Well, we finally had our Valentine’s Day chocolate mousse and I thought that was what I was going to write about today. Until I saw a smoking gun this morning, in the form of the March school breakfast menu.
Now, before I go any further, let me reiterate how much I love our elementary school. I adore it. I want to marry it. We’ve had nothing but fabulous teachers in every grade and have enjoyed every minute of the warm, welcoming community of learning it provides- no kidding. I wish I had gone to a school this good as a kid. In the past they have even done great things on the healthy food front such as plant a school garden and invite parents to contribute their favorite soup recipes for lunch. Currently there’s even a grant-funded healthy snack program that gives the kids fruits and vegetables in between meals.
Now the bad part: the school food, the day-to-day menu, is packed with added sugar. Even I, who have been focusing on the added-sugar issue with a myopic vengance since the turn of the year, was shocked when I sat down to really look at the breakfast menu laid forth for the month of March. In the picture you can see I’ve highlighted every breakfast item that contains added sugar. And we’re not just talking a teaspoon on our grapefruit here… when they say “Assorted whole grain cereal” read: Frosted Flakes. When they say “Nutri-grain fruit bar” read: high fructose corn syrup. When they say “graham crackers” read: crystalline fructose, (or “lab fructose”- the sweetest ingredient our food scientists have managed to come up with to date.)
To look at it another way, I count a total of 30 possible options on the breakfast menu including condiments and syrup; out of those 30 items, 18 have added sugar… more than half. But it gets worse.
Looking closer, the school menu advertises “Milk Variety is Served with Every Meal!” What does this mean? This means chocolate milk. Okay, so if we assume a child chooses chocolate milk with his or her breakfast every morning, we are now up to 24 items out of 30 possible breakfast choices, or eighty percent of breakfast items containing added sugar.
One more thing: every day children having breakfast are given a piece of fresh fruit. In fact, the fruit has fructose in it too- the only kind of fructose our kids should really be having if you follow the logic of pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig. Lustig’s contention, as I’ve mentioned, is that fructose acts as a poison in our bodies, (unlike glucose, dextrose, lactose, etc.) and that the preferable way to take in this “poison” is the way nature has neatly worked it out: by ingesting the “antidote” with it, which is to say the fiber and micronutrients found in the flesh and pulp of the fruit. This not only ensures we get the good stuff that outweighs the bad, but also that we consume the fructose in appropriately small amounts.
So if we are looking at the number of items containing fructose (read: poison) in our breakfast menu for March 2011, and assuming a choice of chocolate milk every day? We can now bring our total of items containing sugar/fructose to 29 out of 30, or roughly 97 percent.What is the one item left not containing fructose? Cream cheese for our bagel on Tuesday.
Now, my understanding is that the way the breakfast and lunch programs work in most public schools is that they are substantially subsidized by the USDA which lays out the nutritional guidelines and “approved brands.” The potentially good news is that over the last year first lady Michelle Obama has taken on nutrition-awareness in the nation, in which effort she is assisted by the white house chef Sam Kass, a huge proponent of local, fresh, and sustainable foods.
This morning I came across a heartening article quoting Kass as being highly critical of the state of our school meals.
Then again, these remarks were made in 2008, before Kass was hired by the White House. Would he still speak so frankly today? Of course, everything I uncovered in my cursory search found him focusing on the positive: emphasizing the benefits of recently passed legislation (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010) regarding the USDA’s oversight of food in schools. In terms of specifics, the proposed “before” and “after” school menus posted on the USDA website are encouraging. And hey, he reassured Elmo, so that has to count for something. (youtube video)
Meanwhile, on the recent one year anniversary of her “Let’s Move” initiative, Michelle Obama posted a website message saying that over the last year there has been “a real shift in our national conversation.” Really?
I’d like to think so- I really, really would. But so far my youngest still brings home all the wrappers from her school breakfasts that say otherwise.