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Fast-Food Children

In 1984, Rudy "Butch" Stanko was sentenced to six years in prison for violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Court papers show that his Cattle King Packing Company was not only riddled with rats and cockroaches, but also workers at the facility routinely processed animals that were dead before arrival,...
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In 1984, Rudy "Butch" Stanko was sentenced to six years in prison for violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Court papers show that his Cattle King Packing Company was not only riddled with rats and cockroaches, but also workers at the facility routinely processed animals that were dead before arrival, hid diseased cows from inspectors, and mixed rotten beef that had been returned by customers into newly packaged hamburgers. Butch had already been convicted on similar charges two years earlier, yet the United States Department of Agriculture continued to buy 18 million pounds of Cattle King's meat for the National School Lunch Program. In fact at one point, a quarter of all ground beef served to America's schoolchildren was coming from Stanko's plant.

Things haven't changed much. The school lunch program's mission is to provide all children with a warm daily meal that meets approved nutritional requirements. But the USDA, which operates the program, has an ulterior and conflicting motive: to subsidize agribusiness and pay back agrilobbyists who have contributed so generously to Washington politicos. So as determined administrators at the David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center in North Miami aim to make the lunch program at their brand-new school more salubrious, it should come as no surprise that their ambitions are being thwarted at almost every turn.

"It's an uphill battle," principal Bernard L. Osborn admits as he sits in his spanking-new office — the Lawrence Center is the first public school to be built in North Miami in more than 50 years. Osborn appears youthful for a principal, partly because he is trim and fit but also because he exudes such boyish enthusiasm as he speaks of teaching students "not just how to read and write, but how to be healthy." Bernard has been a leaden meatball's throw away from one Miami-Dade public school cafeteria or another almost his entire life. Born, raised, and public-schooled in North Miami Beach, he began his teaching career at Little River Elementary, moved onto assistant principal positions at Horace Mann Middle and W.J. Bryan Elementary, and later became principal of Greynolds Park Elementary. Now his own sons are enrolled in the public school system in Broward. Osborn sat and ate with them a couple of years ago in their cafeteria. The food was so bad "it was ridiculous," he recalls. His sons take their own lunch to school.

"If I am going to feed my family at home healthy foods, I'd be a hypocrite not to serve the same at school," says Osborn. "I personally looked over every item that went into our vending machines. By the time I was done, the vending guy was dizzy." Osborn grabs a green apple from a bowl on his desk as we get up to leave for a tour of the not-yet-completed "cafetorium." "You've got to walk the walk" he says, and does so, rather briskly, past vending machines stocked with Soy Crisps, Pita Puffs, baked tortilla chips, Health Valley bars, 100 percent fruit juice, and Gatorade. Sodas are banned from machines. "We don't sell candy. The PTA doesn't sell candy. Our teachers don't give out candy as incentive or reward."

The Lawrence Center's cafeteria kitchen, like its gymnasium, is state-of-the-art, at least relative to other school cafeterias — meaning meals will actually be cooked on premises. Public school food deteriorated during the decades of budgetary cost-cutting that began with the USDA redefining ketchup as a vegetable to help the Reagan administration pare $1.5 billion from the national lunch program. Stoves and other cooking equipment were removed from most schools; prepackaged meals are prepared in centralized kitchens and shipped to the cafeterias, where they need only to be heated in convection ovens.

Truth be told, cafeteria cuisine didn't begin its descent from an especially high perch. Not until 1946, when young men were being rejected from military service because of malnutrition, did Congress approve the National School Lunch Act — and only after it was framed by President Harry Truman as being a matter of "national security." Every weekday more than 28 million youngsters depend on their school lunch for one-third to one-half of their daily nutritional intake (low-income children often eat breakfast and lunch, getting at least two-thirds of their calories at school). A market this size is obviously alluring to the junk-food industry, and not just to generate profits. As John Alm, former president and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, put it: "The school system is where you build brand loyalty."

School children compose an exceedingly impressionable and captive audience, and an increasingly unhealthy one. In just one generation, concerns have shifted from undernutrition to overfeeding — since 1980, obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents. There are now nine million obese American school children; one in four Florida kids falls clunkily into this category. These rising childhood obesity rates have created an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, once considered an adult-onset condition. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other warning signs of heart trouble are likewise rising at an alarming rate in children, yet schools continue to serve the very foods that lead to these diet-related diseases.

Such somber statistics have prompted pioneers like Bernard Osborn to try prying school menus from the fat-fingered clutches of agribusinesses like ConAgra, Kraft, and Coke. He has backing from his assistant principals, cafeteria manager, the local school board, and the school's namesake, education activist and former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. Yet Osborn's staunchest and fiercest ally in the fight just might be a soft-featured, soft-spoken woman from Mexico City named Nora Kracer.

It is lunchtime at Lawrence K-8 Center, and as a teacher leads a line of children toward the cafetorium, he pauses, tilts his head back, and takes a belt from a can of Coca-Cola. He doesn't notice Nora Kracer, but she spots him, all right. "Don't drink that in front of the students," she says, chiding the teacher in a low-key manner but with a killer glare. He is a young man, clearly taken aback, and attempts making light of the situation, smiling broadly. Kracer isn't smiling back. "If you really need to drink it, do so out of view." His grin evaporates. "Yeah, you're right, I'm sorry," he says sheepishly, and you can almost feel the can of soda go flat in his hand.

Kracer arrived at the Lawrence Center as program coordinator of a Healthy Eating Choices grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida. Her son attends the school. "We came here because we heard it was going to have an organic cafeteria. We're not only not going to have an organic cafeteria, but, as one of the vendors told us, we're getting what all the schools get — the cheapest and the worst of the worst. Which is just unacceptable. We don't want that in our school."

Here's how such things come to pass: The federal government purchases more than $800 million worth of farm surplus products each year and turns them over to the school lunch program. The USDA, which administers the system, considers this a win-win situation: Schools receive free ingredients while farmers are guaranteed a steady income. Trouble is, most of the commodities provided have been bottom-of-the-barrel meat and dairy products laden with saturated fat and cholesterol. On the plus side, any kids who later in life end up in a penitentiary will probably find the cuisine behind bars comforting — the USDA sends prisons the same foods they deliver to schools.

"It's about the money," laments Osborn. "It's always about the money." The average cost to produce a student lunch is $2.88. About 60 percent of that goes to labor and overhead, which leaves $1.15 for the food. Nora says, "The school gets top-of-the-line computers, top-of-the-line books, gym machines, everything, but when it comes to food, they're not getting anything." She tells of receiving juice "in plastic packages that didn't even have the ingredients listed. I asked about them and was told they're nine cents each. Well that told me everything I needed to know. What can we be getting for nine cents?"

Osborn and Kracer have attempted to improve food quality within their budgetary restraints by establishing relationships with local businesses. "Companies want to do business with the school system," says Osborn, "but when it comes time to committing, they say, 'Forget it; we can't get what we need to get [enough of a profit] from this.' And I'm talking about Fortune 500 companies; a donation of $100,000 that will go towards purchasing better food quality for our children isn't that much money to them and would be great publicity." Kracer adds, "I'm surprised more local companies aren't eager to get on board with us. We could put up a banner reading öWhole Foods Market Cafeteria.' Why not?"

Well mostly because Whole Foods Market ($5.6 billion in 2006 sales) wasn't interested. Neither was Sysco ($32.6 billion in 2006 sales), whose marketing manager seemed intrigued by the notion of T-shirts bearing the company name distributed throughout the school — until he was informed that the food offered by Sysco would be a donation. "We didn't hear back from them," says Osborn. They were also rejected by Jamba Juice ($253 million in 2006 sales), "and they're right here in the neighborhood. A good portion of our families go there. We need a company willing to put their money where their mouth is."

So far only smaller businesses such as Soli Organic Ice Cream and The Juice People have agreed to help. There will be a smoothie machine in the cafeteria. And there will also be low-fat chocolate chip cookies donated by Kraft Foods, one of a veritable who's who of powerful American food conglomerates that contributes considerable clout and funding to the School Nutrition Association, a.k.a. the American School Food Service Association. This eight-million-dollar-a-year foundation's 55,000 members have joined forces with its agribusiness backers in vigorously opposing any efforts at reforming school menus. At the same time, these very companies are frantically marketing themselves as being proactive about consumer health concerns — thus the free low-fat cookie crumbs tossed upon the table.

Meanwhile students at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center will be handed the same weekly rotating bill of fare as those in every other public school in the county. "We'll still be serving hamburgers," says Osborn, "but hopefully better hamburgers," as well as more fresh fruits and vegetables, baked fries, and sweet-potato fries. Bernard remains exceedingly optimistic. So does Kracer, who notes that "Every day I make progress, and every day I find somebody who is willing to support us. There are other schools coming to our lectures and asking us what we're doing here, and the Miami-Dade Department of Food and Nutrition [the middleman between the USDA and local schools] is looking at the Lawrence Center as a pilot for the rest of the county."

Osborn, Kracer, and an increasing number of parents in this community, as well as others across the country, are acting on the proposition articulated by President Truman when he signed that school lunch bill 60 years ago: "In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children."

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