School lunches must be economical, a fact that once meant goulash of unknown meat, fruit soaked in syrup and big cans of vegetables.
But nutritionists, politicians and school leaders over the last decade have been working to make better food fit the school lunch budget.
Now, a coalition of some of the nation’s largest school districts, including Minneapolis, is making strides in one lunchroom staple that also happens to be a major Minnesota product: turkey.
The nonprofit, called School Food Focus, has created a new industry standard for poultry. “By schools now banding together, we had the ability to make system change,” said Bertrand Weber, culinary director of Minneapolis Public Schools and a leader in the effort.
The standard, called Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (or CRAU), raises the bar on how growers treat sick birds, but it doesn’t push them so far that the end product becomes too expensive. Food companies that meet these standards gain an advantage over other food service providers with school districts looking for an affordable, but improved option.
Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. announced earlier this month that it was the first in the country to achieve the CRAU seal for turkey products. It will soon be joined by Willmar-based Jennie-O Turkey Store, which is owned by Hormel Foods Corp. Jennie-O is in the process of becoming certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which acts as the third-party verifier of farms, and expects to have its CRAU turkey products available for the next school year.
The new turkey products mark a crowning achievement for School Food Focus, with members from 45 school districts around the U.S., including New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis and other large metropolitan districts. It also highlights how consumers are influencing the food industry’s behaviors.
One of the most difficult tasks school culinary directors around the U.S. face is balancing a tight budget with growing concerns over the social and health implications of the food they serve. K-12 school lunch leaders formed the coalition in 2008 with the specific goal of resolving this conundrum.
Through collective might, the districts influenced big food companies to raise standards on products without raising the price out of reach.
When the group first formed, its leaders knew that protein — specifically poultry, the most frequently served meat — was their No. 1 priority.
“We were looking at these twin goals of really addressing antibiotic use and making large-volume, affordable poultry acceptable to the school districts,” said Kathy Lawrence, co-founder and senior director of School Food Focus.
Weber said that the group asked the USDA to establish a middle-tier standard, but were told there wasn’t a big enough market to support it. But with more than 5 billion school lunches served annually in U.S. schools, the group knew it had a lot of power.
School Food Focus became a partner with the Pew Charitable Trusts to develop guidelines. School Food Focus then set standards that would be reasonable for the poultry producers to meet while the school districts gain a middle rung to stand on.
Antibiotic use is now seen as a public health issue and has become a major consumer concern. Scientific evidence suggests that the overuse of antibiotics in food animals may play a role in the growing number of antibiotic-resistent bacteria and diseases. Of greatest concern is the use of what’s called shared-class antibiotics, which are used to treat both animals and humans.
Many major chicken producers have revamped their barns and procedures to eliminate the use of antibiotics, unless the bird is diagnosed with an illness.
The highest benchmark in the industry is the “no antibiotics ever” label — which remains financially out of reach for most school districts. Poultry farmers, not wanting sick birds to suffer, still treat ill members of their flock but cannot market those birds with that label.
But there was a standards gap between products from birds never given any antibiotics and all of the rest.
“We decided, let’s focus on those antibiotics where the resistance can be transferred between animals and humans,” Lawrence said. “Let’s give schools nationwide access to poultry that has eliminated unacceptable uses of antibiotics. And let’s document and verify those practices.”
CRAU focuses on antibiotics that are medically important to humans. To maintain CRAU certification, a turkey farm cannot give its birds any shared-class antibiotics at birth for prevention, growth promotion, feed efficiency or weight gain. And if more than two consecutive flocks on a particular farm is given a shared-class antibiotic, that barn is pulled from the CRAU pool and the farm would need to raise another flock without treatment by a shared-class drug before it can be reinstated into the program.
“We are giving industry a certified middle ground ... these are important incremental changes,” Lawrence said. “We are trying to eliminate that regular use of medically important antibiotics use. We don’t allow a repeated pattern of use because that reveals there is something wrong with the system itself.”
Because the life span of a chicken is one-third that of a turkey, meeting this standard was easier for chickens. Two major chicken producers, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, were able to earn the CRAU standard in mid-2015. Minneapolis Public Schools already serves chicken raised without antibiotics from Smart Chicken, a Waverly, Neb., firm, and some dark turkey meat from Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minn.
Cargill hopes to get its CRAU-certified turkey product into school districts in the next school year.
“Some of the largest school districts in the nation are extremely interested in purchasing poultry and turkey that meet the certification standards,” said Dr. Scott Eilert, head of food safety, quality and regulatory for Cargill’s turkey brands. “This is the time of year schools start to make procurement decisions.”