Letter from Langdon: Food Infiltrators

We talk about sustainability, but an obscure food chain based on corporate tax breaks and opaque markets means unhealthy meals, especially for children and soldiers.

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When U.S. troops first entered Iraq a few years ago, I was surprised to learn about the private contractors responsible for feeding them. I’d never given much thought to where our soldiers got their food, because I assumed some were trained as cooks while regular GI’s took turns with KP (kitchen patrol).

That’s not exactly true any more. Things in America have sure changed.

In the Revolutionary War, volunteers often showed up for duty, poorly clothed and hungry. Some were ready to fight until the food ran out or spring planting began—whichever came first. General Washington’s greatest challenges were acquiring supplies, and keeping enlistees around long enough to engage crucial battles. Virtually all their food came from local farms.

Interesting to look back on, too, are the old newsreels of American volunteers stampeding to enlistment centers at the onset of World War II. The United States was still struggling to overcome the Great Depression — and the Dust Bowl — when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Newsreels from the time show young recruits with shirts off and ribs showing lined up for their physicals, a sight very different from what we might see today. Hollywood war movies featured young actors like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper with belts cinched up tight around their lean waistlines. They’re a far cry from the buffed and puffed stars of today.

It was malnourished draftees who convinced President Harry Truman that the nation needed help with school lunches, because a lot of those hungry boys who reported for duty in 1941 were unacceptable for military service. The earliest Federal aid for feeding school kids dates back to 1932 in Southwest Missouri. But it was only a loan so that a few schools could hire people to prepare food. Thanks to Truman, the School Lunch Program was established in 1946.

School lunch in St. Louis, Missouri: fish nuggets, macaroni and cheese, pear slices, chocolate milk


These days commercialized food service has found its way into every niche of our society, even the military and our schools. Dollars that once bought food ingredients contribute more and more to corporate profits. Seems like now, when Americans wonder where their next meal is coming from, they’re only thinking about which large corporate fast food outlet will supply it.

Just what is it we’re teaching our kids these days about food?

It’s pretty simple really. We’re telling children that corporations make bucks selling fat, sugar, and protein, nothing like healthy local food. Big Business can access cheap supplies of commodities from around the world and make them look like just about anything, like the meat trimmings from two countries and four packing plants that went into Stephanie Smith’s tainted hamburger.  Stephanie, a dance instructor, was paralyzed from the waist down following a severe e coli infection two years ago.

We can talk about sustainability, we can talk about health, but with such an obscure food chain based on tax breaks, currency values, and opaque markets, talking is about all we can hope to accomplish until our government gets serious about the real problems behind healthy eating.

As long as we keep rules about fair market competition on the back burner, competing against the lowest bidder in Asia or South America will be a good way to get burned. Of course the way it is now, a lot of the military, right along with our schools, don’t have back burners, stoves, or even pots and pans.

They just have a contract.

Because I’m a farmer I like bountiful harvests and fat calves. But when I attended the Farm to School Stakeholder Summit in Columbia, Missouri, the other day, I learned something else that surprised me — even more than private food contractors on military bases. One of the people seated at my table told me that in a school one of her children attends, meals are prepared by a large grocery store chain. There is no kitchen in the school, only warming tables. Many schools now lack even the most rudimentary food preparation equipment.

That’s why a Farm to School Summit was held in the first place. We’re trying to get our schools to use more locally grown food because it’ll create new markets for taxpaying farmers who support the schools and gives our kids a healthier, safer diet, too.

There are a lot of obstacles to making this change. For one, some schools (like the one my fellow summit-attendee mentioned) no longer prepare breakfast or lunch on-site. For another, it takes farmers a year to produce what’s needed, so schools and farmers need to get together to talk about meals before planting time.

Also, our local food infrastructure is in such bad shape, it could take years to rebuild it into a reliable supplier.

Dylan Slagle/Carroll County (MD) Times
Fresh local fruit for lunch at Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead, Maryland: Cafeteria manager Patty Therit prepared meals including apples from local Baugher’s Orchard during Maryland’s first Homegrown School Lunch Week, September 2008.

Farmers need to know that if they grow it, they can also sell it. And believe it or not, there are health rules that may favor ground beef made from imported trimmings over local products. We need to rebuild those rules, too.

When I was a kid in school they fed us meals prepared with a lot of “made in the USA” surplus commodities. Cooks worked in the cafeteria preparing meals from scratch while food smells wafted out to the classrooms every morning during class. For the most part that’s still the way it’s done in the schools here around Langdon.

Not every student may have liked what they served, but no one was ever made sick by eating there. It was clean, it was healthy, and it had the oversight of cooks who were mothers and grandmothers working to prepare it. There were no excuses and there were no exceptions to cleanliness.

Contrast that to the fact that USDA and Cargill owned Beef Packers allowed several lots of an infected beef shipment to be distributed to consumers even though one of the lots tested positive for salmonella. Some of that meat  may have gone to schools. This is what a spokesman for Beef Packers said about their latest salmonella-infected ground beef recall;

“Well, I can only say, thank God there were no outbreaks at schools related to any of these products. And that’s not saying much.”

For once in my life, I found myself in complete agreement with big agribusiness.

 

Topics: Ag and TradeFood
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