Guest blogger: School food service director on ingredients

*** Our resident food service director Ms A is back to share more information from her unique perspective. Read her previous post on pizza ***

The Ingredient list and what it suggests about school food

It can be as easy as peeling a label off the cardboard packaging and taping it to a wall, yet posting ingredient lists of food served in school cafeterias isn’t standard policy.  In my last piece for Mrs. Q, I blogged that there are 62 ingredients in my school’s pizza.  This information created a buzz among readers because that is a surprising number of ingredients for a plain slice.  But what is more surprising is that so few of you have access to this information.  It’s standard for processed foods to come with an ingredient list at the supermarket, and it should be the same in school.   

For parents and students, displaying ingredients just makes so much sense.  Everyone can make informed decisions about what they’re eating, especially those with food allergies or sensitivities.

For me, the reasons are somewhat different.  I would love it if parents demanded that they have easily accessible information.  Why?

Transparency

Posting ingredient lists allows everyone to talk about the food openly and dispels misinformation about school food and the school kitchen.  Parents may make negative assumptions about the food coming out of the school kitchen, while the kitchen staff might feel the need to defend the food or be less than completely honest about it.  It’s a truly unfortunate situation.  Make no mistake – no one is thrilled about frozen and canned food, but such is the state of school food.

At my school no one sees nutrition information except the kitchen staff and our health director.  I’m not sure how this came to pass in my school or elsewhere.  Parental demand for ingredient lists would bring a level of transparency to school food and shine light on everyone’s dirty little secret.

Communication 

Making ingredient lists available allows us to begin having concrete discussions about school lunch.  We all know that school lunch needs improvement, so let’s come up with a list of priorities based on the most basic components of school lunch, the ingredients that go into the food.  It’s a start to a conversation about explicit problems in school foods and the types food changes needed.  It might be opening Pandora’s box, but at least it’s better than sitting on the issue.

Accountability

With information available, it is easier to hold those who make purchasing decisions accountable for what they buy.  The truth about school food is often in the ingredient lists.  Gauging improvement is much easier and more reliable with two ingredient lists side by side.

Knowledge is power

Having ingredient lists easily accessible still doesn’t solve the underlying problems.  It simply places information into the hands of the school community so that no one can ignore the facts any longer.  The initiative, budget, and determination to carry out change do not come with ingredient lists.  Parental demand for ingredient lists, however, signals to your school that the community cares about its food.  It is a starting point, and one that may help your school cafeteria garner the support it needs to switch from thaw-and-serve to meals cooked in the school’s kitchen. 

I help run a school cafeteria, and I’m excited to be part of the movement to shake up school lunch in the years to come.  I can’t do it on my own because I don’t have control over many aspects of the cafeteria.  I’m very lucky that my cafeteria has had the support to make many changes already that place my school ahead of the curve.  There’s still a long way to go, and I need community support.  

Recently, I put up a few ingredient lists to highlight an improvement.  We began purchasing fresh, locally made bagels without the artificial dough conditioners that our frozen bagels came with.  I bet other schools that have made positive changes are also making more information about their school food available.  Sadly, it seems that the majority of schools out there are slow to make improvements.  Demanding ingredients lists from your school might be a call to action.

Ms. A can be reached at bravenewlunch@gmail.com and her blog Brave New Lunch.

NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation. 

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24 Responses to Guest blogger: School food service director on ingredients

  1. JGold March 23, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    If outsourced food suppliers (like Aramark) do in fact supply ingredient lists/food labels for its products, anyone can make a Freedom of Information request to the school for it. Or a school administrator so inclined could make that info available. But then it becomes a matter of someone compiling and publishing this information. You'd be hard-pressed to find a district employee willing to take on that task, but the school could allow a dedicated volunteer (someone like guest blogger Tara, hint) to do so as a project.

    However, when the information does come to light, it would be helpful to compare to popular analogous retail products. People may be outraged at 26 ingredients in school pizza, but if they don't bother to look at the crap they eat EVERYDAY IN THEIR PRIVATE LIVES, they won't have a good understanding of processed foods in general.

  2. art and chel March 23, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    I was reading a Restaurant News article this morning about the Health Care Bill and how it will affect restaurants. The article mentions that under the new bill "menu labeling will become the law of the land." http://www.nrn.com/article.aspx?menu_id=1368&id=381022# Not sure what that means exactly and not sure if it should be the law of the land for every type of restaurant but I agree with you 100% that everyone should have access to not only the nutritional information of school food (which is already available) but also the ingredients which I believe are not transparent.

    As you mentioned, canned and frozen is the way things are done at schools. But that doesn't mean all canned and frozen are created equal. You demonstrated real action by choosing to purchase one product over the other (the un-bromated bread product) most likely because you are aware of the potential health risks associated with such dough conditioners.

    You can't change everything at once but at least you can make as many "small steps" as you can along the way. Awesome!

  3. Tammy Kimbler March 23, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    Thank you Ms. A! I would love to hear more from folks in the school lunch system so we have balanced info. We know it's challenging and parents need to know how they can help, not just complain!

  4. HelloThisIsAnton March 24, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    Hello! I've been keeping up with your blog for the past few weeks now and i find it to be very revealing. This reminds me so much of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," where he did a similar project.

  5. Healthy Tara March 24, 2010 at 1:42 am #

    Mrs. A, phenomenal argument. I appreciate your articulation of these issues.

    and @JGold, I have already talked to my district's associate superintendent about filing for a FOIA. He said the district doesn't have the information to file for. You have to get it through the state. So I asked about it at a Healthier US Schools Challenge state meeting, and was told by a state official that they are also not required to give me the information.

  6. pantrydiaries.com March 24, 2010 at 1:45 am #

    This is a briliant post!

    You articulate so well the need for transparency and informed decision making.

    I applaud your efforts.

    How can we help?

  7. Jerri-Lea March 24, 2010 at 2:28 am #

    (Sorry about that I had a little helper push buttons on the computer…)

    Wow!! How lucky are we in the school I work in!! We have a commercial kitchen that hires 3 'lunch ladies' that prepare home-cooked lunches for the students!! They are offered soup or salad, an entree, choice of two sides and a dessert for $4. The cafeteria has almost eliminated all fried food (fries are offered once a week and not at all next year.) Fresh fruit, yogurt, fruit salad, granola/yogurt cups, veggie bags and dip are offered all the time. We are making the move to whole wheat breads and pastas and eliminating artificially colored beverages (sports drinks). I'll try to find a copy of the Nutrition Positive document we are following and mail it to you. Thank you for taking such an important stand in students nutrition!

    from the Prairies in Canada

  8. Le Crunchy Mama March 24, 2010 at 2:31 am #

    I love everything about this post. Your blog just makes my heart sing. That is all. Keep on keepin' on.

  9. flyraeven March 24, 2010 at 5:35 am #

    What perfect timing for me to read this post! I am so very impressed with this blog, as food is my hot topic. My daughter has severe allergies and in talking with her school I have experienced much frustration with the lack of action and knowledge I have encountered. Not just about lunches the school serves, but their food policies in general.

    When I asked about accessing ingredients lists to school lunches because my daughter was interested in trying it a couple times a month, I was told they have no access to it and was referred to the website of the company and does all their meal plans and provides their food. Navigating that was ridiculous frustrating.

    I would love to know more about how I can help…

  10. Milehimama March 24, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    Mrs Q,
    My son just started school at the local elementary this week. Curious, I looked up his lunch menu:
    http://www.cfisd.net/dept2/food/menus/Elem.%20Traditional%20Lunch%20-%20MARCH%202010.pdf

    Appalling! This month:
    corn dogs, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, nachos, pizza, cheesesticks (as an entree), cheeseburger, nachos, pizza, fish nuggets, cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, pizza, nachos, popcorn chicken.
    Only TWO "real entrees" for the entire month: baked chicken and enchiladas. A footnote says that an entree salad is available every day, but so are hot dogs or cheeseburgers. Every day.

    How do we change this? Where to start, school board meetings?

    I can't see ingredients, but our school district posts nutrition info online:
    http://www.cfisd.net/dept2/food/html/Traditional.Elem.Nutrition.Facts.pdf

    Today my son will be served chicken nuggets (400 mg. sodium) According to the chart, there are only 24 TOTAL entrees available. Only 3 are not fried or junk food (corn dog, chick nuggets, cheese sticks, etc.) Baked chicken, spaghetti with meat sauce, and ravioli. (Hopefully, that's not canned Chef Boyardee ravioli). Not sure how the enchiladas snuck onto the menu!

  11. Nici March 24, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    It seems only reasonable that school lunch menus should come complete with nutrition information (including grams of carbs, calories, fat, and sodium.)

    Seeing as this is soon to be required of all restaurants, it only makes sense that it should also be required of school cafeterias (and their suppliers.)

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mrs. A that this type of change would force transparency and encourage discussion and improvement.

    At the very least, students and parents would be empowered to make informed decisions about which elements of the school lunches to eat and which to forgo.

  12. ReesieKitty March 24, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    I just sent my son's school principal a copy of your blog and asked if parents could get the nutritional/ingredient info for our school lunches. I am wondering what she will say. In an otherwise outstanding public school, the lunches reflect the lowest point! It's so funny to me- in a suburb where many people are very health/status conscious and it is all organic this and free range that- still a lot of parents have no issue either sending their own kids to eat this junk. Or worse, they pack THEIR kids' lunch and don't seem to care that some kids have parents who for whatever reasons- don't pack a lunch and HAVE to eat the school lunch. They don't seem to see it as part of the school district's responsibility to provide the healthiest possible options. It's very frustrating!

  13. JGold March 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    To everyone fighting for transparency: be careful what you ask for; you may bite off more than you can chew. Keep in mind that, for a school that offers a wide variety of foods, that means for any given month you'll end up with thirty-plus items on a rotating basis. Keeping track of and trying to make sense of all that information can make anyone's head spin. But just raising awareness of the issue is good to get people thinking.

  14. Anonymous March 24, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    I am just blown away by the products been fed to children in this country that are masqueraded as food! I am passionate about food, and I mean Real whole food and I am appalled by the lack of accountability on this issue. These products are getting to our children's plates and we are all paying for it in a big way and yet school budgets are continually cut while we all wail about healthcare reform. the most important preventative health move to make is to educate people and especially children about what good food is. Every bite we take contributes to making up our every cell! Imagine our children made up of greasy plastic-like pizza and chicken nuggets.

    I am even more appalled that anyone could even suggest that nutrition and ingredient information be unavailable to the consumer. this is an outrage. We have to be allowed to know what we are putting into our bodies.
    !!!!

  15. Rhona March 24, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    I recently stumbled on your blog and anxiously await your daily posts. I have been concerned about the food served to my high schooler for some time. Every day he eats the same food, a cheeseburger, fries and 2 chocolate milks. After he is finished eating he hangs out with friends and high jacks the chocolate milk they are not drinking and one day managed to down 14. His acne has gotten very bad since he began eating in the cafeteria and I know why. His diet is full of carbs and sugar! I know healthy options are available but if the carb/sugar rich items are on the menu, he's going to choose those. The district made a huge fuss a couple of years ago to get soda out of the school but they still have all the energy drinks and other sweetened beverages that the kids love. It's just one more source of sugar in my opinion. I admire all you and others are doing to bring light to this situation.

  16. Anonymous March 24, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

    I graduated from high school about 5 years ago, and looking back my lunches were a lot like these. We had pizza and hamburgers A LOT! We had "real" plates until I moved to another school and they had the foam ones. We had fries everyday, and kids were dipping them in Ranch Dressing more than the ketchup. Most kids just got a tray of fries. Most kids never ate the fruit or fruit cups, and chose pop out of the vending machines over milk. A lot of kids ate from the vending machines as well. My first high school had an al la carte that had things like cinnamon rolls and things that were very fatty and sugary. I think lunches have gotten worse. At least in Elementary we had "chef salad" once a week. It had lettuce, ham, red cabbage, and carrots. As I grew up most of my lunches at school (when I ate them and didn't starve myself) were repeats of pizza and hamburgers every week. I hope something changes. I'm getting ready to have kids myself soon, and I don't want my children to eat the lunches they serve now.

  17. Anonymous March 24, 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    I'm glad they are starting to put vegetarian options on menus now. They are better for you then the regular ones, even if they still aren't nutritionally sound. But what kid is going to chose the vegetarian option?

  18. louisianagrown March 24, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    I'm a student at LSU pursuing a degree in elementary education, and I am SO glad that I stumbled across your blog. When I first started elementary school, my cafeteria pumped out homemade rice and gravy and fresh baked bread. Somewhere between that time and 12th grade, we started receiving soy burgers and pizzas in plastic wrappers. I hope that big change comes around while I'm a teacher, and I think that making ingredient lists public is so necessary.

  19. jason01 March 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Well done! Keep it up! This is brilliant and I hope this mindset spreads like wildfire all around the US

  20. MJS March 25, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    The problem is, the people eating processed food couldn't care less what the schools are feeding their kids. Why would they be angry at the school's low standards when they are feeding their children very similar meals at home and in restaurants? Have you seen some of the food people send in their children's lunchboxes? Have you seen the junk in parents' carts at the supermarket? Yes, there should be transparency, but without a change in the larger society I believe most people simply aren't going to care that most of the ingredients in school lunches can't be pronounced without a college degree in chemistry. We have to make people care about putting real food into their bodies.

  21. Anonymous March 25, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    I live in Santa Rosa County Florida. Sodexo has the Food Service contract w/ my son's school. My son has sensory disorder & "Leaky Gut", which is a common problem in a large percentage toddlers being diagnosed w/ Autism. Well, last September (2009) we started asking the school system & Sodexo for milk substitutes. Both my girlfriend & I have reversed the Autism in our sons by vitamin regiment, probiotics, and a healthy, organic GF/CF diet. We have had both of sons evaluated @ NIH in Bethesda, and they both are outside the spectrum. My son is allergic to milk & her son has severe reactions to milk, soy, and wheat. We started with trying to get Sodexo to supply Soy Milk to our special needs children. They in turn told us it was against the law to do this & cost prohibitive. Turns out 6 months later they needed these documents filled out in the USDA guidelines. They gave us page 9 stating the requirements for our "disabled" children, but they failed to give us pages 39 & 40. This document is "The USDA Rules" they have to follow that piggyback the ADA: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Guidance/special_dietary_needs.pdf . So if you are requiring your school system to Accommodate Your Children's Special Dietary Needs in School Nutrition Programs, you should go over this Federal USDA document. After a long battle w/ the School system & Sodexo, we have soy milk my son's school. Now, we are fighting to get healthy high protein items that our kids can eat. I am just being put through hoops to get the appropriate food for our children, but the bigger picture is that I have read the ingredients that are in the food products that they are serving. It isn't a pretty picture. I would never eat any of the food they are serving our kids, and I think there should be equal rights for all kid to make healthy choices. You shouldn't have to have a prescription to get Soy Milk at school!
    Best Regards,
    "Mitchell's Mom"

  22. Anonymous March 26, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    I am a lunch lady in the midwest. We prepare meals for approximately 800 middle school students. The US government has guidelines that we must fulfill.
    We do not fry anything. All of our bread products are homemade.
    We use whole wheat spaghetti. The kids hate it. They (the kids) think there is something wrong with the pasta because it is whole wheat.
    All of our hamburger is from the US government. We have no soy burgers.
    Our pizza is whole grain and lowfat cheeses.
    It is hard to buy fresh or local when we have HAACP procedures to follow.
    Did anyone think what would happen if your precious children became sick from school food and the Food Service director couldn't tell you where the food came from?
    Most major school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program have to take government commodities so their hands are tied.
    We have to use stryofoam and plastic utensils at our schools because of budget cuts. It was cheaper to buy "eco friendly" plates and plastic utensils than to hire or keep someone to wash the dishes at lunchtime. Plus the kids kept throwing away the silverware because they were too lazy to get it to the dishwasher window.

    We do offer many healthy alternatives to our students. Few of them take them.

    The only pop machine is in the teachers lounge. There are no snack machines in my middle school.

    It is funny however that the way teachers reward the students is with pop.

    School lunch is a hard business. One cannot please everyone. People all have good ideas on how to improve lunches but there are too many hoops to jump through.

    I Know my school district will not pay to have anyone come in and peel potatoes so your precious children can have real mashed potatoes. Heck I can't even make gravy from scratch anymore. TOO MUCH FAT!

    Sincerely,
    A lunch lady in the Midwest

  23. Tobey March 26, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Over 60 ingredients in pizza? That is terrifying to me and should be to everyone.

    Homemade pizza ingredients:
    Crust:
    1) Water
    2) Yeast
    3) Sugar
    4) Salt
    5) Flour

    Sauce:
    Tomato sauce (or crushed tomatoes)
    Basil
    Oregano
    Cumin
    Salt

    Topping:
    1) Mozzarella cheese (homemade is 5
    ingredients)
    2) Onions
    3) Tomatoes
    4) Olives

    The only preservatives are in the cheese if you don't make it yourself (easy to do).

    Making pizza is fast and easy, homemade is so much better and healthier its unbelievable.

  24. CanadianChick March 27, 2010 at 11:56 pm #

    In all fairness, that huge long list of ingredients in the un-bromated flour would normally appear on an ingredient list as "enriched flour". Period. That's all that is legally required to be listed and that's pretty much what all enriched flour contains. So, the comment above me should actually have an ingredient list of about 62 items if one was to list the flour "correctly".

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