Pink Slime: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice School Lunches

Schools in seven states are ordering lean finely textured beef from the USDA—but do they have to?

pink slime school lunches ammonia treated meat filler

Are you being served pink slime at school? (Photo: Alex Gallardo/Reuters)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It’s back-to-school season, and like students stocking up on binders and notebooks, cafeterias are working their way through a long shopping list to prep for a year’s worth of meals. And in seven states, about two million pounds of lean finely textured beef—pink slime by another name—will be back on the lunch menu, reports Politico.

According to the story, just three states (Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota) were buying the controversial ground beef from the USDA last fall. But this year, districts in four additional states—Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas—have placed orders for pink slime for the upcoming school year.

“It’s no wonder,” reporters Bill Tomson and Helena Bottemiller Evich write. “Lean finely textured beef brings down the cost of ground beef by about 3 percent, which can add up quickly in a program that feeds more than 31 million school children each day.”

In Harrisonburg, VA, School Nutrition Program Director Andrea Early says that no pink slime will be served in the city’s school district—and none has been served since well before the controversy over lean finely textured beef exploded in 2012.

“We have been trying to procure that locally from farmers who are raising their cattle in a more sustainable manner,” Early said in a phone interview. The beef they buy isn’t a “Joel Salatin, Polyface thing,” she admits, but the cows are raised on pasture and finished on silage; a package of ground chuck comes from one animal—not an innumerable number of cattle.

All of which is to illustrate the fact that people like Early who head up school lunch programs have a significant amount of choice when it comes to buying USDA commodity ingredients. Harrisonburg City Public Schools has $120,000 of entitlement dollars per year to spend on USDA foods. That can all be spent on pink slime, should a school have adequate storage and plans to serve lots of sloppy joes. Or it could go towards less controversial, healthy foods, like whole-grain items.

“What I don’t use for my entitlement for ground beef, I have that to request other USDA foods that I can’t get locally—like whole-wheat tortillas or whole-wheat pancakes,” Early says.

Harrisonburg is noted for its farm-to-school lunch program, which launched in 2007, but the budget that Early works with is not significantly different from districts elsewhere in the state. The program receives $3 per meal served to students who qualify for a free lunch; just $1.30 of that goes toward food, Early says, with the balance paying for labor and other production costs.

Harrisonburg is just one district, but its lunch program shows that, in a state that will surely be reviled for serving pink slime to students, careful choices and smart planning can lead to a far less controversial menu. “Schools have the option to request the type of beef they want to serve and USDA fulfills those orders,” Bryan Black, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, told Politico. Same goes for those whole-wheat tortillas too.

Early does allow that “it is more expensive” to source beef the way she does. Deciding between local cattle and lean finely textured beef, which the USDA and beef-industry groups contend is perfectly safe, is a choice she says has to be made in light of the financial realities of any given district. “I never want to make it out like people who make those choices are making bad choices for children. We’re all under increasingly small budgets.”

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