Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pink Slime: A Case for Meatless (Mondays) In School Cafeterias

Pink Slime. It's gross and scary. I'm not talking about the dayglow slime from space alien movies that my teenagers watch but the "meat" filler in the hamburger-like meals found in schools across the country that has been in the news for the past couple of weeks. 

Banner art courtesy of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer
Also known by the industry as Lean Finely Textured Beef or Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT),  food advocates, journalists and parents are teaming up to get this ammonium hydroxide treated (yes, you are right to be thinking about the 99 cent bottle of ammonia under the kitchen sink) meat waste scraps that's run through a centrifuge, pulverized and pushed through a tube, goop that would otherwise not be fit for human consumption, off supermarket shelves and school lunch trays.

Elected officials are getting behind the ban too. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office called to let me know that Stringer would be leading a campaign in New York to pressure NYC's Department of Education, which has the largest feeding system in the world behind the US Department of Defense, to ban pink slime immediately and not wait to "phase out" it out which is a vague commitment, at best, to end the use of the pink slime.

With a letter to the DOE's Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott (read the letter here ) and press conference (read press release), Stringer kicked off an appropriately charged but sympathetic effort to persuade the DOE to act quickly. 


Referring to the great strides the DOE has made in recent years to serve healthier and tastier foods, and teach children about nutrition and where their food comes from, BP Stringer says  "I take pride in the fact that DOE School Food has, on so many occasions, been a national leader on better school food options." before he delivers the punch "That is why the persistence of pink slime in DOE menus stands out as an unfortunate anomaly".

Acting sensitively, Stringer asks for accountability, "If there are legitimate barriers to an immediate removal related to vendor contacts or other logistical concerns - and DOE can clearly articulate those concerns -- then a more deliberate approach may be warranted".

The barrier Stringer refers to is the New York City Department of Education, like many schools, have long-term contracts with their vendors, that the DOE is financially liable for, and detailed plans for ordering, delivering, storing and serving nearly a million meals a day.

Photo courtesy of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer
The issues are complex and the questions are many.  
 

How did our nation and its institutions, particularly the US Department of Agriculture, become so tolerant of low quality, cheap meat and meat-like products, including pink slime burgers?  Countries such as the United Kingdom have banned pink slime largely because the process is not deemed safe (the purpose of the ammonium hydroxide is to kill E-coli and other bacteria that infects the waste scraps). Safeway, McDonald's and Taco Bell have also banned pink slime.  
 

Why are Americans so obsessed with eating meat? Not only is meat expensive, compared to vegetarian options such as rice and beans or eggs, but eating too much of it can make you sick -- cancer, heart disease, obesity -- due to saturated fat and calorie density. If school districts can't afford to serve meat in its natural, and more expensive state, such as lean, antibiotic- and hormone-free ground steak burgers, and need to cut costs, they they should seriously consider alternative sources of protein and increase the number of meatless (vegan or vegetarian) meals. 


Is there money to be found in New York City Department of Education adopting more meatless meals in a way similar to the Baltimore Public School's association with Meatless Monday, a non-profit initiative of the Mondays Campaign and in partnership with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Columbia University? Largely fueled by the public health response to America's childhood obesity epidemic, school food has been in the spotlight for several years, with hundreds of case studies about the increase in "good for you" foods and reduction of "junk" foods, and likely at an increase in cost. As Stringer notes when discussing NYC's Department of School Food, the transformation has been impressive. Why stop now? Why not go pink slime free AND adopt more meat free days?

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