National School Lunch Program – Can We Fix It?

Getting at the Meat of the Matter

In February of this year the United States saw the largest beef recall in its history after video footage from inside a California slaughterhouse created concerns regarding the safety of 143 million pounds of meat. Within days of the recall, word got out that roughly one-third of the recalled beef was purchased for federal nutrition programs, most notably for the National School Lunch Program. Still later it was revealed that at least 20 million pounds of that beef had already been consumed by school children across the country. Another 15 million pounds were still missing several weeks after the recall-largely because much of the meat was processed into nuggets and other pre-made meal items before being sent to schools. This news revealed some of the inner workings of our food system and left many parents with pressing questions about what their kids are eating. So how does this food get on our children’s plates? And if we know there is a problem, why can’t we fix it?


The National School Lunch Program was launched during the Great Depression of the 1930’s when the markets for farm products dried up and an increasing number of school children suffered from hunger and malnutrition. In response, the government created the National School Lunch Program in an effort to utilize the overflow of commodities to feed hungry children, while preventing a price-depression from surplus goods. Essentially, the government purchased commodities that would have otherwise flooded the market and disposed of them through ‘domestic donations’-also known as subsidized lunches. Since then, the program has undergone drastic fluctuations in funding, availability, nutritional guidelines, and content, but the basic tenants of the program remain the same.

Understanding the role of the National School Lunch Program in purchasing surplus and low-cost commodity-based foods starts to explain why this beef was in our children’s lunches. Schools receive about seventeen cents worth of commodities and $2.47 in cash per free lunch served. After taking labor and distribution costs into consideration, there isn’t much money- usually less than one dollar-with which to purchase food. This puts a lot of pressure of schools to serve the meat available through the School Lunch program, which is purchased from large-scale, low-cost agribusinesses. This makes school lunches especially vulnerable to food safety concerns, and the centralized nature of the school lunch program means that when there is a contamination, it affects millions of schools and children. Of course, the problem is not limited to meat. The average school lunch contains highly processed foods, the contents of which are often untraceable.


The current system doesn’t provide many alternatives for school lunch programs. One option is to throw out the program altogether-which is exactly what the Berkeley Unified School District did in 2000. After concerns about nutrition and food safety, the school officials decided to throw out the National School Lunch Program-which provided lunches for 37% of Berkeley students-and overhaul it with a completely new lunch program. Instead of offering commodity-based foods in their school lunches, their lunch program now makes meals entirely from scratch every day for every child who wants it. However, in order to make this possible, the district had to supplement its federal lunch funds with $1 million from its annual budget of about $100 million. It is unlikely that other school districts will be able to replicate the Berkeley school lunch program, particularly in schools with high subsidized lunch participation and strained budgets.

Everyone who works with or within the National School Lunch Program comes up against these limitations-and it’s important to remember the ways in which they also restrict school food service directors and cafeteria managers. The problems are structural and lie within the very foundation of the program. Naturally, change will be slow. But like in all things, knowing our limitations can help us to look outside the box and find alternatives until the system does change. More and more school food service directors are going the extra mile to serve more fresh, local foods to students across the country, and advocates of healthy school lunches are working closely with them to come up with creative ways to make the food our children eat safer and healthier.


For more information about the advocates working to change school lunch programs and what you can do to help, we recommend the following resources: Better School Food, the National Farm to School Network, Two Angry Moms, and the School Lunch Initiative at Berkeley.

One Comment on “National School Lunch Program – Can We Fix It?

  1. Are you sure about the $2.47 from the government. Our District gives Aramark $2.08 per meal served. From that I imagine that Aramark needs to make a profit. Do all schools get the same amount?

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