Public school students are the latest victims of corporate favoritism in national policy. Although policies on school lunch are advertised as beneficial to student health, in reality the only benefactors are the companies that won the contracts to provide lunch to millions of students across the country.
One such company is Aramark, a $13.95 billion foodservice company headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to OpenSecrets.org, they paid Heather Podesta & Partners, a lobbying firm in Washington D.C., $100,000 last year. Their continuous lobbying may have contributed to the fact that they serve more than 500 school districts across the country including Houston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
In Chicago’s public schools, all the cafeteria’s food comes from Aramark. That would surprise you if you read the City of Chicago’s recent manifesto: Eat Local Live Healthy. The publication announces the creation of a taskforce to “Promote Healthy Eating and Smart Choices” and places healthy locally grown foods in public schools as part of an effort to provide healthier food.
It appears that the 23% of Chicago’s public school children between ages 3 and 7 who are overweight are not benefitting from Aramark’s $97 million contract, or the 75 million meals and 70 million units of milk they will provide next year.
According to a recent Huffington Post investigation, “[Southside Chicago] students have been fed ‘disgusting’ meals under Aramark”. A teacher “claimed the children were repeatedly served rotten apples last spring and were given moldy bread last month”. The violations have been egregious across the board. The Huffington Post report cites one account claiming an Aramark sponsored cafeteria served spoiled broccoli. The article also brings up complaints about possible conflicts of interest between the Chicago school district and Aramark, noting two former employees of Aramark that have gone on to prominent positions in the Chicago school district’s bureaucracy.
In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Program in order to combat malnutrition in public schools, and to ensure that dairy farmers remained afloat despite dropping commodity prices. Indeed, the number one nutritional requirement the act listed was milk. According to the act, every student should have at least a half pint of milk, preferably 2 pints. If the school district could not meet this requirement the government would step in. The Secretary of Agriculture was authorized the “to use funds of the Commodity Credit Corporation to purchase sufficient supplies of dairy products at market prices to meet the requirements of any programs for the schools” (USDA.gov). The dairy farmers got paid and the lactose intolerant kids got sick.
The perverse incentives remain. In 2012, the federal government mandated that public schools provide “healthy lunches,” filled with fruits and vegetables, and low in fat and sodium, to help combat childhood obesity. Pizza is categorized as a vegetable (because it has two tablespoons of tomato paste) under the mandate. Maybe that’s because Schwan Food Co., a company with its own political action committee, makes 70 percent of school-lunch pizza.
Since about 32 million children eat school lunch and a third of American children are obese or overweight, it makes sense for the national government to be concerned about the one or two meals public schools can provide five days a week. However, school lunches demonstrate how corporate favoritism has triumphed over public health.
National bureaucracies such as the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, do little to improve the health of school children and end up hijacking local efforts to do so. Although the FNS administers several programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Special Milk Program, most of these programs result in healthier returns for select corporations as opposed to healthier students.
School lunch policy should be local: locally sourced, locally decided and locally accountable. If school lunches are to become healthier, it will take a community effort, not another piece of legislation or bureaucratic mandate.