Forbidden FruitMarch 3rd, 2011

“Yes, we have no tomatoes,” I say in response to a customer’s sandwich order. My customers are middle- and high-school kids breaking for lunch in Portland, Connecticut. My employer is a for-profit company, Sodexo-Marriot, that contracts with the school system there and has ordered me not to decorate the kids’ sandwiches with two slices of tomato.

I’m not being honest when I tell the kids we have no tomatoes. We have them, all right, but we won’t be serving them on my deli line until further notice. There is a sign posted there to the effect that certain commodities have been impacted by bad weather and they may not always be available. The implication is that there are no tomatoes to be purchased.

In fact, there are tomatoes in abundance, but the price has gone up lately. No mention is made of the price in the notice on my line, but that’s the key element here. My boss tells me it’s a company-wide crackdown, as if tomato abuse were rife across the continent. On my line, the company is saving at most $3 a day and disappointing maybe 15 customers.

Halfway into my second season as a lunch lady, I thought I’d long since dispensed with ethical issues when I closed my law practice a couple of years ago and opted for a social security pension and part-time kitchen work. Turns out I’m working for a company that grabs its profit (and my wages) by taking food out of the mouths of children. It’s not just the tomatoes (or the lettuce, which I’m also occasionally forbidden to serve to children). It’s that school food service–a critical function in a town like Portland–is farmed out for profit when it ought to be managed and channeled to benefit the school and the community.

Sodexo and contractors like Sodexo can be expected to satisfy minimal requirements in the interest of maximizing their profits, and they do just that. A certain number of kids will show up at school without bag lunches, and the contractor’s job is to exploit that situation for profit. It’s not to make sure that every kid is fed and nourished, that no food is wasted, that salty and sugary junk is kept out of reach, that local products are preferred, or that the town gets its money’s worth.

The result is, for the kids, spare, starchy lunches, short on produce and long on pricey processed snacks and sweetened beverages. For the contractor, there’s a fully equipped food factory, whence it can whip up snacks and meals for off-hour catered events, sometimes using free or cut-rate supplies it gets from the government for the kids.

Not all Sodexo’s diners are equal. We lunch ladies are instructed to dish out a bigger portion to staff members than to students. I haven’t yet figured out why. The kids are growing and need food, and the adults don’t seem to be any hungrier than the teenagers. I suspect the company’s currying favor with the staff, who are more or less permanent, at the expense of the kids, who are just passing through. That’s my opinion, but if I’m right, it’s a contracting abuse that ought to be stopped.

Because public schools now function as government feeding centers for children from homes with little income, and because this function is heavily subsidized by government, it has attracted private business, which likes to be there whenever money changes hands. Contractors promise a lot when they bid to perform some critical public function like school lunch, but they’re there for the money, not for the public. Once in place, they chisel at every turn, even to the point of denying a kid a few cents worth of fresh produce on her sandwich.