What about Nevada?

By virtue of the program being a federal one, most of the big policy changes affecting school lunch happen at the federal level.  Big, sweeping changes to the National School Lunch Program came about as a result of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  This legislation was backed by former First Lady Michelle Obama and was hotly debate.  So much so that the New York Times covered some of the gory bits here.

But what about state level policy?

My home state of Nevada is often the best at being the worst.  During the most recent recession we had the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates in the entire country at one point in time. We have historically been at the bottom of the barrel for child welfare indicators and our education system has received equally terrible ratings.  We’ve bounced back on some of those economic indicators, and Northern Nevada is especially booming right now, but our child wellness and education ratings remain pretty abysmal.  According to the Annie E Casey Foundation, which conducts and annual survey and corresponding report on child well-being, in 2017 Nevada ranked:

47th overall for child well-being

49th in education

40th in economic well being

Did we improve from 2016?  Nope, our rankings were exactly the same in 2016 and 2017.  What about 2015, did we improve compared to where we were two years ago? A little bit.  We were 50th in education and 46th in economic well-being but our overall rank stayed the same at 47th compared to all states in the national. Pretty darn depressing.

We do however, have a recent success story from our state that gives cause for celebration and show how important state policy can be.  In additional to being at the bottom of the barrel for child wellness and education rankings, Nevada had historically had some of the lowest school breakfast participation rates in the country, despite a significant high needs population.  How does that link to education you may ask?  I could go into all sorts of boring research and infographics but to really break it down, hungry kids can’t learn.  Think about the last time you were really, really hungry.  Like “I got stuck in a four hour long meeting after skipping lunch” hungry.  Could you think about anything but food?  I couldn’t.  It’s the same principle with kids.  If you didn’t eat breakfast because there wasn’t time, or you weren’t hungry then but after an hour long bus ride you are starving, or there wasn’t food at home by the time you can’t think and learn.

So what did we do as a state to address low breakfast participation?  On June 12, 2015 Nevada Senate Bill 503 was signed into law by Governor Brian Sandoval.

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Governor Brian Sandoval signing one heck a of a breakfast after the bell bill into law!  Sorry this is pic is terrible Gov, you desire better but it’s all I’ve got…..

It required all schools with greater than 70% free or reduced price meal eligibility (a measure of how many kids come from low income households) to serve breakfast AFTER the start of the school day.  Kids don’t have to take a meal (and it’s against federal law to make anyone take a breakfast) but at the schools included in the mandate, breakfast must be offered to all students after the school day starts.

Why is serving breakfast after the bell so important?  Like so many things, the devil in school breakfast participation is in the details.  Did your bus arrive late? Did a parent drop off late?  Do you not have enough time to get off the bus, walk all across school campus to the cafeteria and then walk back to the classroom before the bell rigs?  These are all really common reasons why students who qualify for a free breakfast and have breakfast offered at school weren’t participating.  So what does that look like in a school?

There are a lot of different models.  Some schools serve breakfast in the classroom while students are doing warm up exercises or while teachers check student’s homework.  Some schools with older students like middle or high school students will serve breakfast after first period, which also lines up much better with the circadian rhythm of a teenager.

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This is not a school breakfast, its a mostly local food BLT that was delicious.  I have however eaten LOTS of delicious school breakfasts.

In Nevada, this mandate also came with $2 million in grants funds to provide schools with the labor and equipment to help make the mandate a reality.

So, what was the result?

Dramatic gains in school breakfast participation and a $13 million return in federal funds in that $2 million investment of state funds.  In fact, for the 2015-2016 school year, the first school year the legislation was in effect, Nevada had the greatest statewide increase in school breakfast participation compared to all states in the nation moving from 41st to 25th.  The next school year, 2016-2017 also saw substantial gains and brought Nevada’s school breakfast participation to 7th in the nation, the biggest jump for any state.

I think this is a great example of the power of good state nutrition policy.  Nevada is a state with so many kids in need, kids that don’t have enough food at home and one single state bill took us from 41st in the nation to 7th!

Of course, I would be remiss without also recognizing all the amazing efforts the school nutrition staff that made this happen, especially in Clark County (Las Vegas).  Their passion for doing right for kids is really remarkable and they are really the unsung heroes of this huge leap forward for our state.

So when you eat breakfast next, think about how that powers your brain and what a free, easily available breakfast can do for our state’s neediest kids.

Is cheap food to blame?

Lots of blame has been lavished upon junk food, most of which is cheap and available almost everywhere.  You don’t have to look very far to find a food systems devotee that blames cheap junk food as the root cause of all our obesity and chronic disease ills.  But do we have a cheap food policy and is it to blame for all our woes?

First, let’s break down the biggest factors impacting the price of food, which is government subsidies.  I can’t possibly do that better than US Food Policy guru Parke Wilde does in this quick video below:


Parke Wilde argues that no, we don’t have a cheap food policy and that government subsidies actually may have the opposite effect.  This mostly just covers the cost of the commodity itself though, what about the other factors that go into the cost of food?

The list may vary a bit by source but the following items are the main elements affecting the price of food you may as a consumer.

Inflation—this impacts the cost of most things consumers buy, and food is no different

Transportation Costs—this really has an impact when the cost of fuel goes up.  Unless you are buying something local, fuel costs have a big impact on the price you pay for food items.

Seasonality—do you want a cherry in January?  You might be able to find some, but it will probably be something from the southern hemisphere and the price will reflect all those flight miles.

Drought or other climate change related factors—in times of drought or things like a late frost, whole crops can be wipes out and when supply is tight, prices go up.

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What cost more?  The pasta or the cute packaging? Photo credit

Marketing and package—these can actually be the largest portion of the cost of a food item.  That package of dried lentils in a fancy, ziplock sealed bag?  The bag probably cost a lot more than the lentils.

USDA collects and reports this kind of information in a report here if you are interested in further details.

Another element of this argument is that eating healthy costs most, which is an argument that has a lot sides to it.  First, how to measure such a thing?  A lot start with looking at the cost of food per calorie, which is going to make low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables seem astronomical compared to something like potato chips or soda.

What about cost per serving? Well, if the highest cost of an item goes towards packaging, this means of measurement is really going to favor bulk foods, or things that can be purchased in large quantities.

What about using time to prepare?  Most research shows meals made at home are healthier than restaurant meals, and on that account also cost less.

Another way of looking this question, is do people with higher incomes eat healthier?  So much of the strife with SNAP comes for claims that people just us SNAP benefits to buy cheap, unhealthy junk food.  So how do the purchasing habits stack up against those not participating in SNAP?

Contrary to lot of misleading articles, there really aren’t many differences between the food SNAP households make and non-SNAP households.  Why?  Because just like almost every other household in America, SNAP participating households make some healthy food purchases and also might put a junky snack or bottle of soda in the cart.  Here’s a great quote from the Huffington post on the differences:

In its reporting, the Times zeroed in on a difference in soda sales that was decidedly slim: Per food dollar spent, SNAP users spend about 1.5 pennies more than other households. So if a hypothetical retailer was selling a 2-liter bottle for $1.50, the data indicates that a SNAP household might buy one additional 2-liter bottle of soda per $105 in grocery spending than a non-SNAP household.

 

Sadly, it seems like have more questions that answers here.  A cheap food policy doesn’t answer our question of why we have such obesity and chronic disease woes, and low income households don’t much differ in food purchasing patterns from their higher income counterparts, what’s the root of our problem?

Commodities, Councils and Checkoff dollars

Making sense of the federal commodities programs is complicated, and there are two other factors that are closely related and play important roles in the food system.  Those are food boards and their checkoff dollars.

You are probably familiar with the work of national food boards and just don’t know it.  Even heard of the slogans, “Got Milk?” or “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner”? Those are examples of two marketing campaigns done by food boards, in these two cases the National Dairy Council and National Cattleman’s Beef Association, respectively.

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A marketing tool that incorporated the “check off”, very subliminal. Photo credit

So what’s a food board? Sometimes they also call themselves “councils”, and they are essentially a group of producers that come together to market a specific item or crop.  Most are national boards/councils but there are also some state specific boards.  For example, there is a National Dairy Council and a California Dairy Council. Both of these groups have put out some really great marketing campaigns, the California Dairy Council was behind the “happy cows come from California” campaign. There are a lot in the US, from the less known Honey Board or Process Raspberry Council to the more well know (and well financed), like the dairy and meat boards.

Food Boards and Councils that are recognized by USDA are eligible for certain grants, but funding also comes from membership dues and a what are called “checkoff dollars”.  The checkoff programs are overseen by USDA and are fees paid by producers, typically the volume produced of the particular commodity, to be used to promote that particular commodity.  The money can also be used for research purposes.

Congress has permitted the checkoff fees to be mandatory, which has generated big money, about $750 million annual when all the programs are added up.  This element has also generated quite a bit of legal controversy.  Various lawsuits have had varying results in determining if the checkoff program violates the first amendment.  Other issues have popped up as well related to how the funds are used.  In 2008, the American Egg Board attempted to funnel $3 million to oppose a ballot measure in California prohibiting the extreme confinement of farm animals. They were stopped by an injunction issued by a federal court.

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No chickens were harmed in the actual legal battle.  Photo credit

The biggest impact of the checkoff dollars is largely marketing campaigns, which has resulted in some very impactful marketing like “pork, the other white meat” and “the incredible, edible egg”.  In addition to marketing directly to consumers, some boards opt to use checkoff dollars to support programs like the National School Lunch Program.  The National Dairy Council in particular has put substantial money behind helping schools get access to equipment like milk coolers and large volume blenders to make things like smoothies.

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The National Dairy Council helps schools get large volume blenders, pedal power not included.  Photo credit

They are often items that include the “Fuel Up to Play 60” logo, a National Dairy Council Program to encourage kids to eat healthy and be active, and since schools are badly in need of equipment this is a resource that is highly valued.

Is this just sneaky marketing to get more of their commodity sold or old-fashioned generosity to get kids excited about things like having smoothies for breakfast?  I’ll let you decide.

Chicken Nugget Battle

Why are there so many processed foods served in school meals?  This is a complicated question.

Anyone who has kids knows that it is a constant battle to try to get them to eat healthy foods.  The pull of the processed foods is great.  Many, many children in American have perfected the art of holding their parents hostage for dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets at dinner time.

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A powerful bargaining chip, ketchup optional. Photo credit

Less healthy foods are cheap and quick to prepare, which for most Americans are the two most important factors impacting food choice.  Thankfully, we’ve seen childhood obesity rates have leveled off and there have been a lot of positive changes in the food environment.  A federal requirement to implement school wellness policies to reduce the availability of junk food in schools are starting to take hold and fast food chains are making improvements to child meals like smaller portions and making fruit a default side instead of fries.  However, less healthy food choices remain popular and school cafeterias are no exception to those dynamics in food choice.

In addition to the challenge in getting kids to want to eat health foods, school don’t often have cooking equipment to prepare meals.  Between aging schools built in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that are now bursting at the seams with enrollments that are sometime triple the intended capacity and two recent recessions that let school districts with no money for construction or repairs, most elementary schools don’t have much more that refrigerator space and reheating oven.

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This is the exact opposite of what most school kitchens look like.  Photo credit

I’ve been in a lot of school kitchens and the only time I can recall seeing any sort of cooktop in an elementary school kitchen is in small rural communities.  Most school kitchens are terribly outdated and woefully lacking the appropriate equipment needed to prepare scratch items.

What does this all result in?  Sending USDA Foods items to a food processor to be made into processed items that can be easily reheated.

While the list of USDA Foods available includes some pretty healthy options, the vast majority of the foods offered are really ingredients, they are foods that will need to be incorporated into some sort of recipe, further cooked, or in some instances will need to be send to a food processor to be made into something that is ready to heat and eat.  Schools can send USDA Foods items to processors for that item to be made into convenience items with a lower out of pocket costs than if they were to go out and have to buy them commercially.  For example, a school district could send USDA Foods raw chicken to an approved processor to be made into chicken nuggets.  The school district would only be charged an out of pocket cost for everything other than the value of the chicken, with for something like a chicken nugget is a significant portion of the cost.  Schools often send higher value USDA Foods like meat, poultry and cheese to be further processed to get the biggest reduction in out of pocket cost on processed foods.

The further processing of USDA Food items is a pretty hotly debated topic in the school nutrition world.  The federal regulations passed in 2010 were long over due and badly needed, and largely passed to combat the less desirable trends in school meals, specifically too much fat, salt and added sugar.  It is important to note though that school meals have been shown to be healthier than lunches packed from home.

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The most commonly included item in lunches back from home.  Photo credit

Some theorized that the sodium restrictions being imposed on school meals were a back door way of limiting the amount of processed foods in school meals.  Additionally, USDA provided a substantial amount of grant money for schools to use to purchase new equipment, theoretically to increase the capability to prepare meals from scratch.  An amazing amount of school meal cookbooks were created all across the country, sharing recipes for some really outstanding, made from scratch school meals.

So is what is essentially a federal subsidy for the processed foods USDA seemed to be trying to eliminate of a benefit to anyone?

On one hand, these are foods that schools are going to be purchased anyway. And many would argue that we need to allow schools the flexibility to use the USDA Foods given in whatever way works best for them.

On the other hand, if we are trying to get more scratch meals in schools, should USDA look at limiting their processing program in favor of expanding options like DoD fresh, which allows schools to get fresh produce instead of the regularly offered USDA food items?

A thorny issue indeed.  What options do you think would be serve kids nationwide?

Government String Cheese

So last blog post covered some basics on what a commodity is but really didn’t answer any questions about what foods are selected to be provided to the schools, soup kitchens, institutions and individuals that received USDA foods.  This answer really varies by program, but we’ll start with a bit of history.  As mentioned in previous blog posts, historically the foods offered in commodity programs were items that were in surplus.

Early commodity programs were often buying up crops that are now heavily subsidized by the federal government like wheat and corn, in additional to food items that are prone to big up and down swings in production like fruit, vegetables and dairy.  If you’ve grown a garden in the same spot year after and year or have a fruit tree in your yard your already wise to how much variability there can be in food production.  During drought years fruits and vegetables get really scarce, on the other hand ideal weather conditions in other years can yield a bumper crop.

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Nevada’s perennial bumper crop, the zucchini. Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/farmer-farmers-market-fresh-food-1869941/

By the 1950’s agriculture was starting to get more modernized and food production was moving towards certain crops dominating regions of the US.  Wheat was largely produced in the rolling plains, tree fruit in the northwest, citrus in Florida, you get the picture.  Improvements in infrastructure, transportation and food storage also made this possible.  Crop yields were increasing, but if something substantial effected production like a late freeze or a regional drought, certain crops were scarce.  When crop yields were high, or a bumper crop was produced the market would be flooded and prices would drop.  And when prices dropped, farmers looked to large government buys to prop up prices and find a market for the surpluses.

Much of this system still stands today.  In times of surplus, certain foods will be purchases in huge quantities by the federal government and distributed to USDA Foods programs.  Up until about 3 years ago these foods, called “bonus” items would be made available to schools, soup kitchens and in some instances individuals who qualify for household food distribution programs.  Now, these bonus items are only made available to soup kitchens, food banks and some household programs.

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Greek yogurt as a USDA Food? Heck yes.  Photo credit: https://www.thedailymeal.com/news/eat/usda-approves-chobani-greek-yogurt-meat-alternative-public-schools/063015

So what about all the commodity foods in schools?  For the most part, the school districts choose what foods they want from a long list of the items available.  In fact, it’s a federal requirement that at least once a year the list of foods available to distributed to all school districts.  This list goes by a really creative name, the “USDA Foods Available” list.  You can find this school year’s version here.

If you look on the list, you’ll see a pretty wide variety of foods there. USDA has put a tremendous amount of work into making these offerings more appealing and healthier.  They put out a newsletter and you can view one of those here, which details their efforts to improve current items like frozen broccoli and introduce new ones like greek yogurt.  The recent additions include easy to use but healthy frozen fruits and vegetables like butternut squash and blueberries, in additional to kid friendly but nutritious foods like fuji apples, brown rice and string cheese.  They have also given the specifications (complex documents that list all the characteristics the products have to meet for USDA to accept them) a huge overhaul to not only make the foods more nutritious and lower in sodium, but to taste better and have a more consistent end product.  I have personally eaten a lot these items and while some are not my favorite, (I HATE fruit cocktail of any sort, more on that later) some are really good like the greek yogurt.

So does that mean schools can order those items on demand, when ever they want?  Short answer-no.

One of the big downfalls of this process is that USDA procures these items through a very, very cumbersome purchasing process.  They use multi year contracts and ask school districts, via the State Agency charged with administering the program in their state, to tell them what foods they want.  Here’s the catch—they need a year to two years of lead time to purchase those items.  Basically, farmers want to know what to plant to meet school’s needs and that results in a long term commitment on the schools end to these food items.  Some items that are quite as seasonally produced, like meat and dairy, can be ordered by schools quarterly but pretty much everything else requires at least a year’s worth of notice.

How many people know what meals they are going to prepare next week?  Next month? Next year? It’s challenge.

Next post I’ll cover a complex topic about how USDA foods for schools get diverted to big food processors to be made into things like pizza and chicken nuggets.  We’ll stay in the food realm, but we’re also going to include some business talk, hello vertical integration!

Any commodities food questions out there from the crowd?

What is a commodity anyway?

Throughout the last few posts, I have made several mentions to “commodities” and “agricultural surplus”.  While the two terms are interconnected, they aren’t interchangeable and to make things even more complex, the term “commodities” if often used to refer to a whole group of federal food assistance programs that provide food items to many different groups from schools to soup kitchens to individuals. As they play a critical role in understanding food and politics, here is a break down on the basic terminology:

Agricultural surplus: in layman’s terms, this is anytime production exceeds societies need for a particular crop, like apples or food item, like cheese.

Commodities: According to Merriam Webster one could employ one of the following definitions:

An economic good: such as

  1. a product of agriculture or mining
  2. an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment
  3. a mass-produced unspecialized product

So long as items 2 and 3 involve food, all three of these definitions would work.

USDA Foods: The term USDA is now using in place of commodities when talking about the food items they offer through a variety of programs.

To put all these terms together, USDA has historically purchased commodities in times of agricultural surplus and distributed those commodities through USDA Foods programs.  Most recently, there were huge USDA purchases of cheese in 2016 when prices were very low and stores were high.

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USDA Foods cheese is not this fancy, but who doesn’t love looking at a cheese tray? Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/cheese-tray-cheeses-french-cheese-1433504/

So, who gets these foods and how does all that work?  USDA has several programs that distribute foods to institutions, non-profits and to certain individuals.  Here is the basic breakdown of how that works:

Schools—The National School Lunch Program is the largest outlet for USDA Foods.  Each year school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program are given a certain dollar amount that they can use to “purchase” USDA Foods.  They don’t get

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Actual DoD Fresh Produce at a school in Elko, Nevada. Photo credit: Catrina Peters

any actual money, it’s just easier to keep track of when you assign a dollar value to it and account for it as if it were money.  Schools are given a set dollar amount and then each USDA food has an assigned value per pound.  More recently, school districts have been able to use some of those USDA food dollars to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables through the DoD Fresh Program.

Households—There are couple of USDA Foods programs that distribute food packages directly to households, through a state distributing agency like The Emergency Food Assistance Program or TEFAP for short.  Some programs are specific to Indian Reservations and are only available to those part participating in SNAP.  Other programs, like the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, are only available to the elderly and provide a monthly food basket.

Food banks, soup kitchens and senior centers—through another portion of the TEFAP program and another program called Nutrition Services Incentive Program, bulk foods are distributed to food banks, soup kitchens and senior centers to be used in the preparation of group meal settings like senior centers.  Food items for households are also distributed to food banks for further distribution to food bank clients.

You can see a brief description of the USDA Foods programs here.

Next post, I’ll share how the foods that end up in these programs are selected and if the people receiving them get have any voice in that process.

In the meantime, do you have any experience with USDA Foods that you’d like to share?