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The Senate’s Passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kid’s Act BUT….

Posted Aug 06 2010 2:33pm

The Senate’s Passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kid’s Act

But What’s For School Lunch? High Fat – High Sugar – High Salt!

 On the heels of the Senate’s unanimous vote to pass Child Nutrition Reauthorization, this time around named the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act , I find myself think about the next big bill to pass; the Farm Bill .  I applaud the Senate for passing the bill and truly hope that both houses can come together to get a bill to the President’s desk by September 30th when the current bill expires.  However I am concerned with what real change we’ll see on our kid’s plates and I believe that some of the most significant change can come from the Farm Bill and the commodity food that “pushes” unhealthy offering onto school lunch menus.

 But before I get to the relationship between the two, I’d like to share Kim O’Donnel’s great piece on Culinate, School Food Cheat Sheet.  In her article she gives a great overview of the issues, so give it a read.

 I, like many advocates across the country have taken on many of the issues that surround school food.

 But there’s one issue that is not often eluded to, 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, which in many school districts accounts for approximately 15 – 20% of their food budget.  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 get “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!

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