Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

What 'Pink Slime' Says About The Cost Of A School Lunch

An employee in a meat processing facility making frozen hamburger.

Headlines about “pink slime” — a term critics coined for an ammonia-treated beef filler — have turned heads and stomachs nationwide this week, starting a debate over whether the product has any place on a school lunch tray.

But there’s an inconvenient truth in the debate that’s no small matter to many school districts squeezed by shrinking budgets:

“Pink slime” is cheap.

It’s the white (or pink?) elephant in the room through every school lunch controversy, from chocolate milk to pizza-as-a-vegetable: Can American schools serve a healthy school lunch at a reasonable, affordable price?

USA Today‘s Greg Toppo summarizes the debate pretty well:

Can you serve fresh, healthful meals each day to millions of kids without breaking the bank, or must you resort to serving up deep-fried, processed, less expensive junk? For more than a decade, big food thinkers have chewed on this, making it a cause célèbre. But most often they find that feeding kids well requires one simple thing: more money. The federal government pays, on average, $2.68 per child per meal – and most food advocates say that simply isn’t enough. A few insist it can’t be done for less than $5.

For the record, the beef producer industry is urging calm. “[Beef filler] is not scraps of meat off the floor, it is not dog food — just meat that we couldn’t previously remove with a knife,” one beef producer responded.

“You can’t differentiate beef from beef,” an industry spokesperson told AP food editor J.M. Hirsch — except one type of beef usually costs less than the other. Hirsch writes that “minimally processed” ground beef costs $5.99 per pound. Beef with filler products costs $3.09 per pound.

As Brown County Schools spokesperson Mari Bolin told Indiana Public Media, keeping up with more stringent nutrition requirements can strain a district’s finances.

“If you just don’t have the money and you’re a small district, you don’t have the money to buy the extra fruits and vegetables — then it’s going to be tough until someone tells you,’You have to do it,’” Bolin said last month. (She was reacting to an Obama administration push for more nutritious school lunches, not the beef debate specifically.)

The New York Times reports the number of Indiana fourth graders eligible for the federal free and reduced price school meals program has increased 10 percent since 2007.

But is it false to associate healthier food with higher costs? Pat Ferguson writes in The Virginian-Pilot:

The mentality that healthy is more expensive than unhealthy is simply a misguided mentality. Here’s why: Brown rice is no more expensive than white rice. Steam vegetables are cheaper and easier to prepare than french fries… Bottled water purchased in bulk would cost about .12 to the average consumer. If purchased in mass quantity, the school system could probably get that cost below .05 a bottle (much cheaper than sugar filled juice)… Fresh fruit supplied by local farmers would help stimulate our local economy versus canned fruit dripping in preservatives and sugar.

Pink Slime! Also, the musical artist Pink getting "slimed" at a Nickelodeon event.

Maybe the solution is that we just eat less meat! As Sarah Wu — who isn’t a vegetarian — blogs at Fed Up With Lunch:

The meat industry is wants to get every last snippet of beef and gristle to market. Go ahead and rescue all usable parts of the cow – but try to skip ammonia and don’t give them to my students. I have to wonder though — if the USDA goes ahead and disavows the use of “pink slime,” what will replace it? Another flavor of slime?…

So, USDA? If you read my blog, I’m going to suggest that instead of ammonia-rinsed beef that you purchase more beans. How about 7 million pounds of beans? Beans are already a USDA-recognized protein and we already know that we need to be eating more plant-based protein. Hey, I love meat and eat beef about once a week (chicken, turkey, bacon, and sausage round out the week). But we all should be trying to eat less meat for our health and for the health of the planet.

How do you think Indiana districts should respond to this latest debate over school cafeteria food? (Oh, and by the way, does this make you hungry?)

Comments

  • JR

    We MUST do better. If it’s a matter of $ – we will end up spending it on the back end when our kids end up picking up potentially life threatening diseases later on. Parents – Schools – Government have to team up to think about what we really want for our future citizens.

  • md

    It may seem cheaper, but it is also easier–throw some patties on a sheet and through it in the oven. So there is a fight at staff level who say they don’t have time. There are solutions. Growing up, moms volunteered once a quarter to help prepare and serve lunch.

    There are also belief systems. I was told by a principal “you tell me our lunch isn’t healthy–according to the government it is. Who am I suppose to believe?” Common sense i thought should prevail in that decision also.

  • Terry32792

    The change in menu will take much longer than we like to wait for results. Our school attempts to include fresh vegetables and salads but much of it ends up in the waste bins. Teaching healthy eating habits has to start well before the children go to school.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BILLYLACYWARCHARGER Billy Lacy

    HERE’S ONE FOR ALL THAT COMPLAINED ! HOW LONG HAS THIS PRACTICE BEEN GOING ON ?? ALMOST EVERY YEAR THEY SEEM TO FIND ANOTHER REASON TO START A PANIC OVER BEEF,ALMOST LIKE POLITICS ! IS THERE ANYTHING IN THE GROUND MEAT THAT IS HARMFUL ? AND I THOUGHT THE LOTTERY WAS SUPPOSE TO HELP SUPPORT THE SCHOOLS !!! PEOPLE YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON BEFORE YOU PASS JUDGMENT ON THE BEEF INDUSTRY !! NO THEY DO NOT GIVE ANTIBIOTICS TO CATTLE EVERYDAY IN THE FEED,BESIDES BEING A WAST OF MONEY ,WHAT GOOD WOULD IT DO ?? THEY ONLY GIVE GROWTH HORMONES TO YOUNG CATTLE IN MOST FEED LOTS TO HELP WITH THE EVEN GROWTH OF THE ANIMAL,AND IT’S GONE FROM THE SYSTEM IN A COUPLE MONTHS.AND ONLY HEALTHY ANIMALS CAN BE KILLED(BUTCHERED) FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION !!

  • Vanessa0983

    I am an elementary teacher and I like to observe what my 9 year-old students eat and say about cafeteria food. 90% of my students receive free lunch so they eat at school everyday. They tell me all the time that they hate the healthy “stuff” at our school. The veggies are unseasoned and look smooshed from being defrozen. I eat healthy and have tried them and they do taste gross. I don’t see how students are ever going to learn to like them. Cheap healthy food is unapealling to kids and they grow up to dislike it. Lots of them bring bags of chips and cookiesfrom home to complement the meals. They drink the lowfat 1% chocolate or strawberry milk, and they do like the fruits- mostly bananas and tangerines- and eat the corn and the mashed potatoes. They love the “asian chicken” with rice (basically a healthy teriaki chicken dish) and baked chicken nuggets are their favorite. They also love the ground turkey taco which comes with lettuce, tomatoes, rice and hard or soft taco shells. I read the menu of the day before we leave to the cafeteria and I hear groans and moans for anything else. And for the record, cookies, french fries or any other fried things have been loooong gone from the menu, at least in my disctrict. In my opinion, we should not force these kids to eat sad looking meals we wouldn’t eat ourselves. We are actually discouraging them to eat healthy! Lean meats mixed with seasoned veggies and grains are the way to go in my opinion.

  • pdh

    I see zero evidence this stuff is any worse for you than the hamburger its mixed with. Why not do a story on all the other food additives — the stuff that goes into hot dogs and bacon and cold cuts? Or do you just have to jump when someone comes up with the flavor of the week that we’re all supposed to get in a tizzy about?

    • http://twitter.com/StateImpactIN StateImpact Indiana

      Fair point, pdh, thanks for the comment. Sarah Wu, whom we quote above, kinda makes the same point — if it’s not getting mad over pink slime, it’s something else. What do you think is the answer to the cost vs. quality/nutrition debate?

  • Georgiaprof

    As a university professor and biochemist I have felt moved to step into this ongoing brouhaha because it’s meaningless.

    To begin, the term ”slime” is a complete misnomer and I presume is used by some news media to add sensationalism to an otherwise non-story. The fact is that the product is not slimy at all. It’s usually found in firm cylinders and looks and feels like regular ground beef except it’s a lighter red. The ammonia that’s lightly sprayed over it is nothing new to meats of all kinds and is often present in vegetable products as well.. Minute amounts are added to the meat in a fine mist and when it mixes with the water in the meat, it converts to ammonium hydroxide, a weak base that serves as a preservative.

    I don’t understand why the news media has decided to attack this product, but I can guess… the term PINK SLIME sounds scary and adds a strident punch to a story that otherwise has no news value at all.

    • http://twitter.com/StateImpactIN StateImpact Indiana

      I think you make a fair point that sensationalism is behind the growth of the story as a national point of discussion, Georgiaprof… But to play devil’s advocate, I’ve seen stories showing “lean beef trimmings” have less nutritional value than ground beef — the wrong kinds of proteins, apparently (http://huff.to/wqVQTg). Does that, to you, make the debate more relevant?

      • Georgiaprof

        Does it make the debate more relevant? Not really. I haven’t read the stories you refer to, sir, but I would question their accuracy. Determining the ‘kinds’ of proteins in a given sample of mixed organic compounds is a laborious process, is expensive, and takes some pretty fancy equipment. I seriously doubt if the authors of the stories you’ve read have ever tested the trimmings to determine the ‘kinds’ of proteins they contain, and having done that, they then compared that ‘kind’ with the ‘kinds’ one finds in regular cuts of beef. In point of fact, I would venture to suggest that they have no idea what they’re talking about. The trimmings are chunks of beef that have been cut from fatty areas of the beef carcass after which they are heated to remove nearly all the fat. Assuming this is true, one can only conclude that the protein types are exactly the same as their content in any other cut of beef, with possibly fewer calories donated by lipids.

        • kystokes

          Let me be a little more clear. The HuffPo article I linked to above includes a citation from the Journal of Food Science. http://www.exnet.iastate.edu/Pages/ansci/beefreports/asl-1361.pdf

          Check out Table 2, which shows what the HuffPo article says: Ground chuck is made up of significantly higher levels of soluble proteins — “more easily digested by children” — than is beef filler. 69 percent of ground chuck is made up of these soluble proteins, whereas just under 23 percent of beef filler is made up of beef trimmings. It’s not only HuffPo citing this study. A former USDA microbiologist — who, according to The Daily, coined the euphemism “pink slime” — cited this survey’s breakdown of the proteins in beef filler ( http://bit.ly/GAsskO ).

          Perhaps HuffPo, this USDA microbiologist, other news sources, and I are misreading or misinterpreting the above information. I’m not a food science expert.

          But this is where I take off my wannabe microbiologist hat and put on my wannabe policy wonk hat: If, in fact, your conclusion — that all the protein types are the same — isn’t true, as the above evidence suggests… Isn’t there a valid policy question about the nutritional value of the food served to children in lunchrooms, when compared to that food’s cost to taxpayers?

          • Georgiaprof

            I didn’t say that all proteins are the same. Proteins are very numerous and any one versed in organic chemistry is aware that the variability in proteins borders on the inestimable. If you reread my post you’ll find I said that I didn’t believe the authors and/or those making similar complaints had ever analyzed the proteins in pink slime or, say a rump roast. One could state, with equal accuracy, that the proteins in pork and chicken are different from each other and from those in beef. You might also state accurately that the proteins in a rump roast are different from those in a T-bone steak. Analyzing the amino acid sequences and protein structure (and proteins are usually HUGE molecules) is time consuming and expensive especially when the proteins are part of a mixture of organic molecules which they would be if removed from a sample of beef.

            The article you posted offers no concrete evidence that there are fewer soluble or insoluble proteins in textured beef than in any other beef slice, and before I would condemn a batch of beef, as they have, I would require a lot more evidence – firm, analytical evidence – certainly more than the word of a person claiming to be a nutritionist. Maybe textured beef it isn’t as good nutritionally as a sirloin roast. On the other hand, maybe it is. It might be every bit as good…or it could be better. I don’t know, and neither do the critics I’ve so far read.

          • kystokes

            I apologize for misreading your earlier post. My bad. But I still feel like we’re talking past each other… How is it insufficient to compare ground chuck and beef filler, as the survey’s authors did… versus rump roast/T-bone/sirloin and beef filler, as you suggest?

  • casualreader

    I don’t think it’s school lunches that cause kids to be obese and unhealthy, not do I think school lunches can solve the problem.

    • Jaloc

      It is however part of the problem. School meal are also the only meals many children receive each day. We are talking about the development of the minds and bodies of our children, our future. Seems important to me.

  • guest

    I work in a school lunchroom and although the kids would probably rather have fries, the healthy choices are there, Each day we serve fresh cut oranges and apples plus choice of baby carrots or another fresh veggie such as cucumber slices, broccoli, celery or cauliflower. Our salads are also made fresh. The sad part is that most of the kids turn their nose up at the fresh veggies. Sometimes at the end of the day we still have the original amount of cauliflower that we started with…meaning no one took any. They are given a “choice” of up to 5 items and they usually choose the snack offering over the fresh produce. A typical kid’s choice would be a pizza slice, 1% chocolate milk and a portion of pudding or goldfish crackers. My point is…you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. If the kids are not “conditioned” to eat fresh produce at home, it will be an odd choice at school. Parents need to start shopping differently as well.

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