‘Pink Slime’: What’s Next For School Lunches?Wed 11 Apr 2012
Story by Rebecca Maclean
Playing Catch-Up With ‘Pink Slime’
If you’ve been paying attention to food-related news in the past three weeks, you’ve likely heard about ‘Pink Slime’.
As the Food Revolution has noted previously, the term has been around since 2002. Also known as Lean Finely Textured Beef, the substance gained some attention in 2010 when Jamie staged a demonstration on the ABC series of the Food Revolution.
But since Bettina Siegel posted a Change.org petition on March 6th urging the USDA to stop using ‘Pink Slime’ in the National School Lunch program, the ‘Pink Slime’ controversy has become a heated national debate.
Siegel’s petition received over a quarter-million signatures in just three weeks. The USDA has acknowledged the pressure, issuing an announcement that it would give school districts the option to purchase beef with or without LFTB. Many large school districts, including those in New York City and Boston, have stopped purchasing beef containing LFTB, while those that don’t use ‘Pink Slime’, like the Houston ISD, are confirming that their beef is LFTB-free. Most recently, Beef Products, Inc. announced the suspension of operations at three of the four plants where LFTB is produced.
Tensions on this topic are running high – while ‘Pink Slime’ opponents are pleased with the initial inroads made with the USDA, they’re not content with this first victory and are actively lobbying members of Congress to keep such additives out of the meat supply. In contrast, the meat industry has gone on the defensive, starting their own site supporting LFTB, and taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal.
The takeaway from this controversy is clear: people didn’t know what their kids were eating. When they learned the truth, they wanted ‘Pink Slime’ taken out of their children’s meals – and out of their supermarkets as well. Americans haven’t suddenly turned vegetarian, leaving the beef industry in the lurch. But when given the opportunity to make informed choices, consumers will decide based on what’s in their best interest. In this case, once people were educated about the industrial food system, they chose to change their purchasing habits, and pushed for the government to do the same.
So Now What?
In addition to the USDA giving school districts that purchasing option, Congress is urging the USDA to take ‘Pink Slime’ out of the National School Lunch Program completely, and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has introduced a bill, the Real Beef Act requiring that ‘‘Pink Slime’’ be labeled. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is planning similar legislation in the Senate.
But how does this affect the school districts that actually feed our kids five days a week? Now that parents are paying closer attention to the food in local schools, how can they help districts continue to make changes for the better, especially when many districts and states are strapped for cash? And most importantly, how can parents be assured that the food that is fed to all children is nutritious, safe, and relatively free of additives?
Commentators think that the USDA ‘Pink Slime’/no-’Pink Slime’ choice will lead to a two-tiered ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ system of school lunches, where better-funded districts that can afford it decide on higher-quality food, while cash-strapped districts end up stuck with lower-priced ‘Pink Slime’-laced beef. But even if money were not an issue, extracting ‘‘Pink Slime’’ from the food supply available to school districts is difficult. The USDA doesn’t currently require that beef products containing ‘Pink Slime’ be labeled as such. Because of the lack of labeling requirements, and that many districts have already placed their food orders for the upcoming school year, the deck is stacked against a quick phase-out.
Don’t forget – districts also have to work within the USDA reimbursement guidelines if they don’t want to pay out-of-pocket for food service. And the new rules for school meals – championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and doubling the amounts of fruits and veg served to children – are estimated to add $3.2 billion in costs to the school lunch program. Pulling ‘Pink Slime’ from menus will also add to the cost of the program at the local level.
Dealing with high-volume food production in large school districts can also be problematic. Centralized food services are great for cutting costs, but not necessarily for getting high quality food onto the lunch plates of students. Smaller schools, like Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School, are showing that innovative things can be done in school lunch programs. However, moving from a school of 450 students that develops partnerships with local restaurants and catering businesses (and that also values food quality enough to operate its lunch program at a loss) to a district that serves tens of thousands of children with no budget flexibility requires even more creativity. Especially if schools no longer have fully equipped kitchens, switching to a decentralized model will take more time and money than many districts can afford.
Grass-roots Movements Can Spur Major Changes
As with most established bureaucracies, change will come slowly. But the last three weeks of ‘Slime-gate’ have shown that grass-roots movements can spur major changes. All children who eat school meals – regardless of where they live or how wealthy their parents are – deserve to eat healthy food that tastes good. So keep the heat on the USDA, tell your elected officials to support Rep. Pingree’s and Sen. Menendez’s initiatives, and urge them to support the Local Farm, Foods and Jobs Act as part of the Farm Bill reauthorization process.
Finally, get involved where you live. Call your local school district and ask about their food service. Attend a school board meeting. Advocate for a more transparent system for good food!
About the author: Rebecca Maclean (@foodmeonce) is a food policy blogger whose interests lie at the intersection of urban gardening, food security, and public health. She writes at foodmeonce.com and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Digging Deep Campaign. Rebecca wrangles a husband, two kids, and several raised beds in her spare time.
A hamburger from Burgatory Bar in Pittsburgh, PA, a locally owned restaurant that partners with the Environmental Charter School and its school lunch program.
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