Sunday, September 17, 2006


It seems that I am "an a***hole, a tosser, an idiot" - otherwise known as a parent, in loveable Jamie Oliver's description of those who give their children "fizzy drinks" or "bags of crisps". He might think I am one, but I am certain that Oliver is talking out of his.

After Oliver's television series denouncing school dinners won widespread acclaim and changed government policy, a lot of children stopped eating them. Now with a follow-up on Channel 4 next Monday, Oliver has turned to roasting "the biggest evil" - packed lunches. He claims that while some parents give four-year olds a cold, half-eaten McDonald's and can of Red Bull, even the best packed lunch is "shit" and should be banned.

Oliver says that he is "bored" with "being PC about parents", and has to "tell it like it is". A worthy sentiment. Except that his arguments are packed with more half-digested junk than any lunchbox. As Professor Stanley Feldman pointed out in a letter to The Times this week, children need a varied diet, but it does not matter if the protein comes from burgers or best steak. If the road to an early grave were paved with crisps and fizzy drinks, my generation would hardly have survived to have kids and enjoy Oliver's sermons.

This moral crusade seems aimed less against packed lunches than "junk" parents - particularly those whom Oliver branded "what we have learnt to call `white trash' ". St Jamie of Our School Dinner Ladies is now worried that his criticism of parents will make him a martyr.

But in truth, Oliver has only expletive-ly spelt out the prejudices towards parents that inform much government policy. Official agencies may talk soothingly of giving parents "support" to make "informed choices" (ie, choose what they inform us is best), but the message is much the same. We are essentially seen as idiots and a***holes who could not find our behinds with two hands, far less bring up children, without guidance from the experts.

I confess to the heinous crime of giving our kids a diet of things they will actually eat. That means everything from the Sunday roast to a takeaway from the local tandoori, washed down with fizzy drinks. It used to include school dinners. But this term, our two young daughters rejected the fare at their local school in favour of packed lunches (including crisps) - a move that coincided with the introduction of compulsory "healthy menus", with less fried food and no salt available.

The Government has yet to respond to Oliver's demands for a ban by sending in the packed-lunch police, but there are reports of some schools searching lunchboxes and confiscating "contraband" junk food. I always thought that what mattered at school was the knowledge they fed children in the classroom, in the bits between meals. But then I am only an idiot parent.


San Francisco food freaks

Schools weren't always citadels of health. For years, they were more like junk food coliseums. Now, as this school year begins, cafeteria menus are being scrutinized as closely as the curriculum in preparation for compliance with recently passed legislation to better students' diets. School officials from Santa Clara to Sonoma counties are planning inventive programs to rid their halls of high-calorie and fatty foods. But for four people in the Bay Area, changing the way kids eat has become their life's mission....

Since 1980, the percentage of overweight young people in the nation has more than tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Obesity Association attributes the growing number of cases of youth asthma, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, orthopedic complications and psychological disorders to bulging waistlines. "This is just the tip of the iceberg,'' said Howell Wechsler, director of adolescent and school health for the CDC in Atlanta. "There's no question that schools can play a profound role'' in fighting the epidemic, he said. "If all they do is get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables or reduce their saturated fat or trans fat intake, that's a major accomplishment."

Farm-fresh cafeteria food: Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutritional services for seven Marin County school districts, including Novato and San Rafael, is trying to get kids to substitute jicama and carrots for their Snickers bars. And he's going straight to the farm to do it. "It's not easy," Villarreal admits. "Just getting them to sample the food is an exercise." He believes that if he brings it in fresh, the food will be richer in nutrients, and the kids will be more likely to eat it. So he's been working with Marin Organic, a group of local producers, on a Farm-to-School program.

Every Friday, Villarreal and his staff order fresh fruits and vegetables from local growers, including Paradise Valley Produce and Star Route Farms. Straus Family Creamery supplies yogurt for fruit and granola parfaits. On Monday mornings, a truck rolls in with his delivery. All of it comes from less than 20 miles away. "The carrots are coming out of the ground the day before we serve them," said Villarreal.

Every Thursday, Villarreal offers kids an organic salad. Three days a week, elementary school students can substitute an entree-size salad for anything on the menu. Middle and high school students can make the substitution five days a week. The 47-year-old nutrition director is also creating a schoolyard farmers' market with donated produce from Marin Organic that otherwise might go to waste because it's not "pretty enough" to sell. The students can take bags of it home for free, along with recipes and a note about where it came from. "Of all my ideas, this is the one I'm most excited about," says Villarreal, whose parents were migrant farm workers and raised him in the fields. "This way, the kids can teach the parents."

Translating health: In Santa Clara County, Maria Mosquera, a pediatric senior resident at Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, noticed that her patients were fat. "Some were off the charts," she said. So the 29-year-old doctor and her colleague, Heather Iezza, spent their summer in East Palo Alto conducting focus groups and classes on nutrition and exercise with Head Start parents. The mothers and fathers said they wanted to learn how to read food labels and understand portion sizes. They also wanted to make their traditional recipes more nutritious. "Food is a huge part of my culture," said Mosquera, whose mother is Panamanian and father is Colombian. "It's how we celebrate parties. It's how we tell people we love them. I would hate to see that taken away. So we have to figure out how to make it healthy."

These days, Mosquera spends a lot of time talking about the virtues of water and fruit. She explains that if a child has a bag of potato chips, a soft drink and a candy bar, that pretty much exhausts the recommended calories for the day. She's showing parents that calories and fat grams on labels are per serving and not for the whole package. "It's confusing to a lot of people," she said. "Especially if they can't read English."

Mosquera translates labels into Spanish to show parents how to evaluate the food. She's taught them to bake their tortilla chips instead of frying them and has created a fruit salsa that can be eaten as a dessert. "Our goal is not only to keep children from gaining weight, but to help the whole family learn about eating right," she said.

Mom with an agenda: Three years ago, Nora Cody became preoccupied with trans fat and its links to childhood obesity. "I read every book I could get my hands on," said the 45-year-old mother of two and former director of a health nonprofit. "Then I sat my children down and explained to them that we were going to start eating differently. I taught them to read food labels, gave them guidelines and then turned them lose in the supermarket to make smart choices." But protecting her own kids' health wasn't enough. When her son, Patrick, was in the fifth grade, she led his class at Oakland's Chabot Elementary in a discussion about nutrition.

Cody devised games the students could play and conducted experiments in which she'd have kids demonstrate how much sugar was in a can of soda and rub foods on brown paper bags to show how much grease they left behind. Before long, other teachers were begging her to teach their classes. Soon she was instructing groups of 50 kids. And it didn't stop there. She taught park and recreation department employees from San Leandro and Emeryville how to lead similar classes for their camp programs. In January 2005, Cody was hired by the Oakland Unified School District to coordinate its wellness program. She's spent much of this summer preparing for the implementation of the district's new policy to comply with a 2004 federal law. The legislation requires that all schools educate students about nutrition as well as provide healthful foods and opportunities for exercise. "I see this as a real opportunity to push the health agenda," she said....

In 2003, California was the first state in the nation to ban soda sales in elementary and middle schools. Three years from now, a state law will go into effect requiring high schools to get rid of them as well. By next summer, state law will require that vending machine snacks and cafeteria meals sold on California campuses during school hours have fewer calories and less fat...

More here

Gulf War illness "doesn't exist": "There is no such thing as Gulf War syndrome, even though U.S. and foreign veterans of the war report more symptoms of illness than do soldiers who didn't serve there, a federally funded study concludes. U.S. and foreign veterans of the Gulf War do suffer from an array of very real problems, according to the Veterans Administration-sponsored report released Tuesday. Yet there is no one complex of symptoms to suggest those veterans -- nearly 30 percent of all those who served -- suffered or still suffer from a single identifiable syndrome. 'There's no unique pattern of symptoms. Every pattern identified in Gulf War veterans also seems to exist in other veterans, though it is important to note the symptom rate is higher, and it is a serious issue,' said Dr. Lynn Goldman, of Johns Hopkins University, who headed the Institute of Medicine committee that prepared the report."

French fashionistas support anorexia: "The shape and size of fashion models cannot be regulated, the head of the French couture federation has said, after models deemed too skinny were reportedly banned from the catwalk in Spain. Didier Grumbach, president of the couture federation and chamber of haute couture, told AFP late Thursday that "everyone would laugh" if France attempted to follow suit. . Excessively-thin models have been barred from a major Madrid fashion show later this month for fear they could send the wrong message to young Spanish girls, local media reported last week. Madrid's regional government, which is co-financing the Pasarela Cibeles, has vetoed around a third of the models who took part in last year's show because they weigh too little. "That worries me," Grumbach commented: "We are not going to regulate in tastes and colours." "If Jean Paul Gaultier wants to take fat people for his catwalk shows, we are not going to stop him. "When (John) Galliano puts on the catwalk people who are not pretty pretty, no one thinks to reproach him," he added."

Unhealthy spinach (What would Popeye say?): "US supermarkets cleared shelves of bagged fresh spinach on Friday after the Food and Drug Administration warned the produce could be the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak across the nation. One person died, eight suffered kidney failure and more than 40 were ill after eating suspected contaminated fresh bagged spinach in Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin, the agency said... Whole Foods Market Inc. and Wild Oats Markets Inc., the top two natural and organic grocers, and Supervalu Inc., the No. 2 U.S. grocery chain, said they have pulled all fresh spinach from their stores... The early FDA warning has probably saved lives, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, adding that fresh produce is too often contaminated with E. coli, salmonella or other life-threatening pathogens. "Contamination can come from use of untreated manure used as fertilizer, irrigation water contaminated with waste from animal agriculture, or cross-contamination during processing," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the center's food safety director." [So fresh food is bad for you! What a laugh!]

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