Lawmakers get school lunch
By Jane Black
The Washington Post
Chicken fajita strips, sliced ham and canned green beans: That’s what’s for lunch one day this week for some lawmakers and Congressional staffers, courtesy of the Department of Agriculture. The menu offers the same food ó so-called commodity food ó that the agency provides every day to public schools across the nation.
The goal of this week’s special tasting is to show lawmakers the improvements the department has made in the nutritional quality ó and taste ó of the $1.2 billion of school commodity foods and to win support to fund further improvements. With one-third of U.S. children overweight to the point of obesity, a condition that may lead to life-long health problems, the USDA has been working hard to cut salt, reduce fat and provide more fruits and vegetables.
“These guys are moving in the right direction,” said Tony Geraci, the food service director for Baltimore City Public Schools and a pioneer for healthful foods in schools. “Is it fixed? Hell, no. But at least now we’re having conversations about this. Before, it was straight-up stonewalling.”
The tasting also is an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the commodity foods program, which provides from 15 percent to 20 percent of food served in school cafeterias. Officially dubbed USDA Foods, these products have long been perceived as a conflict of interest in the Department’s mission: to promote American farmers and ranchers while also overseeing nutrition programs for low-income families and children at school. Were such programs a way to distribute meat, cheeses and other commodities that couldn’t find a buyer on the open market? Or was the Department really making choices based on public health?
Improving the quality of foods provided free to schools also is important at a time when school budgets are squeezed. President Obama has proposed an additional $1 billion for child nutrition programs, including school lunch, in his 2010 budget. But with a projected $1.3 trillion federal deficit, even the strongest supporters of school-lunch reform concede a substantial increase in funding is unlikely to pass when Congress takes up the issue next year.
In preparation for the Capitol Hill debut, the USDA offered up a tasting to Secretary Tom Vilsack,who sampled more than a dozen products such as canned green beans set out in Dixie cups, apple slices and hamburger patties. (His initial comment: “I wish I hadn’t eaten such a big lunch.”)
On paper anyway, the green beans looked good. The product, specially formulated to meet USDA specifications, has 64 percent less sodium than commercially available canned beans. For the 2010 school year, the agency has mandated that canned vegetables have no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving, 71 percent fewer than the Food and Drug Administration’s “healthy” standard. The hamburger patties, developed for a 2008 pilot program to help fight childhood obesity, were 95 percent lean. The closest commercial beef patty available is 92 percent lean.
The USDA now offers more than 180 fresh and processed foods to schools, up from 54 in 1981. The foods are provided to schools free, based on the number of students eligible for government assistance. Schools buy the rest of their ingredients from commercial suppliers.
School food directors say the quality of commodities available is excellent ó if schools choose wisely. The USDA offers high-quality dried fruits, nuts, brown rice, legumes and unprocessed meat, among other things. Last month, the USDA announced that as part of the bonus commodity program, which allows the USDA to buy up surplus food to help support prices for farmers, it would make available $33 million of apples, tart cherries and dried plums. Some of the cherries will be processed into cherry-apple juice, with no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners, for schools.
At least one challenge remains, however: Persuading schools to embrace the more healthful options. Many schools lack kitchens and are at most capable of reheating prepared items. And many school food service directors do not have nutrition or culinary training. They also know that they can sell more trays of greasy pizza and french fries to students than fruits and vegetables ó a tactic that helps keep already-tight budgets in line.
As food service director Geraci says: “If you have 20,000 lunch ladies that just want to open up a box of chicken nuggets, they’re going to keep making them.”
To encourage more healthful choices, the USDA is awaiting help from Congress when it takes up the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act next year. As part of the legislation, lawmakers are considering a measure that would allow the department to set strict standards for foods sold outside the lunch line.