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Hat tip to private industry over gov’t: Fast Food safer than school lunches

December 11th, 2009 · 2 Comments

As laid out in Fast Food Nation, the industrial agriculture/food industry have been able to so pressure the government that school lunch programs represented essentially the lowest of the low of American food quality and safety of supply.  While perhaps that rat-infested restaurant, open because of cash into a crooked inspector’s hands, might be worse, the fact remains that the fast food industry has set higher standards for its food supplies than what occurs in nearly all of American school lunch programs.  Thus, private food supplies are often better than public — not due to any ‘incompetence’, but due to private interest twisting of food safety regulations and demands to keep standards low in the school food system to maximize market and profit opportunities.

Quality of food can relate quite directly to energy demands, environmental quality, and climate change. Applying sensible energy standards to incoming school food supplies could be one part of turning the tide toward better food.

This is a guest post from Ellinoriane about the state of school food today.

Yes, that’s right, According to Good and USA Today the quality of meat from Jack in the Box is of a better quality than that served in lunches everyday in our public schools.

As standards at fast food chains have had to improve to allay the public fears of contaminated meat because of past scares, school lunch standards have lagged behind.  I guess kids don’t complain as much as fast food customers and public school cafeterias don’t have to worry as much about their bottom line.

And this is nothing new, USA Today also reported in September, GAO audit: Schools slow to get alerts about tainted food.

As a result, the audit says, some of the 226 students who got diarrhea and other salmonella-related symptoms “may have consumed the (tainted) products in school.” About 46 were hospitalized.

Poor quality food and a system that can’t keep track of food safety issues fast enough to keep kids safe.

In a speech earlier this year, President Obama called school lunches ‘the most nutritious meal’ that many school children have in a day. If they’re wolfing down a Big Mac in the evening though, that might not be the case, as testing and sampling procedures for assuring that quality beef is getting into our schools are a lot more lax than those required by the fast food industry—by up to an order of magnitude. (The standards in schools are still higher than USDA standards for what hits a grocer’s shelf—though the businesses have a financial stake in assuring the safety of their inventory.)

The fast food industry’s tackling of the meat safety issue arose out of an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in several Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993. (Full disclosure: My father was an epidemiologist on the team that investigated the outbreak.) Jack in the Box then took the lead in developing strict requirements for the meat it buys, how often it draw samples for testing and the levels of bacteria it deems acceptable. The standards have since been adopted by most of the fast food industry and high-end grocery chains.

And as Good points out, as Government contracts go, the lowest bidder wins.  This is what our kids are served on a daily basis and it may be for many the most “nutritious” meal they get in a day.  And we had how many children going hungry last year who were basically facing “food insecurities”?  So the one place they can expect to get a meal isn’t guaranteed to be safe.

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.

Next year, Congress will revisit the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the lunch program.

“If there are higher quality and safety standards, the government should set them,” says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “Ensuring the safety of food in schools is something we’ll look at closely.”

Emphasis mine

There is something we can do, we can demand that for those kids who depend on this one meal a day that they get better quality food.  I wrote about this in a previous diary, Action Diary – The Child Nutrition Act – Kids Write Congress! which I’m going to repost here.  Obviously you don’t have to be a kid to write Congress about this issue though.

So, what is the Child Nutrition Act?  It’s the very funding and guidelines that Congress sets every four years which dictates what kids eat at their school lunch tables everyday.  It can make the difference between apples and fruit roll ups.  It can mean real food or something close to it.  And for some kids it can be the one meal that they get a day to make up for the other food they don’t get.

And it matters to a lot of kids.

According to Slow Food USA, which is spearheading the Time for Lunch lettering writing campaign…

The National School Lunch Program was created in 1946 “to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the Nation’s children.” It is supposed to ensure that no child goes without a healthy meal every day. Without healthy food, kids have a harder time performing well in school, staying fit and growing up to be healthy, productive adults.

But as some of you know, with the emergence of big AG and the massive food subsidies, the quality of school lunches in the last thirty years have declined tremendously.  Not only that, the prevalence of soda machines, snack machines and less real food made on campus to save money has meant less real food on the plates of more than 30 million kids every day at lunch time.

As Daily Kos and the rest of the Country is consumed by the Health Care debate we know that part of the issue has a lot to do with what we eat and the impact those choices have on our weight and our health.  This is no coincidence, this things start young.  Some Slow Food Facts…

It’s time to give kids the school lunch they deserve. Here’s why:
• The National School Lunch Program feeds more than 31 million children every school day. 18 million of those children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
• One child in every four is overweight or obese, and one in three will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. For African-American and Hispanic children, that number rises to one in two.
• Obesity and diabetes are so destructive that today’s kids are the first in over two centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents.
• Obesity costs our nation $147 billion each year, and diabetes costs our nation $116 each year. One year of diabetes treatments costs $11, 774.
• School districts are reimbursed $2.68 for every meal served to a child who qualifies for free lunch. After paying for overhead costs, schools are left with only $1.00 to purchase food. As a result, most can only afford to serve the highly processed foods that hurt children’s health and keep them from performing well in school. We’re calling for Congress to give kids the school lunch they deserve.

So what can you do?  You can do what I’ve done!  I’m currently doing outreach to my local Slow Food Chapter and local City officials (I just happen to know some).  And now that I armed a local City Council person with Slow Food materials she’s spreading the word!

I also have contacted my daughter’s PTA at her elementary school.  I’ve emailed two local CSA’s to see if we can have letter writing days at their farms.  I am going to call some local Farmer’s market to see if I can get free space for letter writing.  I’m even contacting my local candidates to see if they want to host a letter writing event to promote their candidacy and a very important issue.  It’s a win/win no matter how you look at it.  And it’s a non-partisan issue, it’s about our kids.

Other ideas?  Here are just a few others I might try…

  • After School Programs and Day Care Centers
  • Local Gyms
  • Farmer’s Markets
  • Food Banks
  • Tabling at your Local Health Food Store
  • Church Groups
  • Community Gardens
  • Libraries
  • City Council Meetings
  • PTA Meetings
  • Moms and Dads gourps
  • Playgrounds
  • Share some of your ideas!

    Materials?  Slow Food has provided amazing resources that I’ve forwarded to every single person I’ve done outreach with and I’ve only gotten positive feedback.  It’s easy.

    Policy Platform (PDF)
    Talking Points
    School Lunch Fact Sheet (PDF)
    Letter-Writing Handout (PDF)
    Send Congress a Drawing (PDF)

    And here are some sample letters that Slow Food provided.  This is such an important issue and hope just one of you might take this up in your local community.

    Lets give kids the lunch they deserve!

    Here are Slow Food’s three main goals…

    We’re calling for Congress to give kids the school lunch they deserve. When our elected officials reauthorize child nutrition programs this spring, they must:

    1. Invest in health. Find the funding to give school lunch programs $1 more per child per day.
    1. Protect kids from the junk food sold in school vending machines and as “a la carte” cafeteria items. Approve the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009.
    1. Link schools to local farms, and teach healthy eating. Guarantee $50 million of funding for Farm to School programs.

    I absolutely love the Farm to School programs, it not only supports local agriculture, it gets kids involved in where their food comes from and eating fresh fruits and vegetables!

    Farm to School brings healthy food from local farms to school children nationwide. The program teaches students about the path from farm to fork, and instills healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. At the same time, use of local produce in school meals and educational activities provides a new direct market for farmers in the area and mitigates environmental impacts of transporting food long distances.

    So far my efforts have met with a lot of resistance for letter writing en masse and it’s been very frustrating.  People have expressed that it’s “too political” or I haven’t heard back from them at all and it’s unfortunate that a byproduct of the very bitter partisan bickering has actually harmed important issues like the Child Nutrition Act.  I think a lot of it has to do with where I live and I urge you to write your own letter, to have your kids write their own letters and that we can each make a difference.  This is what I plan on doing rather than waiting for a huge letter wring event to come together.

    But we can change things and make sure that our kids get better quality lunches, we can support local organic and sustainable agriculture
    and we can make it clear that we deserve better for our children.

    Note – This is Ellinorianne and I’m writing on behalf of Eat Cleaner.  I am currently unpaid and doing community outreach on behalf of Eat Cleaner and on my own because this has become my passion.  I hope that as soon as Eat Cleaner is able to hire me I will be writing more and doing more on behalf of anything food and environment related.

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    Tags: environmental

    2 responses so far ↓

    • 1 The skepTick // Dec 11, 2009 at 2:23 pm

      This problem is likely not limited to public schools. When I was in the Navy, we loaded food onboard our ship by passing boxes down the line. The boxes of meat carried the label “Fit for Human Consumption”. Read into that what you will…I chose not to inspect my sliders too carefully.

    • 2 Alena // Dec 21, 2009 at 1:28 am

      I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.