To make school food healthy, Michelle Obama has a tall order

By Ed Bruske
Sunday, February 14, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama's new campaign against childhood obesity, dubbed "Let's Move," puts improvements to school food at the top of the agenda. Some 31 million children participate in federal school meal programs, Obama noted in announcing her initiative last week, "and what we don't want is a situation where parents are taking all the right steps at home -- and then their kids undo all that work with salty, fatty food in the school cafeteria," she explained. "So let's move to get healthier food into our nation's schools."

Last month I had a chance to see up close what all the school food fuss was about when I spent a week in the kitchen of my 10-year-old daughter's public school, H.D. Cooke Elementary, in Northwest D.C. Chartwells, the company contracted by the city to provide meals to the District's schools, had switched in the fall from serving warm-up meals prepackaged in a factory to food it called "fresh cooked," and I couldn't wait to chronicle in my food blog how my daughter's school meals were being prepared from scratch.

It didn't take long for disappointment to set in. It started on the first day, as I watched the school's kitchen supervisor, Tiffany Whittington, prepare baked ziti.

First, she retrieved several five-pound bags of "beef crumbles," grayish-brown bits of extruded meat and soy protein, from a walk-in freezer and loaded them into a commercial steamer. Curly egg noodles from dry storage went into the steamer next. Then she mixed everything with a six-pound can of pale-looking spaghetti sauce containing "dextrose/and or high-fructose corn syrup, potato or corn starch," according to the label. As she stirred the concoction, she added pre-shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheese from five-pound bags. Whittington frequently adds cheese to the food for flavor, she said: "I think the kids really like it."

The eggs I saw being cooked the next day weren't much better. They also were flavored with cheddar cheese, but it looked more like cottage cheese. The scrambled eggs had been manufactured in a factory in Minnesota and shipped frozen to the District. Besides eggs, the dish contained many ingredients out of a food chemist's manual -- modified cornstarch, xanthan gum, liquid pepper extract, citric acid, lipolyzed butter oil and medium chain triglycerides. A few minutes in the steamer, and it was ready to serve.

When she took office in 2007, the District's schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, opted to privatize food operations. "The mayor and I want to introduce students to a variety of foods to help train their palates to choose healthier foods for the rest of their lives," Rhee said. The "fresh cooked" initiative was included in the city's contract with Chartwells.

But from what I observed during my week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke, "fresh cooked" does not mean "from scratch" or even "fresh ingredients." Most meals are made from processed foods that have been precooked and frozen. They're simply heated in the steamer or in a convection oven, since one of the things missing in the school's tricked-out kitchen is a stove. Meal components have been designed to require minimal time and skill to prepare. It's all part of an effort to squeeze school meals into tight local food budgets that hinge on federal subsidies.

Freshness and flavor are the first casualties. Fat is replaced with sugar as a go-to calorie booster. One of the most startling images from lunchtime at H.D. Cooke was the mad rush around the cooler where chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk is stored. Sodas have not been served in D.C. public schools since 2006, but the dairy products served rival soft drinks for sugar content.

I found the amount of sugar in the flavored milk astonishing. An eight-ounce (one-cup) carton of chocolate milk from Cloverland Dairy boasts 26 grams of sugar -- about six teaspoons -- only slightly less, ounce-for-ounce, than Classic Coke (27 grams). A similar serving of strawberry milk has more sugar still: 28 grams, putting it almost in the same league as Mountain Dew (31 grams).

In the breakfast line, strawberry-flavored Pop-Tarts were always on display. Along with a long list of additives, this 1.8-ounce processed pastry contains 16 grams of sugar, more than three teaspoons. Pepperidge Farm Giant Goldfish Grahams were another standard item. A 0.9-ounce serving contains six grams of sugar, or about 1 1/2 teaspoons.

Kids could also choose cereal. Kellogg's chocolate-flavored Mini-Wheats Little Bites contain six grams of sugar in a one-ounce serving, according to the package. Kellogg's Apple Jacks offer even more sugar: A 0.63-ounce serving delivers eight grams, or nearly two teaspoons.

Healthy-food advocates such as the first lady are convinced that more vegetables are key to breaking the cycle of starchy, sugary foods and obesity. "In my home, we weren't rich," Obama said as she recalled her youth during the "Let's Move" launch event last week. "The foods we ate weren't fancy. But there was always a vegetable on the plate. And we managed to lead a pretty healthy life."

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