How to make nutrition like reading or math

HHS and USDA officials tout hands-on nutrition education, but scalability is tricky. House oversight committee to hold hearing on FDA formula response. FDA green lights second cell-cultured chicken product. Plus, a White House conference follow-up event kicks off today.


USDA's Stacy Dean sits with two fifth graders at a table - they are mixing the ingredients for whole wheat crackers in a stainless steal bowl.s

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix. This newsletter is coming to you from Ann Arbor, Mich., where I’m attending a food as medicine gathering at Trinity Health. If you’re here, too, say hi!

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Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– HHS and USDA officials tout hands-on nutrition education, but scalability is tricky

– House oversight committee to hold hearing on FDA formula response

– FDA green lights second cell-cultured chicken product

– White House conference follow-up event kicks off today

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How to make nutrition like reading or math

When I walked into the kitchen classroom at Watkins Elementary last Friday, the first thing I noticed was the delicious smell.

A bunch of fifth graders were about to cook collard greens with browned onions – the greens came from the school’s garden – along with homemade whole-wheat crackers tasty enough to convert even a whole-wheat hater. I was at the Southeast Washington school to observe the nutrition education program FRESHFARM FoodPrints, during a visit with Admiral Rachel Levine, HHS assistant secretary for health, and Stacy Dean, USDA deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services –  the public event to mark National Nutrition Month was also an opportunity to revisit some themes from last fall’s White House food and nutrition conference.

(Full disclosure: Watkins is my neighborhood elementary school, but this was my first visit because my kiddo is still a toddler.)

The classroom I visited has a pretty sweet setup – complete with a full working kitchen with an induction stove top and one of those big mirrors hanging over the workspace like you might see on a Food Network show. (Not surprisingly, some of the kids call it the “cooking show mirror.”) 

I asked the teacher, Natasha Thompson, if the class and its TV-worthy setup made her a celebrity in the school: “I feel like it sometimes!” she said. Ms. Natasha, as her class calls her, used to teach math, but she told me this is decidedly more fun and more energizing (no offense, math). Several of the fifth graders told me this was their favorite class – and they wish FoodPrints was also in charge of their school lunch. 

Before the pandemic, FoodPrints ran a “Class to Cafe” project, which connected classroom food and nutrition education directly to school cafeterias. Researchers at George Mason University and Columbia University found that students who participated in this initiative consumed, “on average, 42 percent more of the portion size of a scratch-cooked meal than students at schools without this programming.” (Another key finding: The kids simply ate more vegetables.)

When funding ran out, however – the project was originally funded by a USDA Farm to School grant – the program was paused. “We would very much like to start this project again,” said Jenn Mampara, director of education for FoodPrints.

All of this got me thinking: What are the bigger barriers to doing this in more schools? Could this type of food and nutrition curriculum become a fundamental part of education one day, just like reading or math? Or art or physical education? (RIP home economics, in so many places.)

I posed this question to Mampara: Why doesn’t something like FoodPrints exist in more schools? (In DC, it’s in 20 schools, or less than a fifth of the city’s public schools). Of course, it mostly boils down to money, she said. But there are structural issues, too.

“Some of it is the challenge of the separation between the Department of Education and USDA – [the federal agencies overseeing] education and school meals – they are totally divorced from one another, but this kind of programming links the two,” Mampara told me. She noted that federal grants don’t often cross over both classroom education and food and nutrition. FoodPrints has been supported by smaller USDA grants in the past, and while helpful, these temporary funding sources aren’t really a way to sustain programming, Mampara said.

One of the big reasons the program has done so well in DC is support from the city council, she added. The city’s budget has carved out resources specifically to support the program. 

My takeaway: This type of education is really fun and seems to work, but funding remains a major challenge.

USDA makes it easier to qualify for universal free meals: While we’re talking school food …  this week USDA proposed a substantial expansion of how many schools would qualify for what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows eligible schools to serve free meals to all students regardless of income. 

Though the move would make it far easier to qualify for CEP, it doesn’t necessarily change the economic equation that would keep many schools from going this route. (If you lose too much money from ditching paid school meals, the math doesn’t work out in a school’s favor.) USDA said the proposed change would make about 20,000 more schools eligible, yet only a small share of those (roughly 2,000 schools, the department estimates) would actually opt into CEP under this change (that would be about 1 million students). “This is based on the latest data, which is continuously evolving, and is subject to change as more states make the choice to support healthy meals for all students,” said a spokesperson for USDA.

Major grants announced: The USDA also this week unveiled $50 million in grants for work on “school food system transformation” to Boise State University, Chef Ann Foundation, Full Plates Full Potential, and Illinois Public Health Institute.

“These grants will foster innovation in the school food marketplace to get a wider variety of healthy, appealing foods into the marketplace and onto kids’ lunch trays,” USDA said.

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House oversight committee to hold hearing on FDA formula response

On Tuesday a House oversight subcommittee on health care will hold a hearing on FDA’s handling of the infant formula crisis – the first in what’s expected to be a series of Republican oversight hearings focused on the FDA. 

Frank Yiannas, the former deputy commissioner for food policy and response at FDA who announced his resignation in January, is testifying for the Republican majority. (H/t Lia DeGroot of Inside Health Policy for this scoop.) 

As readers of this newsletter may recall, Yiannas cited a problematic leadership structure, among other issues, in his resignation letter. Yiannas hasn’t commented on the infant formula incident since his departure, so his testimony will be watched closely.

The Democratic minority witness is Peter Lurie, president and executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, a major consumer group that, while historically critical of FDA’s oversight of the food supply, supports the agency’s reorganization plans. 

I’m told that the committee initially requested that Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testify at the hearing, but staff were told Mayne was not available. The committee is working with the agency on a potential second hearing, though nothing has been scheduled, per a congressional aide. 

What to expect: I anticipate the hearing to focus on the agency’s infant formula response timeline, but also cover questions about what has changed at the agency to prevent a similar crisis in the future, including whether the agency’s proposed reorganization of its foods program is sufficient. (Again, newsletter readers will recall there’s been a mixed response to the FDA’s reorg plans.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the current state of infant formula oversight is also discussed, thanks to a handful of infant formula recalls in the past year. 

I’ll be watching to see if this hearing conducts serious, bipartisan oversight, or devolves into overtly partisan political theater. Stay tuned for coverage on this right here next week. 

Tune in: The hearing will be livestreamed at 10:00 am E.T. on March 28.

A big ol’ document request: This week, the subcommittee also requested a trove of documents from FDA, seeking communications and other documents not only related to the agency’s formula response, but also its reorganization plans.

“We request documents and communications to understand the FDA’s response to the infant formula shortage,” wrote House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa McClain (R-Mich.).

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FDA green lights second cell-cultured chicken product

The FDA made big news this week by giving clearance to Good Meat Inc.’s cell-cultured chicken in a letter indicating the agency has “no questions” about the safety of the product – the second company to clear this key hurdle.

As Kristina Peterson and Jesse Newman reported for Wall Street Journal: “Good Meat, based in Alameda, Calif., is the cultivated-meat arm of food-technology company Eat Just Inc. It is now the only company selling its chicken to consumers—but that is just in Singapore, the only country so far to permit the sale to consumers of meat grown from cells, outside of an animal.”

“The FDA issued its first ‘no questions’ letter to another California-based company, Upside Foods, indicating that it considered its chicken filet safe to eat,” they reported. “Both Upside and Good Meat will have to receive clearance from the U.S. Agriculture Department before selling their cultivated meat to consumers in the U.S.” 

The company said in a statement it’s currently working with USDA on “necessary approvals before world-renowned chef and humanitarian José Andrés becomes the first in the country to offer Good Meat’s chicken to customers at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.”

Scaling remains the biggie: As noted in the WSJ: “To compete with conventional meat, cultivated-meat companies acknowledge their product will have to be priced comparably, which will only be possible when they have scaled up production and brought down its costs. Currently, Good Meat sells less than 5,000 pounds of cultivated meat a year in Singapore, [CEO Josh Tetrick] said in an interview.”

But really, what are we going to call it? I’m always interested in the nomenclature (I’ve written about this, if anyone wants to nerd out with me): We still have not settled on what we’re going to call this class of products. 

I noticed we’re still seeing quite a bit of variety in how news orgs are characterizing these products in stories, though headline writers favored “lab-grown” this round, a term the industry dislikes. (NPR went with “cultivated meat,” but they were not in strong company.)

See for yourself: Read FDA’s “no questions” letter

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White House conference follow-up event kicks off today

The White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health is holding a virtual follow-up event  at 11 a.m. E.T. this morning. I’m expecting some new commitments to be made, and we could also get updates on existing commitments made at the conference last September. 

Speakers include Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Ambassador Susan Rice; Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.); Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra; John Giles, Mayor of Mesa, Ariz.; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.); and chef and philanthropist José Andrés (also co-chair of the President’s Council for Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition).

It’s not too late to register for the virtual event.

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What I’m reading

Deadlines for baby food metal policy vanish as lawmakers object (Bloomberg Law). The FDA “quietly removed deadlines for setting guidelines on heavy metals in baby food from its website, sparking more concerns from lawmakers who have long faulted the agency’s slow response to the issue,” report Celine Castronuovo, Alex Ruoff and Kaustuv Basu. “In January, the FDA published proposed action levels for lead in some foods consumed by babies and young children, including fruits, vegetables, yogurts, and single-ingredient meats … At the same time the FDA released this draft guidance, it also updated its Closer to Zero website by eliminating the timelines for further action.”

The UK government’s food [czar] resigns over obesity (Euronews). “The British government’s food [czar] has resigned, saying he made the decision to quit in order to freely criticize the government and their, quote, ‘insane’ inaction against obesity,” reports Saskia O’Donoghue.  “Henry Dimbleby, part of the Dimbleby broadcasting dynasty and co-founder of the UK high end fast food chain Leon, attacked ministers in the Conservative government, saying they were refusing to impose restrictions on the junk food industry and had an obsession with ‘ultra-free-market ideology.’”

Iowa bill would ban margarine from public schools (Fox News). Iowa state lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Shipley, wants to “divorce Iowa from federal regulations” in order to ban margarine and vegetable oils from public school meals due to their health risks, reports Megan Myers. The legislation passed a subcommittee on Feb. 23. “Shipley told Fox News that his bill’s text conflicts with guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides funding for public school meals.”

Chipotle’s venture fund invests in ‘cultured oil’ company (Chipotle). A recent Chipotle press release largely focused on ESG things, but this tidbit on investments from its new venture fund, Cultivate Next, caught my eye: The fund invested in Zero Acre Farms, a company that makes precision fermentation oil (labeled as “cultured oil”) and is “on a mission to end the food industry’s dependence on vegetable oils.” I didn’t realize an oil like this was already on the market. Anyone tried it? 

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