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At One Green Planet, we’ve shared some frightening news about school lunches – from what schools consider to be a “grain” to not allowing parents to pack for their own kids without a doctor’s note to pink slime scares to downright scary images of school lunches consumed by kids across the country every day.

All of this might be enough for you to demand a change. But, to take it a step further, have you ever considered just how much influence corporations may have on what kids eat in schools?

Every school day, more than 31 million children receive free or low-cost meals through the National School Lunch Program. Many other children pay full price for the meals, if they don’t bring their own from home. In 2012, 32 percent of meals were “paid,” 59 percent were “free lunches,” and 9 percent were “reduced price.”

The program works as follows: “School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and USDA foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children.”

Now, that all sounds okay enough. Kids who need help with food get it. But, then, here’s where things get a little dicey. According to an article published in The New York Times by investigative reporter Lucy Komisar, roughly a quarter of school lunch programs have been privatized, “much of it outsourced to food service management giants like Aramark, Sodexo, and the Chartwells division of the Compass Group, based in Britain.” And these food service companies work with food manufacturers such as Tyson, Kellog, and Pilgrim’s directly – “all of which profit when good food is turned to bad,” Komisar writes.

And how is “good food turned bad”? Well, to begin with, there’s the excess processing.

“Here’s one way it works,” Komisar says. “The Agriculture Department pays about $1 billion a year for commodities like fresh apples and sweet potatoes, chickens and turkeys. Schools get the food free; some cook it on site, but more and more pay processors to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza and the like.”

And the numbers to turn whole foods into processed goods like nuggets and French fries are astounding: “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.”

All of that processing of previous whole foods may have you wondering, where are the nutritional guidelines here?

According to the Federal Education Budget Project, there are indeed nutrition requirements for foods utilized through the program, including restrictions on calories and fats and a specific amount of nutrients. However, it is estimated that “fewer than 30 percent of schools meet the existing nutrition requirements.”

The Federal Education Budget Project goes on to explain the scrutiny many schools have faced; there is concern about “school lunch programs’ reliance on cheap, processed food over more pricey fresh fruits and vegetables. Critics of school meal programs also believe that the nutrition requirements are contributing to childhood obesity.”

Then, let’s focus in on the money portion of this issue. Could this have anything to do with the rebates companies like Sodexo, Chartwells, and Aramark receive from companies like Kellogg and Tyson? According to the New York Attorney General’s Office, “Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells get large payments of between 10 and 50 percent of purchases” in exchange for serving big food corporations’ goods to schoolchildren. In a speech to the School Nutrition Association, New York Attorney General John F. Carroll explained how this practice can create a “conflict of interest” between what these companies ultimately serve – will the food be the stuff that is best for children, or will it be the food that brings the best rebate back to the company?

There are reports that rebates might be king: Komisar, in another investigative piece for, reports: “A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) audit found that, in its sample, the national school lunch program was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year more because food-service management companies improperly retained cash-back discounts.”

Since 2007, the USDA has mandated that companies have to provide schools with invoices showing these rebates (and that federal reimbursements would not pay these amounts), but then there are the issues of a) the damage that has already been done and b) the potential for such rebates to still occur in possibly “hidden” ways as explained by Komisar here.

The bottom line? The more than 31 million children (plus the countless others paying for this stuff) are consuming food through the National School Lunch Program that doesn’t meet even basic nutritional guidelines (70 percent of schools!), has been unnecessarily processed and perhaps prioritized in terms of financial gain – as opposed to the health and well-being of the students – by the companies actually serving the stuff in schools.

Not that’s scary, Green Monsters. Is it finally time to tell your school how you feel about what’s being fed to children (perhaps your own) in the name of potential gains that probably have nothing to do with the kids we’re feeding?

Image Source: USDA/Flickr

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