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What's Inside The 26-Ingredient School Lunch Burger?

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Thiamine mononitrate, disodium inosinate, pyridoxine hydrochloride.

Why are these hard-to-pronounce ingredients added to everything from a burger served in schools to veggie burgers in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store? We try to answer that on this edition of Tiny Desk Kitchen.

It turns out the answers are as varied as the ingredients. But as we yearn to know what's in our food and how it's made, these kinds of ingredients with unfamiliar names make people suspicious.

"For me, it's just a huge red flag," says Ryan Lonnett, a parent of children in Fairfax County, Va., schools. He's an advocate with the group Real Food For Kids.

When he looks at the ingredient list of the burger served in his kids' cafeteria, he says things like disodium inosinate stand out. "Since I don't know what it is, I'd rather not put it in my body," Lonnett says.

RFFK wants Fairfax County schools to phase out or reformulate processed foods such as a grilled cheese served in a bag, a jumbo turkey frank and a cheese quesadilla. The group also wants the county to purchase new kitchen equipment and begin preparing some foods from scratch.

"We now have 36 school [parent teacher associations] that have signed a resolution that encourages the county to make changes," says JoAnne Hammermaster, head of RFFK.

Making the transition is not as simple as it may sound. Listen to my story on Morning Edition to learn why.

Fairfax County Public Schools has decided to phase out the 26-ingredient burger. Penny McConnell, who directs the county's Office of Food and Nutrition Services, says she will replace it with an alternative frozen patty made of 100 percent beef. The change could come as soon as mid-April.

But McConnell says she doesn't have the kitchen equipment, the space or the labor force to return to scratch cooking in schools.

She says the pre-prepared foods made by manufacturers are healthful and help limit the risks of food-borne illness, since they prevent the chance of cross-contamination that comes with handling raw meat. "That product that comes from a manufacturer, it's gone through lab analysis and safety checks," McConnell says. "I know it's safe."

The debate about school food is a reflection of a wider cultural rethink about the way we eat.

"What I believe is that we're going back," says Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. "If we want to be healthy and want our kids to be healthy, we've got to find our kitchens again."

She has actually brought scratch cooking back to her schools. And a lot of cities are inviting chefs into cafeterias and classrooms through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Chefs Move to Schools program, which encourages students to learn more about food and cooking. More than 3,300 schools and 3,400 chefs have joined the program, according to the USDA's Hans Bilger.

The Culinary Trust, one of the partners in the project, is offering grants to support the initiative.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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