WASHINGTON, October 7, 2013—After receiving complaints from students that the new all-beef burger patties did not look or taste “right,” the Fairfax County public schools system returned to additive-filled burgers this fall. Real Food For Kids (RFFK), the Fairfax-based advocacy group that had succeeded in getting the school system to replace a 27-ingredient burger with all-beef patties last year, considers it a setback in teaching children to make better lifestyle choices.
The original burger patty served as part of the Fairfax County school lunch program came under fire in 2011 when it was revealed that the Don Lee Farms burgers fed to children contained “pink slime” as well as 26 other ingredients. Pink slime, also known as “lean finely textured beef,” is made by spraying ammonia gas on beef scraps and connective tissue, then finely ground and added to hamburger meat.
After much campaigning by RFFK to remove the 27-ingredient burger from the Fairfax school lunch program, schools began serving the 100 percent beef patties in the spring of 2012. RFFK is also known for its victories in gaining a soda ban in seven Fairfax high schools and a fresh food pilot program at George C. Marshall High School.
Obesity rates among U.S. children and adolescents between the ages of six and 19 has more than tripled in the last 40 years, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Obesity in young people has been cited as increasing the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, breathing disorders, depression, sleeping disorders and high cholesterol at a young age.
Schools are in a unique position to influence a child’s eating and lifestyle choices, as 31 million students take part in the National School Lunch Program and many children and young people eat up to half their daily calories at school, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
However, without announcing the change to their menu and little press, Fairfax County schools quietly started serving a 26-ingredient burger also made by Don Lee Farms at the beginning of the fall semester, reports The Washington Post. The apparent difference between the new burger and the pre-2012 burger is presumably the pink slime.
According to Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre, the new patties are pink slime-free.
Claiming that price was not an issue, even though the beef burgers cost 39 cents per patty while the new burgers cost 32 cents, Fairfax County Public Schools state that the reason behind the change is student complaints about the all-beef patties.
“Students are our customers and we listen to them and implement their requests if possible,” wrote Penny McConnell, Fairfax schools’ food and nutritional service director in a note to RFFK, according to The Washington Post.
Student complaints are not the only hurdle faced by this and other school systems attempting to implement healthier standards in school lunches. Since the USDA updated nutrition standards for school meals in 2011, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, most schools are have faced several challenges, including a need to provide additional training for staff and inadequate kitchen equipment and infrastructure.
While school systems should consider student complaints about taste when selecting lunch items, quality and nutritional value are also important. Moreover, removing healthier options robs students of the opportunity to adapt to new tastes and to develop healthier eating habits.
“To me, it was surprising because it seems a bit like a step backwards,” School Board member Ryan McElveen said.
If given the choice, most kids will go for the nuggets and Coke over the broccoli and milk—but does that mean that parents and an entire school system have to give in? Should kids, notorious for making poor nutritional choices, have the final say on what school systems serve?
With so many food choices available, there should be at least one additive-free burger that meets student’s culinary requirements if Fairfax County is serious about providing better nutritional options.
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