School vending machines ditch Oreos, Fritos for ‘smart snacks’

July 1, 2014, Chicago Tribune

By Jessica Wohl

The school vending machine is no longer an easy place to satisfy a snack craving.

Under new national nutritional guidelines that kick in July 1, schools that are part of the National School Lunch Program can no longer sell treats such as Oreos and Fritos. The “Smart Snacks in School” program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) covers foods and drinks sold in vending machines, on cafeteria à la carte menus and for club fundraisers during school hours.

For years, school systems have been pushing for healthier foods on their breakfast and lunch menus. Now, schools must also make sure products in their vending machines meet new standards.

Companies that fill school vending machines have been busy preparing to ensure they have the right products. The USDA standards include limits on calories, sodium, and sugar. Grain items must have 50 percent or more whole grains by weight, or list whole grains as their first ingredient. Continue reading

Apples vs. oranges: Google tool offers ultimate nutrition smackdown

March 24, 2014, NPR [The Salt Blog]

By Eliza Barclay

Leave it to the folks at Reddit to uncover the hidden treasures of the Internet. Recently, they were gabbing about Google’s nutrition comparison tool, which was quietly launched at the end of 2013 and escaped us here at The Salt.

Using this clever little tool is as simple as searching for two types of food, preceded by the word “compare.” The word “vs.” between the two foods also seems to work for some comparisons but not every single one.

So, for example, say you want to compare the calories, sugar content, and nutrients of mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes? Just type in “compare mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes,” and boom, you get photos and an elegant chart revealing that sweet potatoes have 4.2 grams of sugar per 100 grams, compared with 0.5 grams in mashed potatoes. Scroll down and you’ll see that sweet potatoes kill mashed potatoes in vitamin A, potassium, and calcium content.

As you contrast ingredients, perhaps out of sheer curiosity, perhaps to design a meal plan, you’ll learn a lot by playing around with the preparation and cooking method of the food. Tweak the mashed potatoes to “potato, mashed, with milk and butter,” and unsurprisingly, the fat content jumps up.

You can even compare apples and oranges (apples are slightly sweeter and have slightly more calories, in case you were wondering). Or analyze foods from totally different food groups — for instance, what do grapes and bacon have in common? Google says it’s getting most of its data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database, so you can compare pretty much anything in it.

According to Google spokeswoman Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi, the company created the comparison tool after the success of its original nutrition search tool, introduced in May 2013.

Schools increasingly check students for obesity

March 29, 2014, The Washington Post

The Chula Vista school district not only measures the academic progress of Marina Beltran’s second-grader, it also measures her son’s body fat.

Every two years, Antonio Beltran, like his classmates, steps on a scale. Trained district personnel also measure his height and then use the two figures to calculate his body mass index (BMI), an indicator of body fat.

The calculation isn’t reported to Beltran or her son, who cannot see the readout on the scale that has a remote display. Instead it’s used by the district to collect local data on children’s weight.

Beltran supports her son’s school in measuring students because the data has brought in help to address obesity, which can lead to diabetes and other illnesses tied to a lifetime of poor habits. Continue reading

California lawmaker proposes warning labels for sugary drinks

Feb. 13, 2014, Reuters

By Sharon Bernstein

All sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks sold in California would be required to carry warning labels for obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay under a bill introduced in Sacramento on Feb. 13, backed by several public health advocacy groups.

If passed, caloric drinks would join tobacco and alcohol products in carrying health warning labels in California, the nation’s most populous state and a legislative trend-setter.

Proponents say the first-of-its kind effort takes aim at the epidemic of obesity in the United States, where 35.7 percent of adults and 16.9 percent of children aged 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Continue reading

United States expands healthy food assistance to women, infants, and children

Feb. 28, 2014, Reuters

Some 9 million poor women and young children who receive federal food assistance under the U.S. government’s [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)] program will have greater access to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains under an overhaul of the program, which was unveiled on Feb. 28.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hailed the revamping of WIC as the first comprehensive revisions to the program’s food voucher allowances since 1980.

The list of foods that recipients could pay for with WIC vouchers was long limited to such basics as milk, infant formula, cheese, eggs, cereals, bread, and tuna fish. Continue reading

United States proposes major update to food labels in bid to combat obesity

Feb. 27, 2014, Reuters

By Tom Clarke

Packaged foods sold in the United States would display calorie counts more prominently and include the amount of added sugar under a proposal to significantly update nutritional labels for the first time in 20 years as health officials seek to reduce obesity and combat related diseases such as diabetes.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Feb. 27 that its proposal would also ensure that the amount of calories listed per serving reflects the portions that people typically eat. That change may result in per serving calorie counts doubling for some foods such as ice cream.

First lady Michelle Obama, who has used her White House position to launch the Let’s Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity, announced the proposal for the FDA. Continue reading

USDA awards grants to develop obesity prevention programs

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will make three grants totaling $5 million to universities to develop childhood obesity prevention programs. Vilsack made the announcement during the keynote address before the 2014 National PTA Legislative Conference in Arlington, VA.

“USDA is at the forefront of the Obama administration’s efforts to combat childhood obesity, which poses a threat to the health and future productivity of our entire nation,” said Vilsack. “These grants fund critical research that will help USDA and our partners implement effective strategies to support America’s next generation so they can have a healthy childhood and develop healthy habits for life.” Continue reading

Access to healthy food improves health, brings economic benefits

Feb. 20, 2014, Huffington Post

Access to healthy food can bring triple bottom-line benefits to communities — better health, new jobs, and a revitalized economy. But nearly 30 million Americans still live in low-income areas with limited access to supermarkets. The problem is particularly acute in low-income communities of color.

The good news is Congress took steps to expand access to healthy food last week, including a $125 million authorization for the national Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) in the nearly $1 trillion farm bill. To improve access, the program invests in the development and expansion of food retail businesses and food hubs that in return can bring much-needed jobs and spur economic revitalization in low-income neighborhoods.

Bringing healthy food retail into neighborhoods that have historically lacked access is a key strategy within a multifaceted approach to improve the food environment and advance community well-being. PolicyLink, The Food Trust, and The Reinvestment Fund have been working with local, state, and national healthy food advocates for years to expand fresh food access in underserved areas throughout the United States. Continue reading

Big Bird, Elmo to encourage kids to eat produce

Nov. 27, 2013, DCA Press

A trip down the grocery store produce aisle could soon feel like a stroll down “Sesame Street.”

Michelle Obama announced that the nonprofit organization behind the popular children’s educational TV program will let the produce industry use Elmo, Big Bird, and Sesame Street’s other furry characters free of charge to market fruits and veggies to kids.

The goal is to get children who often turn up their noses at the sight of produce to eat more of it.

Under the arrangement, Sesame Workshop is waiving the licensing fee for its Muppet characters for two years.

As soon as next spring, shoppers and children accompanying them can expect to see their favorite Sesame Street characters on stand-alone signs and on stickers and labels on all types of produce regardless of whether it comes in a bag, a carton, or just its skin. Continue reading

First-ever census reveals growing popularity of Farm to School program

Oct. 22, 2013, The Washington Post

By Tim Carman

More than 40 percent of the U.S. public school districts that responded to a historic census said they were participating in a program that helps bring fresh, local produce to school cafeterias. The percentage of participating schools was even higher in Maryland, Virginia, and the District, where the program has taken deep root.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) first-ever census of school districts across the country revealed how popular the national Farm to School program has become in recent years: About 43 percent of U.S. school districts — or about 38,600 schools — bought local produce for their students during the 2011-2012 school year, investing more than $354 million in farms near their communities. Another 13 percent said they would be participating in the program “in the near future.” Continue reading