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NC school district’s new ‘Pig Rig’ propane grill makes national health group squeal

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 3/10/2023 Anna Maria Della Costa, The Charlotte Observer

A roving propane grill Burke County Public Schools purchased to give students a “premium entree choice” is getting negative reviews from a national health organization.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, is asking the school district in Morganton, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, to stop using the smoker students dubbed the “Pig Rig.” The advocacy group says it preaches “prevention over pills” to address chronic diseases.

The grill allows Burke County to offer smoked brisket and chicken thighs, among other options, to students once a month, a district news release said. But Stephanie McBurnett, a registered dietitian with the nonprofit, says she’s dismayed the district spent money on the Pig Rig and bills the meat as “healthy.”

“When it comes to smoked meats the science is clear,” McBurnett wrote in a letter dated March 2 to multiple school officials, including Superintendent Mike Swan and Director of Food Services and Child Nutrition Daniel Wall. “The American Cancer Society recommends limiting or avoiding processed meat because of the overwhelming evidence showing that even in small amounts, it increases the risk of colon and other cancers.”

During a school board meeting in December, Wall said teachers were excited about the smoker. In a statement to The Charlotte Observer Friday, the district called it a venture “to share good food” with students.

“The chicken we recently served from the Pig Rig was a huge hit and is a way for us to increase participation and serve more students delicious meals,” Cheryl Shuffler, the district’s public relations officer, said. “This is a way we can bring restaurant-style food into lunchrooms but do it in a healthy way that still meets all of the school food rules and regulations.”

McBurnett told the Observer that Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine got involved after receiving an email from a concerned citizen.

“As a mother, I am very aware of harmful toxins in the air that can be detrimental to our kids,” McBurnett said. “And as a dietitian, I am aware of the harmful health effects of red and processed meats. I felt compelled to set the record straight and let the school district know people are concerned about this piece of equipment.”

McBurnett has not received a response to her letter.

Shuffler says the district partners with Chartwells, a division of food management company Compass Group, for its food service. She says Burke County offers nutritious, classic and regional lunch options. The district also offers “unique experiences” such as chef demonstrations and sampling events, as well our smoked meats, which are one-of-a-kind in the state.

“(The Pig Rig) cooks meats and vegetables with indirect heat, at a low temperature with a small smoke chamber,” Shuffler said.

District used budget surplus to buy smoker

The Pig Rig made its debut in February at Jimmy C. Draughn High School and provided smoked chicken thighs to its students as well as and middle and elementary school students in the area. The child nutrition department purchased the Pig Rig for $33,000 as part of the budget surplus spend-down plan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that school meals are the healthiest meals offered to children, and Burke County meals are no different, Shuffler says.

“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,” Shuffler said.

McBurnett says regardless of how often children eat meat prepared on the Pig Rig, the school district used public resources on something that is known to be harmful.

A community garden could have produced fresh fruits and vegetables that students could have helped cultivate and prepare instead, she said.

The district’s Career and Technical Education department will also benefit from the Pig Rig — high school culinary students will learn about smoking different types of meat later this semester..

“The Pig Rig is a great addition to BCPS, giving our students new premium options for lunch and also broadening our culinary students’ skills,” Swan said in a February news release.

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