A LIBERAL VIEW OF THINGS: School lunch systems need closer look

Editor’s note: Turner’s column this week is about school districts in general. The Marble Falls Independent School District earlier this year cut its ties with a corporate provider and brought its cafeteria service in-house.

In an article published by investigative reporter Lucy Komisar in the Dec. 3 New York Times, a disturbing piece of information appeared concerning how our school districts manage their cafeterias.

Komisar reported: “Each day, 32 million children in the United States get lunch at schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which uses agricultural surplus to feed children. About 21 million of these students eat free or reduced-price meals, a number that has surged since the recession. The program … costs $13.3 billion a year.”

One way it works is the United States Department of Agriculture pays about $1 billion a year for commodities like fresh apples and sweet potatoes, chickens and turkeys. Schools get the food free and some cook it on site, but more and more pay processors to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza and the like. About $445 million worth of commodities are sent for processing each year, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2006.

USDA doesn’t track spending to process the food, but some school authorities do. The Michigan Department of Education, for example, gets free raw chicken worth $11.40 a case and sends it for processing into nuggets at $33.45 a case. The schools in San Bernardino, Calif., spend $14.75 to make french fries out of $5.95 worth of potatoes.

This system is being exploited for profit.

"About a quarter of the school nutrition programs have been privatized, much of it outsourced to food service management giants like Aramark, based in Philadelphia; Sodexo, based in France; and the Chartwells division of the Compass Group, based in Britain. They work together with food manufacturers like Tyson and Pilgrim’s, all of which profit when good food is turned to bad.”

Why is this allowed to happen? Part of it is school authorities strapped for money don’t want the trouble of overseeing real kitchens while another reason is management companies are saving money by not having to pay skilled kitchen workers. Why is it always about money and not about quality?

Children pay the price. An authoritative researcher found privately managed school cafeterias offered meals that were higher in sugar and fats and made unhealthy snack items — soda, cookies and potato chips — more readily available. The companies also were less likely to use reduced-sugar recipes. Linda Hugle, a retired school principal in Three Rivers, Ore., said when her district switched to Sodexo, “You pay a little less and your kids get strawberry milk, frozen french fries and artificial shortening.”

An increasingly close alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals is making students fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. At a time of fiscal austerity, these companies are seducing school administrators with promises to cut costs through privatization. Parents who want healthier meals, meanwhile, are ignored. This is what happens when you cut school funding first.

There are economic and nutritional consequences to privatization. Most school kitchen workers are unionized, with benefits; they also are typically local residents who have children in public schools and care about their well-being. Laid-off school workers become an economic drain on the local and national economies instead of a positive force. The deals schools make with national food manufacturers cut out local farmers and small producers such as bakers, who could offer fresh, healthy food and help the local economy.

One-third of children from the ages of 6 to 19 are overweight or obese. These children could see their life expectancies shortened because of their vulnerability to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, profit, not health, is the priority of the food-service management companies, food processors and even elected officials.

Until more parents demand reform of the school lunch system, children will continue to suffer. Enabling parents who have raised children allowing them to eat junk food also are partly to blame. It is a national crisis, in my opinion, that our children are fat, lazy and allowed to ingest food that is harmful to them. We can start to fix this problem both at home and by auditing how our schools manage their cafeterias.

Turner is a retired teacher and industrial engineer who lives near Marble Falls. He is an independent columnist, not a staff member, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Tribune or its parent company. "The Voter’s Guide to National Salvation" is a newly published e-book from Turner. You can find it at www.barnesandnoble.com/ebooks. He can be reached by email at vtgolf@zeecon.com.

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