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

By Ed Bruske
Sunday, February 14, 2010; B02

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."

Obama said she had lined up Chartwells and several other national players to embrace new standards that call for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school meals, as well as less salt and sugar. And the Healthy Schools Act pending before the D.C. Council calls for increased servings of vegetables -- and not just potatoes.

But as every parent knows, serving vegetables is one thing; getting kids to eat them is quite another. A 1996 nationwide survey of school cafeteria managers by the General Accounting Office found that, in student meals, 42 percent of cooked vegetables -- and 30 percent of raw vegetables and salad -- ended up in the trash.

The vegetables at H.D. Cooke were hardly more appealing. I watched the kitchen workers prepare a 25-pound bag of frozen broccoli, cauliflower and carrots in the steamer. The vegetables were gleaming when they came out of the bag. But after being cooked, the broccoli was limp and drab, and after an hour on the steam table, it had completely disintegrated, clinging to the cauliflower and carrots in little bits. As students came through the food line, Mattie Hall, one of the servers, called out: "Do you want vegetables? Do you want vegetables?" And the kids replied: "No! No! No! No!"

Hall, who is nearing retirement and remembers making school meals from scratch, said children will go to great lengths to avoid vegetables. Each morning she lines up 17 blue insulated bags on the serving counter and fills them with a snack of fruits or vegetables. Students arrive and carry the bags to their classrooms. They're supposed to return them at the end of the day. But Hall said some don't. They wait until the next morning, then show up at the last minute with their bags, knowing the vegetables have already been dispensed. Hall gives them bananas or apples instead.

When I asked my daughter about all this, she confirmed that where vegetables are concerned, the kids eat carrots, but not broccoli, zucchini or cucumbers. "They like to turn them into slush," she said. "They step on them in the plastic bag."

The Healthy Schools Act calls for serving minimally processed local produce "whenever possible," as well as using school gardens to teach children the benefits of fresh produce. In the past year, a D.C. Farm to School Network has formed to push the idea of making school food more appealing and healthful -- as well as to boost local agriculture -- by incorporating locally grown goods. Having worked with kids in school gardens myself, and as a food-appreciation teacher in a private elementary school, I know it works. Kids will gladly eat lots of healthful foods, including vegetables, given a chance to help in the preparation.

The scenes I witnessed at H.D. Cooke reflect a culmination of decades-long trends that have converged in school cafeterias -- industrialized food methods, meager school budgets and government policies run amok.

To reduce costs, schools opt for unskilled workers who don't get enough hours to qualify for benefits. U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations permit schools to trade government donations of surplus farm goods for products full of chemical additives from giant processors. Meal items are designed at the factory to meet government nutrition standards but come out as barely palatable foods that do not occur in nature. Yet schools must induce children to eat the meals in order to qualify for the government subsidies they desperately need to keep their food operations afloat.

Federal payments -- including $2.68 for each fully reimbursable lunch -- total around $12 billion annually and feed roughly 30 million children every day, according to the USDA. That covers about half the cost of food service. Local governments pick up the rest.

For children in the 10 percent of D.C. households considered by the USDA to be "food insecure" -- meaning they cannot afford a steady, healthful diet -- school meals may be the best food they see all day. "Every day during the week, thousands of District children rely on public schools for their daily meals," said D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, author of the Healthy Schools bill. "The school system can't always control what children eat. But it is our responsibility to teach kids healthy habits and provide them with the most nutritious meals possible while they are in our care."

It's a laudable goal, and Michelle Obama's star power may help Washington and other cities reach it, but it's a super-size task. The Institute of Medicine, which authored the standards recommended by the first lady, says the new food requirements are certain to drive up the cost of school meals, even as school food advocates declare that President Obama's proposed increase in funding for federal meal programs -- $10 billion over 10 years -- isn't enough to add even an apple to students' cafeteria trays.

A few days after my stint observing H.D. Cooke's kitchen, I returned to the cafeteria during breakfast time. Many of the kids were eating sugar-glazed cookies called Crunchmania Cinnamon Buns, along with chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk and grape juice. By my calculation, this breakfast contained 13 teaspoons of sugar -- and this in a city that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated as having one of the highest levels of adolescent obesity in the nation.

For many food activists, schools hold out hope of a place where all children have a chance to eat fresh, wholesome food. But how do we get there from here?

Ed Bruske, a former Washington Post reporter, blogs at the Slow Cook (

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