School Lunches

In 2012, in response to the epidemic of childhood obesity,  the USDA imposed maximum limits of caloric intake from meats and grains in school lunches, intending to promote a more balanced and nutritious diet, and specifically more vegetables in the meals. Nearly 32 million children get lunches through the national school lunch program.   As of 2005 (the latest year for which I’ve seen data) 60% of the funding for the school lunch program was spent on meat and less than 5% was spent on fruits and veggies.

Obesity rates among children have doubled in the last 10 years, and have tripled for adolescents.  Approximately a third of all children in the U.S. are now overweight or obese.  The future health consequences of this are staggering.

Nevertheless, the USDA’s move was controversial and many schools complained that it was difficult to implement.  The USDA reimburses schools $2.72 for every free lunch, but after overhead and labor that leaves only about $1 for the actual meal itself. Many complained that suppliers couldn’t provide quantities and portion sizes to work within those parameters and that the one-size-fits-all rule was leaving some kids hungry.  In Congress there was a push to abolish the rule, led by members from the grain and meat-producing states.

In response to the pressure and criticism, last year the USDA temporarily suspended the rule. On January 4 they made that suspension permanent.  Henceforth there is no longer any maximum limit on the amount of meat and bread that can be served in the lunches.

While some within the food movement have attributed the USDA’s change of position to caving in to political pressure from industrial agriculture, it seems that there was plenty of opposition from those charged with implementing the policy too.  No doubt Big Ag’s congressfolks pushed for repeal, but there weren’t many defenders of the policy either.  Giving the actual menu-planners some flexibility seems sensible, but if they feed children diets of corn dogs and pizza, then our tax dollars are not being well-spent and our children are not being well-served.  It’s far more common these days for kids to have nutritional deficiencies arising from diets with too many calories, than from diets with too few.