August 21, 2012

School Lunch Shakedown

Two 16-year olds investigate "mystery meat."

Maggie: If you could sum up cafeteria food in one word what would it be? Slop. For a high school project, 16-year old juniors Michael Benson and Ivan Alston became investigative reporters and turned their cameras on their school’s cafeteria food. But finding answers like nutritional information and even what ingredients were used wasn’t easy.

Michael Benson: The cafeteria people didn’t want to tell us what it was and we just never got a straight answer from, really, anyone. It’s more like a mystery meat. We don’t know what they’re putting in it.

Maggie: It turns out that “meat” is a mix of beef and soy and the school’s popular “pizza puff” contains about as the same calories, fat and sodium as a Big Mac.

Maggie: Big numbers like these are one of the main reasons people like the first lady have supported school lunch initiatives from the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA. Earlier this year, the USDA made changes to the school lunch guidelines, for the first time in 15 years. Under these new guidelines, both fruits and vegetables must be provided every day. Schools must offer more whole grains and less fat and sodium. Calories and portion sizes are limited based on the student’s age.

Kevin Concannon, who oversees the school lunch program at the USDA says the changes did stir up some controversy.

Kevin Concannon: The industry, I think, had a lot of anxiety about this. That’s the kindest thing I can say about that.

Maggie: The food industry responded with a full menu of objections:

“salt and sodium have important functional properties.”

“…transfat should not be inadvertently discouraged.”

“Limiting starches like potatoes would make lunch ‘unappealing and confusing.’”

Other analysts warned the new guidelines would make lunches more expensive, something many schools just can’t afford.

In the end, the food industry was able to convince congress to make some changes to the USDA’s guidelines. For example, students can still buy sugar-flavored milk and both french fries and pizza are counted as a serving of vegetables because pizza uses one eight cup of tomato paste.

Kevin Concannon: It’s not a vegetable. But in the world of public policy, sometimes industry influences and injects itself into it. That’s what happened here.

Maggie: Michael and Ivan had their own influence. The school agreed to post nutrition data and now they can’t wait to see what is on the menu this fall.

Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.


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