Food

The Great Cooking Challenge: Update!

The Great Cooking Challenge, a program developed by our Small Grants Program 2017 winner Jessica Trinh, recently wrapped up and we are so excited to share one mom's story about her son's dedication to this project. We hope you enjoy Qiran's story (pictures are below)! 

My name is Ganlin. My son, Qiran, is in 3rd grade at East Rock School and has been cooking for a couple weeks. I want to share some cooking photos with you. This has been a fun experience for us. Qiran started to enjoy the joy of making food and stops thinking cooking is something kids cannot do. He was not very interested at the beginning but was attracted by the soda juice recipe. Over time, he enjoys more and more to turn ingredients into real dishes. He made banana pancakes earlier this week and shared with our neighborhood. He was very proud of that! Besides that, I am also very glad to see the cooking experience bring new/healthy food into his daily life. He started to have avocado toast for breakfast recently. We have been having avocado toast for ourselves for years and he always wanted to have jam on his toast. I am very happy to see he decided to put avocado on his toast lately (and shared with his 1 yr old brother)!

 

 

Fast Food, Slow Improvements - Kids' Meals Today

Ron Shaich, the CEO of Panera Bread made headlines when he challenged CEOs of other fast food restaurant chains to try eating their kids’ meal menus for a week. He says that the CEOs of Wendy’s, Burger King, and McDonald’s have yet to respond to this challenge. Of course, NPR points out that kids’ meals at Panera Bread aren’t exactly the healthiest either. For example, their mac and cheese has even more sodium than a four-piece chicken nugget option offered by these rival chains.

 

When it comes to kids’ meals, the first things that come to mind can be chicken nuggets, fries, and soft drinks. However, these food options and food chains are so common that it is difficult to avoid them. It’s imperative that companies make real efforts to improve the content and quality of kids’ meals.

 

As a way to address this issue, Panera Bread will include smaller portioned version of the main menu to their existing kids’ menu. That way, kids’ can have a wider variety of ingredients in their meals at Panera Bread. Other chains have also made important changes to kids’ menus. For example, apple slices are now standard in every McDonald’s Happy Meal. They are also making efforts to replace fountain drinks in kids’ meals with milk and low-sugar fruit juice options instead.

 

There is still a long way to go before kids’ meals at fast food restaurants actually offer fiber-rich, fresh vegetable-filled, whole grain-dense meals that health experts recommend. Until then, as consumers, we should be aware of ongoing improvements and treat kids’ meals as something to eat sparingly.



 

Lunches For Students in NYC Schools

The new school year in New York City has just begun, and this year there is big news to accompany it: New York City will start offering free lunch at all of its public schools starting this year, according to The New York Times. All 1.1 million NYC public school students will benefit from this program. The universal free lunch is a welcome addition to the already-existing universal free breakfast for NYC public school students.

 

This announcement is notable for several reasons. Although NYC is not the first major city to offer free lunch at public schools (it follows Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas), it has far more children to feed than the cities listed above. Also, a majority of NYC public school students (75%) already come from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The combination of these facts means that this new expansion in free lunches affects many New York students and families. According to the Times, this change will impact 200,000 students and save each of their families about $300 per year.

 

New York schools are encouraging families to fill out household income forms that will help the state to better identify students it can aid. The state recently updated the ways in which it tracks and matches families that qualify for benefits like Medicaid. With the updated changes, the new lunch policy should not cost the city more money.

 

School lunches have been making headlines recently for at least two major reasons. Strong evidence for the link between a healthy lunch and school performance or emotional health exists, and researchers are continually confirming this fact. Also, the stigma some students face in a phenomenon known as lunch-shaming - or “holding students publicly accountable for unpaid school lunch bills” - has been generating debate nationwide. The new initiative should directly bolster the former [finding] and work to reduce the latter.

 

Children should have access to all the resources that are possible in order to help them succeed in school. A lunch program for the public school students of the largest city in the US is a big step in the right direction.



 

New School Lessons: Eating Healthy

We hear a lot about the obesity epidemic in the United States, especially among children and adolescents. However, the impact that school meals have on childhood weight and overall health has been overlooked. A piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year looks at five creative ways schools can encourage students to eat more healthily. These interventions have been formulated to help schools meet the guidelines under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

 

Intervention One: Product Placement

Salad bars that feature at the front, or in the center, of a school lunch line are much more likely to attract students. Some Maryland elementary schools opened all-you-can-eat salad bars that featured five different fruits and five different vegetables a day and saw the number of students buying salad go up. In fact, one study found that strategic placement of vegetable options can increase consumption by as many as five times. Other schools planned the timing of vegetable snacks, so that hungry students were more likely to reach for them before a meal.

 

Intervention Two: New and Improved Advertising

Changing children’s preferences can be as simple as slicing up fruits for those with orthodontic appliances, or using more colorful bins to display fruits at lunch. “Stealth nutrition,” according to the WSJ piece, can also come in the form of food names that appeal to a young crowd (e.g. “X-Ray Carrots or Turbo Tomatoes.”) Attention-grabbing cartoon stickers on fruits can also increase consumption.

 

Intervention Three: Tracking Real Consumption

This is an intervention that can reduce waste, and at the same time, determines which foods are popular with students and which are not.  Researchers at some Chicago elementary schools recorded what foods were purchased and thrown out in order to determine the relative popularity of certain food groups.

 

Such measures can also increase parental involvement: some schools send home weekly report cards that record what a child ate throughout the week, based on lunch swipe summaries. Instead of remaining in the dark about what their children eat at school, parents can talk with their children about their meals or even compensate for missing nutrients at home.

 

Intervention Four: Bring in the Experts

Children can’t be expected to enjoy food that adults would also avoid. Chefs can consult for school menus or cook directly in schools. Over time, partnerships with chefs and local food sources can have a big impact.

 

Intervention Five: Field Trip!

Nutrition education should not have to be boring. In fact, it absolutely should not be, since a child’s first impression of a food item is crucial. Some elementary schools have started taking students on field trips to local farms, teaching ways of sustainability along with familiarizing students with new fruits and vegetables. They encourage students to make note of how a fruit smells, or what color a vegetable might be.  In NYC, the Wellness in School Program encourages students to make healthy choices for themselves based on what they observe in the fresh produce and nutrition labels they encounter.


 

Childhood Staple, Harmful Chemical?

A recent study, described in the New York Times, found that many types of boxed mac and cheese contain phthalates, a potentially harmful chemical that has already been banned in children’s toys. According to the article, phthalates are “industrial chemicals used to soften plastics and are used as solvents, in adhesives and in ink on packaging.”

 

Although the chemical interferes with hormones and has been linked to birth defects, the FDA has yet to ban phthalates. The chemical can be found in many processed foods, including mac and cheese. Two million boxes of mac and cheese are sold a day in the United States. Among the types of mac and cheese tested for phthalates, “organic” varieties also tested positive for the chemical with some products containing as many as six different phthalates.

 

Since processed foods are often more affordable and accessible than fresh, unprocessed foods, children with less access to healthy foods might be more risk for health problems. Even processed foods labeled as “organic” are likely to be more expensive yet do not offer the clear superiorities to other foods that might be implied.

 

The findings in the article show that it can be difficult to avoid dangerous chemicals, especially found in many unprocessed food. It will take real effort on the part of the consumer as well as regulatory bodies in order to protect children’s health.

Feeding Mind and Body: A New Role for Schools

Back in April, we wrote about how American households are not immune to the phenomenon of food insecurity. A recent New York Times piece discusses the importance of school meals in students’ development and learning. The benefits of having ready access to nutritious meals are, according to a research team at the University of California-Berkeley, threefold: “physical development” (e.g. eyesight), “cognition” (concentration and memory), and “behavior” (hyperactivity) are all directly impacted by what a student eats during the crucial formative years between kindergarten and high school.

 

When Michelle Obama was the first lady, she started health initiatives in school districts nationwide by setting up programs that incentivize schools to invest in healthier options for students. These programs did indeed have an impact: one study found that simply moving the salad bar from the margins to the middle of the serving area increased uptake. However, the current Congress has taken steps to dismantle many of these initiatives. It is surprising that a topic as seemingly uncontroversial as student nutrition could be treated as a partisan issue, especially given the fact that experts from multiple disciplines agree on its importance.

 

In states that have prioritized school nutrition, the results have been clear. Students at schools that work with healthy lunch vendors score significantly higher on standardized tests than their counterparts at schools without healthy options. Some schools have even ventured into providing breakfast and dinner for students that might otherwise go hungry outside of school hours (e.g. during after school activities.)

 

Funding is certainly always a factor, as school budgets face real challenges in delivering quality education with limited resources. However, research shows that some of the objections to healthy meals are untrue. If we think of student nutrition as an investment in their academic and personal development, and by extension, an investment in the future of society, prioritizing student health should be a no-brainer. It’s as clear as the very benefits of healthy food.

 

 

 

 

Securing a Good Start to Education

Today’s topic addresses one that may seem obvious to us, but also surprising in the United States. Children who grow up hungry in the first few years of childhood have been shown to lag behind classmates in school years later. Food insecurity, or being without reliable access to nutritious food, is a phenomenon that can be found in the United States: more than 13 million children are currently living in food-insecure homes nationwide. A recent article summarized in NPR (originally published in the journal Child Development) found that children who live in these homes before the age of five are more likely to lag behind their classmates in school socially and cognitively.

 

Also, it appears that these children don’t catch up to their peers. Researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2000 to 2006 to follow more than 10,000 children born in these households throughout their young childhood. They also interviewed the parents of these children to ask them about recent times they may have worried about food for the household. The researchers found that the younger that children were when they were exposed to food hardship, the stronger the negative effect on their performance in kindergarten (performance was measured by their ability to pay attention in class, their tendency to be hyperactive or throw tantrums, and their math and reading skills).

 

This negative effect might not be entirely attributable to the children themselves. After all, if children are hungry, then their parents are likely to be as well. The researchers affirmed that parents who are hungry can be more irritable and tired, and are less likely to engage with their children. These findings are certainly not surprising, but they confirm some important facts about early childhood and the important link between nutrition, parent interaction, and school performance. It is difficult to design interventions for very young children before they attend daycare or preschool, but the projections from this stage in life to performance in school cannot be ignored.


Food insecurity is definitely not just a foreign phenomenon, and not just an adult one. That there are millions of American children at risk of being insufficiently prepared for school should shock us all - but thanks to this kind of research, we’ll be able to lay the groundwork for erasing this gap in potential for children starting now.

Medical Advice with a Grain of Salt

Today’s blog post talks about a tricky subject. A pediatrician recently wrote an article in The Upshot for the New York Times called “The Whiplash from Ever-Changing Medical Advice.” We’re constantly swamped with new findings about food, lifestyle, gadgets, or habits that could help us or harm us, according to the medical community. The author of the article, Dr. Aaron Carroll, notes that while medical researchers need to publish their work and news organizations need to report these findings, sometimes these results have a neutral effect at best. Other times, new results could actually reverse previous research that was released only a few years ago, which may confuse the general public.

 

The eternal debate about food allergies is a good example. Recently, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease recommended that we begin giving babies peanut extract or powder in their food before they are six months old, in order to reduce the odds that they develop peanut allergies. There was substantial evidence for the effectiveness of this method, especially for children who were at risk of developing these allergies.

 

Yet back in the early 2000s, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned against giving children who were at risk of developing peanut allergies any peanut-derivative products before the age of three. In hindsight, this recommendation might have actually increased the number of children with these allergies.

 

This “medical whiplash” about conflicting advice can really exhaust readers, especially parents who are trying to make healthy decisions on behalf of their children. Dr. Carroll has written articles expressing his concerns that these recommendations, “which were not supported by strong evidence, may be doing more harm than good.”


Physicians like Dr. Carroll will be the first to agree that “simple lifestyle changes may be more influential than many medical interventions.” Interventions that work for some people might not work for others, but not all medical or news organizations will definitively admit that. It’s important to keep moderation in mind as a priority, and to be receptive but critical of the plethora of medical research that comes out every day.   

Understanding Food Allergies

We hear a lot about diverse kinds of food allergies, and whether or not they are getting more common as a whole. However, a new report published by the National Academy of Sciences says insufficient data or research methodologies make the number of people in the U.S. who actually have food allergies difficult to determine. Also, despite the general agreement among many health experts that food allergies have increased over time (and not just due to better methods of diagnosis), it remains difficult to confirm this with data.

 

According to an NPR report on this announcement, an important reason for the difficulty in getting these numbers is that it is challenging for parents to recognize and diagnose their children’s allergies. Food allergies and other conditions, like lactose intolerance, sometimes have “[overlapping] symptoms,” as explained by Dr. Virginia Stallings, a nutrition pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for the NPR article. The difference is that food allergies can potentially be dangerous, while lactose intolerance, while very uncomfortable, does not pose an immediate danger to the person.

 

The more severe symptoms of food allergies - some examples given in the NPR report include difficulty breathing and swollen lips - should receive immediate medical attention. However, since symptoms are often milder than these, and since there is no single blood test or other procedure that precisely points out a food that a child can be allergic to, it is best to rely on expert advice to navigate the path to finding out a child’s allergy.

 

Some experts have noted that parents have their children unnecessarily avoid a food for fear of an allergy. According to a pediatric food allergy program director interviewed in the article, a common “gold standard” test that they use to diagnose a food allergy, the “oral test challenge,” is surprisingly obvious. Patients [literally] eat small portions of foods they might be allergic to, and if they start having an allergic reaction, the medical supervisor stops the test and administers treatment. Such a method might be perplexing to parents who are looking for more sophisticated science in identifying their children’s allergies, but more research is needed to develop these methods.

 

Children also sometimes outgrow their allergies, and can be determined allergy-free with the same kinds of tests. In the meantime, parents and teachers can do more to learn about children’s food allergies in case an emergency happens at home or at school when there are no nurses around. According to the article, school nurses are usually the only ones trained to administer potentially life-saving epinephrine shots in many schools. The National Academy of Sciences suggests that more school officials be trained to react to food-allergy related emergencies.

What Junk Food Does to Your Brain and Why Kids are Fighting Back to Get Healthier

 

We know that potato chips and sodas are addictive, but have you ever wondered about the science behind junk food? It turns out that junk food is actually as addictive as it is harmful to the body. Neuroscientists interviewed in The Atlantic found that foods like Oreos can be as addictive as psychoactive drugs, if not more so.  They discovered that “high-fat, high-sugar foods are stimulating the brain’s [pleasure centers]” in the same way that drugs can. A 2010 study cited in the article confirmed the addiction phenomenon when they fed lab rats bacon, sausage, cheesecake, and frosting for 40 days. With brain imaging, the researchers found the rats’ resulting brain activity to resemble that of cocaine and heroin addicts.

What does this mean? For children whose dietary staple may include snack foods, they may become conditioned to expect and crave junk food at an early age. This exacerbates the picky eating problem we discussed last week, and also contributes to other very real problems in children’s health like obesity.

Even though young children may be the targets of advertising companies who spend a fortune on researching methods to make junk food even more irresistible, study shows that teens are fighting back. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas studied methods to help teens beat advertisers at their own game. Instead of “focusing on a future, healthier you” that seems abstract, these researchers introduced teenagers to an “exposé” article highlighting the manipulative methods of food industry executives and consultants as they strategized to get young people to eat more unhealthy food. In this way, choosing to eat healthy food became an act of rebellion against a socially unjust system of “controlling, hypocritical adults” that was conspiring to keep teens unhealthy.

Explaining to students about the importance of healthy food was just not enough. Students who read the expose article were more likely to associate healthy eating with autonomy and social justice. The success of this study suggests that teenagers and young students want to exert more control over their own health because they strongly associate their health with their independence. If anything can beat chemical addiction, it could very well be a student’s willpower to take charge of their own health.

Read a more detailed summary of this study here.

 

Picky Eaters and Their Families

We may often be quick to judge a child or their parents when we see a picky eater. Picky eaters can be perceived as unadventurous or a product of poor parenting skills. However, parents of picky eaters have more to worry about than social judgement. Pediatricians say that children who develop picky eating at an early age can have growth and development problems.

Parents of picky eaters have real reason to worry about their children’s proper intake of proteins, vitamins and minerals, and vegetables. After all, a child’s appetite is a major indicator of his or her health. Picky eaters are also hard to pinpoint because they generally eat as much as other children do, and they can also be thin or overweight. This means that even though they are probably not eating properly, they are getting their caloric intake in ways that are not nutritionally ideal. Parents look to pediatricians to reassure them that their child is growing at a normal rate, which is usually the case. However, in rare instances, doctors will test for developmental disorders like autism, gastrointestinal disorders, or food allergies. These abnormalities are definitely not the norm, but even the original issue alone - pickiness - can be a cause of major stress for parents.

Here are three tips that parents can do to alleviate picky eating habits:

  • According to Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician interviewed for the New York Times, it’s important to expose children to new flavors even while their mother is pregnant and breastfeeding. It is ideal for children who are starting to eat solid foods (between 6 and 18 months) to have frequent exposure to many different foods at an early age.  

  • It’s ultimately up to the child to choose what to eat. Pediatricians recommend following a division of responsibility at the table: parents can provide diverse food choices and show that other family members, including other children, are trying different kinds of food.

  • Children who are learning about tastes may exhibit some sort of neophobia - fear of the new and unknown. They may be partial to eat “white foods” such as fried foods, breads, rice, and chips. Families who cater to children who are partial to these foods by giving them separate meals from everyone else in the household are actually encouraging picky eating.  In the New York Times article, Dr. Muth suggests that one family should eat one meal together. By eating one meal as a family, children can be eased into different types of food as they watch other family members eat the same meals.

Training young children at an early age to appreciate a variety of foods will help children develop healthy eating behaviors, therefore benefiting their health in the long run. Parents can help with children’s learning process by actively engaging with them to establish a dialogue about their food preferences. That way, parents can also encourage autonomy and responsible decision-making in their children by allowing them to make healthy food choices. The act of eating itself can be an activity for the family, and a way for a child to invest in his or her future.