Posted on Fri, July 31, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
1 Comments | Categories: Food Justice, Labeling, Policy, School Food,
Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Most adults dont have glorious memories of school lunch. It was sloppy Joes, shepherds pie, spaghetti with meat sauce, and it was usually on the bland side. But the food wasnt bad, and it was almost always cooked from scratch by an army of school lunch ladies.
How things have changed. A few days ago, I blogged about some pretty dismal statistics on scratch cooking in school cafeterias. A survey by the School Nutrition Association found that over 80 percent of schools cook fewer than half of their main dishes from scratch. And almost 40 percent of schools cook fewer than one-fourth of their entrees from scratch.
What happened? Part of it has to do with rising labor costs. It takes time and therefore money to cook thousands of servings of meatloaf and mac and cheese. Part of it also has to do with evolving student taste. Cafeteria directors say students these days prefer packaged food to home-cooked classics.
But we cant explain the success of heat-and-serve lunchroom fare without giving the USDA some credit. Thanks to a provision known as commodity processing, cafeterias can divert their government-donated foods to commercial processors and receive table-ready items instead of raw products. Today, schools divert about half of their commodities to processors.
According to the USDA, the goal of commodity processing was twofold: it was supposed to allow schools to maximize the use of commodities, while also opening up the school market for the food industry. By those standards, it has been an amazing success. Schools now turn commodity meat, flour, cheese and fruit into a wide variety of (unhealthy) foods kids love. And companies rake in the money from turning raw chicken into nuggets, strips and breaded patties. Today, over 150 companies from Tyson to Jennie-O Turkey process commodity items for school cafeterias.
These companies turn government eggs into syrup-soaked French toast sticks and Bacon and Cheese Eggstravaganza. They turn fruit into neon-blue, sugar-spiked fruit sherbets. The USDAs list of the most frequently processed commodity items includes pork (sausage patties and links, pizza topping), beef (charbroiled patties, crumbles, meat balls), chicken (nuggets, patties, breaded chicken), turkey (turkey ham, bologna, deli slices), frozen fruit (popsicles and turnovers) and flour, mozzarella and tomato paste (pizza).
Without commodity processing, many of these items would be prohibitively expensive. Whats more, a school kitchen would never be able to make Bacon and Cheese Eggstravaganza from scratch (most cafeterias dont have lipolyzed butter oil, silica gel or sodium erythorbate in the spice cabinet).
The USDA already makes it easy for schools to get their hands on cheap meat and cheese (schools spend about three-fourths of their commodity dollars on these products). Commodity processing makes it easy for cafeterias to turn that meat and cheese into fast-food fare.