So much goodness in a small serving

Making breakfast simple also helps hold down costs and satisfies the environmental concerns of Berkeley parents by minimizing waste. I just wasn’t quite prepared for how pared down these breakfasts would be. In D.C., kids routinely load their trays with cereal, graham crackers, cookies or muffins, juice of one kind or another, and milk. The cereal comes in plastic tubs, into which kids can pour a carton of milk. When they’re through eating, the milk carton, the juice carton, plastic wrappers, the plastic tub, and the Styrofoam serving tray all are thrown in the trash, creating a mountain of waste for the landfill every day.

In Berkeley, the 1-ounce servings of cereal come in little plastic packets. It’s plastic, for sure, but nowhere near as much as a tub. I asked Christensen how the students were supposed to eat the cereal if they didn’t have anything in which to mix it with the milk. She motioned with her hands to indicate eating the cereal hand-to-mouth, then drinking the milk out of the carton. Or, the kids can pour the cereal directly into the mik carton. It sounded a little like camping to me — but it seems to work.

Something that also struck me immediately about the contents of the breakfast bins was the lower sugar content. One of the original goals of parents who led the fight to reform Berkeley school meals was to eliminate the use of high-fructose corn syrup in school food. Corn-derived HFCS has become a lightening rod for those who oppose industrial agriculture and the culture of subsidizing with tax dollars a style of farming that rewards the heavy use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides to raise commodity crops on a grand scale and penalizes small family farmers who struggle to provide local communities with sustainably grown produce — and there are plenty of those people in Berkeley.

Aside from its environmental impact, HFCS has also come under increasing scrutiny as an agent in the current epidemic of obesity. And fructose has been linked to an alarming rise in the incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. High-fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice in the chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk that’s offered to District of Columbia schoolchildren at breakfast and lunch. Berkeley schools, by contrast, have eliminated flavored milk entirely, opting for plain milk instead — organic, to boot.

DC school breakfast trayA breakfast recently served to DC public schoolchildren, including my daughterKids in the District of Columbia sometimes consume 50 or 60 grams of sugar at breakfast alone, almost 15 teaspoons of sugar. From what I saw in the breakfast bins in Berkeley, I calculated that students there weren’t getting half that much. For instance, a 1.25-ounce tub of Raisin Bran cereal recently being served for breakfast at my daughter’s elementary school in D.C. contains 11 grams of sugar. That compares to 5 grams of sugar in the 1-ounce packet of Nature’s Path Organic Oaty Bites served in Berkeley. An 8-ounce carton of plain low-fat milk in Berkeley had 15 grams of sugar in the form of naturally occurring lactose, compared to 28 grams of sugar in the strawberry-flavored milk so many of the kids pour on their cereal in D.C.

In fact, milk consumption is optional under the “offered versus served” scheme that both Berkeley and D.C. use in their food service. “There is no documented case of any kid dying for lack of chocolate milk,” says Cooper.

“Sugar is an addictive substance. We don’t want to add calories with sugar,” explains Christensen. “Calories from sugar are not healthy. They provide no nutrition and the kids are just wired.” Fruit juice, because of its sugar content, is served only occasionally in Berkeley schools and as a substitute for milk, Christensen said. In D.C., juice is offered almost every day along with chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk.

I also noticed there were no big-brand cereals in the Berkeley breakfasts. Most of the cereal served in D.C. — Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, chocolate-flavored Little Bites Mini-Wheats — are made by General Mills or Kellogg’s.

“Kellogg’s is a big no, no for the parents around here,” says Christensen. “Marketing to kids is a big no-no.”

Big food companies give hefty “discounts” (some prefer to call them “kickbacks”) in order to have their products placed in school meal programs. It is widely assumed that for a huge school-food service company such as Chartwells, which contracts with more than 500 school districts around the country, including D.C. Public Schools, those discounts can add up to millions of dollars every year and grease the wheels for imprinting popular, sugary brands in the minds of schoolchildren nationwide.

It’s a murky area of the school food service business. A March 2009 article in In These Times magazine calculated that the big food service companies — Chartwells, Sodexo, Aramark — were taking in hundreds of millions of dollars in discounts annually in ways that ended up costing customers money by focusing food purchases on the large, national brands that can afford to give hefty discounts, rather than smaller, local companies that sell their goods more cheaply.

A 2002 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in a sample of Midwestern school districts, food-service companies routinely were ignoring a rule that requires them to pass on any discounts they receive to the schools. They were just pocketing the money. In 2003, Robert Pritsker, a former New York City restaurateur living in Connecticut, independently filed suit against Chartwells, Aramark, and Sodexo in federal court in Philadelphia, claiming they had withheld from schools $1 billion going back to the 1990s, causing the schools to falsely claim they were complying with the federal rules. Pritsker’s suit recently was dismissed by a federal appellate court after a seven-year battle.

In 2008, the USDA beefed up its rule on discounts, requiring that school contracts with food service companies clearly state that any discounts received by the companies will be passed on to the schools. Still, the discounts act as a juicy incentive to choose mass-marketed products over healthier alternatives from smaller companies that can’t play the discount game. Pritsker believes the school food service giants operate on such a huge scale, they have ways to work around the USDA rules. Apparently, discount practices have caught the attention of some attorneys general in individual states.

“This is a huge, huge issue because it’s one of the reasons we’ll never make any progress in these districts that have food service contracts,” argues nutritionist and school food activist Susan Rubin. “These volume discounts are another insidious way that our kids get marketed to. Basically, we’re now saying that money is more important than our kids’ health.”

Next: Hold the beans, please! What kids want to eat