Times, “It was my understanding that we were eliminating the hazard. Now they are talking about reducing the hazard. We don’t want reduced strangulation. We want no chance of it.” We agree with Carol.

As the Times story also noted, a solution has been available for several decades: cordless blinds. The industry has testified that the additional cost of making a cordless blind is $1 to $2. And industry says cordless blinds are more difficult to manufacture than corded blinds.

Are these extra cost and other concerns worth the cost of a child’s life? Talk to parents who’ve lost a child – or seen their child suffer brain damage from being entangled in a window blind cord – and the answer will be, unequivocally yes. Would any of us disagree if our own children’s lives were in question?

The CPSC should stop pussyfooting around. We have a product that with a pattern of injury, there’s a technology to make it safe, and doing so is not prohibitively expensive. After years of handwringing, the CPSC should move forward at long last and put a mandatory standard in place for window blinds. No child should have to die because regulators and industry can’t make a simple decision to adopt a safer design for window shades.

Gap between the richest and the rest a widening problem

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

With the economy stagnant, unemployment continuing to hover near 10 percent, a depressing mid-term election a few weeks away, Americans are angry, frustrated, frightened about their economic future and looking for someone to blame.

In terms of cause and effect, I think it’s impossible for economists – and the rest of us – to ignore any longer the staggering gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us.

Columnist Robert Frank in the New York Times cites some sobering statistics. During the three decades after WWII, incomes rose in the United States at almost 3 percent a year for people at all income levels. America, Frank says, had an economically vibrant middle class. Roads and bridges were well maintained and people were optimistic. The contrast between today and 1976 is stark. The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which was 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.

Frank says economists are reluctant to confront rising income inequality and they by and large refuse to take a position on whether the growing income inequality is a good or bad trend.

Worker productivity has grown over the past two decades. Workers are now earning only 83 cents of every dollar they earned more than 35 years ago, while their productivity has increased a dramatic 80 percent. This is the central explanation for the explosion in corporate profits and the growing income gap in America.

But the gains from that increased productivity have not gone to workers; they have been scooped up by management — good manufacturing jobs, including union jobs with good benefits that provided a solid middle class income to working Americans, have disappeared. The percentage of private sector union jobs has shrunk to 7 percent.

But, for reasons I don’t understand, outsize pay packages – including probably the most outrageous case – $1 billion in total compensation claimed by the former head of United Health Care – (who felt he was entitled to take those kind of profits from the health care system when we have 50 million Americans with no health insurance) haven’t generated all that much anger and outrage.

The widening gap between the super rich in America and the amount of income they have taken out of the economy – at the expense of the vast majority of hard working Americans who struggle to make ends meet every day– may just be far more destructive than any of us understand.