Michelle McCabe, Food Policy & Obesity



Part I: Michelle McCabe
Food Policy & Obesity

Michelle McCabe is a Research Assistant at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. She works with Roberta Friedman, Director of Public Policy, to research and create policy briefs and maintain the Legislative Updates.

Michelle advocates for a healthy school food environment in her town. She is in her second term as chair of the Fuel for Learning Partnership, a PTA council standing committee that serves on the Wellness Coalition, organizes educational events around nutrition and local food, and seeks to improve school lunches and school food policy.

Michelle received her Bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and her Master’s degree from the University of Texas, Austin, both in art history.

Program Transcription

Caryn Hartglass: Hello Everyone, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you are listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me today where we get to talk about my favorite subject, food and everything that is involved with our food choices today. We’ve got a great topic today, we’re going to be talking about food policy, obesity and healthy school food. My guest is Michele McCabe, she is a research assistant at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. She works with Roberta Friedman, Director of Public Policy, to research and create policy briefs and maintain legislative updates. Michelle advocates for a healthy school food environment in her town. She is in her second term as chair of the Fuel for Learning Partnership, a PTA Council standing committee that serves on the Wellness Coalition, organizes educational events around nutrition and local food and seeks to improve school lunches and school food policy. Michelle received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and her master’s degree from the University of Texas, Austin, both in art history. Welcome to It’s All About Food , Michelle,

Michelle McCabe: Thank you so much for having me.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well this is a really, heavy topic, no pun intended. Those things come out and I never realize what I am saying. But we have a problem today and it is a very complicated so many things are connected to so many other things it almost seems impossible to solve.

Michelle McCabe: No certainly, the child obesity epidemic is. There are many factors involved and certainly no one solution is going to fix the problem. It has to be addressed in multiple ways and in multiple environments and school is clearly one of those.

Caryn Hartglass: School is so important. So we have, we have the government and they have their policy, some of them are good and some of them are not so good. We have the media that’s promoting us to consume all kinds of things, a few of them are good. Most of them I think are not so good. We have parents who are typically both working, big schedules, overwhelmed, not eating well themselves, let alone knowing – somehow, I don’t know if humans ever really knew what was right to eat but were certainly very confused now. And then the schools are struggling just with their own education policies and then they have to feed children. It’s just complicated. And then there’s this profit motive kind of hovering over everything. It just makes it so overwhelming.

Michelle McCabe: Yes, it’s funny that we are finding ourselves in a situation where the easiest, convenient and least expensive way to eat is unfortunately also the one that’s puts our health most at risk and leads to many health problems, some are connected to obesity and some are not. And it’s very overwhelming to consider how are we going to change an entire culture really that we’ve become around food and how do we change that environment where the easy, the least expensive, and the most convenient choices are also the healthiest. That is the subject of the work being done by the Rudd Center.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s interesting because you chose a number of words there that I think are worth talking about. One is easy and the other is least expensive. I think there’s a lot of debate around those words because what some people think is easy in terms of convenience foods or grabbing things, if they thought a little bit more about it, what goes to those foods, to get them so that they’re just accessible is not very easy at all.

Michelle McCabe: That’s true

Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of manufacturing and a lot of people involved to package foods and get them so that we can just pop them in a microwave. And it may not be environmentally-friendly and certainly may not be healthy. And then this expense thing, is so connected to of our government, our governmental policies making some foods more affordable and other foods not.

Michelle McCabe: Yes, it’s true and in a way, it’s almost falsely inexpensive, because what makes it inexpensive is not ultimately sustainable. And I think too, there is a misperception of cost as well because there have been studies that showed that actually buying whole foods and fresh foods is not more expensive then buying prepackaged, pre-prepared foods. Most of us know, to prepare a meal at home for example, is less expensive than to buy one out at a restaurant, even a fast food place.

Caryn Hartglass: There is nothing cheaper than beans and rice.

Michelle McCabe: That’s exactly right.

Caryn Hartglass: I mean, really! Now maybe want to try something different than rice because now we are hearing about arsenic in rice, but I digress.

Michelle McCabe: I know, it just doesn’t end, does it?

Caryn Hartglass: Every food has story, I like to say, and not always a good one. Okay so you’ve got all lot of challenges. What is the Rudd Center focusing on, what are some of the things that you’re doing?

Michelle McCabe: We’re focusing on a lot of different directions, most of it trying to equal the balance that we just described, looking to make it affordable to make those healthy choices and also to try and address like I said, the false, inexpensive, certain things. One of the initiatives that is being studied by the Rudd Center is a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, because that particular food has been shown to have a very clear link to a lot of health problems and obesity. Unlike other food products, there is no nutritional value in sugar-sweetened beverages. And we are just simply drinking a lot of them and I and we don’t, we don’t have the mechanisms biologically to be able to feel full. So in other words you may drink hundreds of calories of a beverage but you’re not, it’s not the same eating 100 calories of something else. Where you might feel full and then you are ready to stop. That mechanism does not work as well with liquid beverages.

Caryn Hartglass: It seems like a great place to start. And here in New York City of course, Mayor Bloomberg has been working on taxing our sweet, well, he wanted to tax and that didn’t work out, and now he’s trying to avoid the extra large sizes of beverages and he’s getting a lot of pushback from that.

Michelle McCabe: It’s difficult because, you know, we, I think as Americans like to rely on our own choice to determine what we’re going to buy or consume, but I think part of the interesting question here is, you know, you’re looking at someone who is trying to make those choices smaller but there are also people that are actually interfering with our judgment by making the portions larger.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s such an important point.

Michelle McCabe: Yes and so, you know, people – there have been many studies that show people will consume what is in front of them. And so, your choice being taken away if everything that’s being presented to you, extra-large as well, you’re being persuaded by other factors like the value meal for example. Or where the products are placed in a grocery store. They really are kind of working against your personal choice. And so this is for someone is trying to do the same thing, for the benefit of your health.

Caryn Hartglass: There is a lot of education and empowerment that needs to happen where people recognize that they’re being manipulated.

Michelle McCabe: Yes, or just how nice it would be to be able to walk into a store or to go to a restaurant and feel comfortable that the choices that you are being presented with are not only tasty but are not going to jeopardize your health in any significant way and I think that’s one of the great things about the school environment, one of those places where we really can make a big difference. And it’s both, and in that environment it should be, especially because we are dealing with children who are still developing, who are learning about choices and learning about what’s appropriate to eat, that those places be sort of those utopian environments where neither the parents nor the student nor staff have to even worry. They know that what’s being put in front of the kids is really good, really good for them.

Caryn Hartglass: What a concept! You know it’s so obvious, that if we walked into a place and we were hungry and it only had food that was good for us we would find something that would satisfy us.

Michelle McCabe: Absolutely. It’s really a no-brainer and yet we don’t seem to get there. But also I’m sure you’re up on some of these – there have been some articles in the news lately and some activity going on that is just kind of nutty. So there’s been this fighting against the “No Hungry Kids Act.” I’m backtracking – the USDA put up some guidelines a couple years ago about maximum calories of dishes for meals in schools. You know sometimes we try and solve problems and then we make more problems. We don’t, I don’t know, we don’t regulate, I personally, I have a personal feeling and I guess it’s hard for schools but I will be focusing on calories but that’s another story.

Michelle McCabe: I think that you know what is interesting about the situation that is going on right now with the calorie cap, there have always been calorie minimums. First the school food regulation, you know, isn’t actually, the idea of it isn’t new. This is just a revamping of them, that occurred with that “Hunger Free Kids Act” of 2010. There were always calorie minimums because the program was initially developed to help with malnutrition in our country. The calorie caps are actually quite generous. It has been shown that the kids are actually getting more than what they had been getting previously, before the regulation. And it’s a lot especially if you are looking specifically at the high school it’s quite a lot of calories. I think what the schools are having more difficulty are really the grain and protein, how much they are allowed to be giving in those particular areas of the lunch program and I agree that it is complicated. And it is difficult. I think that really need to commend food service directors working with these guidelines and trying to give the kids on very limited, with very limited funds, you know, the best meal that they can. I think that a lot of the hoopla over it some of it is just about misinformation and misunderstanding than in actual reflection of what’s going on.

Caryn Hartglass: What about, I read another article where there were more fruits and vegetables being offered but basically kids are just throwing them in the trash.

Michelle McCabe: I am so glad you brought that up because it’s been causing a bit of consternation, I think, those articles, simply because there’s really, we really don’t know what’s being thrown away. We do plate weight studies here at the Rudd Center and are very involved, as you can imagine, to really understand what is being thrown away, you basically have to not only dig in the trash, but you have to weight things. And what they have found is that people are predisposed, especially if they are not doing an actual research study on plate waste. They are predisposed to see what they are expecting to see in the garbage. So for example there was a study that was done where they were looking at flavored milk versus plain milk that was being consumed in a given school. And even the researchers themselves were assuming that, you know, it was probable that the flavored milk was being consumed while the plain milk wasn’t. And what they found when they actually measured – they poured out the actual milk, and you can imagine what a messy job this is, the students were consuming and throwing away the exact same amount of both. There really wasn’t a difference. And I think the point, one of the tangential points that was made in this was that people are going to see what they’re expecting to see. If folks are expecting to see fruits and vegetables in the trash, and sometimes for good reasons, you know, they don’t want to be in the trash, they are not looking to blow the lid off of anything, but they’re actually just concerned they will see fruits and vegetables in the trash. And a lot of the information it going around on getting the press isn’t based on someone actually doing a measurement and also as far as I know, I don’t know what studies are out there that was looking at this before the regulation, to compare. And plus there are a lot of other factors, too, I mean, you can imagine it depends on what fruits and vegetables are being served. Sometimes they’ll get something fresh an delicious that kids really like and then it could be coming out of a can and it’s just not very appealing. There are so many different factors that jumping to a conclusion unfortunately undermines what the point is, kids need to eat more fruits and vegetables. I can’t imagine that people don’t want kids to be eating more fruits and vegetables. At least I hope not. It’s too bad. It’s October and anyone who has children knows that it takes a while for people to get kids in particular to get used to new things, and get used to new foods. And rather than getting all excited that things are not worked out or have failed, I think we need to recognize that things take time and we need to be supportive and then make an actual evaluation that’s valid.

Caryn Hartglass: That needs to be incorporated in any plan and every time I read about these different programs I feel, it seems like it isn’t. And it’s well known in the food service, food system establishments, you need to introduce a product numerous times, in happy environments, for people to, ultimately request them.

Michelle McCabe: Yes, absolutely. And you know, I think that there are plenty of them, school districts, unsung heroes, quietly working, where they’re working, that are doing a lot of great things to ensure that the food that they’re making it being eaten and to make students in particular part of the process. There are districts that, for example will be sampling, there are districts who will have committees that students are actually a part of. They work with in a work with the food service directors on menus. They do tastings as well. Those are the situations that aren’t apparently getting the widespread press, as the garbage cans. There are places that really are doing a great job trying to ensure that the kids really do like the food and that it’s healthy – not just well, kids like chicken nuggets for example, that’s what we’re serving. There are districts that are working to get kids to enjoy better free foods.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. Education is so important. We know that and the schools are struggling so much with their curriculums and programs and effectiveness. But kids need to learn about food – what’s good for us, why it’s good for us, where it comes from, how it’s made. So many people have no idea where their food comes from. I know one 13-year-old who was telling me he’s reading “Chew On This” by Eric Schlosser in his school. They are learning about a lot of heavy thing that I think is important kids know about, things like factory farming and where their food comes. Hamburgers don’t grow on hamburger patches. And when they are educated they are more empowered to make the right choices.

Michelle McCabe: And sometimes actually it’s the children that are coming home in educating the parents, myself included. I think sometimes, that that’s a really wonderful way that people learn. I remember my youngest was in a preschool where they had a whole week tasting different vegetables and it was both an exercise in food and nutrition, but it was also a math exercise because they were graphing and charting. But what was great was when parents picked the children up there was a chart hanging up on the front door, and I learned for example that my son really loved red peppers. I had no idea.

Caryn Hartglass: I was just going to mention red peppers, they’re like candy.

Michelle McCabe: They really are. They are delicious. It was so great for me as a parent, you know, it’s not as though, I try to put different things in front of them but here he tried it in a new environment. He may have liked it more because the fact that other kids were enjoying it and he was doing at school and it wasn’t his mom telling him to ear everything on his plate. But it was a great opportunity for both of us to learn something.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s interesting that parents don’t realize their own own opinions affect their children. So if a parent doesn’t like a food and doesn’t include it or sees it served and kind of crunches up their nose, the kid feels the same way, unfortunately. So it is great that they have an opportunity to try new foods outside of the parental atmosphere.

Allergies is another piece of this very complicated problem and more of us are allergic or sensitive to different foods, children, to the point where it can be fatal sometimes.

Michelle McCabe: Yes, and I know that’s very difficult for many schools and cafeterias to accommodate. It is definitely a challenge that’s becoming more prevalent.

Caryn Hartglass: How did we get to this place? Is this something new? Did humans always have these allergies or is it because we have so many new Frankenfoods and manufactured foods, do you have any idea what the cause is?

Michelle McCabe: I know this is outside of our scope of research and I don’t know and they know that there are people that are working on it. For me I am looking at it from the exact same level of expertise at it as you are. I don’t know. It does seem certainly like there are more children and adults who are exhibiting issues and allergic reactions to food. There is no question about it. I’m sure that there are a lot of things going on with our health that are connected with our food that we don’t know about yet. I imagine now that people are really focusing on it we’re going to learn a lot more because imagine some of the things that are being used, it’s as though people have done any testing on them, so we don’t know.

Caryn Hartglass: We don’t test enough on so many things and then once they’re out in the food supply is hard to isolate is which ones are causing the problem.

You are involved in policy and legislative updates. How difficult is it working with the government to make change.

Michelle McCabe: Well we work mostly as an educational provider for legislators or other folks working in government. What the Rudd Center does is focuses the research that we do in such a way that it’s actionable in the form of policy, and so, for example if we go pack to the sugar sweetened beverage taxes, our economist here at the Rudd Center created a tax revenue calculator for example, that could show how much money a state could make where they levy an excise tax, they model certain things to see if consumption of sugar sweetened beverages would decrease were a tax be put in place. What we do here is really provide the science, the support, the change that can occur in government. For me we have a tool that’s available on our website that’s a database of legislation that’s related to food policy and obesity and for me it’s just interesting to see how difficult it is for things to pass. You see hundreds of bills introduced and so few of them actually make it through, that it’s just a slow process, but I think it’s wonderful when it does happen, when something is a policy, then it has the potential of influencing so many people in having a positive effect – for many people for many years. I think as slow as it is, it’s a positive, positive way of making positive change.

Caryn Hartglass: There have been a number of books out about the French culture and bringing up children with the French culture and how much better they eat. I’m not sure if I agree with it or not, I lived in the south of France for four years and I’ve seen children and their eating habits. They seem to be a lot better than here in America. Are you familiar with any of those and do you have any feeling about how our culture versus other cultures affects our eating habits?

Michelle McCabe: I’ll say this again, speaking as a “person” not a researcher, I am familiar with that, with the books and not only with food but also on parenting, there’s a whole book on how French parents compare to Americans. We definitely do have a different relationship with food, there’s no question about it. Having spent time in Europe, even just how they spend their meals is so incredibly different from ours and of course they have a longer tradition.

Caryn Hartglass: I’ve heard they only get ten minutes to eat in some schools.

Michelle McCabe: I have to say that is a huge problem that is very concerning to many parents, myself included and one that it’s very difficult to come up with and how to solve it, the staff and teachers in schools today they are so strapped to get all the curriculum taught. Instructional time is at such a premium, it’s hard to figure our where in the day they can carve out more time for lunch. Kids are really rushing through it.

Caryn Hartglass: You are involved with your PTA Council standing committee on the Fuel for Learning Partnership. It so important when parents get involved. The PTA can really be a powerful place to make change in individual schools.

Michelle McCabe: Absolutely, especially when the PTA and parents are working in partnership with food service staff. It’s phenomenal the amount of change that can take place and it’s very important for them to work closely together. That’s what we have found and the more educated a parent is on what that the issues a food service director is dealing with it is so much easier to come up with a plan. And also the parents are there to build support for it. Again if we go back to what you did mention of the press and all of the backlash that is occurring with the new nutrition standards and it’s so important that the community stands behind them and PTA as PTO other parent organizations are, if you can imagine, poised to be able to provide that support because ultimately the students, we want the students eating it. It’s been a real honor and privilege to be able to work closely with our school administrators through PTA where I live and my children go to school, and try to make a difference.

Caryn Hartglass: You have how many children?

Michelle McCabe: Three. They are all in elementary school.

Caryn Hartglass: And are they good eaters?

Michelle McCabe: You know actually, they pretty much are, they are good eaters. Each of them, they don’t all like the same things. There are certain fruits and vegetables and things that they all, that each of like. I also think they are pretty typical as well. They are good eaters. I’m very lucky that way because it is difficult when you’re struggling and you just want your child to eat something. They are on the way to school and you are practically beggin them is to put anything in their mouths and I can see why it ends up being very stressful. You brought up the point about two parents working and certainly if dinnertime for example, is the only time that everybody is together, I can understand why nobody wants it to be a battleground over who is eating their spinach or not.

Caryn Hartglass: Or even when you’re tired, to have to think about, okay what am I going to start making…

Michelle McCabe: Oh yes. It’s a huge challenge. I’m personally and I’m very interested this and I work very hard to serve the kind of food I want to feed my family. I can’t honestly imagine many people having that level of diligence because it is just too hard. It’s very time-consuming. It’s very time-consuming.

Caryn Hartglass: I like to come up with ways to help people, so that they can prep a lot of things on the day off, work with kids to make different things that they might freeze and have along the week. There are ways to organize things and do some time-saving steps. But it requires effort, it requires education, and it requires practice and it requires a want to do those things.

Michelle McCabe: The truth is that once you get into the groove I think it becomes a lot easier – it is a learning curve that is hard. And also, there’s so many great technological advances, that help, like a slow cooker, I rely on heavily and actually started using a bread maker. It’s really great and it’s pretty fail safe and a lot of fun and it does make things a lot easier when you can leverage some basic kitchen equipment.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right. There are a lot of things that can make things easier where you’re making fresh whole minimally processed, very clean, healthy food that tastes good. Michelle, thank you very much for joining me on It’s All About Food. I’m really glad you’re doing the work you’re doing.

Michelle McCabe: Well, thank you and thank you so much for having me on your show, I really appreciate it.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay thank you. I am Caryn Hartglass, you are listening to It’s All About Food. Please visit ResponsibleEatingAndLiving.com, that’s my
nonprofit website where you can find lots of healthy delicious recipes, so many of them are easy and will help to you in your journey to eating better for you and your family. We’ll be right back with the second part of the show.

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