nenena: (Default)
nenena ([personal profile] nenena) wrote2012-04-08 04:23 pm

Farms, Food, and Kids

The New York Times on how the trend of outsourcing school lunch to third-party food processors is a game in which everyone loses:

The lunches that I see kids eating at school now are already a magnitude worse than what I saw being served in Minneapolis Public Schools seven years ago - and that was in a significantly poorer district than where I teach now. And most of the kids that I teach rely on those school lunches sometimes as their only meal for the day. And what's even worse (and something that the article doesn't really touch upon) is the stench that all of that hyper-processed food gives off once the kitchen starts nuking it en masse. I mean, I know that a school cafeteria usually doesn't smell great - hot dogs and pizza aren't always the nicest smells to have wafting around your school - but at least in the past I remember that the school cafeteria at least smelled recognizably like food, even if greasy food. Now? The cafeteria at both schools where I work doesn't even smell like food. It reeks of a stench that can best be described as sour vinegar mixed with dog farts. And damn is that stench strong - you can smell it even three stories above the cafeteria on a hot day. I have kids beg me to be able to eat lunch in my classroom because they can't stand the smell of the cafeteria. Last semester I had to do morning duty in the cafeteria and there were days when I almost gagged from that vinegar-and-sulfur stench. I can't imagine having to actually eat food that comes from that cafeteria, let alone actually sitting down in the middle of that stink to eat said food.

If memory serves, I think there was a section in Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me where he profiled a very poor Chicago public school that served fresh salads and other delicious fresh foods to its kids every day - because surprise surprise, taking that agricultural surplus straight from the federal government and serving it to kids with minimal processing not only results in healthier meals, but it costs a fuckton less than sending the food to a third-party processor. The trade-off, however, is that to prepare real food in your school cafeteria instead of just heating up pre-processed food, you have to hire a bigger kitchen staff and deal with the headache of complying with health and safety codes. But even with those extra costs factored in, it still cost less for that school to serve fresh food prepared on-site than to buy back processed food from third-party suppliers.

Now we've gotten to the point where even surplus fruit is being sent to third-party processors rather than being served directly to the kids who need it in their diet most. Freakin' fruit. You know, things like apples and oranges that don't even require any extra "cooking" to serve fresh, other than just washing them. But no, most schools don't even serve whole fruits anymore. On the rare occasion when my students get apples in their lunches, they are apples that have been processed by a third-party processor so that they are sterilized, sliced up, and served in little plastic baggies. And the district is paying somebody millions of dollars to slice up their apples and seal them in little plastic baggies for them. Rather than, you know, just serving the kids the whole apples that the district buys directly from the federal government anyway.

I did part of my Master's work at a newly-constructed middle school in Cincinnati that didn't even have any cooking equipment in the kitchen other than microwaves. I'm fucking serious. No stovetops, no ovens. Just microwaves, a freezer, and refrigerator. It blew me away when I found out. Absofuckinglutely blew me away.

What kills me is that the cafeteria in the middle school where I teach now is decorated with posters encouraging students to make "healthy choices" at lunch: Don't choose french fries, choose a baked potato instead! Don't choose the fried chicken sandwich, choose the grilled chicken instead! Don't choose the pudding cup, choose the orange instead! Yeah, okay, but the problem is that those choices don't actually exist on the school lunch menu anymore. Where the heck ARE the baked potatoes, the grilled chicken sandwiches, the oranges? Nowhere. Kids can't make healthy choices even if they want to.

Government regulations still count french fries and pizza sauce as vegetable servings. Thanks to this logic, a meal of nothing but pizza and french fries officially counts as two servings of vegetables. This is probably why none of the schools in the district where I teach offer a salad bar or even a daily vegetable choice anymore. If they can get away with counting a slice of pizza as a serving of vegetables, then why bother?

FFS, seven years ago even Minneapolis public schools offered salad bars in their school cafeterias. These weren't particularly impressive salad bars - on bad days we didn't get anything more than lettuce, tomatoes, shredded carrots, and one option for fresh fruit - but it was definitely way better than not offering any fruits or vegetables at all. And again, this was in an extremely poor urban district with paltry financial resources to draw on to begin with. Plus, the kids loved the salad bars. They were always picked clean by the time that the final lunch service was over, and that's not surprising: given a choice between fresh food and processed food, kids WILL choose the fresh food, believe it or not. I haven't been back to Minnesota in over seven years, but I wonder if MPS is still offering those salad bars. I hope they haven't gotten rid of them. I hope and I pray that they haven't.

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