I am finishing up a longer piece on this topic and would love some thoughts.
RETHINKING AGRICULTURAL COMMODITIES
SF Chronicle, 10 May 2007
Just as the scales beneath the feet of our nation’s children are reaching a tipping point, so too is the social movement of providing local, organic foods for America’s schoolchildren. This is welcome news to Alice Waters and others who have long-promoted the health and lifestyle benefits of consuming whole, organic, locally grown and produced foods. Change is underway in many districts around the country; one of the most promising is the Berkeley Unified School District, which has undergone a complete overhaul of its school lunch program under the leadership of the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann Cooper. With much-needed supplemental funding from Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation, Cooper has set herself to the task of providing healthy, delicious food to 9000 schoolchildren every day. Her work isn’t easy. And sadly, Cooper has to fight the federal government every day to achieve her goal.
Cooper knows that under her tutelage kids will quickly clamor for freshly roasted red potatoes over high fat, processed tater tots, but first she has to get them on their plates. Before she can do that she has to purchase fresh red potatoes. But she has neither the funds nor the permission to place an order at the local farmer’s market. Currently, the nation’s schoolchildren are fed, in large part, by the over-produced agricultural commodities that are promised a market by the Farm Bill. The Department of Agriculture’s commodities policy, which will be revisited by Congress this year when it passes the new Farm Bill, puts the USDA in a conflict of interest between agribusiness and promoting the good health of U.S. schoolchildren.
The USDA supports food industries that produce foods contributing to obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Worse yet, the USDA buys hundreds of millions of pounds of excess beef, pork, milk, and other high-fat meat and dairy products to bolster or normalize dropping prices. It then turns around and dumps those commodities into the National School Lunch Program. Although medical journals are full of evidence of the health benefits of near-vegetarian meals, the vast majority of schools offer meals based on meat and dairy products. Newer studies show a link between lactose-intolerant children, particularly those of African-American descent, and the onset of asthma and hyperactivity disorders, yet most schools don’t offer an alternative, like soy milk, on their menus. The dairy lobby seems to be winning the heart of the USDA over the community of lactose-intolerant children. So long as the USDA has oversight of the National School Lunch Program and continues to carry this conflict of interest, powerful agricultural lobbies will always win.
The National School Lunch Program was enacted by Congress in 1946, with an explicitly stated, dual policy: “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s school children” and “encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods.” Today the USDA acts as a broker between farmers and school kitchens. As agribusiness and mega-farms have increasingly taken over a larger share of the agricultural market, the beneficiaries of commodities subsidies are not the family farmers that the Farm Bill originally intended. Instead, big business, with its powerful pocketbook, has bought the USDA, to the detriment of the nation’s schoolchildren.
Processing commodities intensifies the conflicts of interest within the USDA. Through the National Processing Agreement, designed to reduce paperwork and costs, the USDA holds agreements with agribusiness to turn commodities into processed foods that can be easily heated in school kitchens, because most lack stoves for actual cooking. A full two-thirds of the listed commodities being processed are meat and dairy. The remaining third covers everything from oil and fruit (in the same proportion) and flour and vegetables. The only vegetable listed with any specificity is the potato, and the few fruits on the list are being processed with flour and shortening to become high fat muffins and fruit pastries. Of course the most popular processed food on school lunch menus is high fat pizza. While the approved processors vary in size and capital, it will surprise no one to learn that ConAgra, one of the largest food processing companies in North America, is on the list, profiting from turning cheap government-subsidized commodities into foods that are making schoolchildren obese.
The National School Lunch Program should be treated like a healthy part of our overall educational system, and to that end, Congress should give children an independent broker that runs no risk of bowing to the powerful agribusiness lobby. Chefs like Ann Cooper need a voice within an appropriate agency, such as Health and Human Services or Education, which puts the health and well being of children first. Recognizing in the pending Farm Bill that the National School Lunch Program is not an agricultural program, nor an appropriate dumping ground for a glut of unhealthy commodities, would be a decent first step.