Guest blogger: Student concerned about ingredients

*** Please welcome a student concerned about the ingredients in the lunches she eats. I’d like to make it clear that she is not my student, we have never met, and she contacted me wanting to share her experience ***

Hello! My name is Tara and I’m a senior at my high school in Illinois. I have been through a lot this year in the realm of school lunch improvement.

In November of 2009 I decided to take on our school lunch. I sent my first email to our school food provider (Aramark) in search of ingredient lists for our food. I thought it would be a very easy process to get this information, as I figured they were legally obligated to provide it to me.

To my surprise, after weeks I received no response. So, I contacted my district’s associate superintendent to let him know that Aramark wasn’t responding to my email requests. About a day later I got a response email from Aramark:

“Oh hey Tara! Your message had gotten sent to my spam folder.” Blah blah blah.

Little did I know, I was in contact with a very new member of our district’s Aramark team. Weeks later I received an unofficial word document (obviously typed up by someone… full of grammatical errors) which contained ingredient lists for a few of our main dishes.

I was not surprised by what I found: our food was on the boarder of plastic.

On January 11th 2010, I gave a speech at our school board meeting.
At the time, it was an enormous success.

Our district’s associate superintendent was in contact with me the next day to arrange meetings with Aramark and I to “fix the food”.

At this point I had two main objectives:
1. Have the chemical fillers removed from our food
2. See that an official ingredient and regularly updated ingredient list was made accessible to the student body

And long story made short….

After several meetings with Aramark and district officials I realized neither of my wishes were going to be met.
I was not surprised by the fact that our school couldn’t “find the money” to get the fillers out of the food.

What DID surprise me, however, was the fact that the ingredients in our school food were being kept a secret from the students.
I was actually told by our district’s Aramark coordinator of food services that I should have never been given any ingredients in the first place, and that the woman who had them sent to me unknowingly risked her job by doing so.

In the past month my district’s associate superintendent has dropped out of my efforts.
(I have a feeling he is too busy worrying about the six million dollars the state owes my school district.)

So, I have taken ingredient transparency for my district into my own hands.

I have stated a petition for transparency,
http://www.petitiononline.com/d300food/ (please sign it!)

a facebook group,
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=info&gid=362978439139

and a blog of my own. http://healthytara.blogspot.com/

The only place I feel that this movement is lacking in is more student support. With that said, I’d like to offer my assistance to anyone who is interested in being a part of this all. There are a thousand different ways one can get involved. (You can start by signing my petition!!)

Also, thank you Mrs. Q for all of your efforts.
You’re putting your body and sanity on the line by doing what you’re doing.

-Healthy Tara

NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation.  

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55 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Student concerned about ingredients”

  1. What a great initiative, Tara. I find it amazing that in a society so beset by concerns about allergies and other health issues, ingredient lists are kept secret.

    Of course the secrecy is because of the revolt that might ensue if people really knew what they were eating, and possibly the additional costs involved in being transparent in a system that thrives on keeping costs low, even when that compromises quality. Still, you have every right to know. Keep up your good fight!

  2. The idea the food companies were using us as lab rats was always floating around in the back of my mind from fifth or six grade on. I'd put it down as my wacko imagination running off with me again, but after the supplier's reaction…

    Just kidding. I know it's more like fear of more students, and their parents, joining your movement. Way to go, Tara.

  3. FYI – the link to Tara's blog needs fixed. If you type it in manually you can get there. The link is to a different blog that is not active.

    Great article. Good luck!!

  4. I think Aramark's "defense" that by not complying with the code or law (if there is one) that would require them to reveal the food product ingredients they are preventing students from going home and making the items themselves and costing the school by loss of revenue is naieve. If that was a defense no company would comply. If Arby's complied then McDonalds could start making beef n cheddars? I want to know what loophole they are using to prevent students teachers and parents from knowing what exactly they are eating.

    Keep rocking the boat Tara.

  5. The new show on ABC with Jaime Oliver is proving that you can have healthy ingredients for the students that costs the same as all of that processed junk they serve now.

  6. I'll be adding a link to your cause to each of my blog posts for others to see.

  7. How refreshing for a teenager to be concerned. This post made my day. Now I'm off to subscribe to her blog. 🙂

  8. I went to Catholic school my whole life, and I only ever ate school lunch on pizza days, which were a rare treat. Otherwise I typically brought turkey sandwhichs, peanut butter sandwhiches, or soup. My junior year in high school, my school got a new lunch vendor. I tried some meal they served one day, and it was not memorable… except for the cookies they served for dessert. The cookies had what appeared to be bugs in them. My friends and I hightailed it to the biology lab and looked at the cookie under the microscope. Sure enough, there were legs, wings, and antennae – DISGUSTING! I brought this to the attention of the administration who did nothing, well until I posted signs warning the student body of what I found and then I had to write an apology to the food vendor. No one at my lunch table ever bought lunch again, needless to say.

  9. I need to amend my comment. Those are only McDonald's core ingredients…you don't get to see the bad stuff. Still better than Aramark is providing.

  10. Wonder what it would take to get calorie counts/nutritional information to students/teachers? In many states, it's law that restaurants must provide that info – what about schools?

  11. As a school nurse, I know that food allergies are on the rise. Ingredient lists as well as carb counts and other nutritional information need to be made available to all parents, students, and staff. Go Tara!!

  12. As someone who graduated from a different Illinois high school than Tara, and whose school used Aramark's services, I am disgusted by them. I always knew their food was…less than savory (anyone who has tried their school food can attest to that), but that it's bad enough they won't keep records of what goes into their food, let alone give that info to those eating the food? Ugh.

  13. Having gone to high school just a couple of counties over, I can't commend you enough. Don't let people brush your issue aside because of the state budget crisis — keep it fresh in their minds so that when the money starts flowing again, it'll be an issue they'll tackle ASAP. As for Aramark, privacy, shmivacy — people of all ages deserve to know what their food is made of!

  14. You're a true leader.

    A friend's mother used to work in school cafeteria supplied by Aramark. She gave me some of the surplus. One of the things she gave was a mega tub of "peanut butter" – first ingredients were partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, then peanuts.

    About the surplus: the cafeteria worker says she has to give away a ton of surplus before it expires. I asked why they don't just order less. "Oh, no. We don't want to lose the gov't funding."

    Wouldn't it make more sense to order less but make it quality food?

  15. It's risking a job to provide an *ingredients* list?!? Are you KIDDING me?!!

    I sincerely hope this is a series of miscommunications and not really Aramark's policy. It's absurd.

  16. Hi Tara,
    My work cafeteria is run by Aramark as well and we only recently gained enough support to make changes. In the three years that I have worked here, we have gone from unidentifiable meat patties to having locally grown produce brought in on a weekly basis. This year we are starting our own kitchen garden to help supply some of the food. Keep on fighting!
    K

  17. Keep up the good fight, Tara!

    This lack of transparency is one of the most troubling things about the state of school lunches. Probably they're afraid that if parents and students and the community knew what was being served, there would be a huge outcry…

    BTW, Aramark also has the catering contract at some prisons (the poor quality of their food was widely considered to be a contributing factor at a recent prison riot in KY). I wonder how their school food compares to their prison food…

  18. Aramark is terrible. Our company works with them, and we always have issues. Can I ask (maybe this is b/c I don't have kids, and therefore don't know much about the situation), but if the school food is this bad can't you bring a lunch from home? My guess is that if more people complained, campaigned and boycotted the nasty school food it might send a stronger message. But then she did mention that there isn't much support from the student body, and I'm guessing more importantly, their parents. Why is that? I'm not trying to diminish Tara's intitative, and I really applaud her efforts, but in the short term I hope she's not eating the junk schools are serving. Good for you Tara; you're going to be a very successful woman! Good luck!

  19. Wow Tara is great she is actually doing something about this issue. But what I want to know is why she only has 7 followers and this blog has 3339 and all Q is doing is saying how bad it is for you.

  20. Tara is the next-gen Mrs. Q!! This is such an inspiring post. I'm so happy to see young people speaking out so passionately for the respect they deserve.

    If I was in high school, I would totally want Tara to be my best friend!

  21. Anonymous 10:27, take a look at the posting dates on Tara's blog. That part of her campaign was only started on Wednesday. Give her time.

  22. Tara, nice work! Have you tried getting to know your Lunch Ladies? They may know more about the food or even have access to the packaging. The ingredients may be on the bulk food packages or shipping boxes. I’m not positive, but I think the FDA still requires the nutritional information on the packaging, even if they aren’t required to show anyone the packaging.

  23. What I find a bit odd and disturbing is that it is against the law to take a bottle of milk out of our plant without a label, it doesn't matter what the destination (for granny, the dog, cat whatever), BUT Aramark can refuse to give any information about their products!!! MESSED UP !! Oh and the regulations on labels!! Don't get me started… They even tell you what font to use!!! Something is messed up here!

  24. Good luck with the fight, unfortunately fighting the system can be tricky. I admire your determination to stick with it!

  25. so impressed by your efforts! and absolutely disgusted by aramark. they are behind a of school food (including a campus Starbucks at my old college) and it sickens me that they refuse to distribute a list of ingredients. keep up your amazing efforts, tara!

  26. Have you spoken with any lawyers about this? I would guess you could find a pro-bono lawyer willing to take this one on. Aramark, along with any and all other food distributors, are absolutely required by law to provide nutritional information on their food. I'm shocked at what you have found. I think I may start pushing for the same thing in our district!! Thanks for the inspiration.

  27. Also, you may consider a boycott. This is one of the most powerful tools available to "the people" today. If you raise awareness in your school about the situation, it shouldn't be too hard to get people on board.

    My husband loves to relate a story about his 1st grade class boycotting school lunch. They got to the cafeteria on "chocolate milk day" only to find that there was not enough chocolate milk for everyone. So, they boycotted for 2 weeks. The head lunch lady came into their classroom to ask them why they were doing it, because things had gotten so bad they were going to have to lay-off some employees if the kids didn't start eating at school again. And that was just one class. Imagine if you got your whole school involved….!!

    Obviously, you don't want to cost anyone their jobs. But, there may be a way to boycott without having anyone laid-off, and still have your demands met!?

  28. I admire your determination. As a single mother, I'm on a tight budget. Paying for school lunches is reasonable but I can't bring myself to let my son eat them. I have been to his elementary school on several occasions to eat lunch with him. The food is discusting! I wouldn't eat it so why should I make him?

    The only thing he will eat at school is tacos, chicken nuggets and corn dogs. That's the GOOD stuff! Yikes! I pack him a lunch almost every day because I know he will be eating something healthy. If I forget his lunch he won't eat at all. I would rather spend a little extra money and make sure he eats something.

  29. I'm catching a whiff of shenanigans on this one (see Zipdinger 4:17). I submitted an email to Aramark about (1) what laws apply to them re: food labeling and (2) what their policies are for requests for this kind of information. I also asked the FDA question (1) as well. If the two don't match, you have concrete proof that they are violating the law, and if they are somehow exempt from food labeling laws that apply to restaurants and food producers, you can absolutely point out (see Dorn 8:36) that providing ingredients doesn't seem to harm the restaurants that do it. Also, Cora 12:31 made a good point about information that may already be available without going through official channels.

  30. Great initiative, Tara! The best of luck to you. I signed your petition and joined your FB group, and now I'm heading over to check out your blog. I think the best idea is to organize a boycott until they make some changes.

  31. Way to go Tara! You're on the right track.

    I did a little research into Taco Bell's food recently and found that they list their ingredients on their website. Guess what I found as in ingredient in the shrimp in their shrimp taco? Chicken!

    Processed food is like a box o' chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get! Keep it up Tara.

  32. I'd like to chime in and say that this is not just an Aramark thing, but other school food vendors make it difficult to obtain nutritional information.

  33. I completely don't understand this refusal to list the ingredients. With all the very severe allergies these days, we are required to bring all food that is to be distributed to students in a package with the ingredients listed. I suppose kids with severe allergies would never buy school lunch, but still.

  34. I thought this was crazy, but found this on Aramark's site and thought it was even crazier!

    ARAMARK’s Position:

    ARAMARK works to provide a pleasant and safe dining experience for all our customers.

    We provide training to food service staff to increase awareness and understanding of food allergies and we are committed to assisting customers to make informed food choices by providing accurate ingredient information to the best of our ability.

    If there is any question about the ingredients of a food item, we encourage customers with food allergies not to consume that food item.

    Upon request, we share with customers all ingredients that go into our final product. However, there are situations where customers may have an allergic reaction due to factors outside of ARAMARK’s control.

  35. @Anonymous 6:14- Where is that on the site?? I'd like to send that to the Aramark representative I've been talking with. See what he says about that.

  36. Tara, I did a search and found what Anonymous posted here: http://www.aramark.com/AboutARAMARK/ARAMARKOn/FoodAllergies.aspx

    Looks like your Aramark rep isn’t following the posted policy. (Although unofficial policy may be to deflect all requests.)

    I’d advise having a parent or friend call with “food allergy concerns” on your behalf. They know you now, and they will just dodge you again. (They probably also don’t like dealing directly with students.) Have your friend quote the website when they make the request. And no mention of blogs or council meetings. Aramark will be more helpful if they don’t feel threatened.

    Go get ‘em!

  37. Hi Tara, just wanted to say I applaud your efforts here! I am a new subscriber to this blog, but not new are my concerns about the nutritional value of kids' food, especially what they are eating when away from home. I remember my Aramark food experiences from college and do not miss them at all! As an adult now, I'm much more cognizant of what I am eating and where it comes from, but wish I had had the wits about me while younger to take a stand like you are doing. I signed your petition today… best of luck and I do hope change comes about as a result of it!

  38. I think what Tara is attempting is very admirable, and I am glad she has decided to stand up for what she belives in and try to work for a better future for the students in her school district, but my signing her petition, since I live in Southern California, won't matter. She needs to campeign locally for the support of local students, parents and teachers because in the end, their opinion is what will matter because it will effect them directly.

    I agree with a comment another person made, that if we all come together and pack lunches for our children (well, yours since I don't have any yet) and boycott the school lunches then they will have to make changes. The only issue with that is that the low income students, that may receive most of (if not all) of their meals from their school cafeteria cannot afford to bring a more nutrious lunch from home. The wealthy middle to upper middle class people can afford better, it is the poorer students that cannot, and it is those same students who end up eating the lunch provided by the school more often than not. It's sad really, but the lunch the school provides is probably better than top ramen.

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