March 4, 2024

After more than three decades of working to feed students under increasingly difficult circumstances, Katie Wilson was fed up. The leader of the Urban School Food Alliance, a non-profit that supports nutrition programs at the country’s largest school districts, wanted to do something to disrupt a school food status quo she says is “so broken it’s unbelievable”.

Wilson’s biggest beef is with the convoluted and overly restrictive way schools are forced to purchase food, something she thought the alliance could start to change. In 2021, she decided to try something deceptively simple: creating a recipe for a chicken patty.

Since the alliance’s member districts cover enormous school systems in cities including Boston, New York City and Miami, expanding the limited number of producers they can buy from would be monumental. In any given year, the 19 school districts in the alliance serve about $40m worth of chicken to students, giving it the purchasing power to make a statement.

But even Wilson, a school nutrition veteran who has worked as deputy undersecretary at the US Department of Agriculture and served as president of the School Nutrition Association, had no idea just how difficult making a chicken patty from scratch would be.

Her quest for a tasty, healthier chicken sandwich for US schoolchildren took nearly three years.

For nearly half a century, the chicken patty sandwich has been a staple of school cafeteria cuisine. The precooked and frozen patties are an ideal protein for schools with limited cooking facilities and tight budgets. They are easy to reheat and assemble into a sandwich and are a popular choice for students accustomed to fast food.

Chances are they also contain at least one ingredient that nutritionists say kids simply should not be eating. Of the 30 varieties of chicken patties manufactured specifically for school meals this year and tracked by the Life Time Foundation – a non-profit focused on improving the quality of school meals – only two were found to be completely free of “ingredients of concern” identified by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Some of those ingredients, such as corn syrup solids, are fairly ubiquitous and fall into a “watch” category for schools.

The alliance wanted a chicken patty that was hormone-free, made with whole-muscle meat and absolutely no ingredients of concern.

“There’s a whole list of ingredients that we don’t need in American food. But [those ingredients are] there” because they often extend shelf life, said Wilson.

The Urban School Food Alliance also wanted to find a way to open the bidding to smaller food processors such as small farms, which are typically excluded from the school food system.

Making a locally sourced chicken patty that could feed students across the country would be a significant change and challenge. School nutrition programs typically operate on a shoestring budget. The meals they serve have to comply with a strict set of federal nutrition standards; they are governed by a complex web of federal, state and local procurement rules that push districts into purchasing the lowest-priced food possible, from a marketplace dominated by a handful of large corporations.

Once a month, the Beaverton school district outside Portland, Oregon, uses state grant funding to serve locally sourced meals like coconut chicken curry with brown rice. Daniel Kolp, the nutrition director, would like to put more local items on the menu, but any purchase over $10,000 has to go through a competitive bidding process. This single district gets the majority of its entrees through the USDA’s Schools in Food Program, which includes roughly 100,000lb of chicken a year from Tyson.

“Large companies have had this oligopoly on school food for so long, they have the advantage of economies of scale,” said Josh Goddard, head of the nutrition program at Santa Ana Unified school district in Southern California. “They’re always going to win the prize.”

Katie Wilson of the Urban School Alliance, center. Photograph: Zenia Ventura/Courtesy of Urban School Food Alliance

Last year, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which buys food from farmers to stabilize food prices and donates it to schools and food banks, purchased food from just 34 companies. When Goddard’s district tried to purchase food locally, it took eight months to onboard a single farmer, even with the school system’s guidance.

Large companies like Schwan’s and Tyson Foods have divisions catering to the school food market and are better equipped than small producers to deal with federal procurement requirements. Importantly, these arms of food corporations apply a child nutrition label that guarantees each item contains a precise amount of the required beans, leafy vegetables, starchy vegetables, meat, red or orange vegetables, grains and fruit that districts must serve weekly in order to be reimbursed by the federal government.

For example, a homestyle whole grain-breaded chicken patty from Pilgrim’s Pride contains more than two dozen ingredients. But the child nutrition label tells school staff what they really need to know: the product will count for 2oz of meat and 1oz of grains for the school’s daily nutrition requirements.

Those nutritional rules are so strict that, for example, letting students add hot sauce to their tacos could push a program over the salt limit for the week.

While elementary schools are supposed to make sure that an entire week’s worth of lunches has less salt (1,100 milligrams) than a Whopper with cheese (1,340 milligrams), there are no federal restrictions placed on the use of chemicals, preservatives or artificial ingredients in school meals.

Since 2014, a group of school nutrition directors and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been collaborating to create a list of totally unwanted ingredients, such as Red No 3, a carcinogen that has been banned in cosmetics but still makes its way into school food, said Megan Flynn, nutrition program manager at the Life Time Foundation. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been trying to get Red No 3 banned since 2008.

Wilson and many of the districts that work on ingredients of concern don’t want to wait for federal regulations to change. They want a faster fix for school lunch.

But rollouts of new foods average about a year from development to arriving on shelves. The alliance decided to go with commercial chicken and avoid government red tape rather than buying the chicken available to the schools through the USDA’s Food in Schools program.

The Alliance then hired a company that spent more than two months working with three school nutrition directors to create a patty recipe. It met with potential processors, signed interagency agreements to enter a buying cooperative and hired a third-party company to help them navigate the process. It also worked with a legal team to help address all the overlapping procurement rules, very few of which were structured with food in mind.

The process cost about $400,000, more than half of which ended up being funded by a grant from the Life Time Foundation.

In the end, it took 27 months in total to get the patties produced, with nearly a million pounds of the product rolling out to schools last May.

The patties were popular with schools, Wilson said. Some districts though, like Portland public schools, found that students preferred items already on the menu. The Oregon district had made a decision a decade ago to cut popular items such as ranch dressing (on which the district was spending upwards of $60,000 a year) in order to spend more money purchasing the kinds of antibiotic-free meat that the alliance is now working to get into school cafeterias in other parts of the country.

But the alliance also received an unpleasant surprise. The breading company made a product switch at the very last minute and in doing so inserted a small amount of cellulose gum (also called carboxymethyl cellulose CMC), one of the ingredients of concern that the alliance had been trying to eliminate. The additive is used to make foods last longer, thicken them or keep water from separating from the solids of processed food. Though it’s classified by the FDA as a dietary fiber, it’s harder to digest than natural fiber; at least one National Institutes for Health study found that it affects the lining and bacteria of the gut. But there is not yet scientific consensus on how much is too much and its long-term effects.

“I’m not sure everybody knew all the way along the chain that that was even happening until the ingredient list came out,” Wilson said. “By that time, it was too late. It was already processed.” (Since then, the Life Time Foundation has released a software that allows districts to check all the products in their bid for ingredients of concern; more than 400 districts have used it since its 2023 debut, said Flynn.)

Although the alliance took that expensive blow, it is moving forward with the next phase of the project: an effort to create six chicken product recipes that individual districts can put out to bid.

It will take at least 15 months to do that, Wilson said. In the meantime, the organization was awarded a three-year $4.4m contract by the USDA to examine issues in the school food system and train districts on how to best achieve such goals as working with smaller producers and buying fresher food despite existing constraints. The end objective, Wilson said, is to come up with a new business plan for the way that schools buy food.

“And we can do it,” said Wilson. “But I can’t under the rules I’m under.”

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