USDA School Lunches Still Stink

School's back in session, and that it means time for reports of crummy government-approved school lunches


Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/TNS/Newscom

Grade-school students typically return to school from summer break in August and September. Almost without fail, tales from the tragedy that is the USDA's National School Lunch Program begin to filter out by the end of September.

Earlier this month, seventh grader Madison Smith and some of her middle school peers at Madisonville Public School in Madisonville, Tennessee, found what appeared to be maggots in granola sold at the school. The good news, I guess, is that the bugs may have been mites instead of maggots, and the school apologized and assured concerned parents in a Facebook post that such problems wouldn't happen again.

The bad news, besides the fact kids found bugs in their food in the first place, is that at least one more student found a bug in his food just days later, after the school system had assured parents it'd solved the problem. The bugs led angry parents to call out the school board at a previously scheduled meeting.

These parents are hardly the only ones angry about school lunches. In Greenfield, Indiana, reports indicate parents "are upset after they say their children were served two breadsticks as their main entrée for lunch this week."

The state defended the practice, saying it jives with USDA school-lunch rules because the school also served a protein with the breadsticks, namely a cheese dipping sauce.

"Cheese, per the USDA, is considered a protein and therefore we see schools that offer that sometimes as a protein," said a spokesman.

The practice seems widespread. Other schools that participate in the USDA school lunch program in Indiana engage in similar practices.

"[A]ccording to USDA requirements, even the least appetizing meals seem to fit their standards," including, reported Indiana affiliate RTV6, a meal served at another school that was centered on "a hotdog bun with melted cheese on top."

No one should think this is acceptable. But it's also just the tip of the iceberg.

If you need any more convincing that the USDA National School Lunch Program is awful, you should buy my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, which is chock full of data (and many more anecdotes) that drive home this point. More hopefully, it also shows how parents and kids are fleeing the program.

"According to federal government data," I report in the book, "the USDA School Lunch Program served 258 million fewer lunches in 2014 than it did at its high point, in 2010. The number of students paying full price for school lunches today—now 8.8 million— is at its lowest point in recorded history. That's a drop of more than 50 percent in full-price lunch sales since 1970."

You could blame these poor outcomes—or today's school lunch menus that serve kids unfathomable foods such as chili crispitos—on the Trump administration, which rolled back recent school-lunch reforms driven by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. But, as I detailed in a 2014 column on Mrs. Obama's reforms, the new and improved lunches developed under her watch featured such nutritious lunches as whole grain pepperoni pizza, hot dogs with tater tots, and whole grain chicken nuggets with blueberry bread.

In other words, school lunches have sucked no matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. Today, though, thanks to a rollback under Trump's USDA of the Obama-era rules, school lunches suck like they used to, before Michelle Obama's reforms made them differently bad.

Back in Tennessee, middle schooler Madison Smith has become part of the solution to the problem of bug-infested school food. Her mom, Brandy Shubert, told the Associated Press that she's packing Madison's lunch instead of having her eat school food. Other parents in Madisonville say they'll do the same.

They're joining millions of kids and parents (and entire school systems) who've fled the program in recent years. They're doing something—opting out—that I've long urged. The USDA's school lunch program seems designed only to ensure that student exodus from the program will continue to grow.