WASHINGTON -- For years as a consumer advocate, Ellen Haas complained about contaminated food, junk food, overpriced food -- and especially about the food served to youngsters in school lunches, sanctioned and supported by the federal government.
Now, as the nation's school lunch chief, she can do something about those "high-fat, high-sodium" lunches that she says are "putting children knowingly on a fast-track to health risks" such as heart disease and cancer.
Maryland school food administrators still are bristling from Ms. Haas' October visit to Lansdowne Middle School. She saw Lansdowne students eating pepperoni pizza and french fries, cheese steaks and french fries, fish burgers and french fries. Then she told a national news magazine about it.
As assistant secretary of agriculture for food and nutrition, Ms. Haas manages school lunches, all 25 million served every day in 92,000 schools around the country. She has the power -- and the political support -- to make the seeds of change she's been sowing for more than two decades bloom.
That is, if she can serve her many masters as a political appointee and overcome or persuade her critics.
Some say she's overlooking work that already has been done. Others accuse her of being obsessive about "politically correct nutrition."
"She's always been an advocate. Now we're going to see what she can really do for school lunches," said Katherine Chin, a registered dietitian and nutrition training specialist for the Baltimore County schools.
In defense of the Lansdowne cafeteria's performance, Ms. Chin says Ms. Haas' own lunch that day consisted of pizza made with low-fat cheese, a salad, a dish of vegetables and 2% white milk, for a total of 526 calories. Some 30.8 percent of the calories came from fats, close to the 30 percent maximum recommended by the USDA.
"When she asked why the vegetables are so mushy, I told her they came from the USDA -- canned asparagus," Ms. Chin recalled.
Ms. Haas opened her official campaign in September, when she and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy announced "Fresh Start," a program to improve the nutritional content of school lunches. She promised to increase the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables the government sends to schools and said her department is trying new products to reduce the fat content of school lunch staples such as pizza.
In October, Ms. Haas' arguments were bolstered when a USDA study confirmed that school lunches average about 38 percent of their calories from fat, well above the department's 30 percent guideline. The guidelines also say each meal should have no more than 800 milligrams of sodium, but the study showed school lunches average more than 1,400 milligrams -- the equivalent of 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt.
On the other hand, the report did say that school lunches provide the right number of total calories and more than enough of most vitamins and minerals.
As part of Fresh Start, Ms. Haas has also been listening to hundreds of people, including students, farmers and high-profile chefs. The last of her public hearings will be tomorrow in Washington, with a crowd of food and agricultural experts expected.
"I became active in consumer advocacy because I wanted to make a difference," said Ms. Haas, who was consumer affairs director for Montgomery County, director of the Consumer Federation of America, the consumer director of the Community Nutrition Institute and founder, in the early 1980s, of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.
Under her direction, Public Voice exposed gaps in food safety, fought farmers' price supports that it said inflated food prices and consistently criticized the high fat content of school lunches and the government surpluses that contributed to it. In a report just last year, Public Voice lambasted the USDA for agricultural policies that made schools a dumping ground for high-fat butter, cheese, french fries and ground beef.
"I wanted to have a healthier food supply for my children," said Ms. Haas of her early advocacy. "What better way to make a
difference than I have now. I think I have a great opportunity . . . to use my connections. It feels great to be here," she said in an interview in her office.
Ms. Haas realizes her job is no piece of cake. "If we are to change the school lunch program, then we cannot blanketly say,
'Thou shalt eat peas and carrots,' " she says.
Teach children to choose
Changing the program, she says, will take nutrition education, a commitment to federal dietary guidelines for children as well as adults, additional tools and training for school workers and nutritious food that tastes good. "Healthy food doesn't have to be yucky food," she says.
Nor does it have to be "politically correct food," say her critics.
"Our goal in school lunch should be providing an adequate supply of nutrients and teaching them [students] to make wise choices," said Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, executive director of the New York-based American Council on Science and Health. She complains that Ms. Haas' philosophy labels foods as good and bad, and "bad food are those with any fat content at all or processed foods."
By labeling and restricting foods, adults may prevent children from getting the calories they need to grow, Dr. Whelan argues.
She particularly disagreed with Ms. Haas' position against whole milk and whole milk products which, Ms. Haas says, put too much fat into children's diets.
"I see no benefit to the children I know," said Dr. Whelan.
Maryland school food service administrators say Ms. Haas is on the right track but that her focus may be too narrow and that she may be overlooking some of the good things already accomplished.
"I don't disagree with Ms. Haas. We just have to go about this in a methodically different way," said Linda Van Rooy, a nutrition specialist at the Maryland State Department of Education. "If we do too dramatic a change, where we serve baked fish and broccoli, it won't get eaten," she said. "We don't want to be so negative that kids who really need to won't eat."
More than half of the children eating school lunches daily qualify for free or reduced meals because of their families' limited incomes, the USDA says. For these children, school lunch may be the most complete meal of the day.
Ms. Van Rooy said that many Maryland counties are adapting traditional menus to make them more nutritious -- baking french fries instead of frying them, serving turkey hot dogs and setting up salad bars. At Ms. Haas' direction, schools are getting more fresh produce this year.
One problem with fresh produce, administrators say, is serving it before it spoils.
Ms. Van Rooy suggested that one solution is to increasing the FTC federal reimbursement for lunches and requiring school districts to use the extra money to buy more produce locally, while it's fresh.
Last year the USDA gave the schools 8.8 million pounds of fruit and vegetables, or about 2 percent of the all the food subsidies it distributed. This year, it will distribute twice as much, but that still amounts to only a few ounces more per child.
SCHOOL LUNCH NUTRITION
Here is a nutritional breakdown of the lunch Ellen Haas, assistant agriculture secretary, chose when she ate at Lansdowne Middle School recently. Katherine Chin, nutrition education specialist for Baltimore County Schools and a registered dietitian, did the nutritional analysis.
Pizza; lettuce and tomato salad; USDA canned asparagus; white milk, 2%.
Protein: 32 grams.
Fat: 18 grams.
Carbohydrates: 59 grams.
Sodium: 1,290 milligrams.
Cholesterol: 48 milligrams.
The 18 grams of fat accounted for 30.8 percent of the calories in this lunch. That is close to Dietary Guidelines that say 30 percent or less of a person's total calories should be in fats. Ms. Chin noted that the meal had a high sodium content. The guidelines say there should be no more than 800 milligrams of sodium per meal. However, she also noted that 334 milligrams were in the 3/8 -cup serving of canned asparagus and 122 milligrams were in the 8 ounces of milk.