School Lunch is Mostly Junk: Children Served a Plate of Fat Despite Government Dietary Guidelines
By Michele Simon
Originally distributed by Pacific News Service, August 1998.

"Most people have no idea about the money and politics behind the garbage that's served in the school cafeterias around the country." So says Jennifer Raymond, a chef and the author of several cookbooks, who holds a master's degree in nutrition from the University of California at Davis. Raymond, of Calistoga, Calif., has been trying for several years to have nonmeat proteins placed on the list of foods approved for school lunches.

Certainly, a glance at a school lunch menu gives no indication of the country's fascination with healthy food — cheeseburgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets by one name or another make the cafeteria seem like another fast food joint. And the federal government — source of so much of our information about nutrition - is largely to blame, despite a new law requiring school menus to meet the basic standards of the government's own "Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

The National School Lunch program serves more than 26 million children every school day. The program was started in 1946 under the U.S. Department of Agriculture — not only to promote good nutrition, but to provide a market under the commodity food program for farmers.

These two purposes are not always fully compatible. Nutritionist Antonia Demas, who has worked as a consultant to public school programs for more than 20 years, says many of the foods produced under the commodity food program are "high-fat, processed foods such as cheese, butter and hamburger meat," constituents of a diet that "will lead to chronic disease." She finds it especially troubling that the chance for an important lesson may be lost. "If we don't invest in our future health by educating our children to eat a healthier diet," says Demas, "we are all going to pay a tremendous price."

The USDA itself found the nutritional quality of most school lunches to be mediocre at best in a 1993 survey. Meals averaged 38 percent calories from fat, with 15 percent calories from saturated fat. This led to passage of the "School Meal Initiative for Healthy Children" in 1994, requiring that all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program conform to government dietary guidelines by 1996, though schools could apply for a two-year delay, as 96 percent of California schools did.

The two-year waiver period is now past, but the law makes no provisions for enforcement, and federal rules require compliance reviews only once every five years. In California, only 23 field workers are assigned to cover the state's 1,000 school districts.

The commodity program also is supposed to make grains, beans and fruits and vegetables, available. But, as Raymond explains, getting these foods to the lunchroom is a challenge. "One big problem is that the government offers 'Advanced Processing' in which healthful commodities, like flour and blueberries, are turned into junk food like fat-laden blueberry turnovers."

Another problem is that many of the healthful foods on the list are not available at the state level, where all food actually is ordered, according to Raymond. Raymond is convinced that the government is not as watchful as it should be in part because the livestock industry exerts so much political pressure.

For the time being, any change seems unlikely. Raymond tells of a meeting in Washington, D.C., last May, where she and a small group representing the soy industry tried to persuade USDA officials to put soy proteins on the list of foods that are 100 percent reimbursable. After their presentation, a USDA aide told her, "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."