The Country's Toughest School Food Reformer: Massachusetts

The state is pulling sodas from school stores and regulating bake sales. But will the USDA do anything about the actual cafeterias?

Yesterday the Massachusetts Public Health Council voted to approve what might be the toughest and most comprehensive statewide school-food guidelines in the country—a step that I hope will influence states around the country. (Proud spouse alert: I'm married to the state health commissioner, John Auerbach. But in fact the long and hard work that went into the rules is that of the Department of Public Health's medical director, Dr. Lauren Smith.)

The rules are close to what many cities—in Massachusetts alone, Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville—have already enacted, and cities and counties across the country have passed their own rules; they conform to reports from the Institute of Medicine, Department of Health and Human Services, and numerous other groups. They don't apply to the main cafeteria lines: Those are the province of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets the standards for actual school lunch, and which this year proposed rules to increase the fruit-and-vegetable quotient and reduce sodium and saturated fat.

The USDA will always be far slower to act, though, and so communities work on the food around the cafeteria, as Massachusetts has: in vending machines, "a la carte" cafeteria lines that are frequently run by huge fast-food companies, snack shops, the infamous bake sales, and other fundraisers, which inevitably draw cries from the directors of athletics, dramatics, and other underfunded or defunded extracurricular programs.

Notable in the Massachusetts rules, Dr. Smith told me in an email exchange a few weeks ago, ahead of yesterday's vote, are:

  • Prohibiting use of fryolators
  • Making potable water freely available at no extra charge (she's incredulous at the number of public schools that don't have access to drinking water, as the fountains are long-rusted)
  • Making fresh fruits/vegetables available
  • Making nutrition information easily available
  • Making standards apply to fundraisers, school store, and other food/beverage sales during the school day

The rules that have brought the most attention so far, as this article in today's Boston Globe shows, are the ones against sugary drinks. No beverages other than juice, milk, milk substitutes, and water will be allowed to be sold or provided. Caffeine is only allowed in trace amounts. Fruit juices must be 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, with no added sugar; milk must be 1 percent fat maximum. All beverages with added sugar or sweeteners will be phased out by August of next year, except for flavored milk or milk substitutes that contain same amount or less sugar than plain fat-free or low-fat milk. Except for a la carte entrees, no single item sold can exceed 200 calories. All bread and grain products must be whole grain.

There's more—sodium reductions, ban of trans fats, restriction of saturated fat, and a 35 percent cap on fat in any item. But what's important here is not just that I'm proud of Massachusetts, but that it's an entire state that has passed the rules. Next up: the Feds. USDA, please take note.

Image: Mike Blake/Reuters

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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