‘Pink slime’ beats school lunches

Joy Pullmann Managing Editor, School Reform News
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What’s worse than the federal government distributing ground beef that may contain “pink slime” for school lunches? That the federal government has anything to do with school lunches.

Schools across the country have been pulling ground beef from their menus following some yellow celebrity journalism and consequent public hysteria that the meat may contain small amounts of what one disgruntled Agriculture Department fellow once called “pink slime.” New Jersey public schools are cutting the beef entirely this fall. McDonald’s stopped buying the stuff this year. Boston public schools have isolated half a million dollars of such hamburger meat and will likely throw it out or donate it to charity. The USDA has said it will offer schools beef next year that does not contain the filler. That’s a big deal, because the USDA has contracted to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef for school lunches this year.

My dad is a certified-organic chicken farmer. I grew up eating cows we named. I’ve helped butcher animals. So you’d think I’d join the several hundred thousand people who signed petitions asking the USDA to ban the stuff. Nope. I’m going to keep eating it and feeding it to my kids. Other parents should consider doing so, too.

Very few Americans have experience with agriculture (an herb garden is not agriculture). As a result, they don’t realize that even organic raw cow or chicken looks gross while it’s being butchered, no matter the method. Calling these nutritious and perfectly safe beef bits “pink slime” is like calling beer “bacteria poop.”

That we can now extract every edible bit of cow and disinfect it with traces of ammonia (a substance already in our bodies and present in foods like cheese and chocolate) is not only less wasteful but wondrous.

Instead of panicking about pink slime, people should be paying attention to how much school lunches cost and how outrageously the entire school food system is administered.

The federal government spends approximately $11 billion a year on school lunches and plans to add $7 billion to its annual school lunch budget over the next five years. The program is not just expensive, it’s a regulatory and financial morass.

The National School Lunch Program deliberately encourages schools to sign up as many children as possible for taxpayer-sponsored food. Although there has been evidence for years that these policies encourage waste, fraud and abuse, the USDA offers taxpayer-paid bonuses to states that increase their free-lunch rolls and in 2014 will force every state to offer a federal program requiring all students at participating schools to eat breakfasts, lunches and snacks at no cost to any student, regardless of their ability to bring or pay for food.

The justification for this bloated program is the usual: poor, hungry kids. No one seems to mention there are ways to feed poor, hungry kids without expensive, extensive rules from out-of-towners who never see the faces of the children they promise to be helping with your tax dollars.

Families and communities, not the USDA, should decide what food to serve children and how to feed hungry neighbors. Encouraging individual responsibility and close community ties would save taxpayers billions and contribute to a healthier society. It would also increase student well-being and academic achievement.

The real scare should be that a government agency buys more than a hundred million pounds of beef each year to feed children. What else does the government give kids that parents don’t know more about?

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute