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Score One for the Crony Capitalists in the School Lunch Program

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Pizza remains a vegetable and you can have as many greasy fries as you like, all thanks to Congress.

What kind of country allows what appears to be open financial corruption to poison its children’s school lunches? The answer seems to be our country.
Two of the biggest school lunch suppliers, together with their congressional lapdogs, are strong-arming the USDA. They’re the ones who twisted the regulations so that a slice of cheese pizza could be considered a vegetable, and made sure our kids’ lunch plates could stay filled with French fries. Meanwhile, the management companies responsible for administering the lunch programs are receiving what look to us to be kickbacks from food suppliers and distributors.

Last January, the USDA made a feeble attempt to improve the situation by making school lunches healthier through better Dietary Guidelines. As we reported then, the agency’s goals of including more vegetables and whole grains in the lunch program were laudable. But USDA officials didn’t pay attention to real nutrition research, and ended up advocating a diet that can actually make people obese.

Unfortunately, other government food programs also rely on USDA guidelines and have notably poor nutrition plans. For example, the government WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program includes soy-based infant formula as an alternative to milk—despite the documented dangers to infants from soy chemicals mimicking estrogen or other hormones.

In general, the USDA, which seems more concerned with getting food sold than making our children healthy, gets a very poor grade as a nutrition advisor. But it gets worse. Far worse.

Congress just passed an appropriations bill including a particular rider (an additional provision added to a bill which has little connection to the subject matter of the bill) forcing USDA to change its feeble new guidelines in ways that further benefit special interests—and harm kids’ health. Serving the interests of giant food companies, the rider seeks to preserve pizza as a “vegetable” under the school lunch program and also to be sure that unlimited French fries can be served.

How exactly, you might wonder, can pizza be defined as a vegetable? In the school lunch program, most pastes and purees get credit for the “actual volume as served,” meaning that there must be half-cup servings to qualify, no matter how nutrient-dense they may be. USDA wanted the tomato paste on pizza to be treated the same way. But Congress carved out an exception for tomato paste and mandated that two tablespoons qualifies as a serving. Why exactly two tablespoons? Because that’s the amount that is used on a slice of pizza. In this way, a slice of cheese pizza gets to be counted as a serving of vegetables, courtesy of our esteemed Congress.

The new USDA guidelines also restricted the amount of starchy vegetables in lunches, which includes the potatoes used for French fries, and cut back on the amount of sodium allowed. The new rider overrides those new restrictions too, so kids can be served unlimited fries.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the American Frozen Food Institute, which supplies frozen French fries, was one of the heavy-hitters in getting the rider passed. Senators Susan Collins and Mark Udall, both from big potato-producing states, joined with the National Potato Council to fight the limits on starchy vegetables.

Schwan’s Food Service, which supplies frozen pizzas to 75% of US schools, is the corporate behemoth of the school lunch program. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, from Schwan’s home state, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack extolling the nutritional value of tomato paste. Schwan donated $4,000 to Rep. John Kline and $6,000 to Rep. Peterson—both of whom also fought to create the tomato paste exception.

In August, Schwan’s issued a press release claiming it “has been feeding America’s children at school for 36 years and is a leader in the $9.5 billion school foodservice industry.” They went on to talk about new options with more whole grains and fewer calories from fat, but then sang the virtues of pizza: “Pizza continues to be the choice of students for school lunch, and we’ve created great tasting products that provide the nutrition that kids need.” Well, some of us at ANH-USA have kids in public high school, and they report the pizza served there is the greasiest, sorriest, least-appetizing pizza they have ever seen. But let’s ignore that for the moment and go back to measuring tomato paste.

Clearly, for pizza to continue being counted as a vegetable, something had to be done about that new pesky half-cup serving guideline. So the lobbyists went to work, and the legislators did their bidding, apparently without worrying about the kids. Federal lobbying records show that Schwan and the American Frozen Food Institute spent $450,000 on congressional lobbying this year (though there are no specifics on what precisely they were lobbying for).

We wish this were all that is wrong with the school lunch program, but it isn’t.

The US Department of Agriculture pays $1 billion per year to buy produce and meat for school lunches. Instead of preparing that food on-site in a healthy manner, schools hire management companies, which in turn hire processors to prepare the food. The processors turn chicken meat, scraps, flavorings, and fillers of uncertain origin into things like chicken nuggets, etc. The processors in turn pay what look to us to be kickbacks to the management companies for choosing them over another processor. None of this money goes back to the schools. Those seeming kickbacks—the management companies would call them rebates—are arguably illegal. The New York Attorney General sued one management company and received a $20 million settlement.

Even if the school lunch system weren’t corrupt, it would still be unhealthy. In 2003, the USDA approved irradiated meat for the school lunch program. Since then, Congress has placed limitations on irradiated meat in school lunches, but it is still served.

Schools can’t even get something as traditional as chocolate milk right these days. Of course recent research does suggest that adding chocolate can make the calcium less bio-available, but let’s not fuss about that. Nor, for a moment, the growth hormones or the antibiotics in the milk itself that we have descried in other articles. But how about the BHT added to the chocolate milk? BHT is a preservative that is also used in cosmetics, pharmaceutical drugs, rubber and petroleum products, jet fuels, and embalming fluids. It causes cancer in animals, and can cause liver and kidney damage, but most notably causes behavioral problems and hyperactivity in children. Perhaps the supposition is that if Johnny acts up, we can just give him some drugs to calm him down (please see our article on that subject in this issue)!

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