Students in a Virginia school system are now eating hamburgers with additives in them, after officials heeded their complaints about the appearance and taste of the all-beef burgers it had been serving. The burgers that are now being served include a reported 26 ingredients.
As The Washington Post reports, the change to all-beef patties had been hailed by the group Real Food for Kids, which says its mission is to "educate our students and their families on making healthier lifestyle choices."
The push to get Fairfax County schools to serve 100-percent beef was covered last spring by NPR's Alison Aubrey, who asked, "What's Inside The 26-Ingredient School Lunch Burger?"
That push for all-beef patties eventually succeeded. But it seems that school cafeterias in Fairfax, Va., outside Washington, D.C., made the switch back to a burger with additives in September. Done without fanfare, the move has since gained the notice of critics.
School board member Ryan McElveen, who has pushed for fresh and nutritious food in schools, "said that the change occurred after students noticed that the old patties appeared to be pink in the middle," The Post says.
Noting that Fairfax schools' lunch cafeterias precook their burgers, the newspaper reports "McElveen said it's likely that the all-beef patties did not have a caramel coloring additive."
McElveen tells The Post that he was surprised by the switch back to burgers with additives, "because it seems a bit like a step backwards."
The school district's food and nutritional service director Penny McConnell explained the move to Real Food for Kids by saying, "students are our customers and we listen to them and implement their requests if possible."
As the Fairfax Times reports, McConnell recently helped establish a salad bar and other healthy options at a Fairfax high school that is meant to serve as a pilot program for the school district. Students helped to choose that menu, which includes falafel and a Waldorf salad.
The Fairfax school system made the switch to all-beef patties after alarm grew about a filler product often called "pink slime" that is officially known as lean finely textured beef, as NPR's The Salt has reported.
"Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre said that the new patty does not contain pink slime," The Post says.
As The Salt reported in 2012, it can be difficult to know precisely what's in ground beef, whether you're buying a burger, a pre-made patty, or a package of meat.
The Fairfax school system isn't alone in facing setbacks in its efforts to get students to eat a more healthy diet. A recent report on that topic by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that a "sizable majority of school food authorities reported facing challenges while implementing the [USDA's] updated school meal standards."
The study noted, "According to USDA's School Nutrition Dietary Assessment study conducted during the 2009-10 school year, only 14 percent of public schools offered lunches that met all of the nutrition standards in place at that time."
The USDA study described the typical school lunch was "high in sodium, calories from solid fats, and added sugars, and low in whole grains."
The Pew report said that schools can play a large role in helping kids become healthier, saying that "More than 31 million U.S. children participate in the National School Lunch Program each school day, and many students consume up to half of their daily calories at school."