Misery on the Menu: The National School Lunch Program
By Michele Simon
Originally published in The Animal's Agenda, September/October 1998.

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan Administration took quite a bit of flack for declaring ketchup a vegetable for purposes of the National School Lunch Program. In the 1990s version, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that salsa is now an acceptable part of the school menu. But this really raises a much more important question: What types of foods are most commonly being served up to over 26 million children per day, at an annual price tag of over $4 billion? The simple truth is that schools are being used as a dumping ground for high-fat and cholesterol meat and dairy products, with the ultimate goal of salvaging industry profits with taxpayer dollars. Compared to the unhealthy foods currently being served in school cafeterias, salsa is a major improvement. How did this happen?

Historical Conflict of Interest
The origins of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) date back to 1946, when Congress' goal was not only to promote good nutrition, but also to support farmers by providing more markets for the excess food they produced. The NSLP's stated purpose was to "safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities." This dual purpose helps explain much about why the NSLP has failed miserably to provide school children with nutritious lunches. In a system wrought with conflicts between sound nutrition and saving the agriculture industry, farmers usually win out over children, which is no surprise given who has the louder voice in government. The failures of the NSLP in providing healthy, nutritious meals to the nation's school children are evident. In a 1993 survey, the USDA itself found the nutritional quality of most school lunches was mediocre at best, with meals averaging 38 percent calories from fat. While there is much blame to go around, government conflicts of interest, ineptitude and inertia are particularly at fault. In addition, corporate influences in the form of political pressures and excessive greed are major factors in how our children are continually fed animal product centered meals. Also, the refusal of government officials and nutrition professionals to tell the truth about the detrimental effects of eating animal products helps maintain the status quo.

Animal Products and Big Business
Most disturbing is how the NSLP gets used as a dumping ground for excess animal products. The government often buys out surpluses of various meats and cheeses from industry and then turns these unhealthy products over to our nation's school children for nothing or close to it. For example, when overproduction of milk pushes prices down, the USDA steps in to help farmers by buying milk until the price rises again. Often, it processes the milk into butter and cheddar cheese, foods very high in saturated fat and then ships these foods around the country to dump on the NSLP. Schools depend heavily on these "commodity" items, consisting typically of 20 percent of the foods schools serve. The USDA spends $3-4 billion a year buying surplus foods for the school lunch program. In 1991, 90 percent of these foods were butter, cheese, whole milk, beef, pork and eggs. All of these foods, besides being animal products, are loaded with fat, cholesterol and sodium. One evaluation of the commodity foods program indicated that 70 percent of the items offered exceed the U.S. dietary guidelines for fat.

It is no great secret that our federal government dollars are hard at work propping up the meat and dairy industries. Just this May, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman proudly announced that his agency had purchased 8 million pounds of beef and pork commodities at a cost of approximately $9 million. These purchases are part of USDA's $30 million pork and $30 million beef annual buyouts. "These bonus buys support the livestock industries by bolstering producer prices," said Glickman in the announcement. The beef and pork will be distributed to the National School Lunch Program and other food assistance programs. At the same time, USDA announced plans to purchase up to $8 million of lamb products to help improve prices for lamb producers and the lamb industry. Again, according to Secretary Glickman, the lamb industry has been under pressure from an increased supply of domestic red meat and these purchases will help offset this surplus supply and its resulting depressed prices to producers. The lamb products will be distributed to recipients in federal food assistance programs through food banks and other charitable institutions to increase their stocks of "high-quality protein" items. How convenient for the government to justify supporting an industry struggling against the rising tide of an increasingly health-conscious America by dumping these unhealthy foods on those individuals unable to choose. And the government's solution to getting the fat out? One of the USDA's recommendations to lower the fat content in ground beef is to cook the hamburgers and then put them under running water to wash away fat grams down the drain. As one nutrition expert put it: This would benefit plumbers more than children.

Why Not Healthier Alternatives?
Jennifer Raymond, M.S., a nutritionist, author and chef who has been trying for several years to have soy protein approved by the USDA for school lunches, tells an interesting tale of politics and greed. In the summer of 1996, the USDA was just about to adopt a new regulation that would have made schools' use of soy protein 100 percent reimbursable. But in a meeting with Glickman, the beef and livestock industries made it clear that if the regulation was released, they would withdraw their support from Bill Clinton's reelection campaign. The regulation was shelved. Raymond explains that apparently, Glickman got into very hot water with his superiors for authorizing yogurt as a meat alternate earlier in 1996, and he is playing it safe these days. "Most people have no idea about the money and politics behind the garbage that's served in the school cafeterias around the country" she says. Then this past May, Raymond met with USDA officials along with a small group representing the soy industry in an attempt to persuade the agency to release the previously stalled soy protein-reimbursement regulation. Raymond described the scene: "After we had all made our pitches, one of the USDA aides asked, 'Have you met with the cattlemen? You know you need to do your homework and meet with them, because unless they approve this, we can't.' I was blown away! I mean, we all know who's really in charge, but to have him come right out and say it was mind-boggling! So next month, the soy delegation will be attending the annual cattlemen convention. I won't be there." That USDA officials don't even bother to hide the fact they are beholden to meat industry interests is unsettling, to say the least.

Changes on the School Lunch Horizon
Based upon a series of hearings and the comments she received, former Under Secretary of Agriculture Ellen Haas proposed to change the laws regulating school lunch--laws that had been on the books since 1946 when the School Lunch Act was passed. Announced in June 1994, The School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children requires that all schools participating in the NSLP conform to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines in their school lunch menus. For example, the initiative requires that the average fat content of meals be 30 percent or fewer calories from fat over the course of a week. Even this meager announcement created quite a bit of controversy and most likely led to Ms. Haas' ultimate demise with the USDA. Schools were required to comply by the 1996 school year, but could be granted waivers for up to two years. For example, an astounding 96 percent of the districts in California filed for, and received waivers. Now the two year waiver period has elapsed and all participating schools must meet the basic federal nutrition guidelines by the 1998 school year. However, there is no enforcement provision in place and federal rules require state compliance reviews only every five years. Thus, there is no incentive for schools to make changes.

In addition, many schools are struggling with the financial viability of their lunch programs. Often, the result is food service directors throwing up their hands and turning the program over to fast food chains such as Taco Bell or Pizza Hut in order to lure kids back in. Other schools are simply doing away with the program altogether. Whether the chains can alter their foods to meet the new nutrition guidelines is highly questionable. There are many disturbing signs that corporate America is rapidly closing in on the nation's schools. The prospect of young children being tempted every day with unhealthy fast food simply by walking through their school cafeteria is quite disturbing. In those schools which are shutting down the lunch program altogether, children who would be entitled to a free meal are left with no choice but to find the money to pay or go hungry.

The nation's school children should not be made victims of the meat industry's depressed market. And government officials should not take its marching orders from an industry more concerned with profits then nutrition. How we educate our children about eating animal products is vitally important to how we can expect them to behave as adults. Schools have a great deal of influence over the early impressions of young minds. Increasing awareness of the many problems associated with unhealthy school lunches can only lead to a greater understanding of the need to eliminate animal products from our diets outside of school. And who knows, in the process, children might even learn about respect for all forms of life.