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