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Why is pink slime an option for schools?

Some school districts opt out of purchasing this toxic meat product but many still choose to purchase it, given it’s cheaper.

By Katy Pelissier and Stacey Sobell

You’ve heard about pink slime by now. We here at Ecotrust Farm to School are just as tired of it as you are. But we’re still paying attention, because while major buyers including Fred Meyer, McDonald’s, Walmart, Safeway and others are pulling pink slime off the shelves, it’s still an option for schools across the country.

While some school districts will choose to opt out of purchasing this toxic meat product, many may still choose to purchase it, given it’s cheaper. A New York Times report on pink slime from 2009 noted that the ammonia-treated ground beef product is three cents cheaper per pound for schools. That may not sound like a lot, but when schools only have about $1.20 per meal per student, those three cents per pound can make or break a budget.

Most schools receive their meat products in the form of USDA Foods, formerly known as Commodities, which is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA buys mass quantities of meat from large-scale industrial meat suppliers, such as Beef Products, Inc., a South Dakota company that manufactures lean finely textured beef, also known as the ammonia-treated ground beef filler product, affectionately dubbed “pink slime.” The USDA buys these products as a means of supporting American agriculture, and it offers them to schools at low prices as a means of feeding our nation’s hungriest children. In a shaky economy, increasing numbers of parents depend on those free or reduced-price school meals as the primary source of nutrition for their children; the irony is, the ones who suffer most in this situation are the ones who most need healthier, chemical-free school food.

Schools engaged in conscientious buying practices, such as supporting local food producers, may find the choice to opt out an obvious one. Portland Public Schools, for example, has been introducing regional, farm-fresh foods to their students since 2006, and has been collaborating with Ecotrust’s Farm to School Program on a variety of projects since 2005. Opting out of pink slime-d meats is a natural extension of their commitment to “nourish the health of the community through school meals.”(You can hear more about the school district’s commitment to quality meats on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s radio program Think Out LoudPink Slime or Lean Finely Textured Beef.)

But should opting out even be a choice a school district has to make? We wonder if the choice to opt out should start and end higher up. We are inspired by many of the USDA’s recent actions taken to promote local foods, including the launch of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass, and the appointment of Ecotrust’s former vice president of Food and Farms, Deborah Kane, to head of the USDA’s Farm to School initiative. Now, we encourage the USDA to opt out of ammonia-treated beef, and opt in to further supports for schools who want to know where their meat is coming from, and how it’s been treated.

McDonald’s and Safeway have a responsibility to their consumers; the USDA has consumers of its own. They are responsible for the important and often challenging task of feeding our children — 32 million of them — who eat school lunch five days per week, 180 days per year. And if pink slime isn’t even an option in fast food, then it certainly shouldn’t be an option in school lunch.

Katy Pelissier is Ecotrust’s Farm to School assistant; Stacey Sobell manages the Ecotrust Farm to School program.