The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that the agency will provide $25 million in grants to help schools participating in the National School Lunch Program replace outdated equipment.  

The grants will be awarded by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to school food authorities that participate in the National School Lunch Program but did not receive funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Priority will be given to schools with 50 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced price meals.  

school-lunch5.jpgIn making the announcement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “President Obama and I are committed to ensuring that America’s children have access to safe and nutritious food through our National School Lunch Program.  These grants will help schools obtain much needed infrastructure to better serve their students and will focus on equipment that helps schools provide nutritious meals, support food safety efforts, improve energy efficiency, and expand participation in school nutrition programs.”

The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs serve more than 31 million American schoolchildren in more than 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions nationwide.  A breakdown of the grant money available by state is available on the USDA Website.

School Food Safety

The USDA and its National School Lunch Program have fallen under fire of late, in response to a USA Today expose, which found many fast food restaurants apply stricter safety standards than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does for federal school lunch program meat, a New York Times story on the use of ammonia-treated ground beef in school lunches, and a Government Accountability Office report revealing numerous problems in coordinating and communicating recall efforts to schools.  

In response to the Dec. 12 USA Today story, Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots organization made up of farmers and a variety of other food policy stakeholders, organized its members to sign a petition demanding that the USDA adopt standards and testing procedures that “meet or exceed those of industry-leader Jack in the Box.” 

USDA officials maintain that meat purchased for the federal school lunch program is safe and meets rigorous requirements, though Secretary Vilsack recently ordered a review of the program in response to political pressure fueled by the expose.

The Dec. 30th New York Times disclosed that a South Dakota company, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), and the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service have worked together to allow ammonia to be used as a “processing agent” in a mash that is used in hamburgers served to children through the National School Lunch Program.

The ammonia treatment process, which was developed by BPI, helps serve up America’s cheapest hamburger or hamburger-like substances to restaurant chains and the USDA.  Ground beef provided through the National School Lunch Program is currently made up of ten to 15 percent ammonia-treated beef from BPI.

Because the use of ammonia is considered a treatment process rather than an added ingredient, ammonia labeling or warnings are not required.  

An Aug. 20 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealing numerous problems in coordinating and communicating recall efforts to schools (pdf) resulted in the introduction of two bills in Congress.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) announced his intention to introduce legislation aimed at improving the safety of food served through the program by streamlining communications between federal oversight agencies, ensuring proper food testing, and implementing a more pointed food recall notification protocol for schools.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also introduced a food safety bill that would impact the National School Lunch Program. 

Together, the bills “would ensure proper food testing, resolve communication issues regarding product holds and recalls, and implement a systemic quality check of the measures’ effectiveness,” Rep. Sestak said in a news release.

School Nutrition

U.S. Representatives Sam Farr (D-CA) and Adam Putnam (R-FL) introduced a bill that would increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served in school breakfasts and lunches across the country in December.

The Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Act of 2009 (pdf) would require the USDA to implement a plan to up the amount of fruits and vegetables purchased for school feeding programs. The bill would also encourage the use of salad bars and promote farm-to-cafeteria programs.

“USDA spends more than $10 billion a year on school feeding programs, but only a small fraction goes to fruits and vegetables,” said Representative Farr after introducing the legislation. “The federal government talks about the food pyramid and healthy eating, then spends billions on unhealthy food. It’s time we put our money where our mouth is and address the poor quality of food in our schools.”

The bill instructs the USDA to put in place a plan to promote the use of salad bars in schools and authorizes $10 million for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 to help schools buy salad and fruit and vegetable bars for their cafeterias.