A dollar badly spent: New facts on processed food in school lunches Grist
Komisar looked at two less-examined aspects of the school lunch program. The first is the practice of taking up to $1 billion of "surplus" fruits, vegetables, and meats that the USDA supplies to the program and, rather than cooking them into healthy meals, turning them into high-fat processed foods. The second is the surprisingly inefficient economics of outsourcing cafeteria services to private companies like Sodexo or Aramark.
As for the first practice, about $1 billion of surplus foods like apples, potatoes, and chicken are transferred from the USDA to schools for free every year. Only most schools don't prepare the foods in their own kitchens -- they pay processing companies, as Komisar says, "to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza, and the like."
And, of course, french fries.
Schools across the country have shut down their own kitchens in favor of facilities that can reheat and serve these processed foods. The logic was supposed to be irresistible -- it combined the efficiencies of centralized food production with the simplicity of easily trained workers.
However, as Komisar observes, turning chicken into chicken nuggets isn't all that cheap:
The Michigan Department of Education, for example, gets free raw chicken worth $11.40 a case and sends it for processing into nuggets at $33.45 a case. The schools in San Bernardino, Calif., spend $14.75 to make French fries out of $5.95 worth of potatoes
.... Roland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found in 2008 that Michigan schools that hired private food-service management firms spent less on labor and food but more on fees and supplies, yielding "no substantive economic savings."
...As one principal Komisar spoke to put it, in the wake of her district switching to management company Sodexo, "the savings were paltry ... You pay a little less and your kids get strawberry milk, frozen French fries, and artificial shortening." Every day.
But what really gets me about all of this isn't just the fact that we're willingly shelling out serious money to turn healthy ingredients into junk, but that we're also taking good jobs out of communities that need them:
School kitchen workers are generally unionized, with benefits; they are also typically local residents who have children in public schools and care about their well-being. Laid-off school workers become an economic drain instead of a positive force. And the rebate deals with national food manufacturers cut out local farmers and small producers like bakers, who could offer fresh, healthy food and help the local economy.