Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. She runs "Take Extinction Off Your Plate" for the center, which works to create and support sustainable food policies with public and consumer campaigns.
In its new “Start Simple” campaign, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends simple changes to our diets that can make a big difference in our nutrition. With tip sheets, toolkits, menu templates and a #MyPlateChallenge, it seems like putting healthy food in our faces couldn’t be easier.
Unfortunately it isn’t so simple if you’re a school-aged child participating in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. The program serves low-cost or free school lunches to 31 million students at more than 100,000 public and private schools each day. While the meals are based on the dietary guidelines, what is served doesn’t always make the grade for being good for kids or the planet.
And it’s the USDA itself making nutrition complicated for schools.
Here are five ways the USDA’s school lunches aren’t giving our kids the right start:
1. Lack of variety in fruits and vegetables. The MyPlate message recommends half a plate filled with fruits and vegetables at each and every meal.
But are heaping piles of fried potatoes the vegetables we had in mind for our children? Almost half the vegetables eaten by most school-aged children in the United States are French fries.
The USDA’s own research shows that we don’t produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the recommended daily servings in the federal dietary guidelines. School menus don’t reflect the ideal portion or variety of vegetables in the USDA’s own recommended diet.
A big reason for this is the government doesn’t invest enough in schools. Without adequate funding, schools often lack the infrastructure necessary to cook meals from scratch on-site and are often unable to afford a sufficiently large refrigerator to store produce. As a result, they’re forced to cut corners in the lunchroom and rely on more packaged and processed food items, leading to less nutritious meals and more waste.
2. Missing healthy whole grains. Half of the grains in all the pizza, pasta, pancakes, tacos and burritos in the hot lunch line should be whole grain, MyPlate recommends.
Until recently, schools were required to serve breads, tortillas and pastas that were at least 50% whole grains unless they received a waiver. But thanks to USDA rollbacks, now only half of these products need to be whole grain-rich.
Schools struggled to meet the requirements, but not because kids boycotted whole wheat-based pizza crust. The USDA hasn’t helped schools enough to purchase whole-grain products and ingredients that were affordable, forcing them to choose cheaper white flour and other more processed grains.
3. Too much processed and meat-heavy protein. A simple start includes a variety of proteins, according to the USDA. This can include meat like fish, poultry and beef, but it should also include a variety of beans and other plant-based proteins.
But due to subsidies that favor cheap meat, schools frequently rely on highly processed meat products. Based on a typical high school menu, students consume about 8 ounces of ground or processed beef weekly. They typically eat that beef in the form of sloppy joes, hamburgers and hot dogs, which are served three days a week on average. All that processed meat is bad for our kids.
It’s also bad for the planet. It leads to more than 40,000 square miles of habitat loss, 833 billion gallons of water used and more than 13 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions per school year. By comparison, those astonishing totals are equivalent to an area about the size of Kentucky, enough water to fill more than 1.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools and the emissions of nearly 1.3 billion cars.
While the USDA allows schools participating in federal meal programs to offer meat alternatives like veggie burgers, tofu and tempeh, they are often too costly for most schools to incorporate into their regular menus.
4. Drowning in dairy. For many, dairy is a big part of the American childhood: those square cartons of milk, cheesy slices of pizza and string cheese. But is dairy a school lunch staple because it’s actually healthy for kids or because the USDA pushes it into cafeterias?
It’s certainly not good for the planet. Milk served in schools is responsible for an annual total of nearly 2,250 square miles of habitat loss, more than 116 billion gallons of water used and nearly 5 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions.
And while the USDA recommends low-fat or fat-free dairy, lawmakers are pushing to allow schools to offer whole milk. This is in large part to help prop up dairy producers that are facing dropping sales. The USDA also purchases millions of pounds of unwanted cheese to sell to schools, and keeps dairy cheaper than plant-based milks in the lunch program.
5. Loads of salt, fat and sugar. The USDA encourages Americans to avoid sugary drinks and limit saturated fats and salt. But late last year, the department rolled back limits on sugary drinks and salt in school lunches, putting kids at risk of exceeding the daily recommendations in USDA’s own dietary guidelines.
Under Agriculture chief Sonny Perdue, the USDA has even encouraged the consumption of chocolate milk with a rule change that loosened 2010 nutrition standards that attempted to fight childhood obesity. The change would benefit the processed food and dairy industry by encouraging the consumption of more milk, albeit sugary milk, which is the leading cause of food waste in schools.
Schools receive a little more than $1.30 to spend for each child on the food, labor, equipment, electricity, and other costs associated with the lunch program. Perhaps if we really want to start simple, we might spend a little more on each child to make sure they have access to — and are encouraged to eat — fresh, sustainable and nutritious meals every day. Addressing the menus offered in the school lunch program offers an opportunity to help the planet 31 million meals a day. That’s simply powerful.