School lunchProcessed junk … again? Photo: dancing chopsticks

USDA chief Tom Vilsack has repeatedly said that improving child nutrition will be one of his priorities. One key place to start would be the National School Lunch Program. Because of miserly federal funding for ingredients and kitchen equipment, the cafeteria kitchens in our nation’s public schools have largely becoming reheating centers — and what gets reheated tends to be processed junk from the likes giant food corporations like Conagra and Tyson Foods.

Here are a few examples of the kind of stuff that Tyson, the world’s largest meat processor, peddles to school cafeterias:”Bacon Cheeseburgers, Fully Cooked”; “Tyson® Mini Snackers™ Bites, Fully Cooked”; and “Tyson® Mini Snackers™ Pizza Stuffed Meatball Bites.” Uggh. Then there’s the Tyson Branded Solutions unit, which urges cafeteria managers to serve “branded” fare to kids, using names like Ancho Grill and (my favorite) Crustano’s Cafe. Here’s how Tyson describes this program:

Tyson Branded Solutions™ help you [cafeteria managers] appeal to restaurant-going kids. These franchise-fee free branded solutions help create a more enticing food concept around some of kids’ favorite foods – chicken, pizza, sandwiches, Italian and Mexican. They are proven to drive meal participation and customer retention. They are supported with ongoing merchandising and marketing support.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is the piecemeal privatizaton of the public-school cafeteria. Cafeterias have essentially become marketers for Big Food — teaching a generation of kids that prefab, reheated “pizza-stuffed meatball bites” is what’s good to eat.

Clearly, some rethinking is in order at USDA around school lunches. Will Vilsack provide it? His pick (USDA press release) for Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNCS), Janey Thornton, doesn’t inspire immediate confidence. Thornton’s portfolio includes two key USDA departments: Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP). “FNS administers the nation’s food assistance programs. The CNPP develops and promotes dietary guidance that links scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers,” the USDA press release states. FNS oversees the National School Lunch Program.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

On the positive side, Thornton has hands-on experience. She served as School Nutrition Director for Hardin County Schools in Elizabethtown, Ky., for over 25 years, USDA states. Unfortunately, she has also associated herself strongly with the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and its parent, School Nutrition Foundation — both of which strong industry ties. Here is the USDA press release:

Thornton was President of the 55,000-member School Nutrition Association (SNA) during the 2006-2007 school year. She also served as President of the School Nutrition Foundation and was an active member of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. She has held leadership roles in the Kentucky School Nutrition Association and was Chairwoman of the SNA Public Policy and Legislative Committee.

Groan. Where to begin? The SNA is made up of mainly school-cafeteria managers who work (according to the mission statement) “to advance good nutrition for all children.” I don’t want to impugn the motives of the SNA folks, but it seems like they’ve reacted to cut-to-the-bone budgets and lack of funding for kitchen equipment by handing over responsibility for feeding kids to the food industry — which knows how to crank out cheap food at a nice profit.

Ties between SNA/SNF and Big Food are everywhere. The School Nutrition Foundation includes on its board of directors a Tyson marketing exec. And ties to the industrial-meat giant seem to run pretty deep. A recent Tyson press release declares:

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) recently recognized Tyson Food Service team members Gail Ferguson, Deanna Jones and Nikki Loupe with the prestigious mark of professional distinction in the school nutrition industry—the School Nutrition Specialist (SNS) designation—naming Tyson Food Service the SNA industry member with the largest number of SNS credentialed employees.

The SNA’s list of “industry members” is password-protected, but it does name its “industry member advisory board,” which includes execs from high-fructose-corn syrup giant Archer Daniels Midland and Conagra. And its “current industry patron list” makes bracing reading for anyone who would like to see school-lunch reform. It includes ADM, Campbell Soup Company, Cargill Kitchen Solutions, PepsiCo Foodservice, Sara Lee Foods Foodservice, Coca Cola, Tyson Foods, Chicken of the Sea International — a kind of roster of our nation’s most powerful food processors. Here’s what “patrons” get for their trouble — all for the price of $8,500.

Clearly, we’ve got to wrest the School Lunch Program out of the grubby paws of the food industry; cafeterias can no longer be the vehicle through which Big Food markets its cheap-but-profitable junk to children. Will Thornton be the one who brings real change? I’d love to be surprised.