This one goes out to the food conspiracists I love:

As I was researching the evils of the National Dairy Council and the USDA (blog forthcoming), I stumbled upon this great New York Times article from late last year.  In “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” Lucy Komisar exposes the unholy alliance between food industry giants and the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.

The National School Lunch Program uses agricultural surplus (most of which is turned into processed food) to feed our children.  With increasing privatization of school lunch programs, the abuses abound.

According to Komisar, this privatization has led not only to local producers being cut out of the equation, but also to outright corruption. For example, food service management companies like Sodexo have been sued for pocketing “rebates” from food processors.

The private management companies work with large producers like Tyson and Pilgrim’s (two of the most egregious agribusiness corporations on the planet) to take the government’s free food and process it, making it into tasteless, unhealthy junk food.

Privatization is also associated with lower wages for food service workers and lower test scores for children.

Government agricultural subsidies like those that supply the school lunch program hurt children in other ways, too.

Recently, a study by CALPRIG (California Public Interest Research Group) found that (you’d better sit down for this one) the U.S. government subsidizes junk food far more than healthy food.  I love the tongue in cheek (but accurate) statistics in the report.  My favorite is concerning the lack of subsidies for fruit and vegetables (apples are the only fruit that is significantly subsidized):

If subsidies for junk food ingredients went directly to taxpayers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 141 million taxpayers would receive $7.58 to spend on junk food and 27 cents to spend on apples each year—enough to buy 21 Twinkies but just half of one Red Delicious apple.

I don’t know if the government should subsidize produce and tax junk food (a step that recent studies show is working), but I do know we should stop subsidizing commodities and processed food.  Most importantly, we need to get the food industry giants out of our schools.  The conflict of interest the USDA creates in working with big agribusiness and the processed food industry is a serious danger to our health and our democracy.  When it involves children, it is even more insidious.

On a brighter note, in many ways, things are getting better.  The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (the Child Nutrition Act), signed into law by President Obama in December of 2010, made several improvements to the federal school lunch program.  It sets aside money for farm to school programs and school gardens and it provides more money for fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains.

There were quite a few disappointing consessions to the food industry, however.  Companies like Sodexo and ConAgra lobbied against reductions in processed food and, according to Mark Bittman in the NYT:

Lobbyists for the potato industry made a fuss and the Senate stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen, and that concession is integrated into the new rules: Potatoes will still be unlimited[1]. Similarly, you might remember that Congress and industry worked together to make sure that the tomato paste on pizza would continue to qualify it as a vegetable.

The law comes up for financing every five years, so we need to prepare for another fight against the food industry.  Until then, some states are taking matters into their own hands.

Many California districts, for example, have forged ahead with their own local school nutrition initiatives like salad bars, scratch cooking and using local food.

These plans have proven lucrative too, demonstrating that healthy eating in schools doesn’t have to cost more.  And I’d much rather our schools profit than the food industry.

It is up to individual school districts to fight for reform on their own.  We can’t wait for the federal government to do it for us.  While we are not waiting for them, however, we can ask our representatives to make sure that schools’ access to fresh, local food is addressed in the Farm Bill Reauthorization Act this September.

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