What Kids Eat in School Cafeterias (WARNING: Don't read if you don't want to pack their lunches every day)

Two articles that I’ve read recently have convinced me to never again let my children eat a school lunch.

The first, published in October by the New York Times, chronicles the flawed U.S. meat inspection process, and how an E.coli-infected hamburger permanently disabled Minnesota resident Stephanie Smith.

Her toxic burger came from an amalgamation of beef trimmings from four suppliers. One was Beef Products, Inc. a company that, every week, processes seven million pounds of “fine lean textured beef,” which, according to the article, “averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat.” These fatty trimmings are then warmed, run through a centrifuge and then treated with ammonia, to kill E. coli. Now, here are the six sentences that sent a chill up my spine:

“… the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program [emphasis mine].

“An Iowa State University study financed by Beef Products found that ammonia reduces E. coli to levels that cannot be detected. The Department of Agriculture accepted the research as proof that the treatment was effective and safe…

But federal school lunch officials found E. coli in Beef Products material in 2006 and 2008 and again in August, and stopped it from going to schools… A Beef Products official… said that last year’s contamination stemmed from a ‘minor change in our process,’ which the company adjusted. The company did not respond to questions about the latest finding.”

Bottom line: the U.S.D.A. still allows Beef Products, a company with a questionable safety record, to supply our schools with hamburger meat.

The second article that clinched it for me was published by USA TODAY on December 8. Here’s the lead paragraph:

“In the past three years, the government has provided the nation’s schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants, from Jack in the Box and other burger places to chicken chains such as KFC, a USA TODAY investigation found.”

Specifically, the article explains, fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, test their ground beef “five to ten times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools.” And the chickens served in schools (in the form of “nuggets,” “strips,” “patties,” “tacos,” “drummies,” all of which are served in my kids' school) actually come from “spent hens” that “might otherwise go to compost or pet food.” They are of such poor quality that KFC and Campbell’s Soup Company “stopped using them a decade ago.”

As I’ve written previously about the National School Lunch Program, I support it in principle because of the millions of children who wouldn’t get a daily meal without it. But the health and safety of my daughters comes first, so I’m compelled to do what’s best for them and opt out.

But I won’t stop there. There's a bill currently before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor right now. It’s H.R. 1324, The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, and its intent is to update the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. (Yes, it’s true. What public schools feed to our children is based on legislation – and nutritional information – that’s 44 years old.) The ranking member of the committee is Representative John Kline from Minnesota’s 2nd district. I sent Rep. Kline an e-mail yesterday, and told him that I’d like to get an update on the status of this bill. I haven’t heard back yet; maybe he'll add a comment to this blog post.

Have you also decided to keep your kids out of the school lunch program? Then it wouldn’t hurt – in fact, it would help a lot – if you would also call or write to Rep. Kline. Here’s his contact information to get you started.

John Kline's Minnesota Office
101 West Burnsville Parkway, Suite 201
Burnsville, MN 55337
Phone: (952) 808-1213
Toll-Free: (888) 808-6644
Fax: (952) 808-1261

John Kline's Washington Office
1210 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-2271
Fax: (202) 225-2595

You can also send an e-mail through a web-based form on his web site. However, it will only accept a zip code that’s in his district. So just type in "55337," that's the zipcode of Rep. Kline's Burnsville office. (It’s OK, the box is labeled “Zip Code” – not “Your Zip Code.”)

As Thom Hartmann always says at the close of his radio talk show: "Democracy begins with you. Get out there. Get active. Tag – you're it!"