School Food and Commodity Food – Our Kids Health in the Balance
Editor’s Note: We’re so happy to share this post with you from Chef Ann Cooper, aka the “Renegade Lunch Lady.”
By Chef Ann
What’s For School Lunch? High Fat – High Sugar – High Salt!
Where Does Most of it Come From? Highly Processed Commodity Food!
Like many of you I’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s reality TV show and like many, but certainly not all school food advocates, I’ve been applauding his efforts and his ability to bring school food to the dinner tables of our country. No matter what you think about Jamie or the show, it’s clear many, many more people have a much better understanding of school food because of his show.
But there’s one issue that only got a cursory mention on the show, the USDA commodity food program. This program was designed to support agriculture by helping to keep prices high by buying up surplus agricultural product. Former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz’s now famous proclamation to agriculture to “get big or get out,” began a system where farmers are often paid to produce crops that aren’t needed and in fact would lose them money if not for the price supports. Watch the movies King Corn and Food, Inc for good in-depth explanations of this bad system.
In school food, this program gives school districts approximately 19 cents credit per each reimbursable lunch served in the prior year as their commodity foods allocation. The most often received commodity foods are often unhealthy, especially when not eaten in moderation. Items like cheese, ground beef (high in fat), canned vegetables (high in sodium) and canned fruit (high in added sugar) frequent the USDA offering. Even though this is a federal program the items available may vary from state to state and in some cases from district to district, a full list is available on the USDA website.
However, if unprocessed cheese, chicken, turkey or ground beef are acquired through the commodity program and utilized in a “scratch cook” environment, the resulting food can be delicious and nutritious and can help food services departments balance their budgets. Sadly, that is rarely the case in school districts across the country; in fact the system tends to be wasteful, expensive and produces food that is making our children sick!
The lion’s share of all “free” commodity food gets “processed” into yes… highly processed mostly unhealthy food and unfortunately this “free” food is what’s on most kid’s plates. What this looks like on the plate is chicken nuggets as opposed to roast chicken, burgers with all manner of additives, pizza pockets, corn dogs, beef ribletts, “grilled” cheese sandwiches and uncrustables and as well they may contain added trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup. All of these items come pre-packaged and frozen, are often heated from frozen in their individual plastic wrappers and even served in the same wrappers so they’re never touched by human hands.
Manufacturing this “free” food results in costs to the districts in fees, which in many districts may amount to tens if not hundreds of thousands and in the case of large districts, millions of dollars for this free, unhealthy food. But there’s a tremendous amount of profit for manufacturers and distributors in all this free food. For example, in Tyson’s case the relationship between the USDA commodity program, the states and the school commodity purchasing co-ops creates a freeway between manufacturers and school districts for processing “surplus” chicken into chicken nuggets. Tyson is poised knowing the government will buy chicken (that by the way doesn’t even have to exist, it can be “virtual” chicken) and knowing that most school districts in America will elect to move their commodity allocations into nuggets and pay that $30-$40 fee per case for the service of providing a ready to heat and eat product. The real cost? Our childrens’ lifelong health.
This egregious and I think honestly unconscionable system is not only promoted by the USDA but “sold” to school food service staff and administrators as a cost effective way to get “healthy” food on our kids’ plates and under the USDA guidelines it’s all healthy.
So if we truly want to fix school food, if we truly want to stem the obesity crises, if we truly want the next generation of children to be healthier than the current one, then we need to fix the commodity food program and replace it with a system that values fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains and clean protein. And further, we need to find our kitchens again, both at home and in schools, and start cooking and then teach our children how to cook as well!