Guest blogger: School lunch news roundup

***Meet our newest guest blogger: Brandon Smith. He has generously offered to investigate the latest in school lunch news and related stories and share them with all of us.***
Greetings, everyone. I, also, am not a nutrition expert per se, but rather a student journalist who has followed environmental and agricultural issues for a few years. I’m a junior at Columbia College Chicago and major in science journalism. (I blog at and tweet at I also cook for the “underground” supper club Clandestino. If you’re a Windy City gastrophile, come eat my food.

I’ve been interested in school lunches ever since, well, ever since I asked my mom to make me a peanut butter sandwich every day instead of succumbing me to the food the school served. It just seemed like common sense that food that looked, smelled and tasted like that wouldn’t have much nutrition. I later learned I was right. (Whodathunk!) I’m fortunate my family could afford to pack me a lunch.

Believe it or not, my football, track and cross country coaches all suggested my teammates and I not eat the school lunch because it was too fattening and lacked the nutrition we could get if we packed a balanced meal. They were blunt about it. They also didn’t seem to have much hope for the situation ever changing. Without hope, there’s no action. Then again, without action, what good is hope? (Jerrick Jensen of Orion Magazine taught me that one. The coolest writer at the best environmental magazine, Jensen’s columns make you think.)

From now on I’ll be doing a roundup for Mrs. Q about once a week, of news relating to school lunches. Who knows—maybe I’ll even get to interview one of the big players: Ann Cooper, Jamie Oliver, or Michelle Obama. With any luck I’ll talk to the Chicago reporters who cover education and nutrition and see where they are in their work. If any of you have more suggestions for articles or important people I could call to talk to, feel free to list and/or link them in the comments.

Just FYI, this first update will include links to items that are kind of old. I’m not trying to be timely this time, but rather establish a knowledge base on which we can all build. And thank you for all the great book suggestions on that one post. Now I don’t feel bad neglecting all the great long-form writing out there.

Here, a coalition of famous people and big corporations work to get “low-fat, low calorie” drinks in schools and ban other stuff. But the writer seems to be more into celebrity star power than what goes in kids’ mouths, because crucial details are lacking: what does “low fat, low calorie” actually mean? Some chocolate milks have nearly as much sugar as soda, and the bottled “teas” do have that much, barring brands like Honest Tea. Another question: what other metrics should we be using to measure the healthfulness of school food? Simply lowering fat and lowering calories doesn’t solve the problem of nutritional deficiency.

Another question good journalists should ask: Who benefits from these changes? I’m always wary of situations where companies seemingly try to limit their own ubiquity for the greater good. They always seem to get the revenue back in some other way. This recent expose explains that big polluters sponsor many environmental organizations in order to get on their good side and, in effect, shut them up.

Re: “who benefits from these changes?” All the following milk manufacturers are now owned by Suiza Foods Corporation: Dean, Borden, Lewis Trauth, Reiter, and, at least in part, Horizon Organic. Right this moment portions of is down, or else I’d tell you how much Suiza spends on lobbying.

Since Mrs. Q is an Illinois teacher, a lot of food-centric thinkers in Chicago follow her. All you Chicagoans won’t want to miss “the midwest’s premier local food event,” the Family Farmed Expo. Running March 11-13, this thing should be a blast. Just about every local farmer will be there, selling CSA (community supported agriculture) shares, talking about their upcoming crops, and (hopefully!) getting financing from investors. There’ll be a local-produce dinner, seminars for young and old about all things responsible food, and cooking demonstrations from the likes of Rick Bayless and other famous Chi-town chefs.

Some of the biggest food news in Chicago recently was that the city went berzerk on some responsible food businesses using a shared kitchen. But the story should get all of you thinking about whether your local laws are prohibiting responsible food startups.

Good magazine recently had a contest for its readers to come up with the healthiest school lunches, and these are the winners. I think you all should start posting pictures of good packed lunches on the Flickr page. If school lunch officials ever look to this site for advice, they could get ideas from there.

Bad school food often comes down to subsidies. It won’t be enough to just add to the federal school lunch program budget—we’ll have to revamp what crops get free rides. Why a salad costs more than a Big Mac

That post also it includes a chart first seen here.

Here’s one of my favorite pieces on subsidies: a book review that encapsulates a work called Raising Less Corn, More Hell

A recent Washington Post editorial: To make school food healthy, Michelle Obama has a tall order

A decent summary of Jamie Oliver’s goings-on. (Oliver, a British chef, is trying to revamp nutrition habits in America.)

Here’s the Oliver TED award acceptance speech in its entirety (Previously linked-to by Mrs. Q)

Three TED talks that will change how you think about food. (The Ann Cooper one is really moving. I can credit it with inspiring my journalistic interests)

Cooper’s Mar. 5 column in the Washington Post

Cooper’s web site

I know these are bits and pieces of a much larger, deeper whole, but I’m trying to give you a smattering of ideas you could slog through in an evening. Kind of the anti-book.

NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally and are not being paid for their kind services (there’s no money in this from what I can tell).
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23 thoughts on “Guest blogger: School lunch news roundup

  1. Thanks Brandon!! This gives us all lots of food for thought! And maybe something for dessert?:

    I know Mrs. Q has talked before about how the kids get only 20min for lunch. While the kids' food is portion controlled and they oftentimes have more problems finishing it than not, what are we teaching our kids in the long term? Also, it seems when struggling for time, they default on eating the less nutritious stuff first.

    This isn't just a problem at schools – it's a problem of our culture. How often have you scarfed food at your desk this week or wolfed down some fast food to make time to watch your favorite show? How are you being an example for our children? When will we start to realize our own bad habits so we can learn to lobby for changes in our school? If a 20min dinner is normal at home, who complains about a 20min lunch at school…

  2. As a possible resource for you, here's a link to the series of blog posts–a first-hand account of how food is prepared for kids here in the nation's capitol–related to that piece in the Washington Post you mentioned.

    We also have formed a new parents group–Parents for Better D.C. School Food–and have a new blog where we examine school food issues on a daily basis:


    Ed Bruske

  3. SO SORRY about that terrible typo. I was pretty tired, hit publish, and went straight to bed. I can't believe an error that glaring got by me! Gah!

  4. "we'll have to revamp what crops get free rides"

    Ending *all* food subsidies would be a good start. No more playing favorites, no more special privileges. Reveal the true cost of everything so people aren't making decisions based on false data.

  5. "Here, a coalition of famous people and big corporations work to get "low-fat, low calorie" drinks in schools and ban other stuff."

    Real fat doesn't scare me. I'd rather see whole milk in schools than skim milk. Forget the chocolate. Forget the soybean oil, the canola oil, the sunflower oil. Get back to real fats: coconut oil, lard, butter, olive oil…

    Food lunches will have to cost more because of the increased… well… *real* food (not processed food). Using real food as basic ingredients would then mean having kitchens in all schools. And perhaps a little bit more time eating real food would provide enough energy and ability to concentrate so that kids can actually learn in the slightly shorter class time.

  6. "Here, a coalition of famous people and big corporations work to get "low-fat, low calorie" drinks in schools and ban other stuff."
    Yeah, lets load them up with aspartame!!!

    Re: "who benefits from these changes?" All the following milk manufacturers are now owned by Suiza Foods Corporation: Dean, Borden, Lewis Trauth, Reiter, and, at least in part, Horizon Organic. Right this moment portions of is down, or else I'd tell you how much Suiza spends on lobbying.
    I work at a small organic dairy in Iowa and its painfully obvious what kind of advantage these large corporations have because of the lobbying $$,they've almost single handedly made the term organic a laughing stock…

  7. I like the guestblogger idea – especially getting a journalism student on board to do some of the heavy lifting on research. Nice post by the way Mr. Smith!

  8. Thank you for all the kind words. I hope my posts keep getting better as I delve deeper into this twisty world.

    I'll read all the links you've given me and maybe include them in the next roundup post if they fit.

    Re: frogfarm, I may agree with you, but I'm not sure. At first I would think that with no subsidies, a food item would cost roughly the toll exacted on the environment to produce it. But if tons more people want things that hurt the environment than things that do good by it, the price of those things will go down because of the high volume. Beef fits this example, and also illustrates another concept to factor in: that of future healthcare costs. A diet filled with fatty cuts of meat, regardless of the direct toll on the environment, will exact another toll later in the form of not-healthy people using more resources to have better lives. I'm hinting at the usefulness of true-cost pricing of goods and services. Doubt it'll ever happen in my lifetime, but wouldn't it be wonderful to get a sense of the healthfulness and eco-friendliness of a potential purchase simply by looking for what's cheapest? See here:

    But yes, the first step is probably to eliminate subsidies. It would drive meat nearer to its true cost, at least, because the price of feed would skyrocket.

    Re: bluets, I agree that "man-made" and/or processed foodstuffs are sub-par, but can't those other oils you listed be used without processing? Certainly we shouldn't be putting it in milk, and it's not as healthy as olive oil, but there may be a use for it at some point.

    Not to say that, in their current common state, they aren't super-processed. I just don't know.

    It would seem that just about anything processed could be done naturally. We just don't.

  9. Brandon:

    Thanks for the great post. I just wanted to share with you some other efforts in Chicago. We host a contest where students need to follow similar requirements that a real food service follow to highlight the challenges of providing school lunch. Requirements include cost limits (only $1 in food ingredients), limited number of steps to facilitate preparation in a commercial kitchen, using at least one locally grown vegetable, nutrition requirements that exceed USDA requirements and of course, we need kids to like it.

    You can read a wrap up of when we just recently brought the winning team to DC to share the meal with Congress.



  10. "A diet filled with fatty cuts of meat, regardless of the direct toll on the environment, will exact another toll later in the form of not-healthy people using more resources to have better lives."

    As with like eliminating food subsidies, the solution is to eliminate all the ways in which people are forced to pay for the poor choices of other people. And a high-fat diet (*) of mostly meat is perfectly healthy if carbohydrate is minimized, particularly grains and fructose. Vegetable oils are also poison.

    (*) Note that all diets are high-fat diets:

  11. Also, see Lierre Keith's "The Vegetarian Myth" regarding, among other things, agriculture's destructive effects on the environment.

  12. It really concerns, nay, scares, me when I read the comments on this site, especially to see that statements like frogfarm's above go unchallenged by otherwise intelligent people. Look at what he is saying: he is suggesting that ALL carbs be eliminated from our diets. Folks, that means all vegetables, all fruits, all bread, all pasta, all grains. He would have our children eat meat, cheese, dairy, fish maybe. I'm really not sure what else. Is that really what most of you believe? Are there really that many parents out there that feel that fruit and vegetables are bad for their children? Wow, if that is so, that's pretty sad indeed.

  13. All I'm saying is that carbohydrate is optional, not essential. And all plants do have toxins to a certain degree — they have to, since they can't run away or fight back directly with "tooth and claw" to defend themselves. Grains are the worst offenders, and have no place in the human diet except when the only alternative is starvation. And fruit is "nature's candy bar" — see Robert Lustig's lecture "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" and you'll agree that a shot of whiskey is safer than a glass of orange juice! As for the rest, it's up to every individual to determine their own tolerance level. Always remember, the dose makes the poison.

    PS: Fish is great, and the smaller ones have less mercury.

  14. I find this blog pretty interesting, it’s important also that the student’s lunches are nutritious. I think it would be best if the school canteen can provide a very delicious and organic food straight from the schools garden.

  15. Schools should set an example of preparing a good nutritious food. I would love to hear what the other guest bloggers would say about this, thanks.
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  16. Hey Brandon–

    Great post! I go to Columbia, too. I'm a film major. If you ever want to do a doc on this, we should try to set something up!

  17. I have been visiting various blogs for my Term Papers research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information… Regards

  18. Dude, if you are going to be a journalist, get your head out of the leftest, liberal agenda and start writing objectively.

    It is not just "the corporations" that are poisnoning our kids, it is the government, too. Who sets truly mind-boggling school lunch regulations? The USDA. Who sells cheap, processed food to schools? The USDA. Why is everything loaded with HFCS? Because the government oversubsidizes corn growers so they will make ethanol for cars and HFCS is a leftover.

    Seriously, there is a lot more to this than "corporations" making money. If the market shifted its paradigms, so will the "corporations." That is the essense of the free market.

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