The start of a new school diet…I mean year

School kicked off yesterday. I couldn’t wait until I could get home and ask my children how their day went. Did they like their new teachers? Did they have any new classmates? Meet any new friends? As a typical mother, I was starved for details!

And also at the top of my mind? Were my children starved as well?

boys on first day of school

Do the these boys look like they would all eat the same amount of food?

For those new to my blog, not only am I a farm wife, a mother of four boys and a lover of all things agriculture, I’m also passionate about a few causes. One of those just so happens to be the new school lunch guidelines. Perhaps it’s because those mandates not only hit me in the pocketbook, they hit my children in the stomach…and it’s something that I cannot stand to see.

So I sat down with my two oldest children, and asked how the day went, I asked about recess, I asked about teachers, I asked about lunch. And what I heard made my heart sink.

My oldest (in sixth grade) told me a story about his lunch. He explained that he was served three chicken strips, about the size of his pinky. And they were good, but you had to pay for seconds to get three more. A friend of his also wanted seconds, but he said he didn’t have school lunch money. (Which in the sixth-grade world, I would take to mean that either he’s on the free-or-reduced-lunch program, but isn’t allowed seconds because even the free-lunch program students need to pay the full price for seconds OR his parents have requested that he not be allowed to go back for seconds.) So he asked another friend to go back for seconds and share his food, which his friend more than happily obliged.

Here are the two things you can take away from this: 1) There is an amazing group of boys in that class that watch out for each other, and 2) The new school lunch guidelines are causing an even larger hurdle for parents to overcome.

My questions that I would love to have answered:

  • Why are schools required to charge a minimum price for lunch?
  • Why are schools mandated to charge for seconds?
  • What is the purpose of calorie limits, unless it is to put our whole public school system on a diet?
  • What else will be at risk if a school were to turn away from the nutrition program?
  • Why are educational funding dollars connected directly to the nutrition program, for example, Title One?
  • Why? Why? Why?

I’ve asked these questions multiple times, including directly to the USDA during a Twitter chat regarding school lunch. All I received was the typical song and dance, no real answers and no real hope of anything being done.

But I’m not done yet.

Can I pack my children’s lunch? Certainly. In fact, I could cater them a meal to the school and not have a worry in the world about their tummy’s rumbling come the bus ride home. But that’s hardly the point.

The system is broken. The “Band-Aid” to fix it is doing little to address the problem, and creating more in its wake.

The media is touting the new guidelines, claiming that our obesity rates are dropping. But I have news for you. They were dropping prior to all of the new mandates. And they can continue to drop with education, and a large variety of offerings at our schools, not calorie limits and federally mandated diets.

No, I will not sit quietly by and listen to my son tell stories about how a couple of elementary students have found a way to beat the system. I will step in and work to change the system. It’s not the children that are broken…it’s the one-size-fits-all regulations that are in place.

I have no doubt that this will be an uphill battle, and there’s a good chance that I won’t get all of the changes that I am hoping for, but I know I’m not alone. In fact, there’s even a whole Facebook page dedicated to seeing Sensible changes. And I’m hoping that one day, before too long, children won’t have to be ashamed that they are hungry, and they won’t have to rely on close friends to smuggle them food.

Not when there is plenty in front of them.

So how do we work together for change? Contact your local school districts and state officials. We CAN make a difference! Is your school doing something different? Do you have stories of children helping each other to get a full meal? Use the contact me above to share your story, and together we’ll make a difference! (I will keep all information confidential, unless instructed otherwise.)

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Proposed school snack guidelines – make your voice heard

As many of you are aware, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has been met with resistance, by not only parents and students, but by elected officials as well.

Recently, Congressional delegates from many states (including North Dakota and South Dakota) have introduced legislation that would eliminate the caps on grains and lean-meat protein sources that are currently limited in the new guidelines.

Although these are great steps in making the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act a better tool to tackle issues with school lunch, I personally feel that focusing on just those two limitations is not enough to make a change in the program. Calorie caps cannot be mandated on a national level. There are too many variables that can be better addressed locally.

These boys come in all shapes and sizes, and there appetites and nutritional requirements do, too!

These boys come in all shapes and sizes, and there appetites and nutritional requirements do, too!

And isn’t that what we strive for? Local control over local issues?

So, if the federal mandates on school lunch are not satisfactory, what do they tackle next? School snacks. That’s right, we now have proposed guidelines that address items that are sold in school, including fundraisers and items sold during the school day (including seconds, or ala carte items).

Here are some of the changes that are proposed:

–  Limiting the amount and use of accompaniments used with food, such as cream cheese, salad dressing and butter. They also propose that accompaniments be pre-portioned and included in the “nutrient profile” when served. For example, if a bagel were served they would possibly include a pre-determined amount of cream cheese, and those calories would be included in the calorie limit, whether or not the student would want to use cream cheese.

– Limiting the calories allowed for snacks. The proposed limits are 200 calories for snack items, 350 calories for entrée items. Remember when the solution to hungry athletes was to allow them to purchase seconds if they needed more food to get through the day? Well, now those seconds will be limited as well.

– School fundraisers would be encouraged to not involve food items. Those items that do not fall into the proposed guidelines would be limited. Although, there is some confusion in this section of the proposal, since the guidelines would not apply to non-school hours.

– All schools could sell plain water, plain low-fat milk, plain or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives and 100% fruit or vegetable juice, but elementary school could only sell up to 8-ounce portions, while middle schools and high schools could sell up to 12 ounce portions. Ironically, you could not sell a regular cola, but a diet cola would be OK.

The list continues on, and gets even more complicated. But the beauty of it all, is that this is just a proposal. It is open for public comment until April 9, so let’s be sure that our voices are heard, loud and clear, before the final recommendations are set.

Our kids are depending on us to make the right decisions, and we cannot rely on anyone else to make them for us.

Need more information? There will be a public webinar on Thursday, March 28 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. EST.

A student’s thoughts on new school lunch guidelines

I asked a few students that I know to write their thoughts on school lunch. A few months ago, my son wrote a letter expressing his concerns, and today I give you another letter.

But this letter is a little different. This letter comes from a high school student, who not only understands the value of the improvements, but enjoys some of them as well. She’s not interested in scrapping the new guidelines, but tweaking them to make it fit better for ALL students.

Random shot of an actual high school lunch tray. Can anyone name the major item missing from this tray? (And yes, milk, cheese and bread do contain a bit of this item, so don't get too technical on me.) And by the way, the elementary students only received one breadstick. Lower calorie limits, you know.

(Photo courtesy of Kelsie Jenkins) Random shot of an actual high school lunch tray. Can anyone name the major item missing from this tray? (And yes, milk, cheese and bread do contain a bit of this item, so don’t get too technical on me.) And by the way, the elementary students only received one breadstick. Lower calorie limits, you know.

Compromise? Flexibility? Amazing concepts…and even more amazing that a high school student can see the need, when it appears as if others cannot.

Ashley Jenkins, Ellendale High School:

I can see both good and bad in our new school lunch plan. I mean, some of our meals  aren’t actually too awful. I like the fact that we have more fresh fruits and veggies on the salad bar. Also, I do agree with implementing healthier foods into the school lunch program. It’s not like we’re missing out by eliminating having potato chips as a side dish, but overall I just don’t think this new lunch plan is being carried out the right way.
The biggest flaw I see in this new change to our lunch is the portion sizes. Personally, I don’t need a huge meal at lunchtime to get myself through the day as long as I make sure to eat breakfast in the morning. I, however, am one of those students that doesn’t have sports practice after school. I know these people definitely need much more food than I do.

Also, I know that the elementary student’s portion sizes are smaller than ours. I remember needing a lot more to eat than I do now because I was growing and just hungry all the time. This is why I think the drastic portion size changes were a bad idea. Not every person is the same. Just like every student doesn’t have the same educational needs, not every student is going to have the same nutritional needs. Some kids just need more food to get themselves through the day. I don’t think it’s really fair to give everyone the same portion size, when every individual has different needs.

Also, some of the lunches are a little ridiculous. The worst days are when we have salad for lunch. Now, having salad as a main course wasn’t bad before all these changes were made. Enough things were put on it to make it actually have some sustenance. It would be piled with meat and cheese, and we were allowed to put as many croutons, and as much salad dressing on it as we wished. Now, we get a small scoop of shredded cheese, a minimal amount of meat, and a hard boiled egg. I doubt this measly amount of lettuce is getting any basketball players or wrestlers through the day.

Really, I just think this program needs a bit more tweaking. It’s not like us students are going to have major health consequences if we have cheese on our crispitos, or a bit more meat every once in awhile.

Thank you, Ashley, for giving me your honest opinion, and for being willing to share your thoughts with others.

Pointless? There’s nothing you can do? Not at all. There is legislation being proposed to improve the guidelines. Perfect? Is there ever a piece of legislation that’s perfect? But it’s a good start. And a great starting point.

Be sure to thank Sen. Hoeven from the great state of North Dakota for stepping up for our children!

And be sure to check out more thoughts from my dear friend Katie over at Pinke Post. This subject hits near and dear to our hearts.

I’ll soon be tackling the new proposed guidelines for school snacks. Yes, they now want to regulate items sold inside the school. And guess what? Seconds (remember when they said that hungry kids could just pay for more food?) are included in these regulations.

Stay tuned.

School lunch: A difference in latitude

Today is inauguration day, and it’s also a day off for our school. It also happens to be the coldest day of the year for our area – well, at least so far.

How cold is it? Judge for yourself:

So, does this qualify as cold where you're from?

So, does this qualify as cold where you’re from?

The extreme temps have me keeping the boys inside today, although we may have to go out for a 4-H meeting later. While thinking about the cold temperatures, I started thinking about ways to warm the boys up, and keep them fueled up for the day.

That’s when another glaring problem with our new school lunch guidelines hit me. The USDA and other supporters of the new restrictions and calorie limits claim that we all shouldn’t eat like high school athletes, but they forget about regional differences as well.

It’s been well-documented and scientifically proven that we use more calories in the winter than in the summer. We usually make up for it by being more sentient and eating more during cold snaps, which leads to winter weight gains.

But what about those that continue their same caloric burn, but don’t receive the extra caloric intake? Like our students.

Imagine if you will, putting on snow pants, jacket, heavy winter boots, scarf, hat and gloves, then going out and lugging around all that extra weight while playing outside. Can you imagine that you wouldn’t burn more calories? That you wouldn’t need more to keep you going throughout the day?

Scooter posing outside a few winters ago, minus his usual snow pants. Must have been a warm day out!

Scooter posing outside a few winters ago, minus his usual snow pants. Must have been a warm day out!

Yet there are no regional differences set into the new guidelines. A child in 70-degree Florida is allowed the same number of calories as a child in the frozen-tundra of North Dakota. Just another glaring hole in the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all mess that makes up our school lunch program.

Snacks? Sure. I send snacks, which are usually consumed prior to the bus even stopping at the school.

Pack a lunch? Sure. I could pack a lunch without problems for my boys. But when it’s cold outside, I prefer they have a warm meal, and so do they. Also, my boys happen to really like our school lunches, it’s just the amount that gets to them. (Or lack of.)

I long for common sense, about as strongly as I long for the warmer days of spring. Fortunately, I’m guaranteed that spring will eventually arrive…I’m not guaranteed that common sense will ever prevail in our lunch program again.

But I won’t stop pushing for it.

This change smells funny

Recently it was announced (with much fanfare, I might add), that changes were being made to the new school lunch guidelines. Now, for anyone who knows me at all, or has read more than a handful of my posts, you know that I’m not a big fan of the changes. I’ll let you read for yourself as to why.

Empty trays and empty bellies...but don't worry, the garbage cans have been full!

Empty trays and empty bellies…but don’t worry, the garbage cans have been full!

So when I read about these new changes, I was excited that we were making headway, that the USDA was starting to see reason and our children were no longer going to be used as diet guinea pigs and be paraded around as some science experiment. I think I celebrated a little to early.

First of all, let me reiterate that I am not unhappy with ALL of the new school lunch guidelines. I love the idea of new menus, trying different things and encouraging fresh fruits and vegetables. I really, really do.

Yet, I have major issues with limiting calories for growing bodies, mandating that every school charge for seconds and limiting the amounts of proteins and grains that can be served.

The changes came in the order of a letter from Sec. Vilsack, announcing that for the remainder of the school year, limits on protein and grains would be lifted. Yay! Right???

Not so fast.

The problem truly lies within the limits on calories, which is not lifted. And the release of grains and proteins is only temporary, to allow schools time to adjust their menus and find vendors that can supply these new meal requirements.

On the heels of this “announcement” of change, comes an article from the New York Times. It states that “After decades of rising childhood obesity rates, several American cities are reporting their first declines.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Except when you read the article, you notice a few problems.

For instance, the fall in obesity in children in New York City was recorded from 2007 to 2011. Wait a minute…our kids were getting healthier before school lunch was changed? The decline in Los Angeles was from 2005 to 2010. And the decline was contributed to things like giving healthy tips during school, not putting the students on a nation-wide diet.

Yet my twitter feed is full of agencies and groups claiming that the new guidelines are already showing improvements, taking credit for the drop in a rate that was already dropping all on its own…without calorie caps and protein limits.

So why am I leery about the changes? Because if you read the actual announcement, you’ll quickly learn that it’s very temporary…and it’ll be very hard to implement. Yes, a school can ignore the limits on protein and grains for the rest of the school year, but they cannot ignore the calorie cap.

School lunch release

It’s kind of like giving a kid an allowance of $5 per day, instructing them that if they want to keep getting their allowance every week, they can only spend $25 for the whole week (we’re working within a school week here). But, for a limited time, they can buy all they want…as long as they don’t spend more than $25 per week.

Doesn’t matter how it’s worded, the child is still stuck spending only $25, unless they want to give up their allowance for the next week.

Try again, USDA…you can do better.

Our kids aren’t as fat as you think

Whoa. That’s quite the title for a blog post, isn’t it? Here are some other versions I tossed around, “How to make research fit your agenda,” “Misleading the public: Our way or the highway,” “It’s only a few percentage points…who’s gonna notice?”

So, what’s my point? I’ve been reading and researching the 81 pages of the new school lunch guidelines. I’ve read the comments left, I’ve read the “White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity” report. I’ve started to have dreams regarding statistics…and I hated statistics in college. Hated.

What did I learn? I learned that although the powers that be keep using the number “1 in 3” as the percentage of obese kids in our country, well, that number isn’t right. In fact, we’re off by quite a ways. How far? Try about 14%, give or take.

Everywhere you look, you’ll read the statistic that 1 in 3 children are obese. In my mind, that means roughly 33.33%. Again, I wasn’t a math major, so if I’m wrong, please correct me. (And no, I don’t mean just take it out a few more decimal places. 😉 ) What if I tell you that the number is actually closer to 19%? Would that matter?

Well, that’s the truth.

This is percentage of high school students obese, according to the CDC.

Here, read the CDC’s stats directly from their page: “The percentage of children aged  6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.” (The number in the White House report bounces between 17% and 19.6%, depending on which graph you want to look at.)

So how can they get away with it? Simple. It’s a matter of word choice. In the above report, the next line reads, “In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.” It goes on to explain that “overweight” is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors. Obese is defined as having excess body fat.

So, when someone is making a statement, or a report, or a news conference, it’s just more newsworthy if you drop the “overweight” part off and leave it as “obese.” But the two terms are not interchangeable. There are so many factors that can weigh in on a child’s weight, not just activity level and diet. What about injuries? What about stress? What about extending health issues?

What causes an overweight child? Here are a few examples: Imagine a high school student, very active, with an injury that requires months of rehab. They continue to eat as they’re used to, but realize they need to make some diet adjustments once they start noticing a few pounds being added on. The pounds drop again once activity is resumed.

Or what about a teenage girl, just transitioning into her cycle. Weight fluctuates greatly, revolved around hormones and other things that occur as the body makes great changes. Same is true for boys as they hit puberty.

No, an overweight child is nothing to scoff at, but it’s also not something to legislate for…it’s a natural occurrence in the life cycle.

But obesity, well, obesity is a little different. And although we do need to take steps to make improvements, the majority of the differences need to be made at home. And that’s not a place where legislation reaches…at least, not yet.

By law, we are not required to buy fruit. By law, we are not prohibited from purchasing soda. By law, we are not limited to the number of times pizza can be served as a meal.

As parents, we need to make the right decisions for our children, that includes after the bell rings.

If we truly want to drop the obesity rate in our children, we can’t expect cuts to the school lunch program to be the smoking gun. School lunch was never the root of the problem.

But we also can’t go around making changes, touting stats and bending the information to fit our goals. Some may not take the time to read the fine print, but when you get caught using misleading numbers, I start to question the rest of your agenda as well.

I applaud the new fruits and increased use of vegetables in our school lunches, I love the new recipes and new twists on the old-standby’s. Yet calorie caps and protein limits will not succeed to achieve a goal that’s been misquoted in the first place.

Can we work together to make real change?

A 10-year-old’s Letter About School Lunch

After weeks of discussion and attempting to ask questions, my 10-year-old finally had enough last night. He asked why all of the stuff he liked about lunch seems to be bad for you now. I couldn’t answer his questions any more, so I asked if he wanted to write a letter to one of the people in charge. He agreed.

Big Bro…in a self-portrait last summer.

These are his words, not mine. I admit that I did help him with spelling a few times, and I did help him write down an outline of what he wanted to say before he wrote the letter. I am immensely proud that he wanted to take this step…and I encourage other parents to help their children do the same. We are talking about their lunch and their future – and we need to keep them involved.

I’m including the documents, so you can see what he wrote, but I will also type out his message, so that you can read it plainly.

In the next few weeks, I will also be featuring other students who have questions and concerns. Perhaps we can help get their voices heard, so that we can answer those questions and keep working for positive changes. We have this great opportunity to discuss healthy choices and healthy habits, let’s keep the conversation going!

Lunch letter page 1

Lunch_letter_page2

Dear Mr. Vilsack,

I am writing about the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 and school lunch.

I think that we shouldn’t pay for the extra food that we can get. Why did you think of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010? Why can’t we get pudding or melted cheese on burritos? I thought cheese was healthy?

I am 10 and sometimes I’m hungry when I get home from school. My Mom sometimes sends snack with me on the bus to school. My younger brother eats more than me. He is hungry all the time.

I would like to have a good school lunch. I think meat, cheese and bread are an important part of my meal.

Although I like fruits and vegetables, I would like to see changes made to the school lunch.

Thank You,

Ian Wagner

 

If a 10-year-old can take the time to write a letter, so can you. Here are the addresses, but don’t be afraid to include your local and state officials as well:

Undersecretary of Food & Nutrition Services
Kevin Concannon
1400 Independence Ave, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250

Secretary of Agriculture
Tom Vilsack
1400 Independence Ave, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250