Editor's Note: This is a column written by an STMA High School student who expressed a desire to submit to St. Michael Patch on the condidition of anonymity. Since it appeared already, in print, we decided to allow it.
Originally written December 16, 2012.
In STMA High School’s spacious cafeteria, the lofty ceilings let bits and pieces of two hundred separate conversations creep into unoccupied ears. The same words keep popping up, as if they were part of their everyday schedule: things like “fake,” “greasy,” “pitiful,” and “disgusting.” It is obvious to any visitor that STMA’s students are not satisfied with their meals. Most food on kids’ trays is thrown out, and the blame is put on the district’s shoulders. Their thoughts are understandable; a person’s body is their one home that they can never change or move out of, and one ravaged with unhealthy food eventually stops being repairable. However, it is time to abolish the faulty ideas about the school lunch and prove it is acceptable for our student body. It is beneficial to the average person because it provides nutritional value, a balanced diet, and controlled portions. It may not be restaurant grade, a State Fair delicacy, or a mother’s home-cooked turkey and gravy, but it teaches students what a full, balanced meal is.
Before the food itself is addressed, there are some food-related problems in America that the government is trying to erase. First is the obesity epidemic, which has skyrocketed within the past couple decades. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a distressing fact: “16.9 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are already obese” (Larsen). Stemming from the excess weight is a second problem—or multiple problems, more so—, which is a list of irreversible conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that “children born in the year 2000 have more than a 30 percent chance of developing diabetes during their lifetime” (Larsen) than children born before that year. First Lady Michelle Obama is endorsing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is responsible for our school’s food. One of their goals is “improving the nutritional quality of meals served at school” in order to “promote health and reduce childhood obesity” (Children’s Aid Staff). Therefore, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer rates may drop. To achieve their goal, the government has tightened the guidelines using the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Code of Federal Regulations' section for school lunch now says, per week, saturated fat must equal less than 10 percent of a student’s total calories, and sodium cannot amount to more than 740 milligrams. At each lunch, schools must still provide a cup of fruit, a cup of vegetables, two servings of grains, two ounces of dairy, and a cup of fluid milk, so that students can get their needed vitamins and nutrients. On top of that, there is an 850 calorie limit for lunch, since only a third of your daily calories should come from one of your meals. While the kitchen staff have a challenge when preparing the menu, from these rules will stem a healthier school population. Now that there is an awareness of why the kitchen staff cook what they do, the myths surrounding the food will be simpler to attack.
The first myth of the school lunch to tackle is the stereotypical “mystery meat” claim. It is the age-old hunch that the meat is tainted and contains dubitable ingredients. One example is an article saying public schools serve “beef and chicken that wouldn't meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants” (USA Today). The thought of the meat our nation’s students consume being filled with unknown body parts and viruses is enough to run chills down anyone’s spine. In honesty, that statement is a lie. An interview with the high school’s lead cook Laurel Johnson provided a list of the ingredients and nutrition facts for a specific week of lunch, December 17th through the 21st, 2012. Looking closely into the companies that provide the meat and those companies’ histories, two foods came up with compelling pieces of data: corndogs and hamburgers.
Monday is corndog day, provided by family-operated Foster Farms. The first thing listed on the label is mechanically separated chicken. This scares off many people, thanks to the distorted facts about separated chicken that the Internet has elevated; including that the meat is brimming with bacteria, flooded with ammonia, and artificially re-flavored and dyed. The official Meat Safety website tells an opposing, consoling report: “Mechanically separated poultry [MSP] is a product made by removing meat from chicken or turkey bones by using screen filters to remove the bones and bone chips and keep the meat…. MSP is safe and nutritious” and it “can contain slightly higher levels of calcium and phosphorus – both essential nutrients – than poultry meat removed from bones by hand” (Meat Safety). Mechanically separated poultry is also piloted by the USDA and diminishes waste. The nutrition facts for the chicken corndogs reveal nothing about ammonia or any synthetic additives, either.
On Thursday, the cafeteria serves a meal that is perpetually the controversial topic of the day: hamburgers. Most kids do not want to touch them, let alone eat them, because of their unfamiliar taste and faultless appearance. This is because the norm for hamburgers is something haphazardly constructed, doused in fatty oils, and caked with sodium-loaded seasonings. “One of the main reasons that they seem different than what you might make at home is that the ones we use at school are pre-cooked. In school foodservice, we do not handle raw meat products,” explains Laurel. The beef is shaped in its factory, cooked, and then shipped to the school. This prevents students from catching foodborne illnesses such as salmonella. The school doesn’t possess any deep fryers or grills, either – which makes all of the food in the cafeteria overall healthier – , so the patties must be baked. In response to what the beef patty contains: “I looked at the ingredients on the hamburger patty label and it is all beef and some flavoring,” Laurel says. The company that provides the hamburgers, Reinhart FoodService, L.L.C., has a positive reputation and has its meat-processing facilities routinely inspected by the USDA. It is a company that provides deli meat to restaurants such as Subway. Therefore, the quality of meat varies very little from a restaurant that is incorporated weekly into most athletes’ lives. After hearing the truth about mechanically separated poultry and the Reinhart hamburgers, are the school’s beef and chicken are as gruesome as they’re made out to be?
Continuing on with the week’s menu, there are also non-meat debates that cause a ruckus between students. One of those items is the sweet potato fry, and according to some peers, they have squashed the loveliness that was crinkle-cut French fries. “They taste like orange pieces of soggy cardboard,” one sophomore describes. “They are the grossest thing to ever enter my mouth’s domain,” says a junior. It is not unlikely to see a majority of the trashcans filled with their dull saffron color on sweet potato days. Then why are the fries served if money is being thrown away with the them? There are a lot of reasons. For starters, they’re made up mainly of carbohydrates, and “foods that are rich in carbohydrates…are a relatively low-calorie food” (Fit Day). Sweet potatoes also pack a ton of fiber, and “fiber is important in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and even some types of cancer” (Fit Day). In addition, fiber helps the stomach feel full and stay full for a number of hours. So have a plugged nose and choke them down, because sweet potato fries carry a huge amount of benefits to sustain growing, active bodies. Athletes couldn’t possibly deprive their bodies of such a ground-breaking food.
Of course, the health of the meals isn’t the only thing students grumble about. A lot of complaints were that the portion sizes are too small, so no matter how nutritious the food itself is, the amount on the trays to eat will still leave students “starving.” The real question is, though, do students know how large one serving of a food group truly is? As a rough guideline, at every meal your plate should contain one whole fruit, a piece of meat no bigger than your fist, and enough vegetables that they’ll cover your spread-out hand. The schools provide that much food each day. Yet, if one enjoys dinner at a restaurant, they will receive an absurd amount more than that—Buca di Beppo in Maple Grove even clearly writes on their menus that their smallest dishes are meant to be shared amongst a minimum of two customers. I believe many people have become accustomed to too-large portion sizes. Laurel Johnson has a second perception: students just won’t pick up the food in the first place. “If students take everything that is offered to them each day, they would be filled up after lunch,” Johnson explains. By taking the complete meal, students would also be guaranteed their one-third of daily calories, not “malnourished”, as some students claim.
Lastly, there is the argument that the food quality is just too crude, and that if there were fresher foods to begin with, there wouldn’t be so much controversy surrounding school lunch. Gourmet food is a possibility—but with that possibility is also a hefty price tag. Currently, the full cost of lunch at STMA is $2.35. If even something as small as organic produce ousted the current fruits and vegetables, it is certain that the price would escalate. Since most parents wouldn’t pay for a seven dollar meal, the school’s food budget is strapped. Mrs. Obama said this at a national meeting of school-nutrition professionals in spring of 2012: “If you asked the average person to do what you do every day, and that is to prepare a meal for hundreds of hungry kids for just $2.68 a child—with only $1 to $1.25 of that money going to the food itself—they would look at you like you were crazy” (Larsen). Can one try to argue with that statement? In fact, most Americans most likely paid more than $1.25 for their cup of coffee this morning. If one believes that $1.25 is sufficient for higher-grade food, they should challenge themselves by making a meal for a family of four on a $5.00 budget. That’s not even possible by ordering off the McDonald’s dollar menu.
Between the sweet potatoes, mechanically processed chicken, and lack of deep fryers, the school lunch does provide nutritional value. Since the cafeteria sticks to oppressive guidelines for sodium, fat, and sugar content, as well as requirements for all five food groups, school food is balanced. Portions are controlled by those same requirements. If students opened their mind to more foods instead of taking simply a piece of pizza and milk at lunch, they would be full and satisfied. Combining all those factors, the lunch program and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is achieving their goals of reducing childhood obesity and therefore minimizing the risk of getting diabetes, heart problems, and high cholesterol. Aren’t these good enough reasons to give cafeteria food another try?
---. “Are Sweet Potato Fries Healthy?” FitDay. Web. 11 Dec 2012.
---. “Beef Ground Patty Shape Steak Burger Fully Cooked Flame Broiled Char Mark Sleeve Pack Frozen.” Reinhart Foodservice. Reinhart Foodservice, Inc., 31 Aug 2012. Print. 16 Dec 2012.
---. “Menu.” Buca di Beppo. Buca, Inc. Web. N.d.
---. Minnesota Department of Education. 2012. Web. 16 Dec 2012.
---. “Questions and Answers About Mechanically Separated Poultry.” Meat Safety. Web. 15 Dec 2012.
---. U.S. Code: 7 CFR Pt. 210.10. 2012. Print.
---. “Whole Grain Lower-Fat* Chicken Corn Dogs.” Foster Farms. Foster Farms Foodservice, 23 Jan 2012. Print. 16 Dec 2012.
Children’s Aid Staff. “The Senate Introduces Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act: Report on School Nutrition Standards.” The Children’s Aid Society. Web. 15 Dec 2012.
Christensen, Brett M. “Mechanically Separated Chicken Warning.” Hoax-Slayer. Web. 15 Dec 2012.
Johnson, Laurel. Personal interview. 16 Dec 2012.
Larsen, Elizabeth Foy. “The Problem with Your Child’s School Lunch.” Parents Magazine. Web. 11 Dec 2012.
Marshall, Brett. Personal interview. 17 Dec 2012.
Moore, Ryan. Personal interview. 17 Dec 2012.
Reinhart Foodservice, L.L.C. “Company Overview.” Food Business Review. 15 Dec 2012.
Weise, Elizabeth. “Fast-food standards for meat top those for school lunches.” USA Today. Web. 15 Dec 2012.