School Lunches: Helping Kids Eat Commodities


Kate Adamick

Oh, the irony. During the same week that "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" shined a much-needed spotlight on the hideous machinations of the USDA's commodity food system, more than 130 retired senior military officials issued a written polemic, "Too Fat to Fight," arguing that our national security will be at risk if the National School Lunch Program doesn't quickly shift its focus to that other fungible commodity—children.

Remarkably, somebody in Washington has finally acknowledged that obesity—currently the leading reason that young Americans are rejected for military service—is threatening the future strength of our armed forces. In other words, the industrial food complex is threatening the military industrial complex, and, as a result, the commoditization of our food supply may be forced to take a back seat to the commoditization of our children.

But let's leave our military warriors for a moment and revisit our kitchen warrior, Chef Oliver. This week's episode opens in November 2009, with Oliver heading to a USO-style event in Huntington, West Virginia, where he is joined on stage by Cabell County Schools food service director Rhonda McCoy. Cheered on by newly enthusiastic food service worker Alice "It's-Going-Really-Well" Gue, Oliver and McCoy accept an $80,000 donation earmarked for culinary classes designed to teach McCoy's entire staff how to prepare cooked-from-scratch school meals. All signs point to a healthy victory for Oliver and the children of Huntington.

Fast forward to April 2010, when Oliver reinvades Huntington to confront McCoy, who is threatening to put processed foods back on the district's menus. McCoy, reprising the role of helpless victim that has brought her TV notoriety, tells Oliver that she had to order more processed foods for the 2010 - 2011 school year. Referring to her warehouse full of frozen chicken nuggets, tenders, fingers, and patties, McCoy manages to squeak out, "We don't want it," but "We've got to have some food!" To which Oliver replies, "But not processed."


Federal aid for school meals comes in two forms. First, the government provides money to help pay for school meals served to children whose family income falls below certain economic thresholds. In addition, the USDA provides school districts with surplus foods through the federal commodity food program. Early each calendar year, school district food service directors like McCoy place their commodity orders for the following school year. The list of products available to them includes raw, whole-muscle meat products such as chicken, turkey breasts, pork loins, and ground beef. While these products are almost certainly the result of the factory farming system that now passes for animal husbandry in this country, they are nonetheless basic cuts of meat that our grandmothers would recognize as food. These "brown box" products are available to most school districts for the cost of shipping and handling—about three to four dollars per case—and can be turned into herb-roasted chicken, barbecued pork, sliced turkey sandwiches, meatballs, or any number of scratch-cooked items.

But the USDA is not just the overseer of the National School Lunch Program. It also acts as the federal government's marketing arm for industrial agriculture and its progeny, the processed food and beverage industry. Given the current state of campaign finance laws, it's no surprise that the USDA's allegiance to corporate interests wins out over its duty to America's children.

This manifests itself in the USDA explicitly encouraging school districts to spend cold hard cash to turn free commodity foods into the highly processed products that our retired armed forces officials are now holding partially responsible for our lack of military readiness.

According to the USDA's own website:

Commodity Processing expands donated food use from a limited number of commodities to a broader array of nutritionally sound, popular items, while keeping labor costs to a minimum. Also, State distributing agencies and [over 150] food processing companies have learned that working together is mutually beneficial to the food industry and program participants alike.

The site goes on to provide a handy chart clearly laying out the "nutritionally sound, popular," and "mutually beneficial" products that can be obtained through such processing:

At least 70 products are reprocessed. Those that are reprocessed most often are:


According to the USDA's own data, about 30 percent of the approximately 1 billion pounds of USDA commodities made available to schools each school year are "directly diverted" for further processing.

How much money, exactly, do school districts spend on processing free food in this "mutually beneficial" system? It's difficult to say, although multiplying an average $1.00 to $1.50 per pound processing fee times 300 million pounds comes to somewhere between $300 million and $450 million. That's about six cents per meal per student per day.

So, while most school food reform advocates are calling Senator Blanche Lincoln's (D-Ark.) proposal to add an additional six cents per day to the school meal subsidy an affront to our nation's children, the truth is that the current system encourages school districts to waste that amount of money every day by processing commodity foods. If, instead, that money were earmarked for culinary training designed to teach school food service workers how to prepare scratch-cooked meals—and the USDA were required to end its practice of encouraging commodity processing—just imagine how quickly we could begin feeding our children truly healthy school food.

Who will win the battle for control over our nation's school food system remains to be seen. But the recent hullabaloo surrounding the issuance of "Too Fat to Fight" has made one thing perfectly clear: although our government has a long history of shamelessly placing the economic interests of Big Business above the health and well-being of millions of children, the inability of our nation to raise an army of healthy soldiers may—tragically—be the one thing that trumps government venality. Oh, the irony.