(2 of 4)
That may be overstating the situation, but what is clear is that the cleanup is under way. Lawmakers in a dozen states have introduced bills to ban the sale of junk food in schools. Some districts have gone organic, while others bake fries and skin chicken. Anti-tobacco lawyers, who gave advice for a suit against McDonald's filed by a group of obese New York teens (see box), are threatening similarly aggressive actions against a school board near you. Congress is gearing up to take a hard look at school meals when it reauthorizes the $6.4 billion government-funded school-lunch program at the start of next year. The same three questions are on all of their plates: How to make school lunches safer? How to make them more wholesome? Trickiest of all, how to make children believe healthier meals can also make them happy?
The Cockroach Special
Let's put the problem in perspective: despite the percentage increase in the number of incidents, major food-poisoning outbreaks occurred in just 300 schools nationwide during the 1990s. So the chances of your child falling prey to a massive, Turkey Day--scale illness are still minuscule. But that doesn't mean you can relax. "Full outbreaks are just the tip of the tip of an iceberg," says Paul Mead, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's food-borne--and diarrheal-diseases branch. The vast majority of food-borne illnesses strike only a handful of children at a time, and symptoms are seldom reported to the school or a doctor, much less the CDC. But once infected, children are at much higher risk than healthy adults for developing complications.
In its report to Congress last spring, the GAO detailed a "patchwork structure" of school-food--safety regulations encumbered by red tape. The Food and Drug Administration and three separate agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) share authority over school lunches. Yet none has the power to recall tainted foods. The ineptness of this bureaucracy was on display last month after 1.8 million lbs. of Wampler Foods turkey meat linked to listeria were distributed to schools as part of the National School Lunch Program. It took five days for officials to tell the Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg, Pa., that the Wampler turkey slices it had continued to serve at its salad bars were part of the recall.
By the end of this year the USDA intends to announce a plan allowing schools to purchase meat that has been irradiated. The process, which involves blasting meat with low-level radiation to kill bacteria like listeria, has its opponents, who claim it also kills nutrients. But serving meats spoiled during processing are only part of the food-borne--illness problem. The much more common causes are poor preparation in the cafeteria and poor hygiene among children, who often forget to wash their hands before picking at the salad bar. Many districts are following the lead of New Orleans, which after the Turkey Day incident required cafeteria workers to take refresher courses in food safety and several times a day test the temperature of dishes they serve. But all students would be well advised to follow their peers at Little Woods and look before they eat. Washing their hands first would not hurt either.
Big Mac=Big $$$