Muskegon Muffins: Seeking Bean Equity for Breakfast

By Diane Conners

Zoe Fauble, a senior at Whitehall Public Schools, learned to love fresh vegetables after helping her dad and grandmother in their garden. It was the most economical way for them to eat, and it was delicious.

But put beans into a muffin? That’s not anything she’d ever considered—not until becoming a second-year culinary student at Muskegon Career Tech Center, where she is learning to prepare food not just for restaurants—someday, perhaps—but also to help make school meals healthy and delicious right now.

Zoe and her fellow students spend time in the school culinary kitchen developing recipes that will help a statewide farm to school program—10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms—gain even stronger success by providing kid-approved and food service director–vetted recipes that use the fruits, vegetables, and dry beans the program helps them buy from Michigan farms.

But the students aren’t stopping there. They also hope to make changes in federal school food policy.  They even have a call-to-action slogan they’re taking to Washington on behalf of those bean muffins: “Bean Equity!” Here’s why: Even though Zoe tinkered and tinkered with the ingredients to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) school nutrition standards so that the muffins, with a carton of milk, would qualify as a full breakfast, she discovered a surprising bean roadblock.

Just Like Famous Muffins 

Before you learn about that, though, hear this review from a Montague Area Public Schools elementary student who sampled a muffin made from Zoe’s recipe: “She said, ‘It tastes like the donuts at Lewis Farms!’”  Zoe recalled. “And it does taste like that because of the fall flavors in it from the spices. Lewis Farms are famous for their muffins—they are SO good.”

Photo: Zoe Fauble, a senior at Whitehall Public Schools who worked to develop the nutrient packed breakfast muffin. 

Zoe’s muffins got high-fives from 91% of the elementary and high school students in the school cafeteria and fourth-grade class where she offered samples. Made with whole wheat flour, to meet USDA’s whole grain requirements, they also include puréed Michigan-grown sweet potatoes to keep the muffins moist without fat, meeting a USDA low-fat standard. The muffins are flecked with grated Michigan-grown apples and more sweet potatoes (grated), making  them sweet without much sugar. And—drum roll—the recipe includes puréed white navy beans, also grown in Michigan, which pack a serious protein punch.

Ticking All the Boxes, But…

What an accomplishment: Three ingredients—beans, sweet potatoes, and apples—grown in Michigan that help schools use 10 Cents a Meal to its fullest. But do the muffins meet the USDA requirements for a healthy grab-and-go breakfast?

Not on their own, because the beans in the muffins aren’t visible. Based on the muffins’ nutritional profile, that disqualification needs to change, according to the students and the area school food service director who is collaborating with the students to test the recipes. 

Two muffins with a serving of milk have less than 60% of the fat of a typical hand-held waffle microwaved in a package from food manufacturing companies and served with fruit and milk, according to an analysis by a dietetic intern working with the food service director of the Montague schools, Dan Gorman. And the muffin breakfast contains nearly eight times as much fiber, twice the Vitamin D, and 36% of daily protein compared to just 24% in the standard waffle breakfast. 

But food service directors can’t count the muffins as the required USDA protein component of the breakfast if the beans are puréed. Instead, schools would have to pay the extra cost for something like string cheese for a protein, along with managing the extra packaging and labor involved in adding a third item to the meal.

Or they could leave visible pieces of white navy beans in the muffins. But the students know that that’ll never work. 

“The first time we made the muffin, I didn’t purée the beans as well as I should have,” Zoe said. “There were chunks of beans in there. It was not fun when we bit into the muffin.”

Zoe’s culinary instructor, Elissa Penczar, was shocked to learn USDA would not allow the muffins to count for the protein component (technically called “meat or meat alternative”), as well as fruit, vegetable, and grain. You see, the students are developing their recipes under a USDA Team Nutrition Grant, for inclusion in a USDA Child Nutrition Recipe Box of recipes standardized to meet federal nutrition requirements.

Photo: A cross-section of one of Zoe's muffins. Photo credit: Gannon Burgett

“Zoe really took up the challenge to bring in the federal nutrition policy,” Penczar said. “It’s like, oh my gosh, these muffins are amazing and everyone loves them. So now try to explain to a student who’s put a lot of work and effort into this and it’s achieved a lot of success, and it’s—‘Well, wait a minute. Because I mash up the beans, it doesn't count?’ It was a real blow to the students. Zoe wanted to tick off all the boxes.” 

Teachable Moments 

What’s up here? 

The students have come up against long-standing policy at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services Agency, which oversees nutrition requirements for school meals. Samia Hamdan, MPH, RDN, Division Director-Special Nutrition Programs in the agency’s Midwest Regional Office in Chicago, said that disguising vegetables by puréeing them may not teach and encourage children to recognize, eat, and enjoy a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables.  

“We want to teach kids what a balanced meal looks like,” she said. 

Zoe, however, was able to give the Montague students a different kind of teachable moment.

Before they tasted the muffins, they asked her: “’What is in it?’” she recalled with a laugh. “We said, ‘Just try it.’ After they said, ‘This is so good,’ we told them there were beans in it. They didn’t believe it!”

She wondered which breakfast USDA staff really felt would benefit students more, the waffles or her more nutritionally packed muffins.

Gorman, the food service director at Montague Schools, votes for Zoe’s muffins, and he hopes USDA will consider an exception for puréed beans, just as it made an exception a while back to allow blended fruit and vegetables to count in smoothies, and the yogurt in them as protein.  If so, it would provide school food service staff an effective way to provide kids with a quick, portable, and healthy start to the day in an age when it’s the norm to provide “grab-and-go” breakfasts that students can take to the classroom to eat. That trend grew with COVID.

“The reality is we are serving different versions of sweetbread every day,” he said about the pre-bagged pancakes, muffins, or mini-waffles that currently come from food manufacturers.  “They are whole grain, and they try to reduce the sugar. But they do not have much fiber or protein like Zoe’s muffins. To me, this is a big opportunity for our students to eat healthier.”

Photo: A tray of freshly made muffins made with Michigan beans, sweet potatoes, and apples. Photo credit: Gannon Burgett

Bean Equity?

USDA’s Samia Hamdan said there could be a path forward to what the students champion in a slide presentation.

“Bean equity” is their clarion call that whole beans and puréed beans should be treated the same, and in the same way that yogurt or fruit and vegetables that are blended into smoothies are allowed as fruit, vegetable, and protein components.  One option, Ms Hamdan said, is to provide comments after USDA releases new proposed rules for school nutrition this fall—but the new rules wouldn’t go into effect until the 2024-2025 school year, two years away.

Zoe will have graduated by then.

Another option, the USDA nutritionist said, is for the students to send a letter to her at Food and Nutrition Services in Chicago stating what change they seek and why, and she could take it from her Midwest regional office to federal policy leadership at USDA in Washington, D.C. Ensuring that beans are visible to students consuming them through the school meal programs is a policy that USDA staff have put into place for the needed detail in how to carry out the broader nutrition standards set by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and sometimes USDA does make changes based upon compelling input and new trends in eating. That is how the changes for blended yogurt and fruits and vegetables came about, she said.

“We commend the students for looking at ways to improve school meals and make meals more nutritious,” Ms. Hamdan said. “We will do the best we can to support them in this process.”

10 Cents a Meal

Meanwhile, Zoe’s muffins hold another promise for 10 Cents a Meal schools. Culinary instructor Penczar and Food Service Director Gorman are exploring options with Muskegon Community College, the West Michigan Food Processing Association, and the Michigan State University FARM (Food, Agriculture, Research Manufacturing Center), to see if and how the muffins might be able to be baked at larger, commercial scale and with appropriate packaging for schools. Gorman wants to organize all Muskegon County schools to then purchase the Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and dry beans for the muffins with assistance from the 10 Cents a Meal program and build yet another production tier in the state’s local food economy.

That means the muffins Zoe created could be eaten by 13,000 Muskegon County students. Commercial production also could support the farms in a region where her father graduated from the same school she will, and where she grew up with her grandmother as a “lunch lady” at yet another school nearby. And the muffins would mean those students would have “higher quality things to eat,” she said.

“It will help everyone,” she said.

And maybe even students across the country.

“I sure hope so,” Zoe said.

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Diane Conners is senior policy specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which is the communications partner with the Michigan Department of Education as it implements the 10 Cents a Meal program.

What do you think? Email Zoe’s teacher, Elissa Penczar, at [email protected] to give the students feedback and comments to share with USDA and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, (D-MI) chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, as the students champion “Bean Equity.” Zoe and her fellow students plan to draft the letter to USDA; submit comments to Sen. Stabenow and Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AK) when they take comments on Friday, April 29 in East Lansing in a hearing on the upcoming Farm Bill; and hope to  travel to Washington, D.C., itself to make their case, Ms. Penczar said.



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