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The politics of school food, organics and what babies eat

March 22, 2011 | 10:14 am

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At the recent Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, many hundreds of companies were trying to get their products noticed and tasted and into stores. But just yards from all the cookies, pastas, dried fruit, power bars and other items, three of the major voices in the politics of food were talking about what matters to them.

The speakers: Ann Cooper, chef, author and the “renegade lunch lady” who runs the school meals program in Boulder, Colo.; Gary Hirshberg, chairman and president of Stonyfield Farm, which makes yogurt and other dairy products; and Alan Greene, an author, physician and professor at Stanford’s medical school.

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“I’m really [angry], and I need you to be really [angry],” Cooper said at a panel discussion held during the expo. “We are killing our kids with food, and we have to do it differently.”

One of the arguments about school food centers on mimicking what students buy in fast-food outlets. The argument is that students won’t eat healthful food, that they’ll eat only what they know.

“Who says kids get to decide?” Cooper asked, listing other behaviors –- drugs, skipping school -- that adults wouldn’t tolerate. “We make all kinds of decisions for children.”

Parents, she said, have given up in the face of billions of dollars in marketing non-nutritious foods to children.

Our food supply carries not only health implications but also economic ones, Hirshberg said. With obesity and its attendant health problems estimated to cost $148 billion a year, “we have to hold ourselves accountable.”

“Cheap food is not. We are paying for it as a civilization. Our children are paying for it,” said Hirshberg, whose company since 1983 has grown to more than $350 million a year in sales.

In Boulder, Cooper said she “can’t get the kids to eat the [nutritious] food on a regular basis, and the parents say, ‘What’s wrong with chicken nuggets?’ ”

Cooper also took to task the organic food industry, criticizing organic candy, corn dogs and Twinkie imitators –- noting that some of the food at the expo, held earlier this month at the Anaheim Convention Center, was hardly exemplary nutritious fare.

“This is not healthy food. It might be organic, but it’s not healthy,” she said. “If that’s all we’re doing, that’s so not helping.”

Greene said he’s focusing on the food children eat long before they enter school –- in the first year of life. The author of “Feeding Baby Green,” he said “there’s something tragically wrong with the way our kids are eating.”

Signs of obesity are showing up in children as young as 9 months –- long before anyone can blame the children for making bad choices or for failing to exercise, he said. And kids’ taste preferences can be set very early. Most U.S. children are given rice cereal as their first food –- cereal that’s processed, he said. “Babies metabolize it in very much the same way they metabolize sugar,” Greene said later.

So, he has a campaign called “White Out” to get parents to change what they feed babies; for example, to mashed up bananas, whole grains or sweet potatoes.

Hirshberg also talked about genetically engineered food, specifically the federal approval earlier this year for planting genetically modified alfalfa, which is one of the nation’s largest crops.

Hirshberg said he wants to see such crops labeled.

“If we just focus on fat and sugar, we are missing a pernicious problem,” he said after the panel discussion.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of Agriculture, has said his agency believes biotech crops are safe.  Most corn and soybeans grown in this country are genetically modified. Organic farms’ products are not genetically engineered.

Organic food isn’t a new idea –- all food was organic until less than a century ago, Hirshberg noted. Today, it accounts for about 4% of U.S. foods.

And while biotech political action committees have donated millions to candidates, the organic industry “has not done a good job at organizing” support for its positions, he said.

[Updated at 2:17 p.m.] An earlier version of this post incorrectly quoted Greene as saying that white rice cereal, which is typically fed to babies, contains too much sugar. Greene said that white rice cereal is made of highly processed white rice flour that babies metabolize in very much the same way as they metabolize sugar. “This is important because I am not saying the makers of white rice cereal are adding sugar. Unfortunately, the result is very similar for baby, however,” Greene said in a comment to Daily Dish.

RELATED:

Organic food in the news

What organic means

Ann Cooper and school food

-- Mary MacVean

Photos: At top, school lunch at Hollywood High by Brian Vander Brug/ Los Angeles Times. At bottom, choosing products at Whole Foods by Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times.

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