New York Times Interview

SCHOOL LUNCH; What If Carrots Came in Chocolate? 

“HOW about some veggies, sweetie?” Fran Cortina asked a little girl wearing a purple flowered bandana, who was carrying a single slice of cheese pizza on her Styrofoam tray. “Come on, try some!”

The purple bandana ducked and giggled, and whisked by a tempting array of fresh broccoli, carrots and cucumbers, cut up into child-sized pieces, to join her fellow second graders in the school dining hall.

Ms. Cortina sighed. A no-nonsense-looking woman with an angel pin on the lapel of her dark suit, she represents Fine Host, the corporation that provides cafeteria catering for Lewisboro Elementary School here. Ms. Cortina attends school lunch time at Lewisboro several days each month, and she has seen plenty of finicky eaters.

“You try to encourage them to eat healthy, but in the end it’s just up to the individual,” she said. What the purple bandana and her classmates eat for their school lunches — whether they choose a balanced meal, or whether they bypass the fruit basket and make a beeline for the ice cream freezer — has become a hot issue in the affluent Katonah-Lewisboro school district this winter.

The Lewisboro P.T.A. offered its second annual No Junk January program this year, a monthlong effort to teach Lewisboro’s 517 students about the importance of a healthy diet.
Lewisboro parents attended a panel on child nutrition with a dentist, a pediatrician, a nutritionist and a holistic health counselor, and teachers ran classroom discussions on diet and health.

A series of games — “Be a Bad Fat Detective!” “Be a Hidden Sugar Detective!” — were intended to teach students to read labels more attentively, looking for processed sugars and hydrogenated oils. For the first time this year, No Junk January also included a junk food blackout week, during which no junk foods of any sort were sold at school.

The No Junk January program and the junk food blackout week were organized by Renée Simon, a nutritionist in private practice who is chairwoman of the Lewisboro P.T.A. committee on health and safety.

“We based No Junk January on a similar program they ran in Chappaqua last year,” said Ms. Simon. “The cafeteria agreed to stop selling junk food items for a week, and we set up sample tables in the cafeteria so the kids could try the healthier choices. The point is not to take away all their treats, but we found that when we offered healthier choices, the children were happy to take them. And then they feel better, and maybe they perform a little better.”

Penny Constantine, the assistant principal at Lewisboro Elementary, said both the children and their teachers noticed an improvement in concentration and classroom performance during the junk food blackout week.

“I even had a kid come up to me and say, you know, ‘I’m not as jumpy as I usually am,’ ” reported Ms. Constantine. “That was his way of putting it, but by the end of the week, our teachers had really noticed a change.”

The elimination of junk food from the cafeteria was such a success that it had many parents asking why the junk food couldn’t be taken out of the cafeteria altogether. And that’s when the trouble started.

“Fine Host told us they wouldn’t — couldn’t — take the junk food out of the cafeteria for good,” said Martha Handler, who has four children who attend Lewisboro Elementary. “It never occurred to me that the cafeteria had to make a profit. They say they sell more when it’s chicken fingers day than when it’s baked potato day, for example.”

School districts in New York sign one- to five-year contracts with food service providers, who are selected through a competitive bidding process. Once such a contract is signed, the food service provider has a free hand in deciding what is served in school cafeterias within the district.

The state requires that balanced meal options be available in each cafeteria, but whatever chips, cookies and ice cream bars are sold besides that is decided by the contractor.

This situation makes many parents uncomfortable, Ms. Simon said. “Fine Host supplies all food to Lewisboro Elementary, and they ultimately decide what they can and can’t bring in,” she said. “It’s unfortunate — they need to make a profit, and the big-ticket items, as they call them, are junk food. We actually need to get approval from the State of New York to change this.”

At Lewisboro Elementary, a hot lunch is $1.75; sweets and snacks are extra. About a third of the children bring their lunches from home, some buying a cookie or a snack at the school.
Ellen Keats, a spokeswoman for Fine Host, said that the company was committed to promoting good nutrition, but that what is ultimately served in school cafeterias is determined by many factors, including the preferences of the district, and the federal commodities available at a given time.

“Fine Host is very health-conscious, and we run a number of programs oriented to educating children on nutrition,” she said. “Often what is served depends on what federal commodities are available. If there’s a surplus of chicken, say, that will be made available, and that helps keep costs down for the district.”
Lewisboro parents cite concerns about juvenile diabetes, childhood obesity and body image.

They express frustration that the eating habits they are teaching at home are being undermined during the school day. They point out that when junk food was taken out of the cafeteria, the children didn’t seem to miss it, and ate turkey burgers and granola bars just as happily.

“I spent some time with the second graders — my son’s class — recently, and the children were talking about their New Year’s resolutions,” said Ms. Handler. “And already in second grade, a lot of the kids were saying they wanted to lose weight. It seems so obvious that the junk food should go.”

In the battle for a better school-day diet, however, elementary school cafeterias are just the beginning. In middle schools and high schools, vending machines are the subject of much consternation, as nationwide, Coca-Cola and Pepsi sign deals with school districts for exclusive rights to sell their products in school hallways, and put their logos on school score boards.

In a report to Congress in January 2001, the United States Department of Agriculture said that sales of candy, salty snacks and sweetened drinks sold in competition with healthier options were jeopardizing the nutritional effectiveness of school meals. And there are signs that lawmakers are starting to take notice.

For the time being, however, the chips and ice cream will stay in the Lewisboro Elementary l cafeteria, and the parents and teachers will have to encourage children to make healthier choices among them. Some of the children, evidently, are taking the message to heart. A pair of Lewisboro second graders hammed it up for a visitor, stomping melodramatically up to a trash can with a bag of corn chips: “Bad fats! Throwing away the bad fats — eewwwwww!”

Nutritionist’s View: What’s Ailing Kids today?

March 9, 2000

The Lewisboro Ledger
Lewisboro, N.Y. 5A
Clinical Nutritionist

I used to see mostly adults in my practice. Now I see children with learning disabilities, autistic children, children with immune system problems, like ear infections, allergies or bouts of colds and flu. Digestive problems, migraines and other illnesses are also common. Why are so many kids sick today?

To understand the root of the problem, it’s important to look at the interrelationships between the brain, and the digestive and immune systems. Psychoneuroimmunology refers to interactions between the emotional state, nervous system, and the immune system. There is a growing body of knowledge documenting the minds profound influence on health and disease. We know our mood affects the way we feel on a daily basis and that posi­tive imagery can reverse disease.

We also know that stress has a big role on the causation of diseases. We have a lot of stressed‑out children. Divorce is on the rise, and many households have both parents working. School is more challenging and children are bombarded with a myr­iad of after‑school programs to choose from. Where is down time?

In terms of an immune system tie-in, stress increases adrenal gland hormones that inhibits white blood cell formation and causes the thy­mus gland to shrink (a key gland for fighting off viral infections).

Another tie‑in is possible nutri­tional deficiency that can affect the emotional state and immunity. Some studies now show depression to be associated with functional immune decrements and immune over activation. Many kids with learning problems and associated self‑esteem issues are now being labeled with depression.

In terms of digestive system tie-­ins, after seeing clients with poor immune function, there is usually a relationship. It could be a chronic yeast overgrowth problem from years of antibiotic treatments caus­ing leaky gut syndrome and problems with nutrient absorption. It could be a constipation problem causing the body to store excess toxins, which may lead to immune deficiencies, or it could be irritable bowel, colitis or crohn’s.

According to Jeffrey Moss, D.D.S., C.N.S., C.C.N., in his newsletter The Moss Nutrition Report, “Treatment of all illnesses of immune dysfunction must include efforts to optimize gut function. In addition, unless gut function is opti­mized, any improvements of immune‑related illnesses must be considered symptomatic in nature. Finally, any symptom that was alle­viated via modalities that do not address gut function in some way will tend to return and or manifest in some other way once the modality is discontinued.”

Bearing this in mind, and under­standing that there are also environ­mental factors like outdoor/indoor pollutants, pesticides, food and water chemicals that can wreak havoc on the immune system, what is a concerned parent to do? The key is to try to prevent it. Would a child without underlying immune problems develop allergies, asthma, or learning disabilities if he were not genetically predisposed? I would suspect the answer to be no. Even if your child is prone to getting infec­tions, following these suggestions will help build a strong immune Sys­tem. The following is a Iist of basic tips that I have found helpful in getting started in a healthier direction:

  1. Begin to decrease or eliminate processed foods (candy, soda, foods with preservatives and col­orings, etc.) Use instead whole­some, organic foods like fresh fruit, raw vegetables, and quality protein and complex carbohy­drates (high fiber cereal, sprouted wheat bread and spelt pasta).Between fiber and the water your child should be having at least one good bowel movement per day. The human body was designed to eliminate toxins on a daily basis. If the colon gets backed up, toxins that need to be eliminated are reabsorbed.
  2. Make sure your child consumes enough water. I recommend 48 ounces for a younger child, and 64 ounces for a teen. Get a water purifier or order bottled water from a reputable company. Dilute juices with water. Some juices contain almost as much sugar per serving as soda.
  3. Find a professional to work with who can help identify foods that your child may be allergic to. This method is accurate and will let you know if food allergies are a contributor to your child’s problem. We find that many kids with learning problems and chronic ear infections have a milk and wheat allergy. Other culprits are peanuts, eggs, yeast and soy. Sensitivities worsen over time by kids often eating the same foods daily.
  4. Investigate the possibility of yeast overgrowth. Yeast problems can have an impact on behavior and can weaken the immune system. A stool test by Great Smokies Lab (you can get the kit at our office) can identify if this is a problem.
  5. Another test that can be a great diagnostic tool is hair analysis. We often find children with depressed levels of iodine, iron, magnesium and zinc and elevated levels of aluminum, copper, cad­mium, and lead are prone to ADD/ADHD and other illness. When exposed to lead it will show up in the blood for around 30 days and then migrate to cells and tissues. The analysis will reflect the biochemistry of the patient over time, including the mineral and metal levels.
  6. After decreasing your child’s intake of allergenic and processed foods, give him or her a multi­vitamin and mineral supplement. Give these vitamins with meals and divide into at least two doses. At the first sign of infection use the herbs echinacea, garlic and astragalus as well as vitamin C and carrot juice.

If the child has an ear infection, use warm garlic and mullein oil in the ear canal for a week. If you’ve missed those indicators and your child ends up with a full‑blown infection, follow this procedure as soon as possible to provide the immune system with the extra fight­ing it needs. If an antibiotic is necessary, always take acidophillus/bifidus to make sure that the drug does not kill off the good bacteria along with bad. I recommend that your child continue to take acidophillus for a week after the antibiotic is finished to continue to build good intestinal flora and reduce the chance of a yeast infection.

My final point is simple: take charge of your child’s health! By identifying and treating underlying conditions, giving your child optimal nutrition, providing a non‑toxic, structured environment that includes time to de‑stress and enjoy everyday, you and your child will be well on your way.
Renee A. Simon MS. is a Clinical Nutritionist with private practices in South Salem and Mt Kisco, New York and Ridgefield Connecticut. She frequently lectures on children’s health. For more information call Ms.Simon, at (914) 763‑9107.