• Ali Tadlaoui

Alice Waters, the acclaimed chef, author, and food activist who created Berkeley's Chez Panisse, launched The Edible Schoolyard Project in1995 with the aim of better nourishing school kids - "free sustainable lunch for kids K-12" - as well as nurturing a better, more direct connection between the upcoming generations of kids and the food chain that feeds them. A school is not just for "reading, riting, and rithmetic." The land the school sits on can be a learning environment if you teach kids the basics of growing food on that proving ground and see them learn to love eating the fresh, good-for-you food they've harvested in the school cafeteria.

The model for the Edible Schoolyard Project movement is at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. There, a special curriculum is built around a one-acre garden classroom and a kitchen classroom where they learn to be farmers and cooks. This curriculum dovetails with what the kids learn in science and humanities classes in a very hands-on way.

The Edible Schoolyard Project has made a mark beyond the Berkeley public school system through a professional development program and short courses. There are almost 7,000 programs in their network which spans every state and U.S. territory as well as 75 other countries.

I wish, though, for more, broader, on-the-ground progress towards the vision set by organizations like The Edible Schoolyard. The aspiration is so compelling but the truth about what kids eat at lunch at school every day is less so, twenty-five years later.

The wish for a healthier, more interesting school lunch has been gnawing at me, gently, since my oldest daughter entered kindergarten a dozen years ago. What was on the menu then in that school district is not very different from what is offered now in a different school district in a different state. We've been fortunate, all along, to live in well-resourced districts that I felt were led by enlightened, thoughtful, and somewhat progressive educators, and encouraged by like-minded, demanding parents. That's why I continue to be surprised and disappointed by the prevalence of convenience (some of it downright junk) food and freshly-made food that is less than inspiring.

Lunch entrees listed by my school district's Child Nutrition department: Fries, Chicken Tenders, Chicken Nuggets, Hamburger/Cheeseburger, Hot Dog/Corn Dog, Pizza, Burrito/Hot Pocket, Baked Potato, Pasta Bowl, Steak Fingers with Gravy, Sub Sandwich, Mozzarella Sticks, Bento Box. You can imagine the Snacks list.

My kids will buy the occasional bag of chips or muffin but steer clear of the entrees and salad bar. The thing is, it's just not tasty food, even though it's definitely a kid-friendly menu.

It's encouraging to see that, according The Edible Schoolyard Project, several California school districts are being supported by programs that provide freshly made meals on the lunch menu; meals made with food grown on school grounds and food brought in from local farms and ranches that subscribe to regenerative agriculture practices. I'm guessing the kids like the food too!

I hope it doesn't take another twenty-five years for another few school districts (and ones in a more conservative part of the country) to adopt the principles and policies that truly transform school lunch menus and also support a food chain that is truly sustainable. I do realize that this entails more than principle and policy. Beyond overcoming inertia, the system of incentives, especially financial incentives, that drives the current school lunch model favors low cost, convenient food that costs less to prepare and serve. School district administrators would have to restructure or even abandon long-term food service supplier agreements and enter new arrangements, for example. They might have to work with several suppliers, farmers and ranchers, instead of either Sysco or US Foods. It means more work in a climate of uncertain budgets.

But...there are more than 15,000 school districts in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an awful lot of additional kids waiting to benefit from a healthier lunch. At the same time, many experts say we don't have twenty-five years to make sustainable agriculture the norm, and the basis for that healthier school lunch.

I'm fired to up to learn more about how an Edible Schoolyard program works and how you and I can contribute to making our local programs work even harder. There are half a dozen within an hour of where I live, so I'm hoping to get a schooling in the not-too-distant future.

More to come on The Edible Schoolyard, and regenerative agriculture more broadly, on an upcoming episode of the Talk to Me About Food podcast.

  • Ali Tadlaoui

The USDA recently released an annual data series about production and consumption of dairy products. There is nothing dramatic in the updated 2019 data points, nor would I expect a big swing in per capita consumption trends. 2020 might, though, be a dramatic inflection data point...I just had never looked at the trends going back to 1975. Most folks in food marketing or research would know that Americans have steadily been drinking less milk for almost fifty years. No, we don't "Got Milk" in our fridges or pantries (shelf stable) as much as we used to.

But, what I didn't realize is that we've been shifting, knowingly or unwittingly, some of us maybe even sneaking dairy into our diet in other ways. So much so that that the per capita consumption of dairy products overall has grown by over 20%, pretty steadily since 1975! Fluid milk consumption is down over 40% over the same period.

It's not about us eating more ice cream instead. Ice cream per person consumption is down 25% since 1975. That's kind of surprising too.

But, butter has been contributing a bit to the rise in dairy consumption since the late aughts. I was at Unilever during the decade before this, when margarine had the upper hand over butter. We had a stable of spreads brands, always cheaper than butter, that we marketed as healthier than butter because these spreads had much less saturated fat and no cholesterol. But butter has always been the gold standard for taste. And it's a more natural product. As our views around fats have evolved, and more of us are looking for cleaner ingredient labels, butter's fortunes have risen to the point where we each ate more butter in 2019 than in 1975.

Yogurt has been a major contributor to per capita dairy consumption gains. In 1975 we each ate just 2 pounds of refrigerated yogurt, compared to 15 pounds in 2014, when consumption peaked. Yogurt is still a force in the packaged foods world. It's perceived as good for you. It tastes good (it doesn't hurt that many of the popular yogurts are packed with sugar which dairy milk isn't). Yogurt is fairly convenient - faster and easier than a bowl of cereal, anyway. It's filling, and relatively affordable. You might think that all the talk about plant-based foods is taking business away from yogurt. But plant-based inroads remain small. We recently did research with folks open to trying a plant-based yogurt, and most said they were looking to minimize their dairy consumption. But dairy yogurt has been somewhat flat for the last several years while plant-based yogurt has been taking more shelf space, so if people are switching away from dairy, it's being masked by something else. It's hard to walk away from a thick, rich, smooth, and creamy dairy yogurt.

An even bigger driver is our penchant for cheese. 24 pounds more per year of cheese since our Bicentennial. More Monterey, Jack and other types of cheese we use in Mexican food. And more Italian-type cheese. It's all the pizza. Another food that works on several levels. A tasty, convenient, feed-a lot-for-not-a lot food. A real crowd-pleaser. Imagine a pizza or an enchilada without cheese. Those options don't get ordered very often. We've got to have the gooey stuff.

Big picture, veganism remains a very small behavior. Maybe 2-3% of the U.S. population from what I've read. Strict vegetarianism is not that much bigger here either. There are a growing number of "flexitarians" among us, cutting out meat, here and there, and cutting back on dairy sometimes. That "sometimes" is not as often as you might think, it appears.

There was no in person Natural Products Expo this September, but Natural Products Insider announced the finalists in a range of annual awards that would have been showcased had we been able to walk the booths, sniffing, scooping, popping and sampling the wares. I was most interested in walking the "bleeding edge" defined by the benefits and features of the new natural foods and beverages.

When you think of natural products you think first about healthier products. Foods and beverages that don't have all the bad stuff; the artificial flavors and colors, the unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce stuff, and unnecessary additives. Or foods and beverages fortified with good stuff. And products with short lists of ingredients. As well as products that are minimally processed; foods that are not so manufactured that they you couldn't make them yourself. That's what the finalists in the food categories are all about. And more.

Three Wishes Unsweetened Cereal is a stand-out in the clean label category. As kids, almost every one of us loved, even subsisted on sweetened cereal. The sweeter the better. A good number of us still do, which is why the more popular cereals aimed at adults contain a good amount of added sugar hiding behind the marketed whole grains, fiber, protein-rich nuts, dried fruit, and naturally sweet honey. Three Wishes aims to treat us to childhood cereals without the added sugar. Not sure how they accomplish this using ingredients like chickpea, pea protein, tapioca, and salt, and without wheat, dairy, soy, rice, oats, corn, and peanuts. And without sugar.

Functional foods continues to be a focus area for new natural products. Several functional beverages were lauded, including Energy + Focus Shots and So Good So You Sleep Shots. One to pick you up and one to bring you down. Shots are hot.

A 2 oz. shot of Energy + Focus promises not just a full-throttle pick-me-up like a Red Bull or Monster drink but also mental alertness and concentration. The ingredients are interesting. I know about green tea, ginseng, and turmeric (but not cold-pressed turmeric root). What is ashgawandha? What about lion's mane? There's 250 milligrams of each of these last two. Seems like a lot when there's only 75mg of tea. Hopefully the blueberry and lemon juices mask the funkier notes.

So Good So You Sleep gets insomniacs to sleep with the help of cold-pressed honeydew juice, lavender, California Poppy, and butterfly pea flower powder. For sure. Flower Power. I feel hypnotized just reading the ingredient list. As a bonus, this stupefying shot features a probiotic with the strength of 1 billion colony forming units to support your digestive and immune systems also working their magic while you sleep.

The NEXTY award finalists go beyond a clean label and newly-discovered, natural, functional ingredients that do more than add flavor and texture to your food. The word "natural" is taking on more meaning. The twin themes of social and environmental justice run through these showcased foods and beverages as well. Increasingly it matters to us where and how ingredients are sourced and transported to where they are combined to make the final products we buy.

The importance of a "clean" supply chain is reflected in a new item from Icelandic Provisions called Fruit & Nut yogurt. I can vouch for the product because I've tried it. It is thick, rich, smooth and tasty. I know a bit about it because we did the consumer research for the innovation team. It is high in protein and relatively low in sugar, and is minimally processed. I didn't know, though, that the milk comes from 300 family farms in upstate NY or that their fruit supplier only sources from coconut growers who don't use forced monkey labor...

Pulp Chips' reason for being centers on reducing waste in the food supply chain. These chips are made from by-products of food and vegetable processing, like pomace, which is what is left over from juicing, and okara flour, which is a by-product of tofu production. Pulp Pantry claims that their chips have five times the fiber of a traditional chip. The company is an avid supporter of circular economy initiatives to reduce plastic waste, and is striving to become "plastic neutral." The company's founder teaches kids about sustainability in urban food deserts. Seems like the passion for environmental justice runs deep at Pulp Pantry.

You can see in several of the products up for a NEXTY award an effort to address everything; clean label, special ingredients and/or formulations, and do-gooding. Serenity Kids Bone Broth Meals is another good example. The meals feature pasture-raised meats (sourced from small, American farms that use regenerative agricultural practices) and organic vegetables. These meals are cooked in a nutrient-dense bone broth and provide the right ratio of carbs, fat, and protein for toddlers. The meals are free of the usual allergens, and are packaged in upcycled and recyclable material. Additionally, the brand supports small farmers through the Farm to Consumer Legal Fund.

A couple of final thoughts as I read through these NEXTY awards finalists again. First, "natural" doesn't seem as simple, straightforward, and unadulterated as I expect it to be. When you pile on all the benefits these branded natural products feel more complex and more like concoctions. Mindful concoctions, but far from a handful of nuts and an apple.

When you pile on all the benefits taste also seems to lose its prominence. The Fruit and Nuts yogurt sounds tasty, and many of us enjoy yogurt to begin with. The bone broth meals might be palatable - although to a toddler - because the broth conjures savory notes. The others, I'm just not so sure. Breakfast cereal with no sugar at all? Even my Grape Nuts and Cheerios have a bit of added sugar.

Image courtesy of Cruelty Free Brands


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