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.
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 Agriculture Department pays about $1 billion a year for commodities like fresh apples and sweet potatoes, chicken and turkeys. Schools get the food free; some cook it on site, but more and more pay processors to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza and the like. Some $445 million worth of commodities are sent for processing each year, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2006.
The Agriculture Department doesn't track spending to process the food, but school authorities do. The Michigan Department of Education, for example, gets free raw chicken worth $11.40 a case and sends it for processing into nuggets at $33.45 a case. The schools in San Bernardino, California, spend $14.75 to make french fries out of $5.95 worth of potatoes.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has warned that sending food to be processed often means lower nutritional value and noted that "many schools continue to exceed the standards for fat, saturated fat and sodium."
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.