Does school food need the nugget?

chicken nuggets

The chicken nugget is the apotheosis of school lunch, for good and ill. It is the food that all children will eat, and many school food service directors believe it serves their most important goal — to feed children. Yet nuggets are the food that parents love to hate. Nuggets are the first, worst, aspect of everything that is school lunch, complete with the corn and potatoes that often come with them.

As a result of my work with local food and Jefferson County Public Schools nutrition services (in Louisville, not Colorado), I participate in a group called School Food Focus, a largely Kellogg Foundation-supported group that convenes the 33 largest school systems in the country representing about 4 million kids who eat school lunch. It is the goal of School Food Focus to make school lunches healthier, more sustainable and to include more local agriculture products.

One of the group’s issues involves “muscle meat” vs the nugget. School Food Focus worked with Chicago Public Schools (435 schools) and others to bring whole pieces of antibiotic-free chicken into the school lunch program to replace products made from CAFO chicken with more than 20 ingredients.

In Jefferson Co., Ky., the school lunch administrators will sit down next week with folks who run Kentucky’s first USDA inspected, 4-species, meat processing company that requires meat to be raised to specification — including minimum pasture access and no antibiotics. JCPS is interested in buying 27,000 pounds of dark meat chicken to serve to 60,000 students who eat school lunch. This processing company, Marksbury Farm, contracts with more than a dozen Central Kentucky farmers to grow beef, pork, chicken and lamb.

And this, fair reader and local food enthusiast, is where the challenges begin. How many chickens will be required if JCPS wants to buy 20,000 pounds of drumsticks and 7,000 pounds of thighs? If there are 6 drumsticks to a pound, Marksbury must ask its farmers to grow 60,000 more chickens than last year. Some of those farmers are already growing 2,000 a season (March through October). In addition, the processor must find a place to sell 60,000 necks and backs and 120,000 wings (the breasts will likely be no problem to sell). If 2,000 birds a day go through the plant currently, 30 processing days will need to be added, just for one client to serve chicken on one day.

Nobody is more thrilled than I am at the idea that 60,000 school children, most of whom qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, will have access to pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, bone-in chicken. The Central Kentucky community must be thrilled at the prospects of more employment and for the increasing market for farm products. These are the very goals of the local food movement.

But while we all promote the use of local foods, all of us need to understand that the system needs to increase at the same time that production and market increase. All the by-products of slaughter, the packaging, the distribution, the infrastructure on farms, aggregating like items from many small farms, processing and value-adding to those products — all these system parts, and more, need attention and focus from all interested parties. Local food is not sustainable without a robust system to get it from here to there in the form, quanity and quality that’s required.

One challenge particular to schools: federal rules require schools to seek competitive bids for what it buys. As a result, our local farmers often have no guarantee the food they raise will ultimately be purchased — not a superb business model. Procurement rules at schools are not only confusing, they differ from state to state. Jefferson County administrators feel confident they procure correctly — they have an entire department helping them follow the rules. But Kentucky has 120 counties and a few dozen municipal school districts that don’t have expert guidance and who therefore avoid purchasing local.

I, for one, would like our kids to eat more healthy food products, I want to stabilize the agriculture economy, and shorten distances that food travels. Growing such a food system is complicated and needs a wide range of solutions.

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