What’s for lunch?

The victory of parents against HFCS in chocolate milk from Berkeley Farms in one school district in California rings sadly hollow. The change has no effect on the children’s health, but leads parents to believe that they’ve made a difference. Hopefully, this small change will lead them to fight for larger changes, but if they aren’t fighting for the changes that actually affect the health of their children, do all their efforts do any good?

“The half-pint of nonfat chocolate milk with sucrose served to students at lunch will have 150 calories and 27 grams of sugar – the same caloric and sugar content as the old formula,” according to Schools switch sugars in chocolate milk in the San Fransisco Chronicle. From the same article:

Switching from high-fructose corn syrup to sucrose in the chocolate milk is nonsense, said Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF. It’s not how the sugar is made that’s the problem, he said – it’s that Americans, and especially kids, are eating too much sugar, period.
“The difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose, molecule for molecule or ounce for ounce, isn’t worth discussing. They are both equally dangerous,” Lustig said.

If you choose not to believe Dr. Lustig, check out Rule # 4 from Michael Pollan’s recent Food Rules, or more importantly, check out the text explaining the rule (emphasis added):

Avoid products that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
Not because high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is any worse for you than sugar, but because it is, like many of the other unfamiliar ingredients in packaged foods, a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed. … don’t fall for the food industry’s latest scam: products reformulated to contain “no HFCS” or “real cane sugar.” These claims imply these foods are somehow healthier, but they’re not. Sugar is sugar.

So, if sugar is sugar, what can actually be done to make school lunches healthier? To me, it seems that the problem is systemic.
In Florida, where I grew up, schools get some amount of funds from the state, but property taxes are the primary source of funding for schools. As far as I know, California’s schools are funded in the same way. California is worse off than Florida, though, after Prop 13 in 1978 capped property taxes at low levels (I learned about this from a member of DAMN while Karl and I were in California). Ideally, schools would be funded differently, but for now we’re stuck trying to do more and more with smaller and smaller budgets. Schools simply have to work within these cost constraints.
Instead of targeting one ingredient, why don’t parents work to find creative ways for schools to feed healthy meals to their children within the budget that exists?
Since their budgets for food are so small, schools can’t afford to pay staff to cook. Instead, they pay staff to reheat. I hadn’t really thought about this before I stumbled upon Mrs. Q’s blog Fed Up: School Lunch Project. She’s a teacher, and plans to eat school lunch every day in 2010. Mrs. Q says: “I think every child no matter how much money their family has deserves to eat quality food at school”, referring to the kids who may only get one meal per day.
Based on her pictures and descriptions, I don’t think I could do it. The one lunch that she’s had so far that really got to me is the one that’s pictured here: Day 16: peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
PB&J with fruit and milk is such a perfect lunch, so it’s really sad to see it bastardized into this sugary pre-packaged mess. It seems to me that the parents of this school, and of every school, should find out exactly what their kids are being served and come up with alternatives that still make budget. Can a school buy bread, peanut butter, and jelly and make the sandwiches for the same cost as these pre-packaged PB&J on graham crackers? Can they achieve the same calorie count and nutritional requirements with healthier ingredients? I bet the schools can, but maybe they just don’t have the time to find out, or the budget to hire someone to look into it.
There has to be at least one parent in San Fransisco who took time to protest corn syrup who has skills related to accounting. There has to be at least one parent in San Fransisco who took time to protest corn syrup who has skills related to creating menus. Where are these parents, and why aren’t they putting their skills to use? If they don’t have the skills needed, why don’t they contact undergrad and graduate students at local colleges to help them out? What a great resume builder or even thesis for a college student!
The school district employees responsible for nutritional quality of school meals are obviously open to discussion, judging by this quote from the SF Chronicle:

“My job is to provide nutritious meals that the students want to eat and that their parents want them to eat,” said Ed Wilkins, district director of Student Nutrition Services. “When a group of parents advocate for a particular change and it is feasible with the resources available to us to make that change, I will try to meet their demands.”
I’d be very surprised if most professionals with positions similar to Mr. Wilkins across the country weren’t just as open to discussion, if only they were presented with smart, cost-effective solutions.
I admire these parents in San Fransisco for taking the initiative and working to change the lunches that their children eat. Now, I hope they will take the next step and work for bigger changes that will significantly effect the health of their children.
Correction:  Dana Woldow, co-chairwoman of the district’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, is a volunteer, not an employee of the school district. Thanks to Dana for the correction. In the SF Chronicle article, Dana said: “I’ve never met a parent who has said I want my child to have high-fructose corn syrup, I think it’s helping kids if your concern is high fructose is not a natural product.”


  1. Just about the time I was leaving the UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a pretty hard hitting campaign to get school menu’s changed to be actually, rather than fictitiously, healthy – this involved getting local producers involved, educating/re-educating the people who make and serve the food, and engaging the kids in making food from raw ingredients – rather than out of a box – I believe it was a pretty successful campaign.
    I don’t recall the costs etc involved (the show may still run on syndication somewhere… not that I can remember the name of it) but frankly, if you can get kids eating fresh fruit and veg, and a relatively balanced diet – even if for only one meal a day, cost effectiveness should take a bit of a back seat – if I remember right the massive reduction in simple sugars correlated pretty strongly to improved behaviour and learning directly after lunch – it’s amazing what you can do by not being whacked out on sugar, be it HFCS or sucrose.

  2. Thanks for the mention, but the fact is I am not a school district employee. I am a parent with over 7 years of experience working (on a purely volunteer basis) to improve school food in San Francisco. The school meal programs exists to make sure that low income children can have a healthy, balanced breakfast and lunch each day. Here in SF, where 57% of public school kids qualify for free or reduced price meals, the main nourishment for a heartbreaking number of these children comes from the food they eat at school. The (volunteer) committee which I co-chair has worked since 2003 to improve the quality of our school meals, getting soda and junk food off our campuses years before the state of California took any action on this. Our lunches include salad bars, fresh fruit, whole grain bread, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. Lunch before reform was a corn dog, tater tots, and canned peaches; now it is a grilled chicken breast, salad from the salad bar, and fresh oranges grown in California. The move to get HFCS out of the chocolate milk is just one half of what our student nutrition director has been pushing for with Berkeley Farms, the other half being to reduce the amount of sugar in the milk. Read more about that here
    There is a lot more to getting better food into the schools than a simplistic “doesn’t anyone know anything about menu planning, doesn’t anyone know basic accounting?” Learn more about what it really takes to “fix school food” at http://www.sfusdfood.org

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Dana. I admire what you are doing to improve the healthfulness (and palatability…) of school lunches. I’ve seen some crap pass as food in my earlier years, and admittedly, fast food options seemed more palatable to me at the time than the cafeteria food.
    But why even spend half of your chocolate milk effort on HFCS and the other half on the total simple sugar content, when you could spend 100% of your effort on the sugar content itself?
    After taking a look at your site, and looking for what SFUSFOOD.org has said about corn syrup, I came across this:
    “Many researchers believe that high fructose corn syrup may interfere with your metabolism and increase fat storage on the body. Corn syrup is a sugar frequently found as a top ingredient in many of these seemingly healthy snacks”
    What researchers are these? Even the scientist who originally proposed that we look into High Fructose Corn Syrup as potentially worse than table sugar has since rejected that hypothesis. Nutritionist Marion Nestle says it is little different from table sugar. Michael Pollan, who used to treat HFCS a little differently in the past, today says “Sugar is sugar.” Indeed, if you were to point to the slightly higher fructose content of HFCS (55% versus 50% in table sugar), fruit juices which come in at 2/3 fructose would be even worse.
    What may have happened is that Berkeley Farms thought that they could appease your organization by switching HFCS for sugar, without changing anything else. The result is a ‘victory’ that has not changed anything nutritionally for the kids. You’ve given them an easy way out at the cost of much effort on your part. And by complying with half of your demands, Berkeley Farms may think they’ve already compromised and might be less willing to change their formulation again.
    I hope that you are able to affect the sugar content of these drinks in the future, but I worry that the anti-HFCS component of the campaign is going to exhaust time an energy and perhaps even hinder your laudable efforts to improve school lunches.

  4. I’m glad you stopped by, Dana. It is always better to hear what’s happening from the source than going through news articles. I’m also really happy to hear that your school district has achieved such improvements! I’m sorry I didn’t find your article How Sweet is Advocates’ Chocolate Milk Victory? in Beyond Chron (San Franscisco’s Alternative Daily) before I wrote this post.
    Part of my research is improving the nutritional quality of crops, so I acutely understand how poor nutrition can negatively affect the physical and mental development of children. I worry about children that aren’t getting adequate nutrition, because we need them to be physically and mentally strong to make our country and the world a better place!
    I understand that changing things isn’t easy, but if parents came up with an economically feasible plan to improve the nutrition of children, why wouldn’t the school district at least look at it? Why can’t parents with relevant skill sets band together to come up with real solutions? Isn’t that how you made changes to whole grain pasta and lean chicken? With every institution I’ve worked with, the way to make changes is to do the legwork and create a realistic proposal. I don’t think that’s simplistic. I looked at the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee but didn’t see anything like sample proposals or sample budgets to help people from other school districts to make changes similar to the ones that you’ve achieved. Can you recommend any other resources?
    Regarding HFCS in the milk, while I appreciate the empowerment that the parents feel, I still don’t understand. It’s true that you have to start somewhere, but like Karl said, why exhaust energy on something that won’t actually have a positive effect on the children’s overall diets? Why not just work towards less total sugar in chocolate milk?

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