Out to Lunch

Though well-intentioned, Farm to School program serves up red herring

First of all, give up three cheers. Three cheers for the farmers, mothers, fathers and teachers, interested parties and activists who have recognized that the industrialized food served in schools — the snacks, sweets, sodas and junk food — are a major explanation of why obesity is epidemic among schoolchildren. Many folks are dedicating energy and time to a wonderful idea: upgrading the food in school lunch programs. But is the school lunch the real problem or just another symptom of an abdication of responsibility? Beginning of a bad idea The National School Lunch Program resulted from a law signed by Harry S. Truman in 1946. America’s fledgling agribusiness conglomerates were struggling due to post-war farm surpluses. Using tax dollars to buy farm surpluses was the beginning of massively subsidized agribusiness, and the smoke in front of the mirror was using the purchased commodities to feed children while they were at school. The infusion of money was like steroids to a bodybuilder. Corporate agriculture boomed, continuing rampant growth to this day. Meanwhile, the quality of food shoveled into the school program has gone the way of the quality of food in general. As more and more foodstuff becomes processed into mystery meat and treated vegetables, subsidized school lunch has changed by quantum leaps from the nascent program that offered cartons of milk for two cents each, or burger made from whole meat. Astonishingly, reports have shown fast food restaurants are more rigorous in surveying for pathogens in beef and chicken than are the inspections for that which is delivered to schools. Burgers sent to schools are regularly made from concoctions that feature what has generously been described as “pink slime,” a sort of beef slurry assembled in multiple states, from multiple sources and treated with ammonia in an attempt to sterilize it of pathogens, not always successfully. School lunches on the program are typified as serving high-fat, low-nutrient foods; and public awareness has risen to where groups have successfully sought to change school menus. But there are many roadblocks to deal with. Where have all the flours gone? School kitchens used to actually “cook” meals. If there was a biscuit on the menu or a cookie for dessert, you could bet there were flour and a baker on premise to make it. No more. One of the tallest hurdles to providing real food in school programs is that school “kitchens” are little more than assembly lines that heat up pre-processed foods. As a parallel, how much actual cooking is required at a Taco Bell (or Panera, for that matter) when everything from soup to chopped tomatoes comes in the back door already prepared? It’s the same way at nearly all schools. When the food system cascaded toward pre-prepped everything, what need was there for vegetable prep sinks, produce refrigerators or anything needed to prepare even the most rudimentary of meals? School kitchens were dismantled decades ago. Also on the production side, the staff at school kitchens haven’t the skills to do much more than microwave frozen junk food and spoon it onto trays. To transition to serving farm-fresh meals, staff would have to get reacquainted with basic knife, cooking and presentation skills. Finally, government subsidies are based on back-room deals cut to assure corporate food conglomerates of their share of tax dollars. That means any food that comes in the back door of school kitchens is usually at a far lower cost than a real farmer could match. Often, industrial produce shows up for less than the price of shipping. Against all odds, dedicated crusaders are trying to get real, nutritious and healthful food into school lunches. But school lunches are not the real problem. They are a red herring. Abdication of parental responsibility The real problem is that schools are supposed to be schools. School responsibilities should end with what schools are for: education. We have become the only species on the planet that delegates feeding our young to a third party — and a bureaucratic, faceless third party at that. Where are the activists trying to return schools to the role they were designed for? Only a couple generations ago, it was common for kids to choose three options for lunch: school lunch, brown-bag it or home for lunch. But the sales decline of the lunchbox in the 1970s shows how far from favor homemade lunches have fallen. With the advent of the working mom and school bussing, kids couldn’t go home for a hot lunch. It was either too far or no one was there. Even childhood vaccinations are weighed against the cost of potential workdays lost. In days past, mild childhood diseases were no big deal. Kid gets mumps, measles or chickenpox — it wasn’t a life threat. They stayed home for a few days, mom fed them soup and soon they were back in school. But now the real reason for many vaccines is evident when it’s quantified against mom or dad’s days off work to take care of a sick child. And none of this even begins to take into account the viable alternative of home schooling. It’s true that the best way to keep a child out of the doctor’s office is to provide nourishing and healthful food, educate them about good health practices and make sure they get plenty of rest and exercise. None of those things are guaranteed by a trip to the pharmacy. And keeping junk food and sugary drinks (and their mind-numbing influences) out of schools is never a bad idea. But the real key is recognizing that parental responsibility is exactly that: a responsibility. Or as a friend of mine from Los Angeles used to say, “If you’re going to breed ’em, at least you should feed ’em.” Be well.

posted at 10:21 pm
on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

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