Students can expect more ham and ground pork at the school cafeteria this fall because a hog surplus is helping write the menu.
Following pleas to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman from hog-state lawmakers, the department said June 21 it would buy $30 million worth of pork for the National School Lunch Program and other feeding efforts.
Pork, with its tubby reputation the industry is paying millions of dollars to try to change, hardly seems the commodity of choice for a department that also wants to cut the fat in school meals.
But USDA and industry say that, to the contrary, pork is leaner than ever, deserving a place at the tables where 26 million children eat each day.
Besides, a law in place since the 1930s requires the department to help boost farmer prices by purchasing commodities. Although the money falls short of the billions used to subsidize crops, it makes an impact on farmers’ pocketbooks and the futures market.
Public Voice, a consumer group that has campaigned for leaner lunches with more fruits and vegetables, says the purchase shows that USDA puts the interests of agribusiness ahead of school children and consumers.
“This is yet another example of the tail wagging the dog over there,” said Art Jaeger, communications director for Public Voice.
Even if pork may be leaner than some beef products, the group says, the pork is potentially crowding out a yet leaner commodity.
“This purchase is very consistent with our goals and missions,” says Ellen Haas, undersecretary of Agriculture for nutrition and a founder of Public Voice. “There is a place for pork products, beef products, in a healthy diet.”
Al Tank, vice president of public policy and trade at the National Pork Producers Council, says it’s wrong to exclude pork from a healthy diet, especially considering the progress in making hogs leaner.
“We think this is an extremely important shot in the arm for pork producers,” he said. “It also reflects on, we think, the partnership we have with USDA to produce and supply a high-quality healthy product for school children that they want to eat.”
The fresh-frozen hams and roasts are 95 percent fat free, while the ground pork is 82 percent lean, he said, noting that the Agriculture Department in the past five years has required leaner products.
Seen the other way, the ground pork is 18 percent fat. By comparison, lean hamburger is 22.5 percent, with a three-ounce patty giving one-third the recommended daily limit for fat.