Sunday, May 15, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

If you wonder why schools often serve such horrible processed food to children, look no further than the huge amounts of money manufacturers pay to put certain products on kids' cafeteria trays.

As I've detailed here previously, the food industry practice of "rebating" things like Apple Jacks cereal, chicken nuggets and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins creates an inherent conflict of interest for school meal programs but generates billions of dollars in profits for giant food service companies such as Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark.

On the heels of a settlement between Sodexo and the State of New York last year, in which the company agreed to pay $20 million to resolve claims it failed to credit rebates to schools and other government clients as required, U.S. Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack says the agency will conduct an audit.

According to Vilsack, USDA auditors will look closely into the rebating practices in at least one school district to determine whether federal law government school meal programs is being adhered to. USDA rules require that food service companies operating under contracts where schools reimburse their expenses must credit the schools for any rebates or discounts they receive from manufacturers.

The USDA previously audited school districts in the Midwest and found that food service companies routinely pocketed the rebates rather than pass them on to their clients. In a recent speech before the School Nutrition Association, New York Deputy Attorney General John F. Carroll said his investigation is ongoing and that he expects future settlements with more food service companies besides Sodexo.

Carroll says the value of rebates in school food programs typically amounts to 10 to 15 percent of total purchases. My own investigation revealed that Chartwells claimed more than $1 million in rebates during its first year of operations in District of Columbia schools, but that amounted to just five percent of total purchases.


Is someone at the USDA reading this blog?

For more than a year now, we've been visiting school cafeterias here in D.C. to photograph the food and monitor what kids are eating. It's pretty clear that what kids prefer are all those processed foods that make adults cringe--the chicken nuggets, the tater tots, the French fries. They routinely throw "healthier" food such as green vegetables in the trash.

Well now the USDA says it wants to train its own eyes on cafeteria eating habits. To do so, the agency will place cameras in five elementary schools in San Antonio, Texas, and photograph what children are actually eating.

The $2 million program will mount cameras over the cash register to photograph the food kids choose. Lunch trays will be tagged with a bar code to identify them when the kids finish eating and return the trays to the kitchen. Cameras there will record what's left on the trays, giving researchers some photographic evidence of what the kids have eaten--or not.

"We're trying to be as passive as possible. The kids know they're being monitored," said Dr. Roger Echon, who works for the San Antonio-based Social & Health Research Center, and who is building the food-recognition program.

Parents will receive the data for their children, and researchers hope eating habits at home will change once moms and dads see what their kids are choosing in school. The data also will be used to study what foods children are likely to choose and how much they're eating.

The eye-in-the-sky research comes just as the USDA is considering new meal standards that would require more green and orange vegetables and more whole grains in school meals--the kind of things kids typically refuse to eat.


Finally, the USDA has issued a new rule that could result in more locally-grown foods appearing in school meal programs.

The rule, part of the child nutrition re-authorization Congress passed in December, allows schools to give preference to local providers when they bid on school food contracts.

Encouraging more local produce in schools could spur local agriculture and put fresher foods on kids' plates--or so the theory goes. Alice Waters, whose "Edible Schoolyard" has influence school garden programs around the country, says local produce won't do much if kids don't eat it (and don't we know it.) What kids need, she says, its lots more education around healthier eating habits.

"We should certainly try to improve diets by make school lunches more nutritious and by getting the vending machines out of the hallways," Waters said. "But we can't be sure that kids are even eating — let alone understanding — what nourishment is all about. Kids are wary of unfamiliar foods, besides they can always buy packaged junk before and after school."

Waters says schools need to offer credit for edible education the way they do for phys ed, science and math. They need mandatory lunch programs, like the one in Chicago that grabbed headlines a few weeks ago. The more kids know about food and the more they have a hand in growing or preparing or serving it, the more likely they are to eat it, she says.

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