Are School Meals Designed with Kids Health in Mind or Big Food Industry Interests?
I checked out the nutrition of my local area’s school breakfast to find out.
The cover photo shows a typical free breakfast at a high school on the south side of San Antonio, Texas, where 88% of students are economically disadvantaged, 97% are Hispanic and 100% receive free meals through a USDA school meal program. Nearly 30 million children are fed daily through the USDA’s School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program. Families rely on these programs to give their kids access to healthy food, as food deserts are all too common in America and income inequality grows year by year.
The mission of the Food and Nutrition Service segment of the USDA is to “increase food security and reduce hunger by providing children and low-income people access to food, a healthful diet and nutrition education in a way that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence.” But have these programs been operating on the part about giving children access to a healthful diet? As I found out, by looking at common breakfast offerings, the nutrition standards have taken a downward spiral during the Trump administration. With support from big food industry lobbyists to lower nutrition standards, the USDA has prioritized the interests of big food companies over childhood health.
“The USDA’s primary stakeholders are major food producers and manufacturers,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health in a TIME article. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that $77 million was spent on lobbying by food and beverage companies and trade organizations on Dietary Guidelines from 2014–2015, the time during which the 2015 guidelines were being formulated. These giant food industry players heavily influence the nutritional guidelines in America, to ensure that they can maximize profits. They do this with strong lobbying campaigns and a revolving door of high-level positions between the USDA and it’s corporate food company allies. The results are nutritional guidelines that shape the American diet, regardless of whether they are science-based.
Although the influence of Big Food was still strong during the Obama-era, there was a shift in the right direction as school nutrition was updated to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and less sodium and bad fat. However, Trump-nominated agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, with the support of lobbyists from the dairy industry and the School Nutrition Association (largely funded by corporate companies including Kraft, ConAgra, and Schwan’s Food Service), weakened these guidelines to allow for sugary chocolate milk, fewer whole grains, and more sodium.
The previous mediocre guidelines weakened by the Trump administration are evident in the school meals given to underserved children in my city. Low-income families will continue to suffer from the impacts of the USDA’s misaligned interests. Let me explain by diving into the nutrition facts of a typical breakfast.
A sweet treat on occasion can be a moderate balance, but school meals are making sugary foods commonplace on the menu. Added sugars in this breakfast alone come in at 19 grams! This is 75% of the recommended daily amount for children by the American Heart Association. Consuming added sugars can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
There are 59 grams of total sugar in the meal. Here is a breakdown:
- Pillsbury Mini Pancakes — 14g (13g of added sugar)
- Chocolate non-fat milk — 18g (6g of added sugar)
- Orange juice — 12g
- Small apple — 15g
By far, the apple has the healthiest sugar, since it is accompanied by the fruit’s natural fiber and wide range of nutrients. While orange juice is naturally sweetened, it’s processing removes the fiber and other nutrients, causing blood sugar to spike much more quickly. Most nutritionists agree fruit juice is comparable to other sugary drinks like sodas.
The total sodium for this breakfast amounts to 406mg, which isn’t terrible. However, I am interested to know the sodium content in the pigs in a blanket that were served on a different day.
Most cured meats are preserved by adding high amounts of sodium. A high sodium diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Processed, cured meats like this are also known to have carcinogens that cause cancer, which is why the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center advises against eating them.
Highly- and Ultra- Processed Foods
This meal contains only one whole food — the small apple — while the rest are highly- or ultra-processed foods. Highly- or ultra-processed foods commonly contain unhealthy amounts of refined carbs and added sugars, sodium, and fats. Oftentimes, they also have controversial preservatives, flavoring, and coloring.
The Strawberry Splash Mini Pancakes are a prime example of an ultra-processed, packaged food item that lacks strong health benefits and takes the places of more deserving whole foods.
The strawberries are MIA on the list of 30 ingredients for these mini pancakes. However, processed food staples like sugar, canola oil, dextrose, fructose, enriched flour (AKA white flour sprayed with vitamins), rice syrup, modified corn starch, cellulose gum, and natural flavors all make appearances.
Total fiber comes in at 5.6 grams, while the daily recommended amount ranges from 20–30 grams. The pancakes provide only 2g while providing 39g of carbs. For reference, the same amount of carbs in 100% whole wheat bread would provide 5.6g or 180% more. As the Harvard School of Public Health notes, most Americans do not get enough fiber, which is a nutrient critical in regulating numerous bodily functions related to blood sugar, digestive health, and weight.
By analyzing the nutrition of school meals, it’s easy to see that there are other interests at play besides kids' health. The reality is that children are unnecessarily at risk for diet-related diseases due to the misaligned priorities of the entity tasked with giving them access to healthy food.
Obama-Era Improvements, Walked Back by Trump
I had heard of Michelle Obama’s major improvements to the nutrition guidelines in 2012 through The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. They have since led to a 47% decrease in obesity for children living in poverty. Major updates included smaller portion sizes, less sodium, and bad fats, and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. This progress should be applauded, not rolled back as the Trump administration has done.
Even with the Obama-era updates, the guidelines lack strong standards which result in children not getting access to healthy food. The Trump-era rollbacks hinder this access even further.
The Obama-era guidelines limit saturated fat, yet they do not replace them with healthier fats, such as the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in plant foods like avocados and nuts. On top of that, Trump-era revisions have allowed for more “flexibility” to serve low-fat flavored milk with added sugar. Thus, the saturated fat limit has taken whole milk off the menu, but it has merely been replaced with low-fat or non-fat, sugary flavored milk. Nutrition guidelines could better serve our students by replacing these calories with nutrient-dense foods with healthy fats.
Improvements to whole grains were initially weak, with guidelines only requiring grains to be 50% whole-grain while the other half could be refined grains, such as those in white flour. Oddly, the USDA terms a diet of 50% whole-grains as being whole-grain rich.
Nevertheless, Trump-nominated agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue weakened the guidelines even further, now requiring only half of grains served to be whole-grain rich. This effectively requires 25% of grains to be whole-grains, meaning 75% of the grains children eat in school are the type found in white bread and buns, flour tortillas, and white rice.
White, refined grains, known as “bad carbs,” are highly processed, stripped of fiber, and convert easily to simple sugars. Whole grains are considerably healthier, as they are less processed, preserve most of their nutrients, and do not cause high blood sugar spikes. As complex carbohydrates, our bodies take longer to digest them, thus keeping us fuller for longer and providing sustained energy.
All school children should have access to the health benefits of whole grains, however, the current guidelines do not promote a truly “whole-grain rich” diet.
The initial sodium limits set during the Obama administration were promising. They had a phased-in plan to reduce sodium to 1,240 mg per day (combined breakfast and lunch) for high school students by the year 2024. For reference, the upper tolerable limit for kids age 14–18 is 2,300, so this would leave them with 1,060 mg for dinner and snacks at home.
But once again, the Trump administration hindered progress on childhood nutrition, by eliminating the final phase of reduced sodium. Now, the end target will be 1,650 mg in 2025. This does not give families much flexibility with their meals and snacks at home if they want to stay within health guidelines. Undoubtedly, this will lead to increased childhood high blood pressure, putting more kids at risk for heart disease and stroke.
Even a shallow dive into these nutrition guidelines reveals their shortcomings. With 29.6 million students eating school lunches and 14.8 million eating breakfast every day, this is an injustice on a grand scale — and one that our taxes are paying for. The primary beneficiaries are the food industries, not our kids. Supporters of the Trump-era rollbacks argued that they will provide more “flexibility,” yet overwhelming public input concluded that more flexibility was not needed, as there was widespread compliance with existing standards.
Public comments to the USDA show:
- 98% opposed to the milk “flexibility” (5441 out of 5546)
- 99% opposed to the grains “flexibility” (83,767 out of 84,333)
- 99% opposed to the sodium “flexibility” (83,152 out of 83,720)
Clearly, the public had noticed the positive impacts the new guidelines had on childhood health. Yet the Trump-backed team still enacted these lowered nutrition standards.
The USDA and Big Food also used the argument that the rollbacks would reduce food waste, however, that notion is refuted by the USDA’s own study on “School Nutrition and Meal Cost”. It concluded that food waste was unchanged since the prior, healthier guidelines were in place. To quote the study, plate waste was “comparable to findings from studies that examined plate waste prior to implementation of the updated nutrition standards.”
Whole Foods: A Simple, Healthy Alternative
With diet-related diseases like obesity placing kids at higher risk for Covid-19 complications, school nutrition deserves our attention. School meal programs also play an integral role in establishing life-long eating habits.
I propose a simple, healthy solution. Let’s feed our children mostly whole, or minimally processed, plant foods, grown with sustainable methods. While people may favor certain diets over others, there is a consensus among nutritionists that highly- or ultra-processed foods should be limited in our diets. I am not a nutritionist, but I would support guidelines that increase the ratio of whole foods to highly processed foods served. I recommend that nutritionists, unaffiliated with the food industry, develop a standard for how much and what kinds of whole food children need for a healthy, balanced diet, and how highly processed foods can be limited, or incorporated in moderation.
I also recommend that we seek the expertise of chefs skilled in preparing whole foods. The preparation of vegetables can go a long way in preventing food waste. By serving canned, sadly prepared and under-seasoned foods, kids can’t be blamed for not wanting to touch them. But by bringing out the natural and fresh flavor of these foods, kids just might start eating their fruits and veggies.
By putting mostly whole foods on the menu, many of the nutritional problems from processed foods are erased. Eating foods like squash, strawberries, or beans doesn’t require a thorough examination of an ingredient list to determine if they’re healthy or safe.
The silver lining in the current state of school nutrition is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the means and the resources to offer our children healthy meals. The earth offers an abundance of nutrient-dense, natural food that requires minimal to no processing. And there are many talented chefs out there that know how to cook delicious, wholesome meals. Not to mention, we have a chance here to also benefit the environment, by reducing single-use packaging and food manufacturing waste. It seems the only thing holding us back is the big food industry’s leverage. We are a long way from separating industry interests from school nutrition guidelines, but with more open dialogue and pressure on our government and industry leaders, we can get there. Instead of figuring out how to slyly add more sugars into milk or sodium into processed meats, the USDA needs to heed the solid advice of mothers everywhere: Eat your vegetables.