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The Kosher Conundrum: When Healthy Lunch Meets Tight Budgets, Dietary Rules

Posted: May 31, 2012

Photo: From the “Hazon Food Guide & Food Audit Toolkit” for Jewish Inspiration, Sustainable Communities.

LOS ANGELES--Every Friday is pizza day at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish day school in Beverly Hills. For the school’s students, who range from pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade, the pizza crust--a mixture of whole wheat and white flour--is the product of trial-and-error and compromise.

“At the beginning of the year, we tried out all whole wheat,” the school’s principal, Jeffrey Tremblay, said in an interview. “Didn’t go so well there. The kids were picking off the cheese, and that’s about it.”

Since then, the crust has changed. On a recent Friday, some of the boys headed back to the kitchen window for another slice. And after seconds, Tremblay noted, those who are still hungry can pay for a third if they wish.

Cafeteria success? Well, not entirely. Complicating the quest to serve Jewish children appetizing fare are worries about healthy eating—concerns that can also run up against the complexities of orthodox dietary strictures that can add cost to things like salads.

The Obesity Challenge

In the United States today, 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This week First Lady Michelle Obama capped her national campaign to combat childhood obesity with the publication of her new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America (Crown Publishers).

No data exists on whether obesity rates are higher among Jewish American youth or within the Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities, whose children make up the majority of the students at private Jewish schools, such as Hillel.

Even though Tremblay is pleased with Hillel’s new caterer--whose predecessor, served only canned fruits and vegetables—nutritionists see starchy second and third helpings as problematic.

Tremblay noted though that Hillel has eliminated vending machines, and the administration is working with parents and the school’s caterer to install a salad bar in the cafeteria.

Leeann Smith Weintraub, a registered dietician in Los Angeles, who works with children in both private Jewish and public schools, observed that in the Jewish schools “there tend to be a lot of issues with portion sizes and not really getting a good balance between the food groups.”

In contrast, Weintraub said, the Los Angeles Unified School District requires certain nutrition standards. For instance, portion sizes in public school cafeterias must adhere to strict federal guidelines, and students are not allowed to return for additional helpings. Private and parochial schools receiving federal funds for school lunches also must follow the same mandates.

But at private Jewish schools like Hillel--where caterers have to comply with increasingly stringent interpretations of kosher laws and administrators set strict limits on what they can charge each student for lunch--the food appears to be less healthy than what’s on the menu at nearby public schools.

It’s Not Easy Cleaning Greens

“Keeping ourselves healthy is just as important a mitzvah [good deed] in the Torah [scriptures] as keeping kosher,” said Rabbi Eli Glaser. A certified nutrition and wellness consultant based in Baltimore, Md., Glaser is the founder and director of Soveya, a nonprofit that aims to help curb overeating in the Orthodox Jewish community.

“From my experience, I think most of the Jews I know tend to overeat during Shabbos [Sabbath] meals,” said Maryam Maleki, a registered dietician, who attends an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. “And it’s carbohydrate-driven. There’s a lot of bread, challah [egg-twist bread], kugel [sweet casseroles]. And then we have all the holidays.”

She lamented, “Not many Jews are eating enough vegetables.”

Although Maleki believes that Orthodox home cooks are simply not taking the time to incorporate more vegetables into a meal, others point to labor-intensive rabbinical strictures affecting vegetable cooking in kosher-certified commercial and institutional kitchens.

In recent decades, Orthodox rabbis have created and promoted a new, intense regimen of washing and checking vegetables designed to ensure that people to not accidentally consumer bugs--which are decidedly nonkosher.

Dead or alive, one swallowed bug can render an entire serving of vegetables trayf (unkosher). For instance, leafy greens, which nutritionists see as essential to a healthy diet, make ideal homes for tiny bugs like aphids and thrips, so ensuring that such vegetables are kosher is an expensive process.

“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it--the salad is worse,” said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who runs the nonprofit Kosher Information Bureau.

At home, to rid their salads of tiny insects, Orthodox Jews wash the leaves of certain vegetables with large quantities of water combined with either a small amount of soap or specially formulated “veggie wash.” Then they check each vegetable very carefully to ensure that no stray bug is left behind.

“We have leafy greens available every day,” said Randy Fried, the co-owner of R House Foods, which provides food for students at Shalhevet High School, located in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles.

To prepare those greens, Fried can instruct his kosher supervisor -- a full-time employee of the local consortium of Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), to wash and check them for bugs. Or he can pay a higher price for prepackaged, prewashed iceberg lettuce labeled with a kosher seal of approval. Even the more expensive prewashed lettuce must be washed once more by hand to ensure that it is free of bugs.

Parents of students at Jewish day schools regularly demand that vegetables -- including leafy greens -- be made available. At the same time, parents and administrators require caterers to keep the cost of a lunch down, often around $6 per day.

By comparison, the nearby Culver City School District charges its elementary school students $2.75 for lunch each day. For that price, students can also serve themselves from a fresh fruit and salad bar.

Food Audits

For Orthodox rabbis, the increased attention being paid by kosher supervisors to the bugs that may lurk in certain vegetables is warranted, and that it makes many of the very foods parents are asking for more expensive to prepare is an unavoidable consequence of following kosher law.

Consumers who pay more for kosher-certified food, said Soveya’s Rabbi Glaser, are no different than the parents who pay more for a safer car. “With anything, a person has a certain set of priorities,” he said.

At NCJHS, a small business that sells boxes of organic, in-season produce, comes to campus once a week. The school was one of a dozen Jewish institutions nationally to conduct a “food audit” created by the nonprofit group Hazon, aimed at determining how to eat more healthfully and sustainably.

Both NCJHS and Hillel have brought gardens and fruit-bearing trees to their campuses and have incorporated discussions about healthy eating into their curriculums.

But for many of the most health-conscious parents of students attending Jewish day schools, the best way to ensure that their children eat healthy food during the day is to opt out of school lunch programs altogether.

“My friends, they would rather their children take their food to school because it’s healthier,” Maleki said. “And they’ll sparingly allow their children to eat the food at school.”

Jonah Lowenfeld, a staff writer for The Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, wrote this report under the New America Media Health and Environmental Health Fellowship Program, sponsored by the California Wellness Foundation.

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