Friday, October 17, 2014

Journamalism: School Lunch Edition

I hardly spend my time clanging around right-wing websites, mostly because I can feel myself losing IQ points when I do.  But sometimes a story just grabs the imagination, and I have to follow it where it goes.

My journalism experience is limited to high school sports reporting, which I undertook mainly to get in free to all the high school sporting events.  But I believe I may be a better journalist than the fashion plates at Fox News, because it took me almost no time to get to the bottom of this story with some original reporting.

The right wing outrage machine is perpetually turned up to 11, but lately one of the prime targets has been the new school lunch nutrition standards, for which Michelle Obama has been the most vocal advocate.

Childhood obesity is an epidemic in this country (as is adult obesity).  Now, I'm not the poster child for healthy weight.  I have more room than just about anyone for improvement.  But I support what Michelle Obama is advocating for (and what the USDA, which is responsible for setting standards for school lunches, is requiring).

Earlier this week, a photograph began circulating.  The photo, which appears at the right, purportedly shows the school lunch offered on Monday, October 13, 2014, in the Chickasha, Oklahoma Public Schools.  Chickasha student Kaytlin Shelton took the photo; she and her parents are complaining about the low quality and minimal caloric value offered.  Miss Shelton, 17, is particularly miffed because she is pregnant and therefore "eating for two."

Now, I don't find that lunch to be particularly appetizing, and I question whether the person who designs the district's menus has a firm understanding of what school lunches ought to look like, if that is considered an appropriate lunch.

So it's not surprising that the outrage machine is whirring at close to maximum capacity.  Here are a couple of the links carrying this story:

Fox & Friends

EAGNews (Educational Action Group)

Several local news outlets also covered the story.

The photograph, it turns out, is pretty misleading. 

The school lunch guidelines, which came into force in 2012, require schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to provide lunches to high school students that are, on average, between 750-850 calories.  That amount is consistent with government recommendations for daily food intake.  School breakfasts, which are also regulated, are supposed to provide 450-600 calories to high school students.  So that's 1200-1450 calories provided in two meals at school, and for the standard 2000-2200 calorie recommended diet, that leaves 550-1000 calories for snacks and dinner.

The regulations also specify balanced food selections, promoting vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, and so forth.

The picture shows about four slices of ham, a couple of slices of American cheese, four wheat crackers, two pieces of cauliflower, and about a tablespoon of ranch dressing.

Four slices of ham contain about 90 calories.  Two slices of American cheese have about 140 calories. Four wheat crackers have about 90 calories.  That amount of cauliflower has about 5 calories. A tablespoon of ranch dressing has about 75 calories. 

Adding it up brings us to 400 calories.

So, when EAGNews, or Fox, or whoever, tells you that this lunch meets "Michelle Obama's" guidelines, they are lying.  That amount of food is about half of what is required to meet the guidelines.  It's not even enough to meet the minimum requirement for breakfast.

But it turns out that there's more to the story.  I went to the Chickasha Public Schools website to see if they publish the lunch menu--and they do.  With a little digging, I found the actual lunch menu [PDF] Chickasha published for last Monday.  Here is what it says:

Ham&Cheese Munchables
Wheat Crackers
Ranch Dressing
Baked Beans
Pears, Red
Milk, 1%White, LF
Milk, Chocolate FF

It didn't take much to get this information--certainly nothing a journalist wouldn't be expected to do.  And it's easy to see how the additional items would get the lunch up to the required minimum number of calories--a normal serving of baked beans is about 200 calories; pears are about 100; and a cup of 1% milk adds 100.  Those additional items would also turn what looks like a very bland lunch into something reasonably tasty.

Incredibly, the Oklahoma official responsible for school lunches defended the lunch in the photo rather than pointing out the facts that took me only a few minutes to uncover: 
"We have a meat-meat alternate, we have a bread grain, we have vegetable," said Asst. State Superintendent for Child Nutrition Joanie Hildenbrand, looking at the photo she received from Fox 25, "it's the student's choice of what they want to take."

Unfortunately, this kind of "reporting," which is focused on making a political statement rather than informing the discussion about nutrition, is a standard tactic from right-wing "news" sources.

The tactic is this:  Put up something that looks true but is misleading and therefore false, then blame some government official for it.

And those on the right who can't seem to get the hang of critical thinking--they just lap it up, because it fuels their hatred.  For people like me, who tend toward the left, it is utterly unbelievable how these people accept what they're told, uncritically, without doing even the barest bit of checking.  I have to conclude that these people don't have any real criticisms of the Obamas, because every last one of their complaints is based on falsehoods.

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