DAVID GREENE, HOST:
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You may have noticed that hamburgers have been making a lot of headlines lately, especially burgers served in schools. The controversy over lean, finely textured beef, or pink slime as critics call it, has led some schools to decide they'll get rid of burgers made with the filler. But that move does not resolve a bigger debate over the amount of processed foods kids are eating in their school cafeterias. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Months ago, long before pink slime hit the headlines, the burger served in Fairfax County, Virginia schools became the poster child of a campaign aimed at changing school lunches. JoAnne Hammermaster is a mom who's leading an advocacy group called Real Food for Kids.
JOANNE HAMMERMASTER: I look at that burger and all I see is that it looks very processed. It does not look like beef to me, so from my perspective it's not appetizing.
AUBREY: A dad who's working with this group, Ryan Lonnett, says this processed burger has a long list of ingredients on the label, more than 20. He doesn't even know what half of them are. Things like cyanacobalamin and disodium inosinate. And when he takes a bite...
RYAN LONNETT: The texture is just not real. It tastes very synthetic. And there's a lot of oil coming out when I push the fork down.
AUBREY: Lonnett says kids should eat food from farms not from factories.
HAMMERMASTER: We're not saying don't serve a hamburger, but serve a real hamburger. Serve something without more 25 ingredients, even a McDonald's hamburger has beef, salt and pepper.
AUBREY: Hammermaster and another mom, Jocelyn Hsu, say it's not just the burger that should be changed, but things like the jumbo turkey frank and this grilled cheese sandwich.
JOCELYN HSU: It's unappealing. It's in a plastic bag. It has this cheese product, which is squished out of the side. And, you know, for these two items, these two sandwiches, you really don't need much cooking equipment to make these fresh.
AUBREY: These parents convinced the Fairfax County School Board to pass a resolution authorizing an assessment of the county's school food program. Hsu says their goal is to see these processed foods phased out or reformulated. She says she wants children to eat foods without additives, extra sodium and preservatives.
HSU: I would like to see scratch cooking with foods that I would serve my family.
AUBREY: It may sound simple, but it's anything but. Penny McConnell, who directs the school food service in Fairfax County, says it would mean turning the clock back more than 30 years. She was running the program back then when they still baked cakes and made soups in school kitchens everyday.
PENNY MCCONNELL: We did not ask to get out of scratch cooking. We were told you would get out of it.
AUBREY: McConnell says America had just discovered a new way, an easier way, of putting food on the table.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Swanson announces new three-course frozen dinners, the most complete frozen meal ever put in a single package.
AUBREY: No need to slave over a hot stove all day. You could trust Swanson's to make dinner. It was modern, liberating and for schools, McConnell says, the new heat-'n-serve foods meant they could offer more variety and save money. They didn't have to maintain kitchens or the skilled labor force needed to cook. And now she says she would not want to go back.
MCCONNELL: How would you possibly have an entire gamut of choices like we do if you were doing everything from scratch, peeling potatoes?
AUBREY: Or hand-patting hamburger patties? McConnell says she's got more than 150,000 mouths to feed everyday. She needs to do it quickly and safely. If you introduce raw meat, you open the door to pathogens.
MCCONNELL: How would you ever risk dealing with raw beef?
AUBREY: When her patties come already prepared and frozen, she reheats them knowing the meat is sterile.
MCCONNELL: That product that comes from a manufacture has gone through lab analysis. It's gone through safety checks. I know that it is safe.
AUBREY: McConnell says she understands the complaints from the Real Food for Kids advocates. And she says she is serving lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But she also points out that lot of kids are finicky and resist change.
MCCONNELL: We had a wonderful broccoli salad with raisins and cabbage. Bombed. So, you know, you keep trying it, but if they're not familiar with it, they're not going to select it.
AUBREY: McConnell says since kids like grilled cheese and hamburgers, she's going to keep serving them.
MCCONNELL: The important thing though is that the nutrients are there.
AUBREY: She says all of her meals meet or exceed federal nutrition guidelines. Now, she is working with processors to reduce additives. In fact, later this month she plans to switch to a frozen burger patty that contains just 100 percent beef. But she wants parents to know that a lot of additives are often just vitamins, nutrients and flavorings.
MCCONNELL: I think there's a lot of misinformation.
AUBREY: She says just because something is processed doesn't necessarily make it bad. And food scientists agree. We reached out to the country's premier cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America.
CHRIS LOSS: What processing means exactly is not entirely clear.
AUBREY: That's the Culinary Institute's Chris Loss. In addition to having a Ph.D. in food science, he's also an accomplished chef and loves teaching people about food.
LOSS: I say, I like to think of chefs as food processors in many ways. We turn food into something that is palatable and edible.
AUBREY: Think of bread. No one eat stalks of wheat, it's highly refined. Or...
The greatest example I use with my students is, taking a pure white sugar and turning it into caramel; you've totally manipulated the chemical composition of that ingredient.
Caramel color is one of the many ingredients in the burger that the Real Food for Kids parents don't like. Another suspicious sounding one is disodium inosinate. This is what dad Ryan Lonnett said about it.
LONNETT: It's just a huge red flag. Since I don't know what it is, I'd rather not put it in my body.
AUBREY: But culinary scientist Chris Loss says this ingredient has been used for centuries. In Japan it's an ingredient in a traditional broth.
LOSS: Exactly, a very sophisticated and thousand-year-old recipe. And it does wonderful things to that broth.
AUBREY: Originally made from fish or meat extracts, it's now made from a fermented vegetable starch. So it's not scary?
LOSS: Scary? No, not at all.
AUBREY: But Loss says we are in the midst of a big cultural, re-think about the way we eat. People want to know what's in their food, how it's prepared. And the debate about school food is a reflection of this.
Chef Ann Cooper runs the food service at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado.
ANN COOPER: What I believe is we're going back to understanding that if we want to be healthy and we want our kids to be healthy, we have to find our kitchens again. And I see school food just coming along with that whole paradigm shift.
AUBREY: She's actually brought scratch-cooking back to her schools.
COOPER: This is a school kitchen, but this could be a hotel kitchen. We have two double-stack convection ovens, we have steamers, and...
AUBREY: Cooper has hired a bunch of culinarians who cook 3,000 meals a day in this kitchen. And on the menu this afternoon...
COOPER: I see hundreds and hundreds of pounds of spaghetti squash being steamed and will be sauteed with butter and garlic.
AUBREY: But it's taken almost four years to get this far. She's had to raise prices by about 40 cents per meal.
COOPER: And when you decide to make this change to fresh, whole products and more natural products, it means you have to do training.
AUBREY: Teach people to use knives properly, to handle meat safely, to chop vegetables, and scale-up recipes.
COOPER: Our job descriptions now includes cooking food, not reheating. We cook and we cut.
AUBREY: And Cooper says kids are buying school lunch.
COOPER: Our participation is up 7 percent this year over last year and 3.6 percent over before I came.
GREENE: The kids we talked to certainly noticed the changes.
PANO GARRY: I really like it.
IRA AH: They make it from scratch here.
AUBREY: Pano Garry and his classmate Ira Ah have both bought school lunch and say it's much better than it used to be.
AH: Ah, yes, much better.
AUBREY: From Somerville, Massachusetts to St. Paul, Minnesota lots of school districts are cooking more and adding fresh salad bars. But it doesn't mean that kids, including Patricia Valtierra, are going to give up on their favorite processed snacks.
PATRICIA VALTIERRA: I like Cheetos because of the flavors and spices.
AUBREY: And maybe - just like in our homes - there's a place for both.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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GREENE: And if you're curious to learn more about all those odd-sounding ingredients, you can watch Allison's Tiny Desk Kitchen video at NPR.org.
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GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.