School Lunches Should Prioritize Public Health, Not Agribusiness

Salus populi suprema lex esto. — Cicero, De Legibus

The health of the people should be the highest law. Cicero first argued that in the Roman Republic. He was quoted by John Locke in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which in turn served as a reference for the Framers of the US Constitution. The US has a duty to protect its inhabitants from disease and illness. Per a 2014 report by the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, five out of the top seven causes of death are linked to diet. Those causes are heart disease (1st), cancer (2nd), stroke (5th), Alzheimer’s disease (6th), and diabetes (7th). The US already controls our diets more than we may realize, from regulating what information must be made available to consumers on the nutrition labels to how foods are advertised.

One of the most direct ways that the US government controls how its inhabitants eat is by providing surplus food, acquired through the Department of Agriculture’s Dark Meats Purchase Program, to public schools for school lunch programs. This program is a direct application of supply-and-demand economic theory. The idea is that if supply of dark meat exceeds demand for it, then the price for dark meat will drop and industry profits will follow. This theory was put into practice during the Great Depression through the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933, which permitted the federal government to buy and subsequently kill millions of livestock, and to pay farmers to destroy over ten million acres of cotton and other crops.

The Great Depression was a period in which much of the population could not afford to buy food. The idea that a government would purchase and then destroy food that its population desperately needed for the sake of salvaging industry profits might seem like a perversion of government priorities, but this practice of removing surplus from the marketplace to maintain industry profitability continues through the present. However, rather than simply destroying the pigs and cattle, today the government foists this surplus on children through school lunch programs. This might seem like a win-win situation for industry and school budgets, but it leaves students caught in the middle with little choice but to eat unhealthy food.

In 2015, the World Health Organization published a report entitled Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat in The Lancet Oncology that showed a link between red and processed meat and colorectal cancer, and showed correlation between consumption and stomach, prostate, and pancreatic cancers. In 2011 the World Cancer Research Fund published a report showing a strong link between red and processed meat and increased risk of bowel cancer. Per the WCRF, “[o]ur current advice [is] to limit the consumption of red meat and avoid processed meat.”

Since its founding in 1946, the National School Lunch Program has fed this surplus to the school children. However, not all school children receive the same food. According to Hadley Greswold, an alumnus of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, “it’s the Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native students who are most likely to attend the ‘high-poverty’ public schools most eligible for these lunches, so the disease-promoting food is not evenly distributed.”

Adults owe a duty of care to one another in our society. That duty is enhanced where children are concerned. We must supplant a child’s ability to protect themselves by providing that protection. Our society expects parents to act in the best interests of their children; the government must act in children’s best interest as well. Where there is a conflict between a prosperous agriculture industry and the long-term health and welfare of children, the US must prioritize children. By feeding this agricultural glut to school children, many of whom already face significant systemic challenges due to their race, immigration status, or economic access, the US is ransoming the future of these children to an industry whose primary motivation is money.

There are several variables that determine how healthy a person will be through their childhood and adolescence, but there is a direct link from the USDA’s surplus program and the National School Lunch Program to the bellies of this country’s children, to a lifetime of poor eating habits learned from childhood, to the leading causes of death listed above. It’s not as though the government doesn’t have all the information at its disposal. The problem is almost entirely in the bureaucratic determination that profits are more important than children, and that if minority children happen to endure disproportionate harm while businesspeople, like members of the lobbying group National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, continue to profit in the face of a national health crisis.