School lunches: processed, fried, and driving up corporate profits

Remember how, not too long ago, we were talking about British chef Jamie Oliver’s crusade to make America’s school lunches less toxic? Well, it would seem that, perhaps thanks to him, the press in this country is beginning to take the subject more seriously, looking into just why it is that our schools seem incapable of feeding our kids vegetables, or, for that matter, things that aren’t processed, shaped into the form of nuggets and fried. A friend just alerted me to an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times on Sunday about the nefarious for-profit companies that are conspiring to keep the fat-filled, artery-clogging status quo. Here’s a clip.

An increasingly cozy alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals is making students — a captive market — fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. At a time of fiscal austerity, these companies are seducing school administrators with promises to cut costs through privatization. Parents who want healthier meals, meanwhile, are outgunned.

Each day, 32 million children in the United States get lunch at schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which uses agricultural surplus to feed children. About 21 million of these students eat free or reduced-price meals, a number that has surged since the recession. The program, which also provides breakfast, costs $13.3 billion a year.

Sadly, it is being mismanaged and exploited. About a quarter of the school nutrition program has been privatized, much of it outsourced to food service management giants like Aramark, based in Philadelphia; Sodexo, based in France; and the Chartwells division of the Compass Group, based in Britain. They work in tandem with food manufacturers like the chicken producers Tyson and Pilgrim’s, all of which profit when good food is turned to bad…

The article then goes on to explain how food processors, who stand between the government, that in many cases is providing inexpensive agricultural surplus, and the schools themselves, are making a fortune marking up the goods. And one of the examples given, comes from right here in Michigan. “The Michigan Department of Education,” says the author of the piece, “gets free raw chicken worth $11.40 a case and sends it for processing into nuggets at $33.45 a case.” And that’s not the the only mention of Michigan. Here’s another clip.

Roland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found in 2008 that Michigan schools that hired private food-service management firms spent less on labor and food but more on fees and supplies, yielding “no substantive economic savings.” Alarmingly, he even found that privatization was associated with lower test scores, hypothesizing that the high-fat and high-sugar foods served by the companies might be the cause. In a later study, in 2010, Dr. Zullo found that Chartwells was able to trim costs by cutting benefits for workers in Ann Arbor schools, but that the schools didn’t end up realizing any savings.

Why is this allowed to happen? Part of it is that school authorities don’t want the trouble of overseeing real kitchens. Part of it is that the management companies are saving money by not having to pay skilled kitchen workers…

I guess I was naive, but I really thought that all of this would end once it was determined that American kids were too fat to be efficient killing machines for the military industrial complex. I really thought that our love for war would trump our love for privatization, and that defense lobby would win out over the agricultural lobby, but I guess that I was wrong.

As for Ann Arbor, I’m surprised, given how often people talk of the city’s progressive leanings, that the school system hasn’t been leading the country in the budding movement away from processed food, the way communities like Berkley have. At the very least, I wouldn’t have expected to see Ann Arbor among the communities that have outsourced the nutrition of their children to a company like Chartwells. Given the fact that public school budgets are being slashed, one suspects it’s unlikely that administrators would buck the trend and bring food preparation back in-house, but I know that there must be an organized opposition, pushing them for a more sustainable model, and better food for our children. And, hopefully, some of them will leave comments in this thread, and let the rest of us know what’s happening.

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  1. dirtgrain
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Some of that food is made with cheap prison labor.

    Every time I go to the cafeteria, I see some kids with double servings of french fries that are covered in ranch dressing.

  2. Edward
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Let me see if I got this right. Ann Arbor contracted with a for-profit entity to help them save money on school lunches. That company then fired all of the existing cafeteria staff, saying that it would save money. Those cost savings, however, were never passed along to the school district, but were instead carried over as profits to the shareholders of the corporation. Is that correct?

  3. TeacherPatti
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I think I will start keeping track of what they serve for lunch here at school. Breakfast tends to be less awful (but still not great), with “reduced sugar” cereals, “reduced sugar” Pop Tarts and bagelwiches. Okay, the bagelwiches (which are neither bagels nor wiches) are pretty gross.

  4. Eel
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    How long until we get to be like China and start serving white paint as milk?

  5. MommaBear
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    To keep things honest, please note that Chartwell’s developed a nationally recognized program in conjunction with the Ann Arbor Public Schools, called “Farm to School Program” in direct response to parent and community input. They have eliminated deep fat frying, and decreased sodium in the foods – can’t say whether the kids actually enjoy the taste of non-fried, lower sodium foods or not. In addition, Chartwell’s added a fresh fruit and vegetable bar increasing access to these items. Please note the old adage, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ’em drink. Offering this healthier options doesn’t mean students will select them. What I often see are kids bringing high fat, high calorie fast food from home provided by their parent.

  6. John Galt
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I don’t know what you’re complaining about. It’s not like kids are getting regular pizza. They’re getting Domino’s “SMART Slices”.

    The open market, as you should know by now, solves all problems.

  7. Jules
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    My bff lives in Madison, WI and told me about their farm-to-food program. It’s awesome and they also do school fundraisers. Imagine not having your kids exploited to beg others to buy crap products they do not want nor care for, just so the school can get a sliver of the profit.

  8. Mr. X
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your comments, MommaBear. I don’t doubt that pressure can move these companies to some extent, and I’m happy to hear that some progress has been made in Ann Arbor. Don’t doubt for a minute, though, that their main concern will always be increasing shareholder revenue.

  9. ChelseaL
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I *don’t know what’s happening, but do know this has been going on for a while. I remember hearing an interview on NPR recently with a woman who had eaten school lunches every day for an inhuman length of time. I think this is the one:

  10. dirtgrain
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    The fruit and vegetables at my school are a joke. I’ve had better looking bowel movements.

  11. Arika
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    FSEP (Food System Economic Partnership) is a local organization that does a lot of work with schools to get them on board with the Farm to School program. I’m not the best authority on their work but they do a lot of organizing around sourcing food from local farmers in schools and other institutional venues, education and input around the Farm Bill, and supporting beginning Farmers, among other things. Website here:

    My sister goes to Ypsi High and I believe they are supplied by Chartwells too- I know there have been a lot of the positive additions this year at YHS that MommaBear mentioned have been going on in Ann Arbor Schools- salad bar, getting rid of fried foods, and a day each month where a locally grown fruit or veggie is featured. It’s not perfect, but it is a small start!

  12. Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    I’d be curious to see which Chartwell schools are getting salad bars. My guess is that they’re going in in school districts where parents are more engaged and informed. I suspect that profits are higher for them in areas where there isn’t organized protest.

  13. alan2102
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Dateline 21 February 2013
    President Gingrich’s New School Lunch Czar Re-Classifies
    Twinkies as a “Vegetable”

  14. Amanda
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m off work this week so not gonna write a lot, but Chartwells has come a long way in many districts, and the Ypsi food service director has become a really supportive partner… Efforts towards healthier school lunches in A2 and local sourcing has been going on for several years, and Ypsi’s effort has gained steam among a lot of partners over the last two years particularly. Adams Elementary is even part of a national fruit & veggie pilot. Here’s an article about a recent presentation the partners made to the school board– …Ypsi Head Start has been cooking their own meals for kids– lots of them super healthy and many from scratch– for many years now…

    There’s a long way still to go, that involves everything from school policy re: candy bar fundraisers to school food contracts to school gardens, but as someone who’s been in this for over a decade now, the movement has come a long way in the last few years.

    Detroit Public Schools has an amazing (in house, not contracted, I think) food service director very passionate about making change with healthy, local food. She and I serve on the Michigan Food Policy Council. She does tons of local produce buying– at our recent Council meeting she was talking about how she’s part of a large group of school food service directors all over the state figuring out systems for cooperative buying of Michigan produce as a way to make a significant economic impact and get kids healthier food. She also went on about how she’s getting kids to eat fresh raw or just slightly steamed asparagus and other things you wouldn’t guess kids would eat.

    As Arika mentioned, FSEP ( is a primary partner/leader in the Farm to School movement in SE Michigan… Many of others of us (Growing Hope, Project Healthy Schools, Agrarian Adventure, P-Nut, et al) are partners working on different components of this big system change…

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