What are we doing to the children? School Lunch Programs need improvement

Good morning. I received an email last week about school lunches. It seems that the quality of the food, especially chicken. that is used in school lunches should be examined more closely.

I subscribe to a service from USA Today that sends me daily briefings. This article  caught my eye.

In the past three years, the government has provided the nation’s schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants, from Jack in the Box  and other burger places to chicken chains such as KFC, a USA TODAY investigation found.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the meat it buys for the National School Lunch Program “meets or exceeds standards in commercial products.” 

That isn’t always the case. McDonald’s, Burger King, andCostco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day.  And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef. 

For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called “spent hens” because they’re past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don’t pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won’t buy them — and they don’t pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company  says it stopped using them a decade ago based on “quality considerations.”

Now doesn’t that make your heart go pit-a-pat knowing that little Juan or Laquetta or Johnny or Meridith are getting a hot meal at lunch every day?

Although I don’t like to quote long passages in my blog, this article from Mother Jones states the case very succinctly.

By and large, school cafeterias coast to coast offer an artery-clogging menu of beef, pork, cheese, and grease. “Whenever I see children clinically, I ask them if they buy lunch at school or bring it from home,” says Patricia Froberg, a nutritionist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. “If they say, ‘I get it at school,’ I cringe.”

At a time when weight-related illnesses in children are escalating, schools are serving kids the very foods that lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. That’s because the National School Lunch Program, which gives schools more than $6 billion each year to offer low-cost meals to students, has conflicting missions. Enacted in 1946, the program is supposed to provide healthy meals to children, regardless of income. At the same time, however, it’s designed to subsidize agribusiness, shoring up demand for beef and milk even as the public’s taste for these foods declines.

Under the program, the federal government buys up more than $800 million worth of farm products each year and turns them over to schools to serve their students. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the system, calls this a win-win situation: Schools get free ingredients while farmers are guaranteed a steady income. The trouble is, most of the commodities provided to schools are meat and dairy products, often laden with saturated fat. In 2001, the USDA spent a total of $350 million on surplus beef and cheese for schools — more than double the $161 million spent on all fruits and vegetables, most of which were canned or frozen. On top of its regular purchases, the USDA makes special purchases in direct response to industry lobbying. In November 2001, for example, the beef industry wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, complaining that a decline in travel after September 11, along with a lowered demand for beef in Japan, was suppressing sales of their product. The department responded two months later with a $30 million “bonus buy” of frozen beef roasts and ground beef for schools.

“Basically, it’s a welfare program for suppliers of commodities,” says Jennifer Raymond, a retired nutritionist in Northern California who has worked with schools to develop healthier menus. “It’s a price support program for agricultural producers, and the schools are simply a way to get rid of the items that have been purchased.” 

What is The National School Lunch Program?” you ask. It is a federally assisted meal program that operates in more than 94,000 public and nonprofit private schools nationwide. Supposedly it provides nutritionally balanced meals. More than 26 million children are served these low cost or free meals every day. At a time of deep recession, it is a vital service to keep the newly impoverished and the chronically underfed children from starving.

Now the above article was published in 2003 and quotes information from 2001. In the 2006-07 school year school districts were required to adopt a Local Wellness Policy which targeted nutritional education, physical activity, and other school-based activities to promote wellness. It was to include plans for measuring implementation and community involvement.  Now if other urban schools are similiar to the ones I taught in, “community involvement” was at a minimum if it existed at all.

The goal of the National School Lunch Program is lofty.  In signing the 1946 act, President Harry S Truman said, “Nothing is more important in our national life than the welfare of our children, and proper nourishment comes first in attaining this welfare.”

But can the National School Lunch Program serve two masters? Can it be corporate welfare to the agribuiness industry who have powerful lobbyists in DC and still at the same time serve truthfully nutritionally balanced meals that are low in saturated fat to a generation of children in whom the level of obesity and diabetes is skyrocketing? Does it always have to be for the benefit of big business at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable among us?

There is some hope. The School Nutrition Association is becoming a stronger voice.

Congress, which will take up the Child Nutrition Act as soon as October, has much to do with this year’s focus on school food. The act, which is reauthorized every five years, provides $12 billion to pay for lunch and breakfast for 31 million schoolchildren.

That the nutritional state of America’s children is a priority for President Obama doesn’t hurt, either. Mr. Obama put an extra $1 billion for child nutrition programs, including school food, in his 2010 budget proposal.

However, our nation still has a long way to go. Here is a copy of a report card judging the quality of school lunches:

Fifteen days worth of menus for each school were analyzed, awarding points based on whether the institution met USDA standard nutrition guidelines and how frequently it offered low-fat vegetable side dishes (points were not given for French fries, mashed potatoes, tater tots), whole or dried fruit, hot meatless and vegan entrées, and cholesterol-free options. The schools also earned extra points for offering non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages.

Here are the results:

School District Location Points (out of 100) Grade
Broward County School District Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 85 B
Dade County School District Miami, Fla. 71 C
Fairfax County Public Schools Fairfax, Va. 71 C
New York City Public Schools New York, N.Y. 70 C
Clark County School District Las Vegas, Nev. 66 D
Dallas Independent School District Dallas, Tex. 65 D
Los Angeles Unified School District Los Angeles, Calif. 60 D
Philadelphia City School District Philadelphia, Penn. 59 F
Detroit City School District Detroit, Mich. 57 F
Houston Independent School District Houston, Tex. 57 F

The above article suggests what individuals can do about the quality of food served for school lunches in their own communities. If you have children, or grandchildren, you may wish to become involved. We are destroying a whole generation of children and have been doing so for quite some time.

This is a problem of mammoth proportions but it can be tackled one community at a time. We have a big fight going over health care. Doesn’t health care costs start with the youngest among us? Namaste. Attic Annie




Filed under Casual conversation, childhood, diary, economics, education, general topics, life, Uncategorized

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