Student Well-Being

USDA Standard Could Make School Hamburgers Rare

By Jessica Portner — September 13, 2000 4 min read

Hamburgers and Sloppy Joes may be scarce in some school cafeterias this year because of the ripple effect of a new Department of Agriculture standard for the federal school lunch program.

At least two states have decided to forgo USDA beef altogether because of higher costs related to the tightening of the agency’s beef-safety standards. And some districts are taking beef off their menus because USDA beef shipments won’t arrive in time for them to plan their meals for the year— something most districts do well before students return to school in the fall.

In June, the USDA said it would more frequently test ground-beef products for its subsidized school meals program for salmonella bacteria and reject any beef that tested positive for the bacteria. The school meals program buys and delivers meats, fruits, and other commodities to schools year round. It served 26 million children last school year.

Salmonella, a pathogen, is one of the leading causes of food poisoning in humans.Because a majority of beef-producers were unable to meet the government’s higher standard, the USDA has only purchased two-thirds of the amount—or 23 million pounds of beef—that it had bought at this time last year. The more limited supply has driven beef prices up by 50 cents a pound since last year, and many school leaders are experiencing sticker shock.

“The story for schools is that districts don’t know when they are getting products—and it’s going to be pricier,” said Barry Sackin, the director of government affairs for the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va.

And, when it comes to delivering millions of pounds of food to schools, he added, timing is critical. “If the department buys everything they project to buy, but does so later than sooner, then schools might get a large volume at the end of the year and pay storage costs to hold beef over the summer,” Mr. Sackin said.

Chicken Run

Because of the uncertainty, two states—Wisconsin and Illinois—have decided to cancel their USDA beef orders for the entire school year. But many Wisconsin school districts, unwilling to do without their burgers, have been scouting for better beef deals on the commercial market.

“Hamburgers are very popular. It’s a favorite food,” said Marilyn Hunt, the director of food services for the 8,000-student LaCrosse, Wis., district. Ms. Hunt said she was able to find ground beef that won’t break her food budget. If she can get better deals on other foods, she added, financially, “it’ll be a wash.”

But some other districts that opted to cancel their beef orders completely and are searching for meat alternatives on the open market are already getting hit with bigger grocery bills.

“My budget is taking a really big beating,” said Susan Gilroy, the food-services director for the 140,000-student San Diego Unified School District.

The San Diego schools plan to serve chicken patties, hot dogs, and bean-and-cheese burritos instead of hamburgers this year. Ms. Gilroy estimates it will cost the district an additional $500,000 this fall to order the alternative entrees from independent suppliers. “If this goes on for a whole year, we are going to have some problems,” Ms. Gilroy said, adding that she was considering asking the district to raise the price of a lunch from $1 to $1.25 next semester. Ms. Gilroy said she had a small supply of frozen ground beef left over from last school year that would only last three or four weeks. Beef tacos, a student favorite, will have to be rationed, she said.

Industry’s Beef

The beef industry recently criticized the USDA for imposing what it deems an unrealistic standard, saying a small amount of salmonella is common in beef and that pathogens are removed when raw meat is cooked.

The department’s tighter regulations on beef used in the school lunch program followed the government’s attempt to close a Dallas-based beef processor after it failed a batch of salmonella tests. In June, a judge barred the federal government from shutting down the company plant.

Industry officials have charged that the new regulations were a punishment for challenging the department in court. Despite reports that the USDA was reconsidering the standards last month because of pressure from beef processors, USDA officials said last week that they are not backpedaling on the new rules.

“We want foods for schools to be as safe as possible,” said Billy Cox, the director of pubic affairs for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. He said the new standards bring the school meals in line with standards for major supermarket chains and fast-food restaurants. Mr. Cox said he expects that the industry, given a little time, will be able to meet the new expectations.

But Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Meat Association, said the standards are unrealistic. “They are far beyond what’s possible,"he said.

Mr. Sackin of the ASFSA said last week that the Agriculture Department was considering whether to allow the pathogen tests to be conducted before the beef is ground, which would give the vendor the opportunity to use the product for another purpose if it failed the test.

Despite the hassles of finding food alternatives and rewriting menus, many educators say the new beef standards are an important precaution.

“I have been here 23 years, and I have seen no salmonella outbreaks. However, we have a responsibility to assure we never see it,” said Ms. Hunt, whose Wisconsin district served 30,000 lunches to students last week.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by Learning.com
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being 'Growth Mindset' Linked to Higher Test Scores, Student Well-Being in Global Study
The first global study of "growth mindset" found both academic benefits and better well-being among students who think intelligence is not fixed.
4 min read
Conceptual image of growth mindset.
solar22/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion Why Venting When You Have Problems Feels Good—and Why It Doesn’t Work
When you keep talking about what’s bothering you, it keeps the negative emotions alive. Here’s what research says to do instead.
Ethan Kross
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being What the Research Says How Does Sending a Child to School Change a Family's Risk of COVID-19?
In-person schooling that doesn't lead to outbreaks can still raise the risk of kids bringing the virus home, especially in poor families.
3 min read
On Sept. 24, 2020, distance learners are seen on a laptop held by teacher Kristen Giuliano who assists student Jane Wood, 11, in a seventh-grade social studies class at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn. A new study finds a family's risk of infection rose if they had a school-age student when schools re-started in person instruction.
Students, assisted by their teacher Kristen Giuliano, work remotely and in-person in a hybrid classroom earlier this year at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
Student Well-Being Teens Are Starting to Get Vaccinated. That's a Big Deal for Schools
Educators are now encouraging their oldest students to get the vaccine, with the hope that it will help normalize school operations.
10 min read
17-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan receives a Pfizer vaccination at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
Seventeen-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan receives a Pfizer vaccination for COVID-19 in Atlanta on March 23.
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP