Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Most adults don’t have glorious memories of school lunch. It was sloppy Joes, shepherd’s pie, spaghetti with meat sauce, and it was usually on the bland side. But the food wasn’t bad, and it was almost always cooked from scratch by an army of school lunch ladies.
How things have changed. A few days ago, I blogged about some pretty dismal statistics on scratch cooking in school cafeterias. A survey by the School Nutrition Association found that over 80 percent of schools cook fewer than half of their main dishes from scratch. And almost 40 percent of schools cook fewer than one-fourth of their entrees from scratch.
What happened? Part of it has to do with rising labor costs. It takes time — and therefore money — to cook thousands of servings of meatloaf and mac and cheese. Part of it also has to do with evolving student taste. Cafeteria directors say students these days prefer packaged food to home-cooked classics.
But we can’t explain the success of heat-and-serve lunchroom fare without giving the USDA some credit. Thanks to a provision known as commodity processing, cafeterias can divert their government-donated foods to commercial processors and receive table-ready items instead of raw products. Today, schools divert about half of their commodities to processors.
According to the USDA, the goal of commodity processing was twofold: it was supposed to allow schools to maximize the use of commodities, while also opening up the school market for the food industry. By those standards, it has been an amazing success. Schools now turn commodity meat, flour, cheese and fruit into a wide variety of (unhealthy) foods kids love. And companies rake in the money from turning raw chicken into nuggets, strips and breaded patties. Today, over 150 companies — from Tyson to Jennie-O Turkey — process commodity items for school cafeterias.