School lunch blogger ban lifted in Scotland

Nine-year-old Martha Payne can photograph her school lunches once again for her wildly popular NeverSeconds blog. Faced with a storm of protest, the Argull and Bute Council lifted its cafeteria photo ban, reports the BBC.

The Scottish school girl’s blog, which rates meals on a “food-o-meter,” has recorded more than three million hits.

Among the pictures Martha published on her blog was one featuring her £2 lunch of a pizza slice, a croquette, sweetcorn and a cupcake.

Martha wrote: “I’m a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can’t do it on one croquette. Do any of you think you could?”

A newspaper published a photograph of Martha with a chef under the headline “Time to fire the dinner ladies.” The school catering staff was “in tears,” a council executive said.

The publicity helped Martha reach her charitable goal: Her blog has raised enough money to fund a kitchen in Malawi for children receiving Mary’s Meals.

Black bean burgers or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?

Students are refusing to eat the new healthier lunches at Los Angeles schools, reports the LA Times. The black bean burgers, tostada salad and pears on the menu at Van Nuys High is “nasty, rotty stuff,” says Mayra Gutierrez, who lunches on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda instead.

Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

. . . Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they’re suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

With fewer students buying lunch, the district’s meal planners have decided to bring back hamburgers and pizza (whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese, low-sodium sauce) and eliminate unpopular dishes. No more lentil and brown rice cutlets or quinoa and black-eyed pea salads.The new meals were tested and approved by students in the summer, notes Megan McArdle in The Atlantic.

Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified’s central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy.

“It’s nasty, nasty,” said Andre, a member of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. nonprofit working to improve school lunch access and quality. “No matter how healthy it is, if it’s not appetizing, people won’t eat it.”

It’s a lesson from the universe, writes McArdle: Promising pilot programs don’t always scale up.

In the testing phase, when the program was small, they were probably working with a small group of schools which had been specially chosen to participate. They did not have a sprawling supply chain to manage. The kids and the workers knew they were being studied. And they were asking the kids which food they liked–a question which, social science researchers will tell you, is highly likely to elicit the answer that they liked something.

Furthermore, it’s easier to cook a palatable meal for a dozen testers than to cook mass amounts on a modest budget.

. . . the things that make us fat are, by and large, also the things that are palatable when mass-produced. Bleached grains and processed fats have a much longer shelf life than fresh produce, and can take a hell of a lot more handling. Salt and sugar are delicious, but they are also preservatives that, among other things, disguise the flavor of stale food.

In response to complaints that salads with an Oct. 7 “best served by” date were served on Oct. 17, a manager said lettuce wasn’t actually rotten. Then the district removed the dates because they were “confusing.”

Nobody eats 10-day old lettuce voluntarily, writes McArdle.  The old mentality — “don’t poison anybody” — may still dominate the cafeteria staff, she speculates. “There isn’t much difference between Chicken nuggets that won’t poison you, and Chicken nuggets at their absolute peak of freshness.  And the employees just sort of assumed that the same set of rules would work for lettuce.”

In St. Paul schools, the no-sweet life

St. Paul’s public schools will be “sweet-free zones” by the end of the school year, reports the Minnesota Star-Tribune. The ban includes “sweet, sticky, fat-laden [and] salty treats.”

Forty percent of St. Paul’s fourth-graders, most of whom are poor and minority, are obese, 11 percent higher than the national rate.

St. Paul administrators say they’re preparing for stricter rules that could soon be handed down through the $4.5 billion Child Nutrition Bill signed by President Obama last week.

The bill will disburse that federal money to school districts to provide healthier lunches to more students. In the next year, the federal government will write new rules that can determine what kinds of foods are allowed to be sold on school grounds, including in vending machines and at fundraisers.

Jim Tillotson, a Tufts professor of nutrition policy, said childhood obesity is a complex issue that schools can’t solve with “silver-bullet” snack rules. “Nobody has the money or the will to do the real work it’s going to take to get American kids to lose weight.”

Children aren’t enthusiastic either, reports the Star-Tribune.

“All my friends say, ‘This really sucks,’” said Misky Salad, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Chelsea Heights Elementary. “A lot of us feel it should be up to us to determine what we should do with our bodies.”

In addition to banning sweets brought from home, school cafeterias stopped serving second helpings and selling sweet deserts this year.

Saving money on school lunches

Cutting hot-meal options and cafeteria jobs could save New York City schools $23.7 million next year, reports the Wall Street Journal. Under Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal, schools that offer three hot-meal choices would offer only two; schools that now offer two would go down to one. But some parents and “food activists” object.

Given New York’s budget problems, something has to give, writes Colin on the AAE blog. He’d rather get rid of the grilled cheese sandwich than make do with fewer books or teachers.

Elizabeth Puccini, founder of a group to promote more environmentally friendly schools, claims the lunch cuts will create “a real food-justice issue.” City Council member Gale Brewer bemoaned, “Cutting down on food choices is a tragedy and it’s outrageous.” Really? A tragedy?

. . . City Council member Gale Brewer noted, “Kids are picky and now they may not eat.” Perhaps those kids need to talk to their grandparents more, who had to walk uphill seven miles to and from school, in the snow, and were grateful to have day-old bread and a glass of tap water at lunch.

When I was in elementary school, we walked home for lunch — uphill through the snow. In middle school, we had one unappetizing lunch choice. I seem to remember beefaroni with a side of pallid carrots and peas.  We’d have been thrilled to get a grilled cheese sandwich. In high school, there were two choices, I think. The cafeteria was so awful — huge, noisy, dirty, smelly — that I avoided it after the first few weeks of ninth grade.