Burke County Public Schools calls “The Pig Rig,” a new $33,000 meat smoker, its “latest venture to share good food with our district.” But a Washington, D.C.-based Physicians group is not convinced.
In a letter to BCPS administrators, Stephanie McBurnett, a registered dietician with The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), wrote she was “dismayed that a public school district spent surplus dollars on a roving meat smoker that is being used to serve students carcinogenic food,” and called for the smoker’s decommissioning.
The letter cites research from the the National Cancer Institute, Lancet Oncology, The American Cancer Society, The World Health Organization and more showing red and processed meats (including smoked meats) can increase a person’s risk of cancer and heart disease.
McBurnett wrote the risk can be even greater with meat cooked over an open flame at high temperatures, but according to a statement issued by BCPS, the Pig Rig does neither of those two things.
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“It cooks meats and vegetables with indirect heat, at a low temperature with a small smoke chamber,” the statement reads.
According to the statement, the Pig Rig also is more than just another appliance in school cafeterias, but part of the district’s commitment to increase school lunch participation.
“Meal participation has been climbing over the years ... we know additional programs like the smoker and other special events throughout the year can help encourage kids to participate in the meal program,” said the statement.
District leaders believe school meal participation is important, citing a CDC statement showing students who participate in school meal programs have better overall diet quality than those who do not. Additionally, they believe offering regional favorites such as smoked meats cooked at low temperatures helps them encourage even more students to participate.
The CDC stresses the importance of school lunch participation and recommends schools encourage participation by providing meals that are “nutritious and appealing” as well as “obtaining input from students and parents about items they would like to see served in the meals.”
In addition to providing food that is appealing to local students, BCPS leaders also stand behind the quality of the food offered through The Pig Rig.
“All the meals we serve meet or exceed national and state guidelines for school meals, with our monthly offering of smoked meats using low sodium seasoning and a preparation process that does not add any additional fat,” the statement reads.
McBurnett told The News Herald that while low indirect heat may not produce as many carcinogens as cooking at high heat over an open flame, smoking, even at low heat can still be hazardous, especially if the meat is cooked for a long period of time.
“In the definition of processed meats, it says, ‘smoked meat’ and (the Pig Rig) is a smoker,” she said. “I understand they’re coming back and they’re saying, ‘we know smoking to be healthier than grilling,’ but I’m saying, ‘both of them are a process.’”
McBurnett acknowledged many other items served in school cafeterias across the nation meet the WHO’s criteria for “class one carcinogens,” but said PCRM also is working on the national level to improve the school lunch program.
As for the issue of funding in districts like BCPS where 69% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, McBurnett thinks school meal programs should turn to meatless options instead of serving processed meats at least some of the time.
“What PCRM does is we have tons of recipes that are approved by the national school lunch program but do not have meat and are really emphasizing beans, whole grains, fruits and legumes,” she said. “We’re really looking to broaden cafeteria’s horizons away from meat as being on every plate.”
She said she wished BCPS would have spent the $33,000 to begin programs to expand students’ palates to include beans, vegetables and other options.
Bethany Collier, marketing specialist for BCPS, said expanding student’s palates and encouraging them to make healthy choices is exactly what Mood Boost and Discovery Kitchen, two existing BCPS programs, already are designed to do.
“Mood Boost connects how students feel with the food they eat,” she said. “Discovery Kitchen is another initiative through Chartwells that takes food education a step further by incorporating demos and recipes.”
Collier said in Discovery Kitchen students can try samples of healthy options with simple recipes they can then take home to use. She said Mood Boost features ingredients such as chickpeas, tomatoes, beans, corn, zucchini, avocado and more, tying them to moods like strong, confident, calm, alert and happy.
McBurnett said she was not aware of Discovery Kitchen or Mood Boost, but said they sound like great programs.
Jason Koon is a staff writer and can be reached at 828-432-8907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.