Have you been to your child’s school cafeteria? Have you seen what he or she is offered for lunch? Have you tried to eat it yourself? If not, a new documentary may have you rushing to the school lunch line — not out of hunger, but out of concern.
“Lunch Hour,” directed by James Costa, features some famous faces plus nutrition and policy experts highlighting disturbing realities about what winds up on many school children’s lunch trays.
Parents “naively and blissfully” want to believe that their children “are getting the best education and the best food” when they go to school, celebrity cook Rachael Ray says in the film. “It’s absolutely awful, I really can’t think about it too much — it’s awful.”
Much of the film, fortunately, focuses on programs and organizations that are making changes to improve the quality and nutritional value of food at certain schools. But before you get to this warm and fuzzy part of “Lunch Hour,” you’ll be served with a not-so-healthy helping of sad facts and observations from food experts and passionate healthy food advocates, including Ray. I’ve included five below, along with responses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program. USDA officials declined to be interviewed on camera for the documentary but did respond to me in writing.
The Value of a Single Lunch: 90 Cents?
The federal government, under the National School Lunch Program, reimburses more than 100,000 schools nationwide up to $2.77 for the cost of each school lunch. But that money is also used to cover the salaries of lunchroom staff, electricity costs, kitchen equipment and more. Ultimately, some schools spend as little as 90 cents on the food itself.
According to a 2008 report by USDA, food costs for the average reimbursable lunch are $1.09 while labor costs account for $1.05 — so I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that the average kid getting a subsidized meal is actually getting food worth about 20 cents more than the worst-case scenario presented in “Lunch Hour.” USDA cited the report in an email to me, though, curiously (or not so curiously, depending on how cynical you are), they didn’t mention the $1.09 stat. Instead, they noted that the majority of school districts don’t charge the government for “indirect” school meal expenses such as the cost of equipment and insurance — school districts are finding other ways to fund those costs. Want to learn more? Read the report for yourself here.
Giving the Kids What They Want — Kind Of
Since cuts to school food subsidies took place in the 1980s, school lunch programs have been encouraged to operate like businesses, which, in turn, encouraged some to lure paying customers with attractive — albeit unhealthy — food options such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets and pizza.
USDA provided no response to this statement.
Spent Hen Salad?
Meat and other foods donated by USDA to schools hasn’t always been of the highest quality. Meat from “spent hens” — egg-laying chickens retired from duty — has been refused by fast food chains and is often used in pet food. The National School Lunch Program bought 77 million pounds of it between 2001 and 2009 to use in patties and salads, an investigation by USA Today revealed.
The USDA confirmed that it stopped using meat from “table-egg laying hens” in the 2009 fiscal year. In its statement to me, USDA said that thanks to various safety measures and food standards, “USDA foods are equal to, and often exceed, the quality of their commercial counterparts.” It’s important to note here that 15 to 20 percent of food served in school cafeterias — not all food — is directly provided by the USDA.
Critics say that the system in place to notify schools of food recalls is ineffective. “The schools will cook it and feed it to the children. The children, who are the most vulnerable to foodborne diseases, are the least protected,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
USDA works closely with many partners to ensure the safety of the food served in schools. You can find out more about many of our initiatives at our website (http://www.fns.usda.gov/fns/food_safety.htm). The National Food Service Management Institute is an important partner in providing training to State Agencies and school districts (www.nfsmi.org). We have established a Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition Programs at Kansas State University that has a number of projects underway that will increase our ability to keep food safe in schools. You can find out more about them at http://cnsafefood.k-state.edu/.
As noted, there are multiple layers of protection. USDA has requirements that all schools have a food safety program based on HACCP [Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points] principles and that all schools receive two food safety inspections per year from their state or local regulatory authority. Additionally, schools- and the foods served in them- are subject to the same federal, state, and local regulations that protect the food offered in all retail establishments, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and hospitals. Finally, most States and school districts have additional food safety safeguards in place, such as providing training for staff, requiring food safety certifications, and having additional food safety requirements for foods purchased commercially.
Whose Interests Come First?
USDA has conflicting missions. While it is charged with nourishing U.S. school children and maintaining food safety, it must also help promote and grow the country’s food industry. “The question of whether they’re putting the interests of industry ahead of the interests of students is much more difficult to pin down,” said USA Today reporter Peter Eisler.
USDA ensures that the nation’s nutrition assistance programs, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), meet individuals’ food and nutrition needs. The health and safety of the 31 million children we serve each day in our school nutrition programs is of the utmost importance to us. USDA is committed to a comprehensive, coordinated approach to food safety for the NSLP.
First Lady Michelle Obama lobbied Congress to pass a bill in 2010 requiring school lunches to be healthier — by setting calorie limits, for instance — and making school districts eligible for an additional 6 cents in reimbursement per school lunch.
But “Lunch Hour” director James Costa said that schools need more funding for lunches in order to truly provide appetizing and healthy food for students. Individuals and school officials, he said, can also make a difference by encouraging children to help them plan school menus and even have them help cook.
“Our country should be investing in what we eat and caring about kids’ bodies — making sure they’re healthy on day 1,” he told me.
“Lunch Hour” is available on iTunes and Amazon starting this week.
Photo by Birdstreet Productions.