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Public schools get about $1 billion worth of free surplus fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese from the USDA each year which, instead of preparing into healthy fresh meals, they outsource to large corporate food processors like Aramark and Sodexo. The “logic” of this system is that it is supposed to save schools money on labor costs and economies of scale. In reality, schools do not save money in this scam, according to Lucy Komisar, when the fees charged by the food processors and supply costs are factored in.
Komisar notes that roughly one-fourth of the school nutrition program has been privatized and outsourced, primarily to just a few food giants, like Sodexo, Aramark, Chartwells, Tyson and Pilgrim’s. Of the $1 billion in free surplus foods given to schools each year, close to half is sent out for processing (a 50% increase since 2006) to make things like chicken nuggets, tater tots and pizza. Yet, instead of saving money, schools are paying kickbacks and other fees to these companies and getting little more than junk food in return.
Komisar points to research by Roland Zulio, from the University of Michigan, who found that the amount of money Michigan schools spent on fees and supplies for this service was roughly equal to the amount they saved on labor and food costs, yielding no net savings for the schools. If one adds in the “external” costs, like the particulate air pollution and extra carbon added to the atmosphere caused by trucking these foods long distances, or the unionized local chef jobs lost to outsourced non-union corporate assembly lines, school lunches are a serious rip-off.
In his research, Zulio specifically noted that Chartwells (though this is likely true for the other processors, as well) was able to cut costs by slashing benefits for workers, but that these savings were not passed on to schools. He also discovered a correlation between low test scores and the degree to which school lunches were privatized, speculating that perhaps the excess fat, salt and sugar were impairing student achievement. However, it is also possible that low income schools are relying more heavily on food outsourcing than affluent schools and that the low test scores are due more to students’ socioeconomic backgrounds than their school lunches.
By outsourcing their food, fresh and wholesome ingredients are transformed into foods with the “same nutritional value as junk foods,” according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWF). The RWJ report found that over 50% of commodity foods are sent to processors first, where fat, sugar and sodium are added before being sent back to schools. In California, the report notes, over 82% of commodity food funds are spent on meat and cheese whereas only 13% is spent on fruits and vegetables.
While the RWJ report is a little old (2008) and things may have changed slightly in California and the nation as a whole, the fact remains that the bulk of school lunches do get heavily processed and outsourced to food giants like Aramark and Sodexo, making the foods less healthy while providing schools with no economic benefit.
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