Santa Clara County schools to improve lunch meat quality

As Congress prepares to revamp the Child Nutrition Act in July, after lax federal school food safety measures and concerns over child obesity, Santa Clara County schools join local farms to improve standards and students’ eating habits.

The Act will focus on food quality, after a December 2009 New York Times article showed dozens of salmonella and E. coli cases in school beef from U.S. Department of Agriculture records it obtained. The study found that the National School Lunch Program, due to lack of funds, used inexpensive meat and often didn’t run extensive tests to confirm health standards.

“We use a lot of local meat, we’ve used Niman Ranch,” Juan Cordon, Santa Clara Unified School District child nutrition director, said. Niman Ranch uses all natural beef without growth hormones. “We’ve also used government meat, but we’re trying to refuse that kind of food.”

Beef Products Inc. provides 5.5 million pounds of beef through the national lunch program. The company uses a USDA approved ammonia treatment for their beef, typically used only in pet food, that may cause higher levels of salmonella pathogens. BPI is also suing Iowa State University for trade secret infringement after it released a list of ingredients in BPI’s meat, including ammonia.

“The Times went beyond reporting to make the false allegation that our product was not safe, even though the Times does not have any basis in fact or science for such a conclusion,” Eldon Roth, BPI founder and president, said in a press release responding to The Times’ two articles on BPI’s disregard for food quality standards.

In addition, the national lunch program purchased meat from spent hens, mature egg-producing chickens confined to tiny cages before being slaughtered, that even most fast food restaurants refuse to serve.

Purchasing meat from local ranchers is about five times more expensive than government meat, according to Cordon. Although SCUSD strives to serve local meat, it still receives government processed meat.

According to school officials, much of the nutrition problem lies in the constant fast food restaurant bombardment.

“You go up and down El Camino, what do you see? Carl’s Jr., Jack in the Box. That’s our real problem,” Cordon said.

However, according to a USA Today report, fast food restaurant meat quality exceeds the national lunch program’s and goes through more rigorous bacteria testing, five to ten times more than USDA school lunch meat.

The fiscal 2011 proposed $1 billion Child Nutrition Act will promote consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and pay for new storage equipment and chef training to enhance health and safety requirements. It will also educate children on the source of their food, part of Michelle Obama’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign.

The national lunch program fed 30.5 million children each day in 2008 for about $2.68 per meal. Its budget was $9.3 billion that year. Therefore, the $1 billion CNA equates to about 26 cents per meal.

“The government offers you ground beef, and what you say is I’ll take all of it”, Cordon said.

Processed meat is about 3 cents cheaper than ground beef. Wilcox High School in Santa Clara offers its students processed hamburgers daily.

“We can’t go from serving corn dogs to kale,” Cordon said.

He believes children’s habits are hard to break, and thus is gradually introducing healthier food. He also needs to balance the school lunch budget, and if kids don’t eat a particular item, the school loses money.

Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary of agriculture, launched a study to make nutritious food more palatable for children.

SCUSD received $100,000 in federal stimulus money to upgrade their kitchen facilities and subsequently improve food quality. Presently, many Santa Clara schools lack adequate refrigeration and ovens, thus serve only a cold lunch.

Moreover, nonprofits such as Cupertino based Health Trust sustain a healthier diet for children in Silicon Valley. In 2009, they awarded $3.24 million in grants to various organizations that promote health. Full Circle Farm received $50,000 to expand production and will provide 30 percent of their crop output to Santa Clara schools.

“We focus on several strategies” Nicole Kohleriter, Health Trust communications director, said. “Improving nutrition, obesity prevention through education and facilitating access to fruits and vegetables.”

Full Circle Farm invites Santa Clara County school children to its 11-acre farm in Sunnyvale, and provides much of its food to SCUSD, where 45 percent of children qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Its partnership with the school district gives children the opportunity to grow and harvest their own food.

“I guarantee if they grow it, they’ll eat it,” Full Circle Executive Director Rebecca Jepsen, who works directly with 6th graders at Peterson Middle School in Sunnyvale, said.

In addition to supplying pupils with fresh fruits and vegetables, the farm teaches them to cultivate through hands-on training. Farm volunteers hope to modify nutritional habits with outdoor science classes.

“The goal would be to never offer processed high fat food, even if you disguise it as healthy. But we need more money,” Cordon said.

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