Boston Public Schools Shelves Pink Slime

In case you haven’t heard of it, “pink slime” is the pulverized and ammonia-hydroxide-treated slaughterhouse scraps mixed into regular beef. It’s a food product that most of us have been ingesting without realizing it — and that lunch ladies have been lovingly piling onto cafeteria trays across the nation for years.

Last week, Boston Public Schools joined other public school districts across the country when it decided to ban the unappetizing mixture from its school lunch program after Houston resident Bettina Siegel, who blogs about kids and food at The Lunch Tray, started an online petition, which went viral. This is good news for parents who aren’t comfortable having their kids eat a food product that is more product than food. But it also got me wondering what other misbegotten concoctions have we been ladling onto kids’ lunch trays all these years? I decided to ask a few experts what they would ban, in school or out, from kids’ diets. Here’s what they said:

Aviva Goldfarb is a family dinner expert, author and founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, which helps busy parents plan and execute simple, nutritious meals for their families.

“Canned fruits in syrup,” she says. “Besides concerns about potentially toxic BPA in the cans’ lining, these fruits are way too high in added sugar. And those ‘fruit’ gummies — essentially candy that some parents and kids think has nutritional value but doesn’t. It’s terrible for kids’ teeth and braces and takes up calories that should be devoted to better nutrition. And Jell-O, which is not only empty calories but full of artificial colors and flavors that are potentially harmful.”

In essence, Goldfarb says, she’d like to see “more fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more low-fat dairy, and less sugar.” For a glimpse of what that might look like, check out what’s happening out in Boulder, Colo., where salad bars have been installed in all public schools.

Chef Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Lunch Lady, who led the Boulder salad bar movement and aims to do it across the nation through two organizations: The Lunch Box and SaladBars2Schools. Cooper said that, rather than listing specific items to remove from menus, she’d like to take on the elephant in the lunch room.

“What this whole thing with pink slime brings to mind is processed mystery meat in general,” she says. “Some schools have these spicy chicken patties or what they call ‘riblets,’ which is processed pork made into the shape of a rib. If you look at the ingredient labels for these processed meats, there are 50 things on them. What I think we should ask is, ‘What is all this processed food?’ Let’s take a look at the labels. There are often so many items in there that you wouldn’t even want to know what it is.”

Kate Adamick is cofounder of Cook for America, which hosts culinary boot camps for school food service personnel to teach them how to revamp the way their lunch programs are planned and executed. Adamick also has her eye on chicken nuggets, saying, “The manufacturing process for nuggets isn’t terribly different from the processing of pink slime beef.”

In her book, Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy, which dispels the myth that scratch-cooked school meals cost more money, she says school lunches should not resemble the offerings at a professional sporting event:

“School is not a once-a-year outing to a big league sporting event. Your child doesn’t need to choose among hot dogs, burgers, pizza, and nachos every day. Only one of those items should be available at a time, and not more than once or twice a month for each.”

Given the flood of research tying our children’s unhealthy eating and exercise habits to the obesity epidemic and diet-related illness, these lunch reformers’ calls to arms sound like words to live by — perhaps literally.