THE BLOG

My Beef With School Food

02/26/2008 02:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Just prior to the February 17 recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, I received numerous emails pointing me to the Humane Society's video exposé of the killing floor at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, California. The footage, low-resolution and fuzzy, is nevertheless gruesome, enhanced by the undercover activist's narration detailing the abuse of the animals.

What's hit the headlines is the fact that cows too sick to stand were being fork lifted into position and slaughtered against regulations, their potentially tainted meat ground up with that of hundreds of thousands of other cattle. It's been reported that 37 million pounds of that meat supplied schools across the country as a commodity item in the National School Lunch Program. "Downer" cows are forbidden for use as food because mad cow disease is one of several conditions that will cripple a cow. The USDA is minimizing the risk, but it takes about 20 years for mad cow to develop in humans and most of the recalled beef has already been consumed. With 20 million school children taking part in the program daily, that's nearly two pounds of contaminated beef per student. Scary.

I eat meat. My family, my kids eat meat. One of the stories my 21-year-old daughter tells of her "traumatic" childhood describes the time I sent her into our neighbor's farmhouse to ask her dad a question. She found him with a group of men and women gathered around a table in the basement where they were engaged in butchering a calf. The calf had been tethered in the barn the day before, nursing from his mother. My daughter knew him as "Gumpy." My six-year-old child emerged from the basement in shock. "They killed Gumpy!" "Papa killed Gumpy!" For years after, whenever we had veal for dinner, she would ask, "Are we eating Gumpy?"

My husband is from France. When he moved to America 30 years ago, he couldn't find the quality of food he was used to in France, not even in the most expensive gourmet markets in New York City. Shortly after we were married, we became partners in a farm in upstate New York. There we raised certified organic poultry and game birds using traditional French and biodynamic farming methods. Our daughter, definitely a "hair and nails" kind of girl, saw a lot of blood and guts on the farm. And though she attends a college with perhaps the largest percentage of vegans of any school in the country, her French half dictates that for now at least, she remains an omnivore.

I wondered if my daughter's first-hand knowledge of life and death on the farm de-sensitized her to the killing of animals for food?

When we began farming, we expected to bring our tenderly raised birds to a local slaughterhouse. As neophytes coming from the city, it would have been so much simpler for us -- less messy, and certainly less vulgar, to let someone else deal the coup de grace. "You give me 100 chickens, and I'll give you 100 back plucked and dressed, but no guarantee they'll be your same chickens," is what we were told by every operation in the county. After months of research, equipment auctions, and USDA inspections, we hired a crew of Vietnam Vets and began "processing" our beautiful Muscovy ducks, Chinese geese, Guinea Fowl, Pheasants and "Poulet de Bresse" on the farm.

Slaughter days were somber, yet disciplined affairs. We were efficient and careful to follow our newly acquired USDA rules and responsibilities. Most of our birds were sold fresh to the best restaurants in the city. Many neighbors showed up on slaughter days as well. Often we'd have a rabbi at one door, blessing our birds before carting them off to the local Kosher resort, and the only Muslim couple in the county at our other door, eager for fowl that was not only Kosher, but Halal as well!

The city chefs, the Rabbi, the Muslim couple and the neighbors all knew us. They knew our farm, they knew our flock, and therefore, they knew their food. Just like my daughter knew Gumpy.

I showed my daughter the Humane Society's video. She was horrified. "When we eat meat in school, or in a restaurant, we just assume that someone else is looking out for us" she told me. "Our farm drew a community together, giving comfort even on the gruesome slaughter days. Those people all knew where their food came from and it made them feel safe. When the scale gets so big and anonymous, we just get disconnected. It takes videos like this to remind us," she observes.

The shocking Humane Society video is educational in a negative way. We need an educational system that teaches kids positive lessons about food -- sourcing, preparation, taste, presentation, nutrition, marketing and politics. I documented positive food system education in my film, Two Angry Moms. In the schools where "farm-to-school" programs take place, school children visit farms, sometimes working on them as a learning experience, or bringing their acquired knowledge back to school gardens and greenhouses. These schools had classes where students learned to prepare whole meals from fresh ingredients. In one district, a month of school lunch menus were entirely planned and tested by the students. Where school districts purchase fresh ingredients from a variety of sources, I observed that food service directors, administrators, parents and even students all join in taking responsibility for the quality of the meals.

I had a call from a reporter who wanted to know, "Who's in charge? Who's the go-to person for insuring the quality of school food?" He caught me a bit off-guard. The obvious answer is, "The USDA slaughterhouse inspectors." As a parent and a whole food advocate though, I've heard many stories about what goes on in factory farms. The USDA admits there aren't enough inspectors. The only reason the Chino plant made headlines is because of an undercover independent investigation. I suggested to the reporter that he call a school superintendent, or a Board of Education member. We entrust our children's education and their safety at school to these administrators. Ultimately though, it's up to you and me -- parents, to safeguard and teach our children. We're in charge.

Not all kids will have my daughter's first hand education on the farm, but they all need a connection with their food. Schools that utilize the cafeteria as part of the curriculum seek the same quality in the food and in the food service that they demand from teachers and from textbooks. Parents, Boards of Education and school administration need to take responsibility for the food fed to our children in school. The more we know about it, the better equipped we all are to make decisions about where that food comes from. Isn't that what education is all about?