Truth can be stranger than fiction, and on April Fool's Day, when some news sites find it amusing to post "fake" news stories, it can be hard to tell the two apart. So let's play that game. For your consideration: four stories that push the bounds of credulity. Which are true and which are pure April Fool's fantasy?
Internet entrepreneur Evan Williams, cofounder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, recently announced that one of his next projects would be to improve the food in San Francisco high schools. Truth or fantasy?
At an event called The Intersection
, held at Google headquarters in Mountain View (CA) in January 2013, Williams took part in a discussion
called "Living in the Click Moment", a reference to author/discussion moderator Frans Johansson's book
that "obliterates the idea that in business you can plan, strategize, and analyze your way to success... the rules are changing so fast that formulas for success are disintegrating, and multi million-dollar insights can strike anybody, anywhere, at any time."
Williams was asked what he is working on and is passionate about. According to accounts I received from those in the room, Williams told hundreds of conference attendees that while it was unrelated to anything he had ever done before, he and his wife were passionate about working to improve the food in SF high schools.
Indeed, a new initiative related to school meals has been developed by SFUSD, with significant input from Sara Morishige Williams, and funded by The Sara and Evan Williams Family Foundation. District officials have been keeping this under wraps, but one school board member described it to me as "super exciting." A statement from SFUSD will be forthcoming shortly, but this story is definitely in the "true" category.
DonorsChoose.org teacher asks for help buying candy and soda for her classroom in a state with one of the highest rates of child obesity. Truth or fantasy?
is one of my favorite charities. As their website explains
, "DonorsChoose.org is an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help students in need. Public school teachers from every corner of America post classroom project requests on our site, and you can give any amount to the project that most inspires you."
Created by a social studies teacher in the Bronx over a decade ago, the site now helps public school teachers in all 50 states find funding for projects that pinched school district budgets can no longer support. If you believe that public education is the foundation of a democratic society, and want to support teachers, who all too often end up having to pay for classroom materials out of their own pockets, Donorschoose.org is a must-visit. The site is very user-friendly, making it easy to find projects by city or state, by grade level, or by subject area; you can even search for projects that are already almost fully funded, so that with even a small donation, you can complete the project for a lucky teacher and classroom. Donating couldn't be easier and it's tax deductible too. It's a great site.
So imagine my surprise when I accidentally discovered, while searching for something else, a project in which an Arkansas teacher was asking for $227 to buy candy and soda to reward her high school students for completing work designed to improve their below-grade-level reading skills. As the teacher's description
of the project said, "My students need small candy rewards for meeting weekly goals and larger candy and soda rewards for completing programs...You can help by feeding their candy desire as I feed their brain with new skills!"
One might wonder if those two goals are working at cross purposes. A 2012 study done at UCLA found that eating too much sugar affects the brain, but not in a good way. "Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think," said
professor of neurosurgery Fernando Gomez-Pinilla at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information." So, providing kids with a steady stream of candy and soda, even as a "reward" for practicing reading skills, may not be the best strategy for improving learning.
Ironically, in 2003, Arkansas was the first state to pass a law to address obesity. "It restricted access to vending machines in elementary schools, created an advisory committee to make recommendations about nutrition and physical activity to the state Legislature, asked school districts to set up committees overseeing the health needs of children and families, and — most controversially — implemented body mass index screenings of students, sending the results home to families as part of their report cards, and later as a separate letter," according to a 2011 article in the Los Angeles Times
Still, the article reports that in Arkansas, "the percentage of overweight and obese children has remained stubbornly and exactly at 38% from 2005 to 2009." Data
from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that between 2009 and 2011, the percentage of Arkansas' high school students who were obese actually increased. Yet another reason why this Arkansas high school teacher should perhaps be looking at some other kind of non food based "reward" for her students. Unfortunately, this story goes in the "true" category.
Healthy school meal vendor Revolution Foods claims student achievement has improved in 50% of schools serving their food. Truth or fantasy?
Given the amount of misinformation that gets sent around the world every day via Twitter, it feels like a bit of a stretch to cite a tweet as definitive proof of anything. Sometimes people who "live tweet" from an event are so focused on sending out their 140-character synopsis of what a speaker is saying that they misrepresent the speaker's message, inadvertently creating "Twitter fiction."
However, this much is known: on the evening of March 20, 2013, the Center for Responsible Business
at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business hosted a 10 year anniversary celebration
, attended by over 400 people, at the SF headquarters of Gap Inc. "The evening celebration...showcases the social business innovations of Haas alumni, such as Kirsten Tobey, MBA ‘06, of Revolution Foods," according to the CRB website
Midway through the event, which was scheduled to run from 6-8pm, an attendee tweeted
"At #Haas School CSR event, Revolution Foods now serves 1M meals/wk and increased school performance in 50% of the schools. Inspiring!"
Inspiring indeed! While I have written before about how popular
Revolution Foods meals are in SF schools, and also about the financial challenges
of paying their higher price tag, the company does have a long history of encouraging magical thinking
and making misleading claims
about the cost of their meals. Were it to turn out to be true that Kirsten Tobey actually said that her company was responsible for "increased school performance in 50% of the schools" they serve, that would represent a whole new level of chutzpah.
While I don't doubt that there are figures available that show high student achievement at some of the schools they serve, especially the so-called "no excuses
" charter schools that have a longer school day, a longer school year, intense tutoring and what some feel is a single-minded focus on test prep, I find it hard to believe that these schools would credit Revolution Foods - alone - for their student performance. In fact, they generally want to claim that miracle for themselves and their "no excuses" brand of instruction.
There are plenty of studies
that show improved academic performance linked with better nutrition, and in particular there are lots of studies
showing that students who eat breakfast do better in school than students who skip breakfast. But those studies have been done in a wide variety of school settings, by no means limited to (possibly not even including any) schools serving Revolution Foods meals.
I know of no scientific data available that proves that Revolution Foods meals, no matter how healthy, have been shown to improve students' school performance or academic achievement more than any other type of school meal. If such data does exist, Rev Foods should share it with the rest of the class.
Did anyone from Revolution Foods actually make this claim? Hard to know if this is Twitter fiction or not. Is the claim itself truth or fantasy? Based on available information, I have to go with fantasy.
Congress to set nutritional requirements for all food served at school, including food served at class parties and celebrations, or used as rewards for improved test scores or classroom performance.
In early February 2013, the USDA issued its long-awaiting proposed rules
on food sold at school outside of the official federal school meals programs (which are already highly regulated.) These new rules were required as part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, and represent the first time the federal government has attempted to place any standards at all on food sold competitively with school meals, apart from the very short list
of "foods of minimal nutritional value" which are not supposed to be sold in the same location where students receive or eat their school meals.
After the proposed rules are published, the public has 60 days to submit comments; that comment period will come to a close on April 9th. Anyone wishing to submit comments can do so here
. Food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel did an informative analysis
of the proposed rules, and food policy organizations such as The Center for Science in the Public Interest have developed easy templates
that allow folks to just fill in their name and address and send off a prewritten comment to the USDA supporting the need for these rules.
However, although the proposed rules will for the first time regulate the food sold in school vending machines, student stores, snack bars, and other campus food outlets, they will not address - at all - food which is given away for free to students, at class parties and celebrations, or given out as rewards, or just because some parent feels like handing out cookies to everyone in her child's class. These unlimited, unregulated, and damn-near-every week junk food giveaways are the subject of countless parental complaints on leading kid-and-food blogs like The Lunch Tray
, School Bites
, and kyhealthykids
At some point, Congress is going to have to man up and address the fact that, at a time of rampant child obesity and an increasing number of children with food allergies, some of them life-threatening, it is not okay for kids to be handed free treats all day long. But for now, this headline goes squarely into the fantasy file.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.