Another downer: The school lunch program

This weekend's big news, as Bonnie has already reported, was the massive recall of beef processed by Chino, CA-based Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing company. There has been much well-deserved coverage of the animal cruelty aspects of this story and a general tip of the mainstream media hat to the debacle's food-safety implications: downer cattle, as the sick-to-the-point-of-immobility ones are called, are not allowed to be processed as food because of the diseases they may carry (which include BSE, or mad cow). The USDA insists that no health problems have yet resulted from Westland's downer patties. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Most mainstream media reports also mention that Westland was a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program: 37 million of the 143 million pounds of beef recalled by the USDA yesterday had been distributed through the program to public schools in 36 states. A full quarter of that meat went to schools here in California, most in the Los Angeles area. Broadcasters in my adoptive home state have put on their 'extremely concerned' faces, pressing the USDA spokesman of the hour for an answer to soothe the worries of the California viewing (and eating) public.

I'm glad that the media are talking about the health of kids in the school lunch program, but I wish they'd started a long time ago. I wish that it didn't take 143 million pounds of beef to make the topic newsworthy. And I fear that the media's 'concern' over what these kids are eating will evaporate when Hallmark/Westland fades from the headlines, leaving us with an out-of-control industrial food system that sucks generation after generation of kids into its snapping jaws.

On meat and poverty

One key piece of information missing from the coverage of the beef crisis is a precise picture of the kids who may have been exposed to Westland's sketchburgers. Slice of the general population it's not: kids participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are disproportionately poor. Nationally, nearly 60% of children in the NSLP are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches,  meaning that their families make under 185% of the poverty line (this year, that line is drawn at just over $21,000 a year for a family of four).

In Los Angeles County schools, the lunch recipient list is even more skewed. 70% of all NSLP participants are eligible for free lunch, meaning that their families make less than 130% of the poverty line. An additional 12% of school lunch participants come from families that make between 130% and 185% of the poverty line. These are some of our society's most food-insecure members, the most vulnerable to malnutrition and associated conditions (including poor school performance). These are the kids who get Hallmark/Westland's meat.

Given the demographic makeup of the NSLP, it should be obvious why school lunch needs to be nutritious: it may be the only healthy meal these kids get in a day. One paradox of our industrial food system is that it has made highly-processed, high-calorie foods cheaper than minimally processed ones, to the point where it's far less expensive to buy a hamburger than it is to buy ingredients to make bread or vegetables to put on your sandwich. Out of school, many low-income children (and their parents) find that fast food gives the best caloric bang for the buck.

The Food Research and Action Center and California Food Policy Advocates, among other groups, have documented the link between poverty and obesity in the United States and the burden the food system places on low-income Americans: costly diet-related ailments like Type II diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. In sum: the industrial food system is a minefield for low-income consumers. That being the case, using the school lunch program as a vehicle to improve the health of poor kids should be a no-brainer for federal policymakers... right?

And you thought 143 million pounds of beef was a big waste

FRAC has found (PDF) that adolescent girls who participate in federal nutrition programs, including the NSLP, are less likely to be obese than low-income girls who don't participate. But sadly, that conclusion doesn't extend to the low-income population as a whole. There is no evidence that the health of federal nutrition program participants generally is any better or worse than that of people in the same income bracket who do not participate in the programs. Forgive my naïvete -- I'm certainly not a nutrition policy expert -- but given that the Fed spends over $40 billion annually on nutrition programs for low-income Americans, is it unreasonable to hope that all that money might result in, say, visible improvements to their health?

Truth is, it's probably even more naïve to assume that federal nutrition programs are somehow insulated from the same powers that shape the rest of our food system, those powers that encourage consumers to over-eat the foods that are the most unhealthy for them.  Schools receive a fixed amount of money to buy food from the commodity programs that the USDA runs and must make that money go as far as possible, so we shouldn't be surprised if school lunch choices look a lot like the choices of a low-income household: heavily weighted toward foods that deliver the greatest caloric bang for their buck, such as ground beef and cheese. (See a press release from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on this topic here.) Beef gets even cheaper when major suppliers cut corners on animal welfare, food safety, or worker safety.

There is also pressure on school lunch providers to compete with the fast-food outlets that woo kids from the cafeteria at lunchtime. A 2005 study from the American Journal of Public Health found that almost 80% of schools in the Chicago area had at least one fast-food restaurant within less than a half mile, "with an estimated 3 to 4 times as many fast-food restaurants within 1.5 km from schools than would be expected if the restaurants were distributed throughout the city in a way unrelated to school locations." As a result, school lunch offerings start to look like fast food: pizza, burgers, tater tots. Broccoli, not so much.

But even before that BK moved in down the street, the school lunch program was off to a bad start thanks to the dietary guidelines with which the program has to comply. The first round of dietary guidelines were released in 1977 by the McGovern Committee, which recommended that American consumers decrease fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt consumption, including by reducing consumption of red meat. At least, that's what the committee recommended for a few months. Following an uproar from the meat, sugar, egg and dairy industries, the committee revised its guidelines and eliminated advice on what not to eat. Surviving language asked only that consumers "choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake."  Because the average consumer in 1977 really knew what that meant. (I hear that Michael Pollan covers this watershed moment in U.S. dietary history in his new book, "In Defense of Food," but I haven't read it yet.)

Future iterations of the guidelines were equal or worse in their vagueness, as any language urging reduced sugar, sodium, fat or meat intake was passed over in favor of more "positive" messaging. The most recent update, published in 2005, advises consumers to “know the limits on fats, sugars and salts" and urges them to choose fats and carbohydrates “wisely for good health.” I'd suggest that our national obesity rate shows we can't be trusted to do either of those things, but who am I to say? The industry reps who sit on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee know what Americans can handle.

To placate industry, the dietary guidelines have been written with no mention of specifically reducing the most unhealthful food items in the American diet: red meat, full-fat dairy, sugar, salt. As a consequence, the NSLP, which must comply with the guidelines, is unlikely to reduce these items in school lunches. When these items also happen to be the cheapest, you can bet they won't be replaced by healthy or vegetarian options any time soon.

The Hallmark/Westland crisis has catapulted the National School Lunch Program into headlines, but I'm guessing it won't be there for long. That's a real shame. What happened at the Hallmark plant is morally reprehensible not just on animal welfare grounds, but because we're serving that meat to one of the most vulnerable populations in the country: poor kids. Fixing that system is way bigger than a USDA recall — even one of historic proportions. As much of a downer as it is to admit, if we want a healthy school lunch program, recalling 143 million pounds of beef is just the beginning.

Photo credit: White House site for the National School Lunch Program


6 Responsesto “Another downer: The school lunch program”

  1. It would help if more of our lawmakers understood the importance of educating children (and adults too!) about where food comes from. During the City of Berkeley vs. Marine recruiters controversy, Sen. DeMint (R-S.C.) tried to punish Berkeley by extracting some of its federal funding. One of the programs he went after was the Edible Gardens program in the Berkeley Public Schools (note that this is a program in a public school, not some exclusive private academy for the wealthy). In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sen. DeMint was quoted as saying, "One earmark provides gourmet organic lunches to schools in the Berkeley school district while our Marines make do with military rations of sloppy joes and chili beans. This is unacceptable."

    Sen. Boxer (D-CA), in contrast, gets it: "They work the garden, they learn about nutrition, they learn how to cook the food. Here's a program that teaches them to love the whole notion of eating in a healthy way, and that's the program he went after?"

  2. Greg Massa says:

    My own kids' school used to serve a "super donut on a stick" for breakfast. But all is not lost! Some school foodservice directors are very eager to serve better food--we've now gotten our organic brown rice into three of our local public school districts, and we're after more. If anyone in Northern California has connections at their school and wants them to serve brown rice, let me know and we'll see if we can work something out. You can email me from our website.

  3. cookiejill says:

    Several public schools in our town require kids participating in the food program to be fingerprinted digitally so they can scan their hands before they pick up their lunches.

    Great post. Scary, heartbreaking stuff.

  4. Jen says:

    Speaking of downers, has everyone seen Mark Fiore's latest ethical-meat related cartoon (posted on SFGate)

    it's disturbing and funny at the same time...

  5. Great post. It struck me that the most affected in this recall are poor kids-- arguably the most vulnerable portion of the U.S. population. It also struck me that dietary guidelines are written with no mention of reducing meat, full-fat dairy, sugar and salt.

    I wonder if there is a way to come back to a holistic view of our diets, so that meat is in the context of the life of an animal, food in the context of a meal, etc. That is, industry may be able to co-opt dietary guidelines, but is there a way to make dietary guidelines (and the American diet industry) a less intricate part of the way we think about our health?

  6. wutti says:

    This article reminds me of the movie “Super Size Me”. The story is about a guy who did an experiment on himself by eating fast food as the food that represents United States. In the movie, when Morgan interviewed school children about their lunch meals and the cafeteria staffs about their opinions toward school lunches. Scenes of chocolate pudding, canned applesauce, chocolate bar, French fries, cheesy pizza, and all kinds of candy bars made me feel really sick. There was a part of the interview when the author asked one of the kids what was the vegetable in her dish. Confidently, this elementary school girl pointed out at her pile of brownish French fries. The schools definitely needed to give more education about food nutrition to their students. The main dangers for all those high calories foods are their luring taste and how they are easier for kids to eat. To sum up, I think that culinary class, gardening class, and nutrition are very important especially in the elementary school. Rather than arguing over prices or quality of food, school should provide a better education in nutrition for students. This solution is the best solution and it is the cheapest too.