Unhappy Meals

School lunches are loaded with fat and the beef and dairy industries are making sure it stays that way.

Image: Naomi Harris

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Every weekday at lunch, courtesy of the federal government, more than 27 million schoolchildren sit down to the nation’s largest mass feeding. If we took a giant snapshot of their trays on a typical day — say, Tuesday, September 24 — here’s what the continent-wide photo would look like:

In Lynnwood, Washington, we would see kids eating sausage with Belgian waffle sticks and syrup. In Clovis, California, bacon cheeseburgers. In La Quinta, California, Canadian bacon and cheese rolls. In Rexburg, Idaho, cheese nachos and waffles. In Fort Collins, Colorado, “homemade” pigs in a blanket. In Bryan, Texas, cheeseburgers, chicken-fried steak, and pizza. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, country steak with creamed potatoes. In Cedar Falls, Iowa, mini-corndogs. In Lafayette, Indiana, beef ravioli with cheesy broccoli. In Columbus, Ohio, egg rolls with tater tots. In Kingstree, South Carolina, sloppy joes with onion rings. In Richmond, Virginia, chili cheese nachos. In Gatesville, North Carolina, three-meat subs with Fritos. In Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, cheese steak on rolls with buttered pasta. And in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, pretzels with cheese sauce.

Here and there, we’d also see baked chicken and salads. But by and large, school cafeterias coast to coast offer an artery-clogging menu of beef, pork, cheese, and grease. “Whenever I see children clinically, I ask them if they buy lunch at school or bring it from home,” says Patricia Froberg, a nutritionist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. “If they say, ‘I get it at school,’ I cringe.”

At a time when weight-related illnesses in children are escalating, schools are serving kids the very foods that lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. That’s because the National School Lunch Program, which gives schools more than $6 billion each year to offer low-cost meals to students, has conflicting missions. Enacted in 1946, the program is supposed to provide healthy meals to children, regardless of income. At the same time, however, it’s designed to subsidize agribusiness, shoring up demand for beef and milk even as the public’s taste for these foods declines.

Under the program, the federal government buys up more than $800 million worth of farm products each year and turns them over to schools to serve their students. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the system, calls this a win-win situation: Schools get free ingredients while farmers are guaranteed a steady income. The trouble is, most of the commodities provided to schools are meat and dairy products, often laden with saturated fat. In 2001, the USDA spent a total of $350 million on surplus beef and cheese for schools — more than double the $161 million spent on all fruits and vegetables, most of which were canned or frozen. On top of its regular purchases, the USDA makes special purchases in direct response to industry lobbying. In November 2001, for example, the beef industry wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, complaining that a decline in travel after September 11, along with a lowered demand for beef in Japan, was suppressing sales of their product. The department responded two months later with a $30 million “bonus buy” of frozen beef roasts and ground beef for schools.

“Basically, it’s a welfare program for suppliers of commodities,” says Jennifer Raymond, a retired nutritionist in Northern California who has worked with schools to develop healthier menus. “It’s a price support program for agricultural producers, and the schools are simply a way to get rid of the items that have been purchased.”

All in all, schools obtain almost 20 percent of their food from the commodities program — and they depend on the handouts to meet tight budgets. “School districts are under intense budgetary pressure, and often-times nutrition is at the bottom of the priority list,” says David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. School nutrition directors face increasing mandates from their higher-ups to break even, or even make a profit, and therefore have no choice but to accept surplus commodities. “They help shape our menus significantly, especially if you’re going to run a program successfully financially,” says Christy Koury, director of child nutrition for schools in Freeport, Texas, where menus run heavy on hamburgers, cheese-stuffed pizza sticks, and pepperoni calzones.

School nutrition officials like Koury consider the free food so vital to their budgets that they have sometimes overlooked good nutrition to side with the beef and dairy industries, forming a powerful alliance that has blocked efforts to serve healthier meals to students. The National School Lunch Program is up for reauthorization this year for the first time since 1998, but given the interests backing the current system, few expect Congress to approve any meaningful reforms. “It’s understood that commodity programs exist,” says Graydon Forrer, former director of consumer affairs for the USDA, “and that commodity programs will continue to exist.”

The kindergartners arrive first at the Chapman Elementary School cafeteria in Huntsville, Alabama, holding Popsicle sticks painted with their names and payment codes. They grab green plastic trays and pick out half-pint cartons of chocolate and plain milk. Then cafeteria workers pile the lunch entrée directly onto the trays: tortilla chips heaped with ground beef and smothered with melted yellow cheese. The kids grab apple halves and cornbread, and a few take the side order of watery chili beans. “I like the meat,” declares second-grader Matthew Miller. “I like the cheese and I like the apples,” adds classmate Tanner Teets. Another boy tears open a packet of salty taco sauce and sucks it straight from the foil.

The lunches at Huntsville’s public schools tend to run heavy on beef and cheese — items the federal government regularly delivers to their doorstep. Like all 99,000 schools and childcare centers that participate in the National School Lunch Program, Huntsville’s schools depend on the agricultural commodities they receive throughout the year. Today’s nachos are made from surplus ground beef. So were the spaghetti sauce and the taco salad on this month’s menu. Surplus ham contributed to a barbecue lunch, and surplus cheese was used on sandwiches. A roast-beef lunch was fashioned from surplus meat, even though child-nutrition director Carol Wheelock says the kids don’t particularly like roast beef.

Wheelock knows that a beef-filled menu isn’t the healthiest thing children can eat. If she could afford to refuse the commodities, she says, she would buy leaner meats like turkey and chicken. But like others who oversee school lunches, she tries not to complain about the commodities program. “I treat it as a challenge,” she says. “We have to put our thinking cap on and come up with ways to use the commodities that we’re given.”

Wheelock’s dilemma is repeated in districts across the country. School boards, coping with tight budgets, aren’t willing to spend more for better nutrition. Huntsville, for example, left 50 teaching slots empty this year to trim its $187 million budget. “The school food service is held hostage, because they can’t go into the open market and buy healthy foods and stay profitable,” says Raymond, the retired nutritionist.

Schools rely on the commodities program for another reason: It fits neatly into the decades-old method they have traditionally used to prepare school meals. Known as “food-based menu planning,” the system mandates specific servings of meat, dairy, vegetable, and grain on each child’s plate — without bothering to determine the meal’s total nutritional value. “It’s been done that way for so long,” says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a former spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association who teaches nutrition at the University of North Carolina. “There’s just resistance to change.”

The USDA insists that school lunches are getting healthier. “There have been tremendous moves to reduce the fat content in school meals,” says department spokes-woman Jean Daniel. In recent years, the government has lowered the acceptable fat levels for ground beef and pork, introduced light cheeses and ground turkey, and eliminated tropical oils from its peanut butter.

For the most part, though, fat levels remain dangerously high. Based on USDA recommendations, an adolescent girl who eats a 730-calorie lunch should receive no more than 24 grams of fat, and no more than 8 grams of saturated fat. Yet one portion of USDA surplus chuck roast, plus a glass of whole milk, delivers 31 grams of fat, including 14 grams of saturated fat. Buttered rolls and a side dish of cheesy broccoli bump those figures even higher. And if a school wants to cut animal fat by eliminating whole milk, it can’t: Federal law requires that schools continue offering it as long as 1 percent of the students purchase it.

As a result, school lunches routinely fail the government’s own nutritional standards. By law, schools are supposed to restrict fat content in lunches to 30 percent of the calories served each week. But according to the USDA, 81 percent of schools exceed that limit. Worse, 85 percent fail the standard for saturated fat, a leading contributor to coronary disease. Half of all schools serve whole milk, which further drives up the saturated-fat content. On any given day, less than 45 percent of schools serve cooked vegetables other than potatoes — which are often prepared in the form of french fries — and less than 10 percent serve legumes, a healthy, low-fat form of protein.

School food directors say they have to serve fatty meals to satisfy the tastes of children raised on McDonald’s and Domino’s. “They’d love to have pizza and french fries every day,” says Wheelock, the Huntsville official. “You can’t eliminate french fries.” Adding fat is sometimes the only way to get kids to eat green vegetables. “A little bit of cheese on broccoli they love,” she says. “The benefit from eating the broccoli will far outweigh a little additional fat.”

But all that cheese adds up. Public schools serve more than 4 billion meals every year — a number that would make many fast-food chains envious — and officials say all those lunches are contributing to the growing health crisis among kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents since 1980, spurring an epidemic of type II diabetes, once considered an adult-onset condition. Obesity has also been associated with heart disease, arthritis, and certain cancers, and researchers have found fatty streaks in the blood vessels of children as young as 10.

“USDA needs to relate the current crisis in kids’ health to the meals that are being served, especially to poor kids, because that’s the population that’s most vulnerable,” says Antonia Demas, director of the Food Studies Institute, a child-nutrition group based in upstate New York. Because low-income children often eat both breakfast and lunch at school, “they get at least two-thirds of their calories from school each day, and they’re the population really showing an increase in the diet-related diseases.”

USDA insiders acknowledge privately that the commodities program works against kids’ health. “This was never talked about publicly,” says Forrer, the department’s consumer affairs director under President Clinton. “It was talked about after work, over beer: If you were designing a system for health and nutrition, you wouldn’t cordon off part of it and say, ‘This will serve the commodities community.’ But you’ve got to dance very lightly around the commodities people. They’ve got the power.”

Agribusiness has wielded that power to make sure schools continue serving fatty foods. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the political arm of the red-meat industry, spends $400,000 a year on lobbying and has given nearly $3 million in federal campaign contributions since 1990, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Its former lobbyist, Dale Moore, now serves in the Bush administration as chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary

Veneman, while another former lobbyist, Elizabeth Johnson, serves as Veneman’s senior adviser on nutrition issues. Though most of the association’s financial support has gone to Republicans, its aims have been embraced by both parties. “I think it’s clear USDA and cattlemen have a shared agenda,” then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a Democrat, told the organization at its 1999 convention. “We’ve got to sell, sell, sell.”

Given the industry’s clout, USDA officials are careful to include agribusiness representatives in almost every discussion about the school lunch program. In the mid-1990s, a group of health advocates met with the USDA a to ask that schools be allowed to serve soy products like veggie burgers. According to one participant, a department official asked them, “Have you spoken with the Cattlemen about this? Until the Cattlemen go for this, we aren’t going to be able to move on it.” Soy alternatives were eventually allowed, but only after the beef industry group was consulted.

Such access put beef and dairy lobbyists in a good position to help defeat the most significant effort to reform the program. Shortly after President Clinton took office, he appointed a consumer activist named Ellen Haas to oversee the Agriculture Department’s nutrition programs. Haas was no government insider. She had headed the nonprofit Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, which frequently criticized the government for compromising the quality of school lunches. Clinton hoped that Haas would use her energy to reform the system from the inside.

Haas, an intense, dark-haired woman who talks quickly and always seems in a hurry, plunged into her charge immediately. She went on a nationwide tour to build support for reform among physicians, parents, and food-service workers, and she cultivated allies in Congress. Rather than attack the commodities program directly, however, she proposed a rule requiring schools to meet USDA limits on fat. To achieve that goal, schools would have to scrap their old, “food-based” method of planning menus and adopt a healthier way of preparing lunches. Known as “nutrient-based menu planning,” the new system would require schools to calculate the nutritional content of meals and ensure that they meet federal standards.

The proposed reform would have come at some cost to the beef and dairy industries. The reductions in cheese would have cost farmers up to $200 million annually, and school beef offerings might have dropped by more than 125 million pounds. “Obviously, any trade association is going to worry about things like that,” says Elizabeth Johnson, the former Cattlemen’s lobbyist. The group quietly began lobbying against the reform; one beef lobbyist later told Havala Hobbs, the University of North Carolina dietitian, that fighting the proposal “was my primary focus for six months to a year.”

Beef producers were worried about more than the loss in revenues, though, fearing that a redesigned lunch program would change children’s lifelong eating habits. “If they were taught, even subliminally, that beef wasn’t a part of a healthy school meal, they would internalize that and eat less beef — or not eat beef as they grow up,” one insider said, expressing industry’s concerns.

The proposed reform also angered those responsible for planning school lunches. The American School Food Service Association, an $8-million-a-year organization whose 55,000 members oversee student meals, joined with the beef and dairy industries in opposing Haas’ efforts. The group feared the proposed changes would require costly computers and training to analyze school menus without providing adequate funding.

“The policy goal was absolutely right on target,” says Marshall Matz, the association’s lobbyist. “But it’s a big, diverse country, and a system that will work in Los Angeles or New York, which have a lot of resources, will not necessarily work in rural South Dakota.” Matz feared that some districts, frustrated by the new rules, would leave the National School Lunch Program altogether, leaving the poorest children without free or low-cost meals.

Haas and her staff dismissed the foodservice association as nothing more than “the lunchroom ladies,” but she underestimated her opponents. Nearly 200,000 workers serve school lunches to kids nationwide, and the group has an effective political machine that organizes letter-writing campaigns and dispatches members to lobby Washington. “It’s a very potent and universal constituency,” says Neal Flieger, former deputy administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. “Teachers, food-service workers, postal workers, and cops are the only constituencies that appear in every congressional district in America.” The association also has close ties to the food industry. Its foundation is funded by companies like Heinz, Land O’Lakes, Tyson Foods, and Pizza Hut. Matz, its lobbyist, is a well-connected former congressional aide whose firm also lobbies for the National Meat Association, General Mills, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, and the National Frozen Pizza Institute.

Matz promoted alternative legislation allowing schools to use “any reasonable approach” to menu planning — a move that would effectively preserve the status quo. While school nutrition directors descended on Capitol Hill, Matz aggressively worked his own network to defeat the reform. “He set up endless meetings with staff to convince them that what Ellen was doing was too extreme,” recalls Ed Barron, a senior Democratic congressional staffer. Haas soon found herself frozen out by legislators and abandoned by the Clinton administration. Says a key USDA staffer, “We were told by the White House, ‘You have to live with this.'”

Although Congress did set fat limits for school lunches, it created no effective mechanism for reaching those standards — and no penalty for failing. “It was a baby step forward, but our problems are so drastic that far greater changes are needed before we see a substantial improvement in kids’ health,” says dietitian Havala Hobbs. Even Matz, the food-service lobbyist, regrets the battle. “Good God, we spent two years arguing about process,” he says. “Those years were a lost opportunity.”

This year, Congress will take up the National School Lunch Program for the first time in five years. But industry representatives and health experts agree there will be no serious effort to prevent schools from serving children so many cheeseburgers, pizzas, and french fries. Instead, most of the debate is expected to center on who serves up those items. The food-service association estimates that 30 percent of all public high schools currently sell Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, and other brand-name fast food in their cafeterias alongside federally subsidized meals, and many more dispense chips and sodas in vending machines down the hall. Nutrition experts want the USDA to regulate corporate vendors in schools, but such “competitive” foods appeal to cash-strapped districts, many of which are eager to accept money from fast-food companies to open franchises right on campus.

The debate over fast food is sure to grab headlines, but nutrition advocates warn that it will do nothing to improve the unhealthy meals currently served to the nation’s children every weekday. “If Johnny can’t read by first grade, parents are going to be up in arms,” says Connie Holt, a dietitian who teaches at Widener University in Pennsylvania. “But if he gains five pounds in first grade and doesn’t eat well, nobody’s going to say anything. All of the health problems we’re seeing in the adult world, we have an opportunity to make a difference — but only if we approach school lunch differently.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.