According to USA Today, America’s National School Lunch Program uses meat that is not even considered safe by many fast-food restaurants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that the meat it buys for the school lunch program “meets or exceeds standards in commercial products.” Nevertheless, McDonalds, Burger King and Costco, to name a few, test the ground beef they buy up to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef prepared for our school children.
It is not just the beef that is dangerous. The USDA supplies schools with meat from chickens that would otherwise be used for compost of pet food. These chickens are turned down by both KFC and Campbell’s Soup because of quality considerations. This is even more troubling because children are more vulnerable than adults to food-borne illnesses such as Salmonella or E. Coli poisoning.
While some of us may be surprised and disgusted by this, the US government has known for almost ten years about the lack of standards tin place for the school lunch system. In 2009, then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman promised the USDA would adopt the highest standards for our schools. School cafeterias have yet to see a change.
This unsafe, possibly diseased meat is being served to 31 million students a day. Sixty-two percent of these students qualify for free or reduced-price meals (USA Today). In these economic times, we cannot expect these numbers to decrease drastically any time soon.
As the Development Director at an Inner-City School in the Bronx, I know that the meals our students eat in our cafeteria are often the only full meals they eat all day. Students have told me on more than one occasion that they are starving at 4:30pm when school lets out because they did not like the school lunch. In order to make it through the after school program, these students buy unhealthy snacks and sodas from the vending machine.
Although our cafeteria staff works hard to provide nutritious, fresh meals to our students, it is nearly impossible for them to do so. As Beth Buczynski noted about a month ago, Congress continues to reduce funding for school lunches. Today schools only have $1 per child to buy ingredients. These budget restrictions force schools to rely on the “mystery meat” that the government gives them to work with.
Rather than trying to save money by cutting the school lunch budget, Congress should look at the costs they are creating with these unhealthy standards. Child obesity and diabetes are rising at alarming rates. Educational programs that schools create to combat these epidemics are completely nullified when children must choose between going hungry or eating an unhealthy meal.
The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization in early 2010. Visit Beth’s piece to find more about Slow Food, an organization that is pressuring Congress to make school lunches healthier. You can also call on Congress to approve the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009.
Andrew Maiman via Flickr/Creative Commons