MA School Nutrition Standards for 2012

The standards for the MA School Nutrition Bill were finalized and released on July 13th by the Public Health Council.  The standards are some of the healthiest in the nation in terms of competitive foods and a la carte food items.   The Mass Public Health Association’s Act FRESH campaign members and the School Nutrition Association have established a good partnership and will work together to promote the implementation of the new standards, which must be done by August 2012.

The standards call for limits on salt, sugar, and fat in the foods and drinks sold outside of the School Meals Program (aka breakfast and lunch).  This includes items sold in school stores, vending machines, fundraisers, and items sold for individual sale (a la carte) in the lunch line.

As implementation begins, the School Nutrition Association and ActFRESH will reach out to superintendents, parent/teacher organizations, student councils, and others across the state to promote these standards as a great tool in promoting the health of our state’s children and youth.  With obesity, diet-related diseases, and hunger all on the rise in our state, its important that we feed students the most nutritious (and delicious!) foods while they’re at school.  Schools are a place of learning – both academically and for life skills and good habits.

Luckily for Worcester students, our schools are already ahead of the curve.  No snack or soda vending machines are available to students, nor are there a la carte items in the cafeteria.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are a staple of every meal, as are whole grains.  One place where we will see a change in Worcester is as flavored milks are phased out by 2013 and only plain low-fat milk will be available to students that only wish to purchase the milk (as opposed to those that receive it as part of the purchase of a full meal, which is federally regulated and still permits flavored milks).

While schools can neither bear all the responsibility for the obesity epidemic we see (1 in 5 Worcester high school students is obese), it can neither be the only place where change takes place.  However, as part of a large community wide effort that’s working to address hunger, healthy food access, cooking and food buying skills, gardening, physical activity, the school nutrition regulations can be a major part of the solution.

Health of Worcester 2011

Worcester’s Commissioner of Public Health has been working on a new report – “The Health of Worcester 2011”.  The report presentation that Dr. Magee has giving to various groups in the City uses striking visual representations of local and state data to highlight the public health issues Worcester faces.  What rises to the top? The three primary causes of premature death in Worcester are obesity, smoking, and opiate overdose.

The report showed 27 percent of adults in Worcester are obese, and another 35 percent are overweight. The number of obese children entering the city’s schools has doubled nationally to 10 percent over the past 30 years; in the city that number exceeds 18 percent, the report said. One in five city high school students is obese, the report said, with the percentage even higher among Hispanics and low-income.

Adults in the city are also dealing with diabetes and cholesterol issues. Cardiovascular disease is the city’s number two cause of premature death. Public health officials here want to decrease obesity and people being overweight by 5 percent in five years.

The Commissioner highlights large portion size, high consumption of fast food, and poor cooking and buying habits as the culprit of this extreme increase in overweight and obesity.   While these are of course true, its also important to look at the way our environment, policies and media influence peoples general food habits.  Strategies that address individual behaviors as well as our food environments and policies are most important.  Addressing one without the other will not solve the many diet-related problems our country faces.  Obesity, hunger, and diet-related disease (among many other issues) are all just symptoms of a very broken national and international food system.

The Commissioner has given the presentation to City Council, the Food & Active Living Policy Council, the City Manager, and will continue to present the information to relevant groups and organizations that can help work together to combat the obesity issue here in Worcester.

Read the article that ran in the T&G on August 16th.

The full Health of Worcester report is available at in the Health & Safety section.

Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables

In Saturday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Mark Bittman wrote “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables”.  The article is a great, thorough examination of the benefits of removing subsidies on junk food (something I fully support), taxing junk food (something I’m wary of), and then using funds to subsidize healthier foods and make them more accessible for everyone.  While he notes that in this political climate a new tax isn’t a popular idea – if the economic, health,  and environmental benefits could be this clearly communicated in a strategic way, it may just be possible.  And if the Healthy Incentives Pilot that is underway in Hampden County, MA proves that incentives do increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP benefit holders, it could be a powerful advocacy tool.  While I don’t always jump at the idea of taxing junk food (I think removing the subsidies that support the production of corn for high fructose corn syrup and cattle feed, soy that is used for a variety of fillers, and sugar should be the real priority), the three-cents-per-ounce tax could raise significant revenues to support programs modeled after the highly successful Zero Hunger initiative of Brazil.  Overall Bitman’s article is a strong call to seriously reexamine the many soda/junk food taxes that failed in the last legislature session, but may look more appealing to bankrupt states.

Access to grocers doesn’t improve diets

“Access to grocers doesn’t improve diets, study finds” is the title of an article that ran in the LA Times yesterday.  The article discusses a study that tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years and was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on Monday.   The study concluded that people didn’t eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods; instead, income and proximity to fast food restaurants were the strongest factors in food choice.  This is not information that should surprise any of us, really, but especially those of us that work in this world of community food security. Yet the article was written such that it implied that these results are a major blow to the movement to increase the number of grocery stores in areas that lack adequate access, such as urban centers and rural areas.  It is important that we don’t view healthy eating as dependent on one factor. It is also important to understand what “access” really means when it comes to food.  And, what we eat is not only dependent on access and our ability to consistently make good choices, but also on our mental and emotional well-being overall.

We cannot view “healthy eating” as something that happens in a bubble.  There is no “quick fix” to our nations issues of diet-related disease, complete disconnection from where our food comes from, cheap fast food, and emotional eating.  There is a complicated web of relationships between each of us and the food we eat, and we must work through that web in order to make lasting change.  Setting up grocery stores in communities that have no grocery store will not simply solve these problems.

Changing the way we all eat (and shop, and cook, and interact with food), and not only people of low-income, or people that are overweight/obese, should really be the focus of our work as community food security advocates and professionals.  Of course, people of limited economic means have added challenges that include the reality that healthy whole foods can cost more, or appear to cost more, or are assumed to cost more.  Healthy foods may also be harder to find in some rural or urban settings.  This historical and structural inequality is a key social justice issue that must be addressed with and by disenfranchised communities, yet rhetoric that frames the issue as “How can we make them eat healthy?” is paternalistic, disempowering, and really misinformed.  We should be working together to change the food system for everyone, rather than only focusing on changing the behaviors of a few people.  If we had a food system that was less industrial, not as consolidated, fair and just, environmentally sustainable, and not as commodified, we would most likely see fewer diet-related diseases and a lower rate of overweight and obesity, and we would not see these ailments disproportionately born by people of color or by low-income communities.

The article also does not tackle the complex issue of “access”.  “Access” is a three-pronged issue.  It could be geographic. Whether or not someone lives close enough to a grocery store, as opposed to having to rely on a corner store or fast food restaurant, is a piece of food access.  “Access” is also financial.  Having enough money to buy the foods that are healthy and that are available is a major component in food choices.  As long as fast food continues to be (or be perceived as) the cheapest and easiest way to feed a family, it will continue to be a primary choice for many folks.  “Access” is also about knowledge, ability, and attitudes.  If preparing meals from whole ingredients is out of the scope of someones knowledge and ability, then fast food or snack foods will again be a primary choice.  If people think that anything healthy will be bland and unenjoyable, then they will choose what tastes good, however unhealthy it may be.  Without cooking skills and knowledge of foods and basic nutrition, many people will be at a disadvantage in making healthier choices, or really being able to stick with a healthier diet.

Yet even if someone has the access, there are other factors that come into play.  A persons mental and emotional health is always a major factor in food choices.  For people that are stressed out, over-committed, depressed, lonely, etc. food can often become something that soothes and comforts.  Many of us turn to comfort foods from time to time, but people that are consistently in an unbalanced mental state turn to food regularly, and of course to fatty, sweet, salty, delicious foods.  And with approximately 12 million women and roughly 6 million men experiencing clinical depression each year, there are increased possibilities for instances of overweight and obesity amongst that population.

Hopefully what this study brings to light is that changing our food system is much more complicated than only grocery store access.  While concrete strategies like increasing healthy food options in communities is a key part of the equation, we must all work together across professions, across race and class lines, and across communities, states and regions to build a healthier food system for everyone.

School Gardens Lesson Plans for MA Standards!

Thanks to folks at Community Harvest Project for letting us know about this great resource they pulled together, and for letting us put it up on a wiki to start getting the word out! Pass it on to all the teachers you know working with gardens!

Give Peeps a Chance!

That’s what a poster said at last night’s City Council meeting where an ordinance was introduced to allow for the keeping chicken hens in the City of Worcester.

Overall, the introduction of the ordinance went well.  Roughly 20-30 people showed up in support of the measure and I gave out bright yellow signs that read “Worcester Wants Chickens!”, and another clever advocate brought the signs that read “Give Peeps a Chance!”.  The Mayor, who co-sponsored the measure with Councilor Barbara Haller and is very supportive of it, was doing his best not to laugh when we all held up our signs.  Kristi Chadwick, who was the primary author of the ordinance, spoke eloquently of the reasons why it is important to allow urban residents to raise more of their own food.

The Daily Worcesteria Blog captured the play by play:

7:34: Haller brings up the chicken ordinance. She says “the question is not whether, but how?” She says Providence, RI just passed a law allowing chickens. She calls it the responsible chicken ownership ordinance. Lots of yellow pro-chicken signs being held up in the gallery.

Mayor Joe O’Brien says “we can all be a little light-hearted about this” but it’s been successful in other cities where allowing hens has worked alongside community gardening. He says these ordinances have improved public health in some communities.

Eddy wants to know what other departments would say about this before its hearing, like the WPD’s animal control unit. He says residents in his district “routinely see” cayotes and foxes, and worries about bringing them closer into the city.

Lukes says “obviously a lot of thought went into” the ordinance, but she has concerns about how this matches up with exotic pets restrictions. She also says Animal Control is understaffed with only two officers, so they won’t be able to hand an increased work load. She says she’d look at this as something that could be done in conjunction with community gardens. She thinks the $15 fee is too low for this.

Liz Sheehan-Castro points out she lives in District 5 and “would love to have chickens.”

“Even though it’s fun and cute it’s also a really great food security, anti-hunger strategy for some people…It’s a local source of protien that is much more affordable…There are many reasons to look at this seriously.” She mentions the permit fee and says it’s important to have it low so people could afford to have chickens.

Kristy Chadwick says when she moved to MA she was introduced to farm stands and community-supported agriculture. She says families in Western MA raise chickens, and it’s done in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.

John Slinn grew up on a farm in Stoughton, MA. He talks about cayotes, saying they would never come on to his farm even though they had 200 chickens. “This is a big thing to bring residents in…when I found out we wouldn’t be able to keep chickens I thought, why don’t we look at Leceister.”

Rushton wants to build confidence that “This is a good thing for the city of Worcester.” He says “this is about food security and knowing where your food comes from. I think there’s an idea out there that farming is beyond us in the urban environments, but if chickens can be in the Hollywood hills then they can be in the hills of Worcester.”

J.O’Brien says this will give Palmieri something to talk about on Jim Polito’s morning show tomorrow.

Stay tuned…

Budget Effects on SNAP

Nearly all of the information in this post comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities April 11th report, “Ryan budget would slash SNAP funding by $127 billion over ten years” by Dorothy Rosenbaum as well as from the Mass Law Reform Institute, convener of the Boston SNAP Coalition.    

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan would cut the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) by $127 billion – almost 20% – over the next tens years (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).  Besides proposing turning the program into a block grant, he hasn’t provided details on how the cuts would be achieved.

Nationwide, there are currently 44 million people receiving SNAP.  If the cuts came solely from eliminating eligibility categories of currently eligible households or individuals, more than 8 million people would need to be cut from the program.

If cuts were applied to amount of benefits families receive, all families of four would see their benefits cut by $147 a month, or $1,764 a year.  A family of three would be subject to cuts of $116 per month, or $1,392 a year.  That is money that would be spent at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets and would have a negative economic impact on local economies.

The growth in SNAP expenditures over the past three years is a result of the economic recession, not the result of a program that has grown out of control.  People receiving SNAP benefits are often low-income families with children, seniors and people with disabilities.   Currently 43.6 million Americans live below the poverty line, with is roughly $22,350 for a family of four.  93% of all SNAP benefits are going to these households.  Three-quarters of SNAP participants are in families with children; one third are in households that include senior citizens or people with disabilities.   Cutting benefits from these households will not improve our communities, our economies, our health as a nation, or our education systems.  These cuts have the ability to negatively impact all of these.

As Pat Baker of the Mass Law Reform Institute points out, the SNAP caseload in Massachusetts has increased by more than 300% since 2002 (now exceeding 800,000 participants) while SNAP staff at the DTA office has decreased by more than 30% during this same time period.  As a result, the SNAP caseload has surged to more than 1,000 per SNAP worker in many offices across the Commonwealth.  At the state level, we do not need to see more cuts to the DTA administration that is administering this federally funded program.

The economic benefits that the state sees as a result of the SNAP program are outstanding.  For every $1 in administrative costs that the state spends, the Commonwealth leverages at least $50 in 100% federally funded nutrition benefits.  These go directly into the hands of local grocers, supermarkets, and farmers – people that are the very base of our economy.

At both the federal and the state level we need to see responsible funding of SNAP benefits and the administration process that delivers these benefits.

On Monday, April 4th Congressman McGovern spoke on the House floor against these cuts.

Today, the House will be voting on the 2012 budget.   Mass congressmen McGovern, Frank, and Markey have stood up against these cuts.  You can call the Capital Switchboard toll free at 1-888-245-0215 to get ahold of your congressperon and ask him/her to stand up against these cuts as well.