Hold the Slime
The push for healthy, local school lunches
By Chris Busby
The recent uproar over the use of a filler known as pink slime in school cafeteria hamburgers has reminded adults of something kids have always said: school lunch sucks. Like the slime itself — a slurry of fat scraps spun in a centrifuge and gassed with ammonium hydroxide — the food served to public school children tends to be dirt cheap, highly processed, low in nutrients, and no one seems to know where it comes from.
Since school lunch programs were institutionalized in the middle of the last century, they have exacerbated disasters on numerous fronts, including the economy, the environment, public health, and education itself.
Every year in Maine, upwards of $40 million of public money leaves the state and fattens the bank accounts of agribusiness giants whose farming and livestock practices are wreaking havoc on the continent’s soil and water. Untold thousands of gallons of oil and gasoline are combusted every year to truck food here from all corners of the country. Meanwhile, farming families in our own backyard struggle to make ends meet.
The food our children eat in school contributes to the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. But even more damaging to their long-term health is the message behind the meal. Children learn by example, and the lesson they get in the cafeteria every school day is that good food is essentially fast food, dished out by apathetic workers who take no pride in what they’re serving and wolfed down in a rush before the bell rings. (For example, in Portland’s King Middle School, which prides itself on students learning through experience, the lunch period is 20 minutes long, including time spent waiting in line.)
Many items on public school lunch menus mimic those found at fast food joints: burgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, chicken patty sandwiches. The most common ingredient on the Portland Public Schools’ middle school lunch menu is cheese: nachos and cheese, cheese ravioli, macaroni and cheese, bagel and string cheese, grilled cheese sandwich, steak and cheese hoagie, turkey and cheese on wheat, pazzo bread (bread topped with cheese), Bosco Sticks (bread with cheese inside).
For most of its existence, the public school lunch was little different than the food served in prison or on the battlefield. “Early school lunch programs and cafeteria offerings were aimed at filling hungry children with calories,” Lynne Oliver, a food historian and blogger, wrote in response to e-mailed questions. “While it is possible some of these foods were grown locally or made fresh, the majority of meals were canned government surplus. Think: US Army rations.”
Surplus food and government-subsidized commodities are still the major sources of calories for most public school students. Ground beef containing pink slime has been distributed to schools for years through the commodities program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (In the wake of the slime scandal, the USDA announced that schools will be given an option to buy beef without the filler next year.)
The Obama Administration, prodded in no small measure by the First Lady, has been taking steps to improve the nutritional value of school lunches. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 gave the USDA authority to set higher nutritional standards for all food sold in schools — even from vending machines. It increased the federal reimbursement schools receive for subsidized lunches by about a nickel per meal — the first substantive increase in over 30 years, according to a White House press release.
More importantly, the act contains a provision that recognizes the value of unprocessed, locally grown and raised food. When evaluating bids to provide products to their schools, districts will now be able to give preference to distributors and producers offering local options. Sysco of Northern New England, the primary distributor to Portland’s schools, has recently been increasing the number of local products it carries in response to this shift in demand.
Although the federal government is beginning to reform school lunch, the real progress so far has been made at the local level by people who aren’t in positions of power. A report on farm to school programs delivered to the Maine Legislature in 2010 notes that there’s been an “explosion of this largely grass-root activity” in the past decade, and those efforts are “often volunteer-initiated or operated.”
It’s parents, not politicians, who will ultimately redeem the school lunch system, and they stand to save much more than the meal in the process.
The federal school lunch program developed in tandem with the rise of industrial agriculture, and the needs (and greed) of big agribusiness shaped the way the program operates, said Ken Morse, coordinator of the Maine Farm to School Program, the state chapter of a national network that works to bring more local food into schools.
“It was a double-edged sword,” Morse said. “It provides some healthy and some not-so-healthy food. The commodity program has more to do with supporting industrial agriculture than healthy kids.”
Cheryl Wixson, marketing director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), was more blunt. The food schools get through the commodities program “is shit to eat,” she said. “Our whole food system around the country is making everybody fat and unhealthy.”
The farm-to-school movement has several components, including school gardens and special meals, like the Maine Harvest Lunch, that feature local food. But the most important part is
the effort to establish ongoing relationships between schools and local food producers.
The Maine Farm to School Program has been trying to make those connections for the past five years, and it’s had some success. Morse said between 300 and 400 schools have been contacted so far, and “all are doing some level of local purchasing.”
A handful of small, progressive districts have been able to significantly increase the amount of local food on the menu. In Unity, where MOFGA is headquartered, as much as 40 percent of the food served to school kids comes from local sources, Morse said. But for most districts, it’s closer to 5 percent — not counting milk, which can significantly increase the percentage if it’s locally procured.
A district’s ability to source locally is less a matter of geography and “more a matter of where the champions are,” said Morse. In this regard, Morse said, the food service director in Portland, Ron Adams, “has been a superstar for a long time.”
Adams has been with the Portland School Department for four years. His food service background includes stints at restaurants like The Snow Squall, in South Portland, and The Baker’s Table, one of the first fancy restaurants in the Old Port. He ran the food program at the East End Children’s Workshop, on Munjoy Hill, for five years, and worked for the Gorham school system, where he was instrumental in reviving the Maine Harvest Lunch initiative a decade ago.
Adams has worked hard to increase the amount of local food in the city’s school cafeterias. At this point, about 4 percent of the district’s $1.4 million food budget ($56,000) is paid directly to Maine farmers, butchers, fishermen, and small local food distributors like Farm Fresh Connection, in Freeport, which has been supplying apples, potatoes, carrots, flour, and dried beans to Portland schools. Adding milk to the equation boosts that percentage considerably, to over 20 percent, thanks to a contract with Oakhurst Dairy.
The district gets whole grain pizza crust and dinner rolls from Amato’s. Haddock from Bristol Seafood has been on the menu five times this school year, Adams said. Burgers purchased from the Maine Grind, a wholesaler that gets beef from Herring Brothers Meats in Guilford, Maine, show up on the high school menu about once a month and the other schools’ menus every other month.
Portland’s food service program is exceptional for other reasons, as well. The district was once part of a pilot program that allowed it to receive cash from the USDA commodities program, rather than credits. Schools that get credits must buy the type of food dictated by the USDA from suppliers the department tells them to use. In Portland’s case, “they tell us what products to buy, so they still have that kind of puppetry,” Adams said, but the district can use that federal money (which amounted to $168,000 this year) to purchase food from the suppliers of its choice.
The Cash in Lieu of Commodities program was discontinued, but Portland is still one of the 30 districts in the country allowed to operate under its guidelines. Adams has used some of that federal money to support local producers. This flexibility has also made Portland one of the few districts that have not served students pink slime burgers in recent years.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, has called for a ban on pink slime in all public schools. And a bill she introduced last year, the Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act, would allow any district receiving commodity credits to use a percentage of the funds to buy locally produced food.
Portland’s school district was also fortunate to receive money from a 2010 federal stimulus grant for public health initiatives. Adams used the cash to purchase industrial kitchen equipment for the district’s central food service facility at the former Reed School, and to train food service workers in a skill most of them lacked: cooking.
Barriers and Solutions
Over the decades, as government policies encouraged schools to increasingly rely on processed foods and pre-made meals, school kitchens fell into disuse and lunch ladies (and gentlemen) no longer needed to know how to cook anything.
The lack of kitchen facilities and trained staff is one of the barriers to bringing unprocessed local food into schools. Thanks to the stimulus grant money, Portland has begun to address this issue.
When Adams arrived four years ago, none of the food in Portland’s schools was made from scratch. Now about half of it is. And perhaps not coincidentally, the number of students buying school lunch has increased over roughly the same period, from 34 percent, in 2005, to 53 percent this year.
“I think everybody sees the value [of scratch cooking] because they know it’s better for you,” Adams said. His employees are “proud of what they create and what they serve now, whereas before it was, ‘Ah, this is just a job.’”
The two newest elementary schools in Portland, East End Community School and Ocean Avenue School, were built with functioning kitchens, but all the other elementary schools in the district have little or no space to cook or clean up after meals. Adams said the new schools’ design reflects a realization by administrators that school meals are “part of the education, not something they just go and do for 20 or 30 minutes; not a grand inconvenience, which is what it’s been for so long.”
Another impediment is the perception among food service directors that Maine’s growing season is incompatible with the school year — that by the time most crops here are ready for harvest, the kids are on summer vacation.
That’s simply not true, said Martha Putnum, owner of Farm Fresh Connection, the Freeport-based distributor that works with about 80 local growers. “It’s true you can’t get lettuce from January through March, but you can get something,” she said. “It may be apples and potatoes, beets and carrots.” Besides, she added, “who wants lettuce all year? I don’t. I want a little something hardier in the winter months.”
Farm Fresh provides produce to 15 schools when the Maine Harvest Lunch takes place every fall, but only three districts are regular customers: Falmouth, Yarmouth and Portland. Adams “is excellent at what inventory to bring in, and knows producers and how to use them,” said Putnam. “He embraces it.”
Maine’s climate isn’t a problem. What’s lacking is initiative and know-how on the part of food service directors who’ve been lulled into complacency by years of relying on government food.
The USDA’s commodities are “cheap and easy,” said Wixson of MOFGA, and districts with tight budgets are loathe to give that up. But in her community, Deer Isle, that’s just what they’ve done. “We refused to take those commodities,” which were worth $8,000, she said. “It’s all or nothing. It’s a huge, huge challenge, and we need to raise awareness. It’s a community conversation.”
Not surprisingly, money is the biggest obstacle districts face when they want to go local. What is surprising is the amount of money districts like Portland budget for the food in each meal: $1.50. You can’t get a decent cup of coffee in this town for that sum.
Including the cost of labor, supplies and equipment, the Portland schools budget $3.64 per meal, according to Adams. The price of lunch for kids in grades K-5 is $2.35; for those in grades 6-12, it’s $2.50. But fewer than a quarter of Portland students who eat school lunch pay for it. Nearly all of the rest qualify for free lunch due to their family’s income.
The federal government reimburses schools $2.77 for every free lunch they serve, leaving the district about a buck short on those meals — money the municipality has to cover. (The state contributes a nickel toward every free meal.) Adams said the Portland schools are “very fortunate” that the city has been willing to pony up between $300,000 and $700,000 in recent years to bridge the gap, but he’s not counting on that support to continue.
“School Lunch 101 is that you always want to have a program that is going to be breaking even, and that’s hard to do,” Adams said. “We’re working hard at that. In another three to four years, we should be at that point.” Sales of drinks, snacks and a la carte items in the high schools help the district come closer to breaking even.
Putnam agreed that money is the biggest hurdle to overcome. The small-scale farmers she works with find it hard to compete with government-subsidized commodities in the public school market. They don’t have the contractual relationships that exist between the USDA and big agribusiness. “They pay corn farmers and beef farmers and pork farmers and dairy farmers to produce food for the prisons and schools,” she said. Those farmers can take those government contracts to a bank and get the money they need to produce the food.
Similar arrangements could be made between school districts and local farmers if the money and the initiative existed. The only way that’s going to happen, Putnam said, is if parents demand it.
The movement to reform school lunch is made up of a mish-mash of individual activists, a few progressives within the system, nutrition advocates, environmental groups, and entities like MOFGA and Farm Fresh representing the interests of small-scale agriculture.
One of the most recent and most interesting of the initiatives is FoodCycle. The Brunswick-based nonprofit is organizing a cross-country bicycle ride this spring to document farm-to-school collaborations and raise $10,000 to bring more local food into the lunch program at Brunswick’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.
FoodCycle founder Adam Williams grew up in Brunswick and attended its public schools. “I always felt uncomfortable on certain lunch menu days, when the faux Chinese food was served, because I hated it, but I loved Thursdays, when we had turkey and gravy,” Williams recalled. “I also remember that there were a lot of farms in the area.”
Time spent in the agricultural region of Sonoma County, California, turned him on to the potential to improve nutrition in schools, and a trip to South America ignited his passion for cycling. “I returned to Brunswick and did substitute teaching, remembering these sad faces in the kitchen area there,” he said. “If they were cooking quality meals they would be happier. I remember thinking, ‘What a waste of an amazing opportunity to connect with kids.’”
Williams laments the lack of organization among all the groups working to reform school lunch. “It seems as though everyone is sort of trying to invent the wheel themselves,” he said. “Creating a collaborative of people who are all working towards the same ends through different means is where we’re faltering right now. The more I learn about it, the more I learn there are people doing this great work, but we don’t have a very good organizational body surrounding it.”
“So there are little obstacles, but nothing that we’ve encountered that couldn’t be overcome,” he continued. “It’s just re-structuring and re-envisioning how we teach and how we eat and how we learn, really.”
Sounds like a tall order, but the movement is gaining momentum, and scandals like the pink slime debacle only further the cause.
“There are barriers, but public institutions have the power to transform the food system through their buying power,” said Morse, of Maine’s Farm to School Program. “Parents, grandparents, citizens — we can influence the food service because schools are public institutions, they have public boards … and they can vote in policy to encourage [schools] to buy locally.
The potential economic impact of spending more public school lunch money locally is “huge,” Morse added. “It supports the tax base that then supports the schools. As consumers, we can demand a new system.”
“A lot of it drives back to, ‘How is the budget going to look this year?’ and ‘How much can we do with this amount of money?’” said Adams. “Ideally, how to get out of that is to ask, ‘How much can we do right for the kids?’”
Claire Turlo contributed reporting to this article. Williams is the nephew of her late ex-husband.