Another week, another example of privatization damaging the experience kids get out of public schools. Lucy Komisar writes in the New York Times about how private food service management companies are profiting off of providing less nutritious food to students. Schools contract with companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells to provide school lunches; the schools then don't have to run their own kitchens and in theory save some money. However, Komisar writes that "Roland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found in 2008 that Michigan schools that hired private food-service management firms spent less on labor and food but more on fees and supplies, yielding 'no substantive economic savings,'" while one retired school principal told her, "You pay a little less and your kids get strawberry milk, frozen French fries and artificial shortening," describing the savings as "paltry."
The food service management companies take food that could have been served in some relatively healthy form and turn it into (usually lousy) versions of fast food staples:
The Agriculture Department pays about $1 billion a year for commodities like fresh apples and sweet potatoes, chickens 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, Calif., spend $14.75 to make French fries out of $5.95 worth of potatoes.
Not only that, but the food service management companies and the processing companies have a system of kickbacks so that the management companies profit even more than they would from what the schools pay them.
The heavily processed, fried foods produced by this system mean more fat, more sodium and further reinforcement of problematic eating habits in kids. And it's done by contracted-out, low-wage labor processing the food far away from the schools where it will ultimately be served, rather than by local workers who, in many school systems, belong to unions.
At the same time, the free and reduced-price school lunch program is seeing a big spike in enrollment due to high unemployment and underemployment among adults. That means that more kids are relying on school lunches as a major source of nutrition, just as privatization drives down the nutritional value of a school lunch, and the companies delivering them fight to keep the government from setting meaningful nutritional standards for school lunches.