In a biting piece in The New York Times Sunday, investigative reporter Lucy Komisar offers an in-depth look at how the food industry -- and its complex web of internal alliances -- is taking over school meals. And not in a good way.
Komisar notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends about $1 billion annually to send fresh products to schools across the country as part of the $13.3 billion National School Lunch Program. But increasingly, schools are paying high prices for third-party food processors to turn those products into fried and fat-laden items.
Deals between management companies, food processors and food manufacturers complicate the system and exchange more money within the system as schools foot the bill, Komisar finds. The report also details accounting tricks and contractual incentives that make the business all the more lucrative -- click through to The New York Times to read the full report and more about motivating factors for both the companies and the schools.
About 21 million students across the country receive free or reduced-price lunches, and at a time when children receive between 19 and 50 percent of their daily caloric intake at schools, more than a third of American children are considered overweight or obese.
The New York Times report also reveals the trials that face figures like First Lady Michelle Obama and chef and media personality Jamie Oliver, who actively work to fight childhood obesity by promoting healthy school lunches and nutritional education. Those efforts are further thwarted by lenient regulations, as Congress supported the final version of a spending bill Nov. 17 that would allow tomato paste on pizzas to continue to be counted as a vegetable and blocks efforts to limit the use of potatoes in school cafeterias.
On Jimmy Kimmel Live last month, Oliver declared that "the food companies of America own you," adding that "These moron frozen food companies -- pizza industry, french-fry industry -- have basically bought, bribed, bullied Congress, who have completely let everyone down, into basically making it okay to feed [students] french fries every day."
The Nov. 17 move by Congress was seen as a victory for those food manufacturers. American Frozen Food Institute spokesperson Corey Henry told Reuters that the overturned standards would have forced food producers to "change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students."
Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.
Watch Oliver on Jimmy Kimmel Live: