Healthier School Lunches ARE WORKING!

Healthier School Lunches ARE WORKING!

Last month I posted a series about American school lunches and the changes they have undergone during Michelle Obama’s leadership.  The lessons we can learn from this “experiment” in good childhood nutrition are applicable all over the world.  However, at the time I was writing, there was no scientific report yet out about the impact of these changes on kids, although I did share about one inspirational case study.  That report was released just days after my post on the subject!

Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future is a report by Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA and Jeffrey K. O’Hara, PhD that was released at the end of February.  This report highlights that although healthier school lunches on their own will not solve the childhood obesity epidemic or make our kids instantly healthy, they do have a meaningful impact.  Kids who eat the healthier school lunches consume more fruits and vegetables, which is really important when so many kids today eat less than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day.

Obesity is a huge problem for the children of today.  Obese children are ten times more likely to become obese adults.  With one third of kids in America overweight, this means we are raising a generation of unhealthy children who will become unhealthy adults.  The United States alone spends $210 billion treating obesity-related diseases every year.  And those are just the obesity-related diseases, not the figure for all diseases that could be prevented with a healthy diet.  This affects everyone in society, as we are all affected by the economy that bears the brunt of this heavy burden.

Minorities are especially at risk, with African American kids 43% more likely to be obese and Hispanic American kids 59% more likely to become obese.  Interestingly enough, minorities are also those groups most likely to be granted free or reduced lunch status, as minority groups in America have a greater likelihood of having a lower socioeconomic status.  In a surprising twist of fate, this could actually be a good thing – it means they are most likely to benefit from positive, healthy changes to school lunch regulations.

Lessons from the Lunchroom reveals some surprising proof that healthier school lunches have a meaningful impact on kids who consume them.  The report analyzes kids’ eating habits over time and concentrated on kids who consistently eat school lunches, i.e. kids on the free or reduced lunch program.  This study found that kids in the fifth grade who receive free or reduced lunches ate three more servings of fruits and vegetables per week than their peers.  This benefit carried forward into the future as well, with the study finding these same kids ate more fruits and vegetables than their peers three years later.

Three more servings per week of fruit and vegetables on the face of it may not sound like a lot, but with 30% of 6-year-olds consuming fruit less than once daily and nearly 20% of 6-year-olds consuming vegetables less than once daily, adding an extra three servings of fruit and vegetables per week into kids’ diets can make a huge impact on their overall nutrition and health.

Furthermore, this study confirms yet again that positive dietary habits formed young continue to impact kids.  It is never too late to start teaching kids good nutrition habits!  However, the younger kids are, the more likely the changes are to stick.  Repetition helps as well.  Kids who take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch every single day are more likely to eat that fruit or vegetable and are also more likely to form a lasting habit.

Remember, as taxpayers we are all paying for school lunches.  School lunches are subsidized not only directly, in the form of free or reduced lunch programs, but also indirectly, through agricultural subsidies.  Later in life taxpayer dollars help underwrite the healthcare system that pays for obesity-related diseases.  The health of our nation’s youth depends on us making a statement and pushing for healthy change!

This is of concern to all of us, now.  This is not some nebulous issue or even something that requires you as an individual to overhaul your local school lunch program (although I applaud you if you do attempt this!).  This is an issue that each and every one of us has a stake in and has a say on.  The report’s press release says it well:

By September 30, 2015, Congress must again reauthorize the National School Lunch Program and related programs—another chance for Congress to improve school nutrition. UCS recommends that Congress maintain the gains made in the 2010 law, while increasing funding to programs that support serving nutritious produce in schools. Congress should also increase the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches to assist schools with providing healthier lunches.

So go forth and contact your representatives in Congress! Let them know what you think and agitate for change.  Together, they will listen to us.  Together, we can make a change.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also published a snazzy infographic summarizing the report, which you can share with your friends:

Healthy School Lunch Ideas: Shish Kabobs (Part 2)

Healthy School Lunch Ideas: Shish Kabobs (Part 2)

Yesterday, I posted the amazing lunch idea of shish kabobs.  However, I was only able to get through the cold shish kabobs.  Don’t let that fool you – grilled shish kabobs can be made hot for dinner one night and put in the fridge for a yummy lunch the next day.  Trust me, they are delicious!  Don’t have a grill?  Place them on a tray on the top rack of your oven and turn on the grill/broiler setting (just keep a close eye on them so they don’t burn).  Remember to thoroughly soak wooden skewers so they don’t burn.  Here are some amazing and delicious grilled kabob ideas to help inspire your healthy kids!

Grilled Kabobs

Grilled kabobs can be served hot for dinner and then cold for lunch the next day, so this is a great opportunity to make two meals at one time.  Grilling makes it possible to include a much wider variety of vegetables that are not so palatable raw.  It also introduces a greater variety of vegan protein options.  You can grill kabobs with a marinade or send grilled kabobs to school with a dipping sauce.

Grilled Vegetable Kabobs

Any vegetables and fruits that can go on the grill can go on a kabob.  Zucchini and button or yellow summer squash are my go-to favorites, but cauliflower also ranks very high on my list of favorite slightly-blackened vegetables.  (Just make sure to spear cauliflower and broccoli through the stalk of each floret so they don’t fall off when grilled.)  Other good kabob vegetables are baby eggplant, button mushrooms, capsicum (bell pepper) – any color, banana peppers, red onion, thick asparagus, and cherry tomatoes.  Alternate colors for a beautiful kabob that will be especially appealing to young children.  Slice vegetables more thinly than you might normally to ensure they cook all the way through (if you hate biting into a kabob to discover your zucchini is still raw inside, then why would your kid like it?).  Include a small amount of fruit, like pineapple, to give a different flavor.  Marinades can run the gamut from Asian-inspired to garlic and herb.  Alternatively, grill vegetables plain and provide a simple dipping sauce.

Grilled Cheese Kabobs

If your mouth is watering with visions of a grilled cheese sandwich, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  Processed American cheese isn’t particularly healthy, but it also won’t do well on a kabob.  It will just melt and fall off.  However, there are some cheeses that can stand up to a flame.  Paneer (an Indian cheese), halloumi, and feta are all cheeses that do well on a grill.  You can of course pair them with any of the vegetable options listed above.  With the paneer, marinade vegetables in a (mild) curry marinade before adding them, to give an Indian touch.  Pair halloumi with flavors like basil, oregano, or thyme; vegetables such as red onion, cherry tomato, and zucchini; and fruit like lemon. Feta is amazing with olives, cubed whole grain bread, red onion, cherry tomatoes, and thinly sliced lemon.  Grilling the cheese will give it a smoky flavor it will maintain even once cool and in the lunchbox.

Grilled Seitan Skewers


Gluten intolerants beware: Seitan is made from wheat gluten, which is awesome if you’re a vegetarian or vegan who thinks gluten is the protein of the gods, but not so good if you’re allergic.  I find the texture of seitan closer to meat than other substitutes I have tried.  It absorbs flavors wonderfully and is amazing on a gril and on a kabob.  You can grill it on its own, as you see above, or you can combine it with vegetables. Be sure to marinade it. Try something with personality like a green goddess dressing and chimichurri sauce if you’re grilling it on its own.  But you can also combine it with veggies.  Pair it with some broccoli and brush with a tamarind glaze, or add some baby corn and snow peas and brush with teriyaki sauce.  You won’t regret it, and your kids won’t even realize they’re not eating chicken.

Grilled Tempeh Kabobs

Unlike tofu, which is rather bland, tempeh has a more distinct flavor, which is pleasantly nutty.  Add it to any of the grilled vegetable kabobs and brush them with any marinade you like.  It pairs with just about anything and adds a great vegan source of protein.  Alternatively, grill it plain and send kabobs to school with your kids with a satay sauce. No peanuts allowed in school? Sub in cashews instead.  Kids go to a nut-free school? No problem!  Use a butter made from sunflower seeds to make your satay sauce!

Grilled Tofu Kabobs

Tofu is more bland than tempeh, but absorbs flavors wonderfully, making it perfect for marinades.  Marinate your tofu and vegetables together before grilling. Before marinating, ensure you are using extra-firm tofu, and squeeze the extra water out by pressing gently on the block with a tea towel.  Personally, I prefer tofu in Asian-style sauces, but it is so versatile there is no reason to limit yourself.  Want to marinate it in herbs and garlic? Go for it!  You can also cut your tofu in long sticks rather than cubes, so your skewer contains only tofu.  Consider coating your tofu in panko breadcrumbs or crushed wasabi peas after thoroughly marinating, for a crunchy outer coating.

Grilled Fruit Kabobs

Another dimension to dessert is actually grilling fruit.  I don’t find many people cook fruit these days, aside from the very occasional stewed fruit or cold fruit soup.  But trust me when I saw that grilled fruit is amazing.  Peaches, apples, pineapple, and star fruit are my particular favorites.  But step outside the box and try including fruits like bananas, watermelon, plums, apricots, strawberries, fresh coconut, and cantaloupe (rock melon).  Fruit kabobs are grilled to perfection in just about 7 minutes, making them easy to throw on the grill for dessert after a meal – just make some extra and chill them to send to school for a fruit kabob with a different and distinctly smoky-sweet flavor.

Get Kids Involved

Getting kids involved is one of the best ways to inspire them to be healthy kids and make good food choices.  They are also much more likely to eat foods they have helped make.  Plus, they might be tempted to snack on the leftover fruits and vegetables.  Putting together shish kabobs is also an entertaining activity for them, which saves you on finding something to entertain bored kids late on a Sunday afternoon, while also saving you time making their lunches!  Just place some sticks on the counter with a wide variety of items they can skewer.  Make sure you supervise them so they don’t hurt themselves (or each other) with the skewers.  That way they can add exactly the things they like.

In general, kabobs are a fantastic lunch food.  They are easily portable and they are lots of fun, especially if you send them with a dipping sauce.  They can be hot or cold, sweet or savory.  They can easily contain vegetables, fruits, protein, and grains all at once, so enough shish kabobs pretty much make up a complete meal.  They are a perfect way to use up leftover largely chopped, sliced, or diced vegetables.  I hope you enjoy these recipe ideas and please let me know how your kids enjoy them in their lunch boxes!!

Healthy School Lunch Ideas: Shish Kabobs (Part 1)

Healthy School Lunch Ideas: Shish Kabobs (Part 1)

Cold kabobs make great party hors d oeuvres, but they can also make fantastic lunchbox additions.  Try Italian style with mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil, or Greek style with kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese.

Cold kabobs make great party hors d oeuvres, but they can also make fantastic lunchbox additions. Try Italian style with mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil, or Greek style with kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese.

Yesterday, I shared a healthy school lunch idea: falafel plate.  Another great school lunch idea is shish kabobs.  Shish kabobs are basically skewered foods, which can then be grilled or eaten raw.  They are easy to hold in the hand and eat, easily portable, and very flexible. You can make them in so many ways – your imagination is the limit!

Shish kabobs are easily made with short wooden sticks sold at grocery, homewares, or cooking stores.  You can buy metal ones, but because they are sharp and you want to be able to send your child to school without fear of them getting in trouble, I recommend the wooden ones.  They can also be a bit sharp, but the good news is that you can use a scissor to just snip off the sharp ends before sticking them in the lunchbox! If you are grilling with them, just be sure to soak them in water for a while so they do not catch fire on the grill. Here are some of my favorite shish kabob lunch ideas:

Cold Shish Kabobs

Cold shish kabobs can come in many shapes and forms.  The benefit of these is that you do not need to cook them.  They are usually items that can keep well in the fridge, so you can make them the night before, or even make enough to send for lunch for a couple of days.  There’s also the benefit of being able to use raw fruits and vegetables, which contain more nutrients.  You can also use things that melt, like cheese, or that might burn, like cubes of bread.

Sandwich Kabob

A sandwich kabob is like a sandwich on a stick, in little pieces.  Think of what you would normally make a sandwich with and use those items.  This works best with homemade bread or a loaf of artisan bread you can cut into bigger squares (sliced sandwich bread is a bit too flat).  Use chunks of good sandwich foods, like tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicum (bell pepper), baked tofu, or cheese.  Then send the sandwich kabobs to school with your kids with a container of a good sandwich spread.  (A slightly more liquid one is best – think tahina rather than hummus.)  It’s a different twist on a sandwich and you can load it up with more veggies than you would normally put on a sandwich.

Breakfast Kabob

Why not send your kids to school with breakfast for lunch?  In general, I think this is a great idea because it mixes things up a bit.  I love an egg or some lox and cream cheese on a bagel (okay, gluten free and vegan people you can hate me now).  But you can also make breakfast kabobs.  For a sweeter version, make some thick whole grain pancakes (these gluten free strawberry pancakes are super yummy) or waffles and cut into squares to put on skewers.  Alternate layers with fresh fruit and berries.  If you need added sweetness, drizzle on a tiny bit of date syrup.  A savory one can include lots of foods.  For an omelet kabob, make a nice thick omelet, let it cool completely, and cut in cubes.  Skewer with vegetables and cheese.  Add some carbohydrates by cutting up a toasted whole grain bagel.  You can also poach some egg whites and skewer those.  They are great with some home fries – cubed potatoes sauteed on the stovetop with diced onion, olive oil, and spices.  You can also add some savory pancakes or folded pieces of crepe for grains on this kind of kabob.  I find that for kabobs poached egg whites or whole egg omelets work better than fried or boiled eggs for staying on the kabob and not falling apart and making a mess.

Cold Vegetable Kabobs

I suppose in a way you can think of this as salad on a stick, minus the lettuce or cabbage (they aren’t so great for skewers).  For a less messy approach, try using cherry or grape tomatoes rather than cutting up regular tomatoes.  Cubed cucumber is also good, as is capsicum (bell pepper) cut in squares.  Avoid vegetables like carrots, that will be too hard to spear, or those, like onions, that will be too strong in large squares or cubes.  Don’t limit yourself to these traditional things, though.  Add some cheese or olives for a treat.  Wide leaves of herbs like basil also give a nice flavor and a different dimension.  For a grain component, include cubes of toasted bread (actual “croutons” will shatter but homemade ones that are just slightly undercooked will stay together but still give lots of yummy crunch). You can even add a small amount of fruit for a different flavor – fruits like strawberries, mango, pineapple, and figs all go exceptionally well in salads and do well on kabobs. Include a small container of a healthy olive oil vinaigrette for dipping.

Fruit Kabobs

Fruit kabobs are a great healthy dessert option and a good way to get your kids to eat their vegetables.  Basically the sky is the limit as to what fruits you can include, although for lunches some are definitely better than others.  Exceptionally juicy fruits like oranges can be a bit messy (unless you get mandarin sections), but more solid fruits like melons, berries, and pineapple are all great.  Apples and bananas can work well but you need to sprinkle them with lemon juice to prevent browning.  Sandwich tart fruits like berries between sweet fruits like melon so you do not need to artificially sweeten.  Want a super treat? Drizzle with a tiny bit of raw vegan chocolate drizzle mix extra virgin raw coconut oil, raw organic agave nectar, and raw vegan unprocessed cocoa powder (not Dutch process!) in equal amounts and drizzle over the kabobs, then chill.

More To Come…

These are just the cold kabobs.  However, grilled kabobs also work really well for school lunch boxes.  They taste delicious cold and provide you with a good opportunity to make dinner one night that you can send for lunch the next day.  They also include more protein options than the raw kabobs.

If you have any other uncooked kabob recipes or ideas suitable for lunchboxes, please do share in the comments section!

Healthy School Lunch Ideas: Baked Falafel Plate

Healthy School Lunch Ideas: Baked Falafel Plate

In my mind, falafel is one of the most perfect lunch foods for kids ever.  Not only can it be incredibly healthy, but it also covers all major nutritional groups, includes a variety of colors of vegetables, and gives kids a chance to mix-and-match to make their ideal sandwich.  Here’s what to include:

Baked Falafel

Falafel are balls of ground chickpeas, mixed with onion, parsley, cilantro, garlic, and cumin.  Usually they are fried, but they are much healthier if baked.  Because they are mostly made of chickpeas, they are a fantastic source of vegetable protein.  The fact that they are ground up also makes them easier to digest.  They are great for school lunches because they are just as delicious cold as they are hot.  Falafel balls can be eaten on their own, but are usually stuffed inside a flatbread along with a variety of spreads and salads.

Whole Wheat Pita Bread

Pita is a type of flatbread that naturally forms a pocket when you slice open one side of it.  You can fill it with all sorts of things, including falafel, spreads, and salads.  Because it is a pocket, the food doesn’t drip out of the bottom, which makes it great for mess-free eating by little kids.  And it is a good source of whole grains for kids.  (For those of you who are gluten free, check out this recipe for amazing gluten free pita breads!  Use rice milk and egg replacer to make them vegan.)


Tahina is actually sesame paste.  You can buy it in jars in the supermarket.  It is shelf-stable and keeps for ages.  It’s really high in calcium, as well as B vitamins and lots of trace minerals.  I use it in all sorts of things – sauces and salad dressings and even desserts!  For sandwiches, mix some of the paste up with fresh lemon juice, a tiny pinch of salt, garlic (garlic powder works fine), and some water.  Send a small container of tahina for spreading on a falafel sandwich.  Or send a bigger container as a great dip for fresh vegetable sticks during snack time.


Hummus is a chickpea spread, so it’s another good source of protein.  It’s great spread on a falafel sandwich or plain bread.  It’s also delicious for dipping fresh sliced vegetables in.  Send a small container with your child’s falafel lunch and they can add as much or as little as they like to their sandwich.


Matboucha is a middle eastern tomato spread.  It is made by sauteeing together fresh tomatoes with lots and lots of garlic and (optionally) hot peppers in olive oil.  Make a big batch when tomatoes are in season and freeze it in small containers to use throughout the year.  It is a much healthier substitute for conventional ketchup as a sandwich spread.

Israeli Salad

Israeli salad is another traditional item added to a falafel sandwich, but it is also amazing eaten on its own.  It is basically made up of tomatoes, cucumbers, and capsicum (bell pepper) (my favorite is to use yellow ones), diced into small cubes, with some finely diced red onion, and dressed with a bit of salt and pepper, lots of lemon juice, and some olive oil.   In my opinion, the longer it sits, the better it tastes!

Cabbage Salad

Basically any cole slaw will work here, but those heavy on the mayonnaise or sour cream are definitely less healthy (and less well suited to a falafel sandwich) than those dressed with a touch of lemon juice and olive oil.  Use purple/red cabbage to get more sweet flavor and more antioxidants into your child’s diet.

Fresh or Dried Fruit

As a sweet end to your child’s meal, consider including a piece of fresh fruit.  Figs are particularly well-suited to this meal, as they are common in the middle eat.  Fresh figs are absolutely a delight and are also a good source of calcium.  Of course, dried figs are a good option, too, as are dried dates (fresh dates are amazing if you can get them, but in my experience very hard to find).  Medjool dates in particular are juicy and sweet. For my kids, dried dates are their version of candy!

Sending a falafel plate should cover all your nutrition bases: it has protein and grains, fiber and a touch of healthy fats (from the olive oil).  It includes fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors: green cucumbers, red tomatoes, yellow capsicum/bell peppers, red onions, purple cabbage, and brown dates (or dried figs).  Unlike most sandwich spreads, all the options listed here are really healthy, with no nasties in them (if you make them yourself – you can buy them in the store but they will generally include preservatives).

Not only is a falafel plate incredibly nutritious, but it is also a lot of fun for your child.  They can assemble it on their own, giving them a sense of control and power over their lunch.  It makes them a partner in lunch preparation and gives them creative license to accept or reject foods according to their preferences, all the while ensuring that no matter what the foods they are consuming are healthy ones.  This, to me, is one of the very best lunch meals to help Inspire Healthy Kids!

Healthier School Lunches: Getting Kids On Board

Healthier School Lunches: Getting Kids On Board

Some of the biggest critics of new healthy school lunch regulations have been kids themselves.  So, it would make sense that winning them over is likely a good strategy for both increasing the amount of support for Michelle Obama’s new school lunch program and also for just plain inspiring kids to eat healthy food!  The most important way to get kids on board is simply to teach them about food.

Jamie Oliver TED Talk

Yesterday, I shared Jamie Oliver’s TED talk in which he emphasized the importance of teaching kids about food.  This is really a major key to inspiring healthy kids.

I’ve spoken in the past about ways to inspire teenagers to eat healthy food, and also ways to get toddlers to try new foods.  Teaching kids about food is a crucial part of these strategies.

In those posts, I focused primarily on parents as a motivating factor.  Over the last week, however, I have been looking at school lunches.  Where do the two collide?

Kids should be taught about food both at home and at school.  Michelle Obama’s school lunch plan, in fact, has teaching kids about food as one of its goals.  But what if that’s backwards? What if healthy school lunches are not teaching kids about food; but, rather, kids need to be taught about healthy food in order to appreciate the healthier lunches?

Most schools have a health and physical education curriculum.  However, these programs are often underwritten by companies that have an interest in selling certain foodstuffs.  For example, kids will learn that milk is a vital source of calcium (even though it isn’t) but won’t learn about the many great vegetable sources of calcium because the teaching materials on calcium are being provided to the schools by the dairy industry.  Similarly, kids get messages on how important it is to get enough protein (provided by the meat industry) or how healthy grains are (provided by cereal companies).  This is not true in every school system, but for many cash-strapped schools, it is a reality.

The first place to start is by working one-on-one with teachers.  Can you convince teachers to use nutrition texts and activities not provided by interested companies?  What about getting local nutritionists to come speak to classes about healthy dietary practices?  This could be a form of community service they could do that would be much more meaningful and impactful than just donating money to charity.

Start young.  Jamie Oliver showed that many young kids could not identify basic vegetables.  So suggest to your kids’ teachers that they have a day where the kids learn about (or try) new fruits and vegetables.  Get other parents on board.

Teach to learn.  Perhaps it can be a weekly activity (like show & tell) and each week a student can introduce a new fruit or vegetable to the class.  Participation makes each child feel invested.  It also inclines them to be more open to learning about things, if the person introducing the new thing is a friend and classmate.

Teach kids to cook.  When I was a kid, home economics was not mandatory.  And although I did take it for one term, I didn’t learn anything particularly useful.  I learned how to make biscuits (delicious but not healthy and too complicated to remember) and how to cross stitch (not the best for fixing torn school uniforms).  But teaching kids how to cook, by lobbying to make home economics or cooking a required part of your school system’s curriculum, is a great way to teach kids about food.  Focus on teaching techniques they can use to make really healthy food in the simplest way possible.  You can even volunteer to come in one day and teach the class how to make something – most teachers would love a break!

Make it a game.  Whether it’s playing with flash cards or coloring in pictures, kids can learn about food and have fun at the same time.  Some of these, like flash cards and coloring, are well-adapted for use in the schoolroom.  Some are best played at home or even in the store.  Hold a competition and amass points for which child can identify the most marketing tricks aimed at selling to kids (such as bright colors or cartoon characters).  Ask your kids “Who’s the momma?” for items in your refrigerator – for example, oranges come from trees, berries come from bushes, and cheese comes from a cow.

Those are just some ideas for ways to get kids on board with healthy eating habits, both at home and at school.  Please share in the comments section any other ideas you have and/or what’s worked for you!

Healthier School Lunch Requirements: A Business Opportunity!

Healthier School Lunch Requirements: A Business Opportunity!

I’m not currently living in the United States, but if I was, I would definitely be jumping at the business opportunity Michelle Obama’s new healthier school lunch plan presents.  I would not be the first or the only one to want to take advantage of this chance.  So here I will share with you a couple of success stories that might inspire one of you out there to start your own business inspiring healthy kids!

There are certain rules most businesses follow, whether they want to or not.  One of those is that smaller businesses react faster and bigger businesses react more slowly.  Think about it: a little speed boat can turn, move, and zig zag much faster than a giant ocean liner.  Think about the flexibility and dynamics of a smaller car company like Tesla versus a bigger car company like Ford.  When it comes to innovation and quick reaction speeds, Tesla can outmaneuver Ford anytime.

The same concept applies to the businesses that provide food for our kids’ lunchrooms.  Aramark, Compass Group, and Sodex have overwhelmingly provided food for purchase in schools.  The Cornell Policy Review writes that “[w]ith a combined annual revenue of about $43 billion in 2009, the school lunch sector is highly concentrated and dominated by these three giant multinational companies.”  These are the Ford, GMC, and Toyota of the school lunch sector.  But with the new changes in school lunch regulations, there’s room for the Teslas to move in.

Two such companies are Revolution Foods in Oakland and Edibles Rex in Detroit.  They produce healthy food and cater for both school systems and private corporations.  Edibles Rex has been growing dramatically, showing “a 60% five-year growth rate and 2013 revenue of nearly $4.5 million. The company recently won a $250,000 grant from Chase to support its continued growth.” (Fortune)  Revolution Foods also shows impressive movement, with “a five-year growth rate of 479% and 2013 revenues of over $76 million.”

The key to these business is producing food that’s tried and tested.  They know it’s healthy and they know it tastes good.  The only new challenge the new school lunch regulations present is that they have to comply with calorie limits.

I know I cook delicious food, and I guarantee you it’s healthy.  Most of my readers do as well.  But we are in the minority, which gives us an advantage when it comes to starting a new business.  You never want to be in a business where what you have to offer is something anybody else can do.  You want to offer something others have a hard time reproducing.  If you know how to cook a wide variety of really healthy, delicious dishes, you could start a catering business and be in big demand.

Remember, healthy options are not only in demand for school systems.  Corporations are now waking up and realizing that poor employee health costs them money, be it via increased insurance premiums they underwrite or be it due to increased days off and lower employee productivity.  Parents are looking for healthy catered options for kids’ parties.  Go ahead, make some yummy and healthy lamingtons for kids’ birthdays!  There are lots of opportunities for you to build a healthy catering business – it is a niche for which demand will only continue to expand.  And if you can get a school lunch contract, you will have a booming business on your hands.  It’s okay, you can thank me later! 😉

So far, these healthy catering companies are still pretty localized.  In spite of their massive growth projections and their impressive revenue scales, they are still limited (right now) to their local areas, or, at most, their states.  That leaves lots of room for others to fill the void.  As school systems struggle to figure out how to implement the new regulations, there is more room than ever for an enterprising businessperson to step in and provide what is needed!

For instance, schools are having a difficult time sourcing certain whole grain foods that actually taste good.  Major companies, which have the most money to invest in innovation, are, ironically, slower to respond because of the massive amount of effort it takes for such a large institution to implement change.

Do you have a recipe for whole grain grits that’s been passed down in your family for generations? Now is the time to start producing it for sale!  What about a healthy biscuits’n’gravy?  You bet that’s going to be in demand.  Whole grain tortillas, whole grain pasta, and any other specialty foods not generally available with whole grains are now going to be in huge demand.

These products I’m referring to are products that are either not currently easily available or, if they are, are products that really suck.  No kid wants to eat food that doesn’t taste good! Neither do adults!  But if you can produce one that does, you could have a lot of customers to market to.  Food markets are notoriously hard to break into, but you can always go straight to the source.  Either begin with building a catering business (I know several small ones run from home, so it is realistic and achievable; just start small!), or market your yummy product directly to the people who get to decide.  Nothing is stopping you from showing up at your local school board meeting with some of your great-grandmama’s mouthwatering homemade wholegrain grits for all the board members to try!

Let’s take things a step further.  What if your community is full of parents who are health-conscious but, like me, don’t want their kids eating the lunches served in the school cafeteria?  Start a business selling directly to the parents!  Pre-packed brown bag lunches, delivered weekly.  I’ll make sure to share some great recipes and packed lunch ideas with you in the coming weeks.  Don’t worry – I will only be happy for you if you launch a business that succeeds!

There are lots of great marketing tools out there for you to use if you want to start your own business.  Here is a list of 300 awesome free things for business startups – I am going to have to use more of these for myself!

Well, now that I’ve convinced myself to abandon in favor of starting my own catering business, I’m going to sign off by saying I hope I’ve inspired some of you to at least begin pursuing your own business dreams.  You can be in charge of your life and your job!  You can be an entrepreneur.  Who ever thought Michelle Obama’s new healthy school lunch regulations would be the key to inspire that?!

Some Schools Taking New Healthy School Lunch Regulations Too Far

Some Schools Taking New Healthy School Lunch Regulations Too Far

Aristotle came up with the concept of the golden mean – the idea that, in essence, we should strive for moderation in all things.  Personally, I don’t always agree with him.  Poison in moderation can still kill you, after all.  But in most things, moderation is the way to go.  And when it comes to regulating school lunches, moderation is definitely the way to go.

Reactions to Michelle Obama’s school lunch program have been overwhelmingly critical.  Of course, it is easier to put things down than to build them up, so this should be no surprise.  It is always easier to be the bully than to defend the kid being bullied.  That’s why I’ve said repeatedly that I think the new school lunch regulations are a fantastic step in the right direction.  Sometimes doing the right thing means swimming against the crowd.

But there can be too much of a good thing.  Corn is healthy for you, but if you eat nothing but corn you will die.  So, too, with the new school lunch regulations.  They are meant to regulate the kind of foods sold on school property, but some schools have taken it further.

For me, this extremism hits close to home.  In Richmond, Virginia, where I used to live, the school system sent notes home to parents telling them they needed to present a doctor’s note in order for their children to be allowed to bring lunch from home.  Chicago is following suit, considering banning bagged lunches unless parents present evidence of a medical concern.

I can see why school administrators might be concerned.  After all, parents sending kids with unhealthy lunches is a big part of why the new healthy lunch program is not working.  It makes sense, if forcing nutrition on kids is the goal of school lunches, to ensure that these junk food lunches are prohibited.  But therein lies part of the problem: the government is not meant to be forcing kids to eat healthy.  It is supposed to be inspiring kids to eat healthy.  By only providing healthy food choices at schools, the government is becoming a role model of sorts.  But providing only healthy food and forcing kids to eat only healthy food are two very different things.

Another problem is that officials reason that the food they are providing is more nutritious than anything parents could send their kids with.  I beg to differ!  A school that will serve my kids milk is not serving them healthy food.  A school that will serve my kids meat is not serving them healthy food.  I guarantee you the food I would send my kids with would be much healthier than anything they would get in a school cafeteria.  I realize I (and you, my dear health-conscious readers) am the exception to the rule.  I realize that the vast majority of parents are unwittingly sending their kids to school with meals full of sugars, fats, and salt.  Compared to what many kids are eating, school lunch probably is healthier.  But imposing a blanket ban is like fishing with the wrong kind of net.  Sure, you’ll catch the tuna, but you’ll also catch the dolphins.  And that’s not good.

Let’s not forget that money plays its part here.  It always plays its part. Kids who bring bagged lunches are generally not the kids getting their lunches for free.  They are the kids whose parents can afford to provide them with bagged lunches.  They are the kids who can afford to pay full price for their school meals.  And they are the kids who are choosing not to.  I think the nutrition claims the school systems are making are just distractions from the real issue.  They’re  convenient excuses.  The real issue here is that preventing students from “brown bagging it” means the school system A) is better able to assess how much food needs to be purchased and produced, thereby leading to less waste and less wasted money and B) is bringing in more revenue from their school lunch program than previously.  I remain wholly unconvinced that the nutrition claim is any actual motivation at all for school systems.  I think it’s all about the money.

This theory is further supported by the fact that most school cafeteria employees are members of the Service Employees International Union.  Now, I’m all for unionization, fair wages, and benefits.  But unions do pressure employers to provide those benefits and in this case the employers are the school systems.  Sadly, school systems in America are notoriously cash-strapped.  Schools have to work with what they’ve got, and often that isn’t enough.  Paying living wages to employees and giving them good benefits is the right thing to do, absolutely, but how is the school system to do that if it doesn’t have the money?  That’s right – get students to spend more, by buying more lunches from those very employees that money will go to pay.  To me, it is pretty clear that moves by school systems to restrict food brought from home are motivated almost completely by money concerns, no matter what altruistic mantras they may spew.

Of course for parents and students the most fundamental issue here is one of personal freedoms.  (Here is where I enter a political quagmire.)  Freedom is a really important part of being American.  Forcing people to eat a certain food by prohibiting them from eating any alternative is a form of control beyond anything Michelle Obama ever envisioned.  I’m a self-confessed liberal when it comes to these things, so I do think there should be more consequences for the corporations that produce unhealthy foods.  I like the idea of high taxes on junk food that go to fund the medical system.  Those sorts of things appeal to me.  But outlawing junk food entirely? That’s taking things a bit too far.

And that’s exactly the thing – this law was never intended to be taken to such an extreme.  It was meant to provide only healthy options for purchase in school, not to prohibit kids and parents from making their own (misguided or highly informed) decisions.  What to eat is a highly personal experience and prerogative.  What we choose to put in our mouths and the mouths of our offspring is a really touchy subject.  But the new regulations never intended to infringe upon that freedom.

Schools can only serve a certain type and amount of food at any given time.  This is not the Golden Corral; this is not an all-you-can-eat buffet.  There are only a certain amount of items a vending machine can hold.  There are only a certain number of food options a cafeteria line can offer.  Michelle Obama’s school lunch regulations are only affecting what is going into those limited slots, not decreasing the number of options.  And if the number of options is anyway limited, we might as well make sure the options available are the healthiest around.  But that is a far cry – a very far cry – from what school systems like the one in Richmond, VA are doing.

Healthier School Lunches are… Now Less Healthy

Healthier School Lunches are… Now Less Healthy

Over the past week I’ve been looking at Michelle Obama’s changes to school lunches.  I’ve looked at what changes she has made, what criticisms have come out, and if they’ve been effective.  But it’s hard to know if something has been effective if it hasn’t even been given a chance.  And Michelle Obama’s school lunch program hasn’t been given that chance.  It has been watered down before it even began.

Almost as soon as the new nutritional requirements went into effect, lawmakers lifted limits on carbohydrates and meats in meals, allowing school lunch planners to include as much meat and grains as they’d like.  The caloric limits remain in place, but now the limits on how much meat and carbs can be included has been lifted.  Already, carbohydrate limits were at 60% of the meal, which is pretty high to start with.  Now, kids can get even more carbohydrates.  Not to mention that meat consumption is related to a whole host of diseases, meaning that the more kids eat the higher their likelihood of becoming sick.  Giving kids more meat and grains is definitely watering down the nutrition restrictions that made Michelle Obama’s new school lunch plan more healthy than its predecessor.

2014 was supposed to herald the introduction of 100% whole grains into school lunches, but it was not to be.  Mid-year, Congress allowed schools to delay the introduction of 100% whole grains for up to 2 years if they can demonstrate “significant challenges” in preparing the whole grain options.  Bread and rolls don’t seem to be much of an issues, as they have been on the market for so long that companies have created plenty of palatable options (although the amount of sugar in the 100% whole wheat offerings today make me shudder).  But other products, like pasta, grits, biscuits, and tortillas have not been so thoroughly tested and finessed by companies, which previously had little motivation to do so.

Schools complain the whole wheat offerings don’t taste the same as the highly refined and processed alternatives, so kids don’t like them as much.  And food service staff don’t know how to prepare the healthier options.  So schools have been given a reprieve of two years to figure out how to implement the 100% whole grain mandate.  Of course, in two years’ time the situation could easily repeat itself…

Of course, everything could change again this year.  The school lunch program is up for renewal in 2015 and with a Republican-controlled Congress, there is a pretty high likelihood it will change significantly.  Let’s not forget that it is primarily Republicans shooting down the requirements.  Conservative lawmakers call the nutrition standards “government overreach,” which is anathema to their agenda.

Personally, I think the healthcare crisis in America stems largely from the overall poor nutrition of the population.  To me that crisis speaks of a failure of the government to intervene when it needs to, not the other way around.  A crisis that dramatically affects not only our entire economy but also our health is at once both deeply personal but also starkly political.  If governments regulated corporations selling unhealthy foods and made them accountable for the effects of their products, then we wouldn’t have this crisis in the first place.  What a shame that an attempt to fix the problem at its root, even if not as effective as we’d like, is being undermined before it has even truly begun.

The only solution is to lobby our representatives in government to stand up for healthier standards.


Have Michelle Obama’s Healthier School Lunch Changes Been Effective?

Have Michelle Obama’s Healthier School Lunch Changes Been Effective?

Michelle Obama’s healthier school lunch initiative has not been as effective as experts expected.  Experts seemed to think that their massive overhaul of the system would result in the same kind of incredible results the Appleton, Wisconsin school has gotten through its school lunch initiative.  What impact has the school lunch program had?  And if it’s not as effective as we’d like it to be, why not?

I have to admit that I scoured the web for some valid, reliable statistics to show impacts of Michelle Obama’s school lunch program on kids’ health, but I came up empty. There just are not any studies I could find (if you know of one, please point me in the right direction!).  In 2010, 16.9% of children and adolescents in the United States were obese, according to the CDC.  By 2012, that had increased to over 1/3 of the youth population!* But to know if school lunches have played any role in decreasing the number of obese students, we would have to see a demonstrable response statistically correlated with the introduction in 2012 of the new school lunch standards.  But I have not been able to find any statistics showing current obesity percentages, and even if I did, the time has been too short.  It is more likely that any changes would be made over the long term.

The facts I could find indicate that Michelle Obama’s restrictions might not be as effective as she’d like.  That’s because a recent study in Nutrition Journal shows that the average child only gets 10% of his/her calories from school lunch and 1% from vending machines, with the remainder made up of other sources, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores.  This means that kids are getting most of their junk food from sources outside school.

Of course, these statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt.  There are disparate populations being lumped in together here.  You have, for instance, the kids who never (or very rarely) eat anything purchased at school, be it from a cafeteria or a vending machine.  I would have been one of those kids.  I almost always brought my own lunch and I cannot remember ever buying anything from a school vending machine.  (Not because I didn’t like junk food, but because I had much better ways to spend my pocket money. I’ll confess to being a travel junkie from a young age!) So someone like my (and most of my friends, actually) would swing the numbers way down.

In contrast, there are large numbers of students, especially those in the lower socioeconomic brackets, who rely almost exclusively on schools for their food for the day.  By this I mean the 21.5 million students receiving free or reduced price school lunches.**  In these cases, more than 50% and in some instances 100% of these kids’ caloric intake is coming from school meals.  This is the population most impacted by Michelle Obama’s changes to the school lunch nutrition requirements, the kids unable to just bring lunch to school with them.

Fortunately, nutrition information is finally starting to impact the purchasing habits of populations as a whole.  McDonalds’ sales are down.  Dairy sales have slumped recently, too.  And trends like the Paleo diet and gluten free diets have made parents more aware of the health problems associated with excessive junk food and simple carbohydrate consumption.  But I think it would be a stretch to claim that Michelle Obama’s school lunch program has tipped off these trends.  Rather, I think it is probably the opposite: a push for healthier school lunches is reflective of an overall attitudinal shift toward a more health-conscious population.

The answer to the second question (why is it not as effective as it should be?) lies squarely with parents and society.  Parents have enormous influence over their kids.  That’s partly why I started this blog.  If you are the parent, you are the gateway to decide important things like whether to give your kids sugary candies and soda or whether to feed them the paleo diet.  Many parents just do not know the facts about giving their kids a healthy diet.  By spending just 5 minutes a day following this blog, you can learn a lot about the kind of diet that is healthy for kids.  Unfortunately, most parents do not do this.  They themselves crave unhealthy foods, so when their kids demand those same unhealthy foods, they give in.  Of course they do!

This is the most significant downfall of Michelle Obama’s school lunch program.  The parents are the problem.

My mother works in a school system.  I asked her for a firsthand account of how it’s working out with the new, healthier school lunches.  Her reply echoed the complaints I shared yesterday, but with one key difference.  Yes, the kids complained.  Yes, the kids threw out their food.  But also… they continued to eat unhealthy food.  Because their parents would come to the school, would show up with bags of McDonald’s and KFC, would bring them greasy pizza and hot dogs made of pink slime.  With their strong influence over their kids, the parents are, undeniably, the biggest part of the problem.

Of course, the kids themselves are part of the problem, too.  They are highly critical of healthy changes to their diet.  Of course kids would prefer white bread to whole wheat!  But what kind of society are we if we let the whims of children dictate our policies?  They’d like to drive cars at a younger age, but we don’t let them.  They’d like to drink alcohol at a younger age, but we don’t let them.  Yet we let them decide what food they want to eat.  We let their input influence our school lunch policy decisions.

This is why I believe the problem ultimately comes back to the parents.  Most of our lawmakers are parents, too.  And they dislike hearing their kids complain about having to eat boring, healthy food.  They want their kids to be able to eat foods they enjoy.  And they don’t want the school forcing their kids to eat healthy food.

I guess part of it is down to the perception that if healthy food is served and junk food is disallowed, then kids are being forced to eat healthy food.  But when the reverse is true and junk food is served and healthy food is unavailable, then kids are being forced to eat junk food.  But it is not seen that way.  Americans hold tight to their freedoms and resent any perceived incursion into those freedoms.

Studies show that the more forcefully you push at someone to get him to give up an unhealthy habit, the more forcefully he will push back, defensively, to keep up that same unhealthy habit.  Unfortunately, this means that the push for an overhaul of the school lunch system to make it more healthy has backfired for a lot of students and parents.  Instead of embracing a healthy lifestyle and healthy future for their kids, this move has only caused them to cling tightly to bad habits.



Reactions to Michelle Obama’s Healthier School Lunches

Reactions to Michelle Obama’s Healthier School Lunches

Personally, I was thrilled to see Michelle Obama’s proposed changed to nationwide school lunches.  There is nothing I like better than seeing kids eat a healthier diet, even if that “healthier” isn’t anything close to the standards I would set for my own kids.  Progress is progress – it doesn’t happen overnight.  So I take a really positive view of ANY step in the right direction.  And Michelle Obama made a huge impact.  Millions of kids (literally) have tasted the fruits of her labor.  She came out with a large amount of support, but it seems that even the backing of celebrity chef Rachael Ray wasn’t enough to win over some critics.

Critics have come out of the woodworks.  Parents, politicians, and cafeteria workers (many of whom until now didn’t actually have to do any real cooking) are all taking aim at the new school lunches.  Of course the students have something to say about losing access to their daily source of junk food.  And so do the corporations who deliver that junk food.

Entire industries have taken aim against the proposed changes.  Everyone has an excuse for why their particular product should be exempted.  For instance, the cranberry industry claims their sugary juices have health benefits that outweigh the fact that cranberries are too tart to be eaten without sweetening.  Personally, I cannot see why the cranberry industry, rather than crying to the politicians, would not simply come up with new formulations that meet the regulations.  Would that be challenging?  Sure.  But it would also indicate they are a viable business for the long term, capable of changing with the times, adapting, and giving consumers what they want.  Instead they are just acting like sulky children themselves.  Some industries astonish me and make me feel ashamed.

Some industries, which lost more than others with the new rules, have not given up their fight.  Behemoths like Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut are, until today, continuing to throw gobsmacking amounts of money into their lobbying machine to try to change their laws. (More on the current changes in a day or two.)  Critics for Michelle Obama’s lunch plans are endless.

And of course politicians have thrown in their opinions on what constitutes healthy food for kids.*  They couldn’t bear to see favorite foods like french fries and pizza lifted off the menu and have fought to keep them as a fixture.  Because everyone knows that pizza sauce and french fries count as vegetables, right? And just because something is a vegetable, it must be healthy, even if it’s weighed down in fats, oils, and salt. </sarcasm>

Even the schools serving the food have fought back, complaining that kids just don’t like the healthier food.  They say the changes should have been phased in more slowly, to allow kids to “get used” to the healthy food, which is an argument I really don’t buy.  Of course whole grain pasta cooks up differently than white pasta!  But there are different cooking methods that can help counteract that (absorption pasta is mouthwatering), and a wide variety of grains companies can use when making pasta.  I’m sure that an enterprising company could come up with an affordable whole grain spelt pasta, for instance, which (in my experience) is lighter than whole wheat.  Non-traditional grains like quinoa and rice can also be made into pasta, crackers, and other baked goods, and will come down in price dramatically if purchased in bulk and demanded en masse by consumers.  (Of course much consumer demand does drive prices up initially, but more companies will enter the competition for large contracts with school systems, driving prices down… but I digress; my intention here is not to muse about capitalist economics!)

Schools also complain about the amount of waste.**  I have mixed feelings on this one.  It is tragic, I agree, to have kids taking fruits and veggies only to throw them away.  But which is better? To have kids take a healthy meal and only eat some of it? Or to have kids take a bunch of junk food and eat all of it?

Finally, the school’s bottom line is at stake here.  That’s right, it all comes down to MONEY.  Many schools fund their school lunch programs through vending machine sales.  But with new snack and drink regulations, schools are afraid they might not sell as much and might not earn as much.  The health of an entire generation comes down to money we don’t want to spend now.  Even though that money might save lives down the line.

It is no surprise that students themselves have voiced concerns.  Some kids complain that they don’t like the texture of new whole grain pastas.  Others just aren’t fond of being given fruits and vegetables they are unaccustomed to eating.  But some kids do have legitimate complaints.  Calorie limits put in place resulted in major complaints from hungry kids.***   I remember when I was a teenager, my appetite was huge – I was a competitive swimmer and burned more calories than more sedentary classmates.

I believe kids should have access to as much food as they want to eat.  The question is, what kinds of food are they eating?  My kids are allowed to eat as much fruit and vegetables as they want.  If they ask me for more salad, there is no way I will ever tell them no.  The problem is that kids are often eating too much of the wrong thing.  Should there be limits on how much bread, pasta, and meat kids are eating? Absolutely!  Michelle Obama’s plan for reduced calorie school lunches could avoid this problem by permitting students to go as much above the calorie limit as they want – as long as the extra portions they are taking are limited to fruits and vegetables.

The criticisms of healthier school lunches run fast and thick from all directions.  To my mind, it is at once sad and appalling.  I want my kids to be healthier but I also want to see other parents inspire healthy kids, too.  This is the next generation and, let’s be honest here for a minute, they are growing up sick.  Do I think the new school lunch rules are perfect? Far from it.  But instead of joining the ranks of the critics, I would like to join the ranks of the supporters.  Because one step forward is always better than two steps back – even if there are many steps still left to take.