Ellensburg School District navigates stringent regulations, puts focus on fresh food – Daily Record-News
When Ellensburg School District food service director Patrick Garmong visited Valley View Elementary School, the fourth-graders knew who he was.
He was the man who took their chocolate milk away.
Garmong illustrated to the children how much added sugar was in two cartons of 2 percent chocolate milk by placing a Ziploc bag with 22 grams of sugar on the table. He then displayed a months worth, before finally unveiling a 4 1/2 pound bag of sugar — what’s in two cartons of chocolate milk a day for a 179-day school year.
“They’re like, ‘We get it, we want our chocolate milk back, but we get it,’” Garmong said.
Since Garmong arrived on campus three years ago, he said he’s managed to cut out most desserts and chicken nuggets all together, while cutting chocolate milk from elementary schools. At the same time he’s added in local whole muscle chicken, a salad bar and is cooking more than 50 percent of the meals from scratch — a number he hopes to have over 75 percent by next school year.
The 36-year-old attended the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, and has spent most of his career as a chef. He was previously the food service director for the police academy in Oregon. Garmong came to Ellensburg in 2014, the year the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was starting to be implemented.
“It was a good transition point,” Garmong said. “It wasn’t as much of a drastic shift for the staff to accept having someone who is already on staff telling them, ‘Here’s how we have to do it now.’”
The current nutrition requirements for the school lunch program vary by grade level, with the volume of food getting higher for older kids, and are based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary recommendations for Americans. For K-5 they require a half cup of fruit per day, 3/4 cup of vegetables a day — which must be composed throughout the week of at least a 1/2 cup dark green, 3/4 cup red or orange, 1/2 cup beans or peas and 1/2 cup starchy — eight to nine servings of grain a week, 8 to 10 servings of meat or meat alternate a week and five cups of milk per week, which must be 1 percent or fat free.
In addition to those minimums, there also are caps on the maximum amount of calories per day, with no more than 10 percent of those calories coming from saturated fat, and a limit on how much sodium can be used throughout the week.
With all these limitations, menu-planning isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
“It can be quite difficult,” Garmong said. “You have to pull all the nutritional data that goes into your final product, which is another reason it’s difficult for districts to make that transition. They can take a box of prefabricated pizza, and all the nutritional information is right there, they can plug that in and say this much fat, this much sodium — it’s all there.”
Some big food manufacturers like Sysco make pre-packaged lunch products that can be unwrapped, heated up and served, all while meeting all of the USDA’s nutritional requirements to a T. Central Washington University assistant food science and nutrition professor Dana Ogan said this is pretty prevalent in lunchrooms around the country.
“(Garmong) is doing as much as he can from scratch and still meeting these requirements, which is a feat,” Ogan said. “If you had to plan your meals every week and have those requirements, it would be a challenge for any of us — much less for hundreds of meals a day.”
While the guidelines are strict for a multitude of reasons, not everyone in the nutrition world agrees with the individual guidelines themselves.
“To be quite blunt, the USDA oversees three areas,” Garmong said. “They’re advocates for our program, they’re advocates for growers and farmers, and they’re advocates for the food manufacturers. Now you have three different groups lobbying you for which regulations to put in place. We understand that the way our political system works — it’s not always who has the most sound argument, it’s who has the most resources to have their argument be heard.”
Garmong then rhetorically asked: Out of those groups, who has the most money to have their voice heard?
“It’s the food manufacturers,” he said, answering his own question.
Current sponsors of the USDA’s MyPlate program, which is the main driver behind the school lunch program requirements, include the American Bakers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, the Grain Foods Foundation, Frito Lay and Nestle.
Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise,” spent more than 10 years researching how the USDA guidelines came to be.
“The real tragedy about these dietary recommendations for kids is all these guidelines were developed based on data mainly on middle-aged men,” Teicholz said. “This idea that if you kept cholesterol low, practically from birth, then you would lower a person’s risk of a heart attack. It was just this wild leap of logic, based on zero data. There’s so little data on children, it’s stunning … there are low fat trials — usually diet and exercise — that have had zero positive results. They cannot get kids to lose weight on a low-fat diet and calorie restriction and exercise.”
The idea that saturated fat or dietary cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease is growing in popularity among researchers and scientists around the world.
At a recent Cardiology Update 2017 conference, one of the world’s leading cardiologists Salim Yusuf said the current nutrition guidelines have no good basis in science.
“Previous guidelines said reduce fats and compensate for it by increasing carbohydrates,” Yusuf said during his presentation. “So essentially we’ve increased carbohydrate intake in most Western countries and this is likely damaging. … We actually found that increasing fats was protective.”
For a traditionally trained chef like Garmong, who learned how to cook in a French-style kitchen using animal fats, butter and cream, the restrictions are extremely limiting when it comes to what kinds of animal proteins he can use.
“A lot of the meats we end up using for numerous reasons, health and budgetary, are generally lean poultry,” Garmong said. “There’s nothing wrong with lean poultry, but when you’re looking at a menu, and it’s chicken, chicken, chicken … it becomes less appetizing, less appealing to students.”
Garmong said he likes to imagine cooking a giant pork roast overnight and having beautiful meat that falls apart and serving it on fresh tortillas, but it just logistically wouldn’t work under the current rules.
“We have to end up getting pre-done pork because they’ve taken most of the fat out of it,” he said.
There is a great divide among nutrition experts when it comes to the current obesity epidemic. While some say a little bit of everything in moderation is the key to a healthy, balanced diet, others are pointing their fingers at sugar — and not just added sugar.
“The problem with grains is that we’ve bread them to maximize ‘endosperm,’ which is basically a storage form of glucose — or sugar,” said Dr. Ted Naiman, who is a primary care physician at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Issaquah and specializes in metabolism. “Grains are extremely high, in essentially, sugar. They have a higher glycemic index than sugar, and 60 percent of all plant foods for human caloric use come from wheat rice and corn, all of which have a higher glycemic index than sugar.”
While whole grains are slightly better because the indigestible fiber replaces a small percentage of the sugar, Naiman said, that amount of carbohydrate can send students on a blood sugar roller coaster throughout the day, which can affect their energy levels, ability to focus, and could eventually lead them on a road to obesity and diabetes.
Garmong said he thinks the guidelines might be focusing on the wrong things. Often times he has to increase the amount of grains on a plate, just for the sake of meeting the requirements.
“We should be focusing more on sugar than sodium in my opinion,” Garmong said, who also pointed out despite the sodium restrictions, there are no such restrictions on sugar. “… if you have a meal with a giant salad, fresh products, and two chicken legs and milk and fruit, do you really need to put two rolls on that plate? One roll is more than enough.”
Ogan doesn’t think it’s so cut and dry, and she doesn’t like to point at any one food group as being to blame.
“To me, I think the answer is simple: it’s not too much of anything, a little bit of everything,” Ogan said. “It’s all about moderation and balance. If we preach a diet that is too strict, or too expensive or unobtainable, with ingredients that are bizarre that no one can afford or find… then we’re going to open up a whole other can of worms with problems with body image and eating disorders and all of that.”
Naiman’s thoughts on moderation, simply put, are different.
“You don’t want children drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes in moderation,” he said. “You don’t tell someone who has emphysema to just smoke in moderation. The whole idea of moderation is really just awful. That’s part of why we have such a problem — we really need to identify certain things as just bad for human health, like smoking is bad and eating sugar is bad. Saying, ‘Well, oh, you can do all these things in moderation,’ is really practically worthless.”
Cutting through the differing on advice on nutrition can be a challenge for any consumer, as journalist and activist Michael Pollan wrote in “In Defense of Food” and the “Ominvore’s Dilemma.” Pollan and most other health professionals advocate eating real food and avoiding processed food.
The elementary school breakfast menu in the Ellensburg School District reflects the challenges. The requirements are one cup of fruit per day, 7-10 cups of grains per week and one fluid cup of milk or juice per day. Whole grain cereal, yogurt, fruit and milk and juice are offered every day, while the main entree rotates between bagel pizza, waffles, parfaits, bars, muffins, donuts and wraps. An average meal comes out to around 105 grams of carbohydrates, 26 grams of protein and less than 10 grams of fat.
Amy Berger is a certified nutritional specialist and and author of “The Alzheimer’s Antidote,” which looks at the connections between the standard American diet and cognitive decline. Berger said there are growing metabolic problems in children, and it’s not just with obesity, but also with Type 2 diabetes.
“Even in kids who are lean, this is what is being missed,” Berger said. “We look at all the overweight kids and we think ‘Oh, you eat too much,’ or ‘You’re lazy,’ but we don’t look at the thin kids who by luck — by sheer luck — they don’t put on weight. But if you look at their blood work, their behavior, their ability to focus, their attention span, they’re completely coked out on sugar.”
Berger said natural carbohydrates found in fruit and beans probably aren’t causing these metabolic issues directly, but once children have developed these conditions by way of processed junk food, additional glucose is like adding gasoline to the fire.
“I’m not a nut,” Berger said with a laugh. “I’m not saying that kids can never have a candy bar or to take chips off of the school tray, but when 70 percent of the food on that tray is starch, sugar and grains, that’s a problem.”
Setting aside the debate over the federal guidelines, Garmong’s approach is attracting positive notice. He and the Ellensburg School District were recently recognized by the Chef Ann Foundation for their work bringing fresh, healthy food to local students.
“This community needs to be supportive of what Patrick is doing,” Ogan said. “I know sometimes he has a hard time getting things to go across with the school board and stuff. … He’s already done so much with these menus with minimal support. If we could get the whole community aware of what he’s doing and be more supportive, we could really set the bar for Washington state.”
For Garmong, he’s confident that anything he serves is probably more nutritious than what’s in a lot of packed lunches.
“I see a lot of students whose lunch bag consists of a soda, a thing of M&M’s and maybe a half a PB&J on white bread and a bag of chips,” he said. “We’d love to see all our students participate in our program.”